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Steve Flink: Conversation with Pat McEnroe

12/17/2007 9:24:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Leading a nation to a Davis Cup triumph as a captain is no simple task. The absurdity of the scheduling means that the four rounds of the World Group are spread out incomprehensibly all year long, making the fans work too hard following the outcomes. Be that as it may, this was a milestone year for the United States as they came through to win the Cup for the first time since 1995. Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers were all prime contributors as the U.S. defeated Russia 4-1 in the final at Portland, Oregon, and those players--- most notably Roddick--- were instrumental all year long as the Americans waged a spirited campaign.

But no one was more crucial to the U.S. cause than the redoubtable Patrick McEnroe, who celebrated his seventh year as captain with his first Cup victory. As has always been the case, McEnroe provided towering leadership without ever calling attention to himself. He helps the players to believe in themselves, sets the right tone with his demeanor and vitality, and represents his country with immense grace. McEnroe is not only one of the best ever American captains, but also probably the finest in the world today.

When I spoke with the 41-year-old McEnroe several days ago, he was typically self effacing, going out of his way to laud his players, unfailingly downplaying his own role. We covered a lot of ground, and McEnroe spoke with his usual clarity and intelligence on numerous topics. Where--- I wanted to know--- has he made his biggest strides in his job as captain? "A big part of my mantra," he replies, "has been to really be in touch with the guys and their coaches. I think I have gotten better at understanding how to deal with them better individually. And, quite honestly, the players have helped me a lot. People have talked about Andy and I having our run-ins over me criticizing him in my other job as a television commentator, but he has helped me to be real straightforward about this, saying that we should get out there and talk about it. Andy is very professional and he understands that I have to do my job when I am commentating, and at the same time he doesn't have to agree with what I say, which is fine. I didn't necessarily like confronting issues head on and that is one area I think I have improved."

McEnroe, one of the leading and most prolific commentators in the game, fully understands that how he communicates with those who play for him in Davis Cup is ever important, and has handled that aspect of his job remarkably well. "I am there to support them throughout the year," he says, "calling the players and sending them emails and text messages, watching them as much as I can when they are playing in events that I am not at in person. I want to know what James Blake is working on at any given time and I have learned a lot about how to handle James from his coach Brian Barker. With the Bryan brothers, I have probably done actually more coaching of technique than with anyone else because I know they like that. Mostly when we practice, but also in matches, they sort of like you to watch every one of their returns and will ask me, 'Am I getting low enough, am I getting enough turn, am I getting enough acceleration on my forehand.' They like to be reminded of the basics like keeping your head up on your serve. If I ever said that to Andy, he would tell me to jump in the ocean. Everyone is different. With Andy it is more about strategy, what is working or not working and dissecting an actual match. I would never talk to him about technique in the middle of a match."

Above all else, McEnroe taps into his vast experience as a player and captain to guide his players skillfully through the heat of tense contests. He knows when to step in and be assertive and when to back off and let his voice of reason do the talking. Against Russia in Portland, Blake's four set encounter with Mikhail Youzhny was the pivotal moment of the weekend as the U.S. moved ahead 2-0. Blake might well have lost that battle had McEnroe not been in his corner.

"James played a great match that day," McEnroe recollects. "We have been through a lot together. I have learned a lot about James over time just talking to his coach and being around him, so I definitely think I helped him in that match. But it was a great performance from him in a tremendous tennis match and I couldn't have been happier for James because Youzhny is the type of player who won't beat himself. In Sweden I had gotten in James's face a little bit [during his loss to Thomas Johansson] because I felt I needed to that day. I just feel now I know what makes him tick."

Does McEnroe believe that, having been a first rate but not a great player, he therefore has an advantage as captain? "I think it helps, "he says. " For me, growing up as a really good junior and then as a solid pro player---- but obviously being around greatness with my brother John--- in a sense helped me to know how to deal with that kind of personality and ego it takes to be a great player. At the same time, I have been a decent enough player to understand at some level what it takes to compete at this level. I haven't been in the pressure type situations as often as these guys but I have been there often enough to have an understanding of it. The most important part of my job is getting the guys to play with inspiration and desire. The bottom line is if Andy Roddick doesn't play for the last seven years we are not going to win the Davis Cup. Period. End of story."

McEnroe is convinced that a captain is only as good as his players. As he puts it, "Without the players it doesn't matter how good a coach or captain you have, you are not going to win. I think that is one of my strengths, that I have always known that and always will know it. So whatever praise I get is great and I love it, but without these guys being great players you have no chance. You could be Pat Riley, Vince Lombardi and Bill Bellechik all rolled into one and it doesn't matter without the players. But I will say we have all shared a lot on this team and they know I have got their backs."

Without the right captain sitting in the chair, a great group of players can still fall short of their goals. McEnroe has shaped a winning philosophy over the years and has an unimpaired view of how he can best bring the most out of his players. As he says, "I have to let them have their space and it is good for me to have my space as the coach and captain. So one thing I have done for many years is try to let the players go out to dinner on their own, not with me or coaches or staff. You can't be a strict disciplinarian in the sense that a basketball coach can be in college or like a pro football coach can. We are only together as a team for no more than four weeks in a year. So you have to be smart and also realistic. I might ask the players to arrive on Saturday night for an away match and Andy might ask if he can show up on Sunday morning and hit in the afternoon because he has been working out at home. I will say yes in that case because I know these guys are superstars who are on their own most of the year, so for me to come in and lay down strict ground rules for the week of Davis Cup would be detrimental."

That, of course, is what makes the Davis Cup experience so complicated. Because there is no organized season or compressed time frame, it can be awfully tough to follow. McEnroe recognizes the scheduling problem for what it is. "But," he asserts, "I can't control that and I am tired of talking about it. If there was a situation where between 4 and 8 teams went to one location, that would be better. But there has to be a concrete proposal if the ITF is going to change the format. It is hard to blame the ITF entirely because when 20,000 people show up per day for Serbia against Australia for three days of tennis for a relegation match, it is hard to say that the Davis Cup totally needs to be fixed."

Be that as it may, McEnroe thoroughly enjoys the challenge of being captain. His contract runs through next year, when he would tie the all-time record set by Tom Gorman (1986-93) for the longest tenure. "It has been my greatest professional endeavor, the one that I have had the most pride in doing. It has flown by and has been an amazing seven years. I love what I am doing. I also love my television work but there is no doubt that Davis Cup has been a huge passion of mine. We are going to tee it up in Austria in February and try to give it another run next year, and I am looking forward to it."

Is he also eagerly anticipating being captain well beyond 2008? He responds with both humility and humor: "I hope so. I certainly am not looking to not continue in this job, so hopefully the USTA in all of their great knowledge will decide they want me to come back."

Meanwhile, McEnroe reflects with pride on the past seven years, and in that time has collected a treasure chest of memories. "I remember the Bryan brothers right before they walked on the court against the Slovak Republic for their first match, saying they had been waiting to play Davis Cup for their whole life. I recall Andy apologizing in 2002 after losing two singles matches at Roland Garros against France, and telling him, 'You have nothing to apologize for. You played your ass off.' So there are a lot of things I remember.

"I certainly regretted the court we played on against Croatia in 2005 when Agassi came back on the team. That court was too slow for Andre's liking so I learned from that and now every time we play a home match I make sure to test the court myself and do as much due diligence as I can."

In any event, McEnroe and his team are riding high after capturing the Cup so deservedly a few weeks ago. As he puts it in perspective, "It is an unbelievable feeling and it gets better each day to think that we did it. It takes the pressure off all of us as a team and me as a captain. We are still going to try just as hard to win this thing every year and I think we can be right in there every year. For me, it feels like I am playing with house money now. We got a win so no matter what happens when I retire I will know that we won the Davis Cup. I certainly didn't want to be the captain for however many years and not win the Cup. I would have felt a little empty about that. So the fact that we have won it will only help me and the guys down the road and hopefully we can win a couple more while I am still captain."

Near the end of our conversation, McEnroe says, "I have tried to set the tone whenever I give a speech and every time I talk at a Davis Cup dinner or whenever I talk to the press that this is about a team and about these guys who share a common goal. We have a group of guys who are great friends and they would still be friends if I disappeared tomorrow and they would still be great Davis Cup teammates. So I like to think I have been enough of a leader but they have done a lot for themselves and for the team. I have fallen into a very nice situation."

He did not stumble into good fortune. He built the foundation for success by working earnestly and steadfastly at his craft. The view here is that Patrick McEnroe is at last receiving the acclaim he has always deserved. 

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com

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