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John McEnroe on US Open, tennis’ social equality regression, biggest rivals

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Seven-time major champion, International Tennis Hall of Famer and current analyst John McEnroe discusses the upcoming fan-less U.S. Open in Queens in a Q&A volley with Post columnist Steve Serby.

Q: What do you think Arthur Ashe would have thought about what’s going on in the world today?

A: I wish Arthur was around now. I miss him to this day. I often wondered why at times he’d be a bit muted. I didn’t understand it, I was young. … It was about being a black man and not being able to express himself. … As time has gone on, realizing that he wasn’t able just because of the color of his skin to express himself in a way ’cause they would have made comments about it that would have been different; they got on me, but for different reasons. As he got older and then he got the all-time bum steer, when he had the heart attack and the blood transfusion giving him AIDS, I’m like, “My God, this is just incredible that this guy is this unlucky.” And then to see the stadium named after him, I just wish that he had been around to see that. And now, as an elder statesman, he would have been, I believe, involved more than ever.

Q: How would you have handled no fans at the Open when you played?

A: I don’t know how I would have handled it, but I fed on fans, and I think in some cases hopefully fans fed off me, for better or for worse. But certainly watching guys like (Jimmy) Connors use a crowd so beautifully at the Open, to me it was like inspirational. As you may imagine, when things have been playing out in not just tennis, all sports, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this would look and what tennis should do if in fact the U.S. Open decided to have no fans, and I had mixed feelings. I’ve gone both ways — we shouldn’t have it, we should have it, the players need to make a living, it’s important for the sport to be out there. I’ve accepted it because I’ve seen what some of the other sports have done, some better than obviously, with the way it’s been presented, and it’s easier for some others. As an aside, I just want to say, as an ex-athlete but as an athlete, I’m proud of what the players in the NBA in particular have been doing to try to step up and to be heard.

Q: What can tennis do regarding where we are in this country?

A: I’ve had a tennis academy for the past 10 years at Randalls Island, and my idea was in essence to try to get inner-city kids the opportunity to play this great sport and give them the chance that they wouldn’t otherwise have, because to me tennis is too much like the 1 percent. And I noticed even when I first came on the tour and started traveling the world, and seeing that tennis was higher up on the totem pole in other countries — particularly Europe and Australia, South America — than it was in the States … I always thought, and Connors made me believe watching him, and then playing against him and the energy that we were bringing to the sport, it seemed like things were changing, that was a great time to come into tennis. But we needed to make the sport more for the masses, and to make it more accessible and affordable, and to my disappointment, that hasn’t happened. If anything, it seems like it’s more expensive and become more elite. It’s been extremely frustrating to have to watch this over the years, and I will continue to try to battle and fight for opportunity. Obviously with what Billie Jean King did way back when, she demanded and fought for equal prize money for women and then subsequently Title IX in the ’70s gave opportunity to young girls. Having grown up and have four girls out of my six kids, I see that there’s opportunities there, and that makes me proud that they have a chance to do things that weren’t even imaginable not that long ago. But we’re also seeing that there’s a lot of work to do. The playing field obviously for young girls in tennis is better than any other sport. … Right now it’s hard to know exactly what to do, and obviously I’m glad that the USTA decided to not play [Thursday] to support what’s happening with the NBA, and other leagues followed suit. But obviously it remains to be seen if we can right these wrongs and the racial injustice that we’re seeing. We have to just hope and pray. There’s been obviously progress made over the course of the last — well, you can go back to the Civil War — but progress is being made but obviously still a lot of work needs to be done, and hopefully it’s gonna happen sooner rather than later.

Q: What do you expect the quality of tennis and the conditioning of the players to be?

A: You have to go to the individual, how hard were they able to train? What type of conditions were they training under? How will what’s going on off the court affect what’s going on on the court? And certainly in these type of conditions where it could be extremely hot, it’s pretty easy to talk yourself out of it, especially with no fans. If I was gonna generalize, the big hitters, the big servers, the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’s the fans may not gravitate as much towards, I think they’re gonna have a great chance to have a lot of success at the event, whereas other players that feed off the energy are gonna have a tougher time. It’s gonna be interesting to see how Serena (Williams) handles it, because wherever she goes now, people are wanting her to tie the record and break Margaret Court’s record. But now she’s gonna have to feed off her own energy, so that’s gonna be something that she’s not used to. (Novak) Djokovic obviously is a guy that everyone’s gonna pick to win the tournament. He went through a tough patch when he got the coronavirus when he played in his charity exhibition, he took a lot of heat from that. He’s used the crowd to his advantage and occasionally it’s been a disadvantage for him. … He’s going after history. He’s trying to catch up to (Roger) Federer and (Rafael Nadal) so he’s got a lot of incentive to try to take advantage of their absence and win this thing.

Q: What makes Djokovic great?

A: He’s like the human backboard, and he’s like Gumby, he’s got incredible flexibility and speed, and he’s a master at not beating himself and allowing you to do it to yourself. He’s as mentally tough. … I relate to Novak a little bit because I remember coming up and trying to get the same level of respect or even close to what Connors and (Bjorn) Borg had, and that was a tall order. And he’s had that, especially with Federer, who’s the most beautiful player ever, and Nadal with that grit. At worst, he’s one of the top-five players ever.

Q: Who might be his biggest threat?

A: I think one of these big bombers would be his biggest threat, and the other threat would be if he hasn’t been able to train as hard, if he got into some type of physical war with one of the fitter guys or younger guys that don’t have that issue in their head potentially. To me there’s very few guys that can beat him, so he’s gonna have to beat himself, and that would be due to conditions that would be unbearable, or unforeseen circumstances. If he decided not to play, it would have been wide open.

Q: What has made Serena Williams great?

A: When you talk about what attributes great champions have, they have that will that most players, most humans don’t have — that ability to find an extra gear when they need to. Forget the fact that she’s got this huge game, and that she instills fear by her power and intimidates people. … The resolve that she has, never giving in. It’s easy to get discouraged when things are getting bad, you gotta fight that. She’s proven to be one of the greatest athletes, man or woman in the last 100 years, 50 years —she’s up there with the Michael Jordans, in that same stratospheric league … LeBron James … these all-time legends. I think that over the course of the last few years, especially since she became a mom, people look at her in a different way and realize when they look back in 20 years what type of impact she was able [to make] … especially coming in a sport like I said earlier that’s 99 percent, 95 percent white.

Q: Who might be the biggest threat to her?

A: The biggest threat to her to me is herself. She’s better than any other player to not play for extended periods of time and step out and play well. But she doesn’t have the same fear factor that she had a few years ago. Because she’s had opportunities where she’s been in the finals and it looked like to some extent the nerves got the best of her. I don’t think there’s any players that she’s afraid of playing. I just think that there’s more times as you get older, the game isn’t there, the mind might be thinking about political things in the middle of a match. Lord knows with everything going on, it’d be hard not to give {thought to) what she’s gone through in her own life. So it’s gonna be a tall order for her to be able to keep that focus without fans, and to motivate herself.

Q: What do you think of Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff?

A: I love both of them. Naomi seems to be a pretty shy person, and she’s starting to step out a bit, and I think that’s really important for her as a person and for our sport. I think both of ’em are gonna win multiple Grand Slams in the future, Naomi’s already won a couple. Coco’s obviously a breath of fresh air. Hopefully she’s nurtured properly — she’s a kid, she’s 16 years old.

Q: How did the Open crowd motivate you?

A: There’s nothing like a New York crowd. I grew up here, and I started going to the Garden when I was a kid, I was ballboy at Forest Hills. It can be unbelievably positive, and it can get to you as it’s gotten to a lot of players. But the motivation you can get, if you can figure out a way to use it to your advantage, can keep you going in matches where it’s 90 degrees and there’s a lot of humidity and your body’s starting to give on you. It can be the difference between winning and losing. Now I’m biased, ’cause I’m a New Yorker. But there’s no fans like it.

Q: Did you feel as embraced as you would have hoped by the New York tennis crowd, the way Connors was?

A: I was like, “The guy grew up in St. Louis, he’s a great champion and he’s a great competitor, but the guy’s not from New York. Hold on here.” At times I got frustrated with that, because I thought he was like conning us a little bit. But I had to give him credit, though. If you told me to pick the 10 loudest ovations you’ve ever heard, Connors would probably be in six of the 10 points. He brought unbelievable energy.

Q: What made Borg great?

A: He was the greatest athlete we had had up to that point. The fastest guy I ever saw, couldn’t read what he was thinking, totally unpredictable game, but an all-time great competitor. He showed me that in the Wimbledon ’80 final when he won that fifth set. I’m proud to say we’re still buddies.

Q: What made [Ivan] Lendl great?

A: He was able to recognize that he was struggling in some of the big moments mentally, so that he turned into something more prototypical of what you see today, incredible fitness that would get him to become tougher mentally.

Q: What made Connors great?

A: Connors, with Nadal, the all-time greatest competitors that ever played the game. He played every point like it was the last point he was ever gonna play. And he had an intensity that was unrivaled, and he was able to go from total anger to putting his arm around somebody making a joke. I was pretty good at the anger part, but I wasn’t very good at turning it into something lighthearted.

Q: What made John McEnroe great?

A: Well, I tried to emulate some of what I saw growing up. I tried to play like Rod Laver, I tried to go out and try as hard as Jimmy Connors. I was blessed by being taught a style of play that suited my mentality — to go after people, keep pressure on people, I come ready to play. I didn’t blow people away with my physical strength, I blew ’em away because I moved well, I had good timing and I came ready to play. And I had a game that was awkward to a lot of people and different.

Q: Wasn’t there a time when being No. 1 in the world a burden for you?

A: There’s an angst involved, and you’re always looking over your shoulder and feeling like, “What else is there to life?” That perfectionist quality that can fuel you can also end up hurting you. By ’85, ’86, I felt like, “I need to just have some different things in my life,” including children, for example. I guess my biggest disappointment I wasn’t able to get back to No. 1 when I took the time off.

Q: You regretted being a jerk early in your career.

A: I didn’t go on the court saying, “I want to be a jerk,” I went on the court trying to get myself super-pumped up. It got difficult at times people at yelling at you, I’m supposed to sit back and take it? Maybe you are, maybe you’re not, I didn’t think so. So I’d start saying something back to them. Well guess what? That’s what happens in New York City growing up, at least so I thought. I thought I was defending myself people calling me a jerk. Now sometimes you take it too far, and you do feel like you’re a jerk, and there were times where I absolutely did asinine things. But I was a kid, you’re growing up in an unexpected spotlight, it’s a great spotlight, but unexpected, and you trying to figure it out.

Q: How do you feel about the use of electronic judges?

A: I feel like it would have proven me right, no (laugh)? I probably would have more boring, but I would have been a better player ’cause I wouldn’t have wasted 10, 15 percent of my energy … thinking people were trying to rip me off, rightly or wrongly, that they were out to get me. If you tell an umpire, “You’re a complete idiot,” he’s not gonna turn around and give you a good call. So I expected to actually lose three or four calls in a match if I expressed myself in that way.

Q: Describe former player Vitas Gerulaitis.

A: He was someone I looked up to, even an inspirational leader so to speak. To me he could basically do no wrong, he had the long hair, the looks and women falling over him.

Q: Coach Harry Hopman.

A: He was the true inspirational leader that believed in me when I didn’t even know what believing in yourself meant, and he had a history with the all-time greats.

Q: Coach Tony Palafox.

A: He was the guy who played exactly the way I did but didn’t have that same killer instinct, the mentality. He taught me how to play this game.

Q: Doubles partner Peter Fleming.

A: I knew that we were kindred spirits when we were younger, and when he suggested when I was 18 that we should play some doubles, it was a match made in heaven for us and we became best friends for a long period of time.

John McEnroeCorey Sipkin

Q: What was it like meeting Mick Jagger?

A: This is the ultimate perk, I always say, of being a professional athlete, is there’s mutual respect in others’ lines of work, and obviously, it doesn’t get any bigger or better than the Rolling Stones. Although I must say, even though I love Mick and I still see him occasionally at art events, etc. places, Keith (Richards) was the guy, ’cause I was an aspiring guitar player and continue to love playing to this day, so that was the more remarkable even though they’re both amazing.

Q: Describe Andre Agassi.

A: The way he treated kids even before he had kids, he was just absolutely remarkable at that. And had personality, which is what our sport needed so badly. We need him out here more often.

Q: Pete Sampras.

A: Pete’s just the ultimate assassin.

Q: The Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry.

A: It just made me a little jealous because I only played Borg 14 times, and then Martina and Chrissie end up playing like 80 times. It was fun to watch from a distance.

Q: The 1973 Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs Challenge.

A: He was always this gambler. … Me and Arthur played him and Connors once and we beat him in golf, he wouldn’t pay us. It was always murky, but changed the course of tennis history for the women’s game so I’m happy for that.

Q: Who are athletes in other sports you’ve admired?

A: Michael Jordan, Mark Messier, Muhammad Ali, Doc Rivers, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan.

Q: Favorite athletes growing up?

A: Joe Namath and Mickey Mantle.

Q: Describe fatherhood.

A: Fatherhood’s a bigger challenge of any challenge that I’ve ever. I have six kids in two marriages, so obviously, when you go through something as difficult as divorce, you have to try to always work through that — not only for the difficulty of the divorce, but your kids when they get older, you never stop worrying. It’s the greatest thing in the world, it’s also the toughest thing in the world.

Q: Three dinner guests?

A: Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali.

Q: Favorite movie?

A: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Q: Favorite actor?

A: Jack Nicholson.

Q: Favorite actress?

A: Meryl Streep.

Q: Favorite singers/entertainers?

A: My wife (Patty Smyth), the Beatles, the Stones.

Q: Favorite meal?

A: Spaghetti Bolognese.

Q: Regrets?

A: One regret, believe it or not, is I didn’t learn another language, because I think that’s something that was discouraged, and I don’t think it should be discouraged in our society. And then losing the French [Open in 1984], ’cause I wanted to prove I could be the best on all surfaces, and I was only five points away, but losing to Lendl at the French. And then when my son was born, I took the time off, I wanted to come back and be better than ever and I never reached that level again.

Q: Describe your legacy.

A: I believe that people know I played hard, I gave it my best, I loved to represent my country, I could play doubles as well as singles … and hopefully that I added a spark and a personality to our sport. And I played pretty good.

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