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Steve Flink: Patrick McEnroe weighs in

6/15/2010 12:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Make believe for a brief moment that you are Patrick McEnroe. You are the brother of a tennis icon who is arguably one of the ten greatest tennis players of all time. You are the son of a formidable and highly successful lawyer who has set the bar of ambition remarkably high in his family, expecting all of his children to push themselves to the hilt and make the most of their pursuits. Your mother is unfailingly dignified and decent, but she also believes that those who belong to the McEnroe family owe it to themselves to be nothing less than the best they can possibly be in whatever they are doing. Your wife is an accomplished singer/actress, and she is clearly a woman who is driven to achieve prodigiously in the world of entertainment.

Patrick McEnroe is demonstrably surrounded by those who will not settle for anything second rate. But he has not allowed that set of circumstances to alter his outlook on who he is and what he wants to do with his life. Plainly, he is an ambitious man who demands quite a lot of himself and expects to accomplish as much as he possibly can. But he has always found a way to be productive without compromising his principles, to succeed in his endeavors on his own terms, to realize dreams that do not wander far from reality. Reflecting now on the multitude of people I have known across the past four decades in tennis, I realize that Patrick McEnroe is as comfortable in his own skin as any of them.

That is entirely apparent when you read his new book, “HARDCOURT CONFIDENTIAL”, which he wrote with collaborator Peter Bodo, one of the veterans in the field of tennis reporting. The subtitle for the book reads, “Tales from Twenty Years in the Pro Tennis Trenches”, and McEnroe ably and expansively gives us his take and vision on a wide range of topics and personalities that have shaped his life. His career has been one of many facets. McEnroe is currently celebrating his tenth year as the American Davis Cup captain, and has served in that capacity longer than any of his predecessors. He won a Grand Slam championship in doubles during his distinguished career as a player, and rose to No. 28 in the world in singles.

He has been one of the game’s leading and most highly regarded commentators for longer than a decade, and these days he is the head of the USTA player development program. Having contributed to the game in so many capacities, McEnroe has an awful lot to tell us about his experiences, and he does so skillfully and intriguingly in his book. Precisely because he wears numerous hats and navigates his way judiciously through the political minefields of tennis, Patrick has been understandably restrained in stating his opinions on the air or in interviews. This is not to say that he lacks candor or integrity; in fact, the opposite would be true. But in his public appearances, he has been careful not to offend players, administrators or others with whom he crosses paths so regularly across the years.

In “Hardcourt Confidential”, however, McEnroe allows himself to speak more freely and even forthrightly about both people and events in the game. And yet, his voice and tone come through predominantly with the same reasonableness and essential fairness. McEnroe is particularly impressive in describing his complicated relationship with his highly charged and famously volatile brother John. He makes a clear distinction between his own way of looking at competition and John’s, but Patrick does this without any sanctimony or rancor. He explains to the reader what it was like to be John’s partner in doubles at times, and how it felt to compete against him. On both counts, he is lucid and illuminating.

McEnroe explains that his father had always “pushed hard” for the two brothers to join forces as a doubles team, which they did occasionally in the early nineties. For example, they played their last tournament together at the Paris Indoor event in November of 1992. In the final, facing a team that has apparently faded from McEnroe’s memory, Patrick and John were barreling along, leading by a set and a break in the best of three set contest. Patrick writes, “I remember thinking at that point, Wow, this is easy. We’ve got this in the bag. But John wasn’t about to let me relax. He was hyped up and he kept saying things like, “Come on, we gotta get a break here… We gotta bury these guys…. Don’t let up.” It really hit me then, how his [John’s] intensity level was so insanely high. Sure, I was trying my hardest, but it was like playing with house money and I felt a little complacent, a little satisfied. I was enjoying myself, thinking, Great, we got another break, let’s just cruise on through.

“Not John. He wasn’t buying into that…. He wanted to demolish and bury these guys, and that’s just what we did, winning 6-3, 6-1.”

Patrick McEnroe could probably hold onto the Davis Cup captaincy for another decade, if that was his desire. The position suits him and his temperament to the hilt, he gets along remarkably well with the players, and his diplomatic and leadership skills are extraordinary. But, as he explains in the book, he did not receive the appointment on his first attempt. In 1999, both John and Patrick McEnroe were vying for the job when the USTA decided not to continue with Tom Gullikson as captain. John McEnroe had made his intentions clear that he unequivocally wanted that post, but the USTA contacted Patrick McEnroe as well. As Patrick writes, the USTA was “probably looking to have a little bargaining power with John, who was hot for the job. I figured what the hell, and agreed to discuss the job. That made John hopping mad. But why not? I reasoned. I also believe in the Davis Cup mission and just having my name in the conversation was good for my future.”

Patrick McEnroe concedes in the book that “It didn’t seem like the right moment for me to mount a full-court press for the job. It was obvious to me that John ought to have the captaincy, and he let everyone and his brother know that he wanted it. But I also had an inkling of what would happen if John got the job, and I decided to lay low and bide my time. I withdrew my name from consideration [in 1999]; it just wasn’t worth the grief I was getting from John. I didn’t grow up with him in the next bunk without learning anything, after all.”

Patrick McEnroe’s instincts, judgment and prescience in that instance were spot on. John McEnroe realized relatively quickly that the captaincy was not a good fit for him, and he left after serving for only one season in 2000. Patrick McEnroe was the obvious choice to replace his older brother, and the fit for him has been letter perfect.

McEnroe writes candidly about the many men he has served as captain over the last decade. He lavishly praises Andy Roddick for his excellent work ethic, his fierce competiveness, and the unfailing loyalty he had to the American Davis Cup team for so long. But, in a self deprecating manner, McEnroe clues the reader in on how he had to learn to take Roddick’s emotional pulse and pick his spots on how and when to provide advice to a strong-minded and determined player. As McEnroe writes, “The most difficult job for a captain is understanding his players and knowing when he can—or can’t-- say it. You don’t want to undermine the confidence of your guys, and you don’t want to make them angry. It’s surprising how easy it is to do that. Tennis pros are generally pretty high strung and stubborn, and when it comes to anyone tampering with their tennis, they can be downright bellicose.”

When the U.S. took on Slovakia in Oklahoma City in February of 2002, Roddick played a match against Jan Kroslak. Roddick took the first two sets easily, but McEnroe observed from his captain’s chair that the Slovakian was “creeping back” farther and farther behind the baseline to return serve. This tactic allowed Kroslak to get more returns back into play, and Roddick himself was so far behind his own baseline that he could not take advantage of the floating returns. Kroslak finally broke Roddick--- which was no mean feat—so McEnroe figured it was time to speak up as his player trailed 1-4 in the third set. He suggested that Roddick might want to consider serving-and-volleying every so often, just to keep his opponent honest, and to make Kroslak a little more uncertain.

Roddick “glowered” at McEnroe for that recommendation, then marched back on court. McEnroe sensed Roddick was going to give the serve-and-volley a try, but Roddick went for one of his trademark thunderbolt first serves, and missed it. So then Roddick came in behind his second serve, and got burned as Kroslak made the return at Roddick’s feet and provoked an awful volley from the American. Now standing about ten feet away from McEnroe, Roddick screamed, “That was the worst fucking idea—ever! The two men laugh about that moment to this day.

Meanwhile, McEnroe had to learn another set of lessons to deal with James Blake, who was very set in his ways and strongly resistant to change. As he writes, “James’s reluctance to change things up or try something new gradually became a running joke on the team. He strung his rackets at 68 pounds of tension, no matter what. At that 2003 playoff tie, we basically played indoors, but in a damp swamp, a regular Davis Cup clay-court mud hole. In practice, James would be swinging as hard as he could and the ball would just barely plop over the net. I suggested that he drop tension to 58 pounds to get more of a trampoline effect from his strings. He reluctantly tried it, dumped a few balls into the net, and his face clouded over. Meanwhile, the other guys--- wiseasses that they are--- were covertly watching, stomping their feet and calling out, “Sixty-eight, sixty-eight!”

McEnroe also spends his fair share of pages on both Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, and his dealings with the two superstars. He alludes to the fact that Agassi characterized both his father Mike and his coach Nick Bollettieri as “control freaks”, but writes that Agassi became a control freak himself. “It’s a supreme irony, but there it is, another life lesson.”

Patrick McEnroe asserts that Agassi’s controlling nature was reflected in how he played the game, dictating points methodically and yanking opponents from one side of the court to the other in baseline rallies. But, as McEnroe points out, Agassi’s sense of exerting control stretched beyond the lines of a tennis court. “When you went out to dinner with Andre, he insisted on ordering--- for everyone. It would be an unbelievably good meal; he certainly knows his food. But he called the shots. When he asked for prosciutto, he told the waiter he wanted it sliced so thin that if he held it up he could see through it--- and that meant literally.”

McEnroe writes primarily laudatory things about Sampras, and clearly respects the man immensely on many levels. “I always got a kick out of Pete,” he says. He adds, “I think of Pete as a Sandy Koufax or Joe DiMaggio-type guy--- aloof, reclusive, a little different--- and indifferent to what anyone else might think of say about him. He was a real gentleman on the court; he always played by the rules, but unlike some guys he never traded on his character. He never hammed it up or used it to work a crowd. Pete was all business; he did things fairly and squarely, he kept things simple and clean.”

That praise for the greatest American male player ever to step on a court is well deserved. Surprisingly, though, McEnroe takes a gentle shot at Sampras in his next paragraph, writing, “It’s funny, Pete can be a prick. I don’t mind saying it because I think he knows it. In fact, I think he enjoys it. Pete has never had a problem saying no to people, and often with that sly smile on his lips. That smile, though, was a defense mechanism. It’s hard, and it takes a certain kind of courage, to look someone in the eye and tell him “no”. A smile helps defuse the situation.”

I thought that was an inappropriate way to describe Sampras, whose decency off the court has, in my view, always matched his integrity and decorum in the arena. In any case, McEnroe then shifts to finances in regard to Sampras, and shares some anecdotes along those lines. He alludes to Sampras’s love of gambling, both in the casino and on the practice court. He writes of Sampras, “As much as he was willing to gamble, Pete was also cheap--- very cheap. Andre Agassi tells the story about how, after the two men had gone out to dinner, Pete tipped the valet a buck--- and specified that he give it to the kid who actually brought his car around. When the valet look at him, stunned, Pete broke out that fuck-you smile, hopped in his car and drove off (Pete, when asked about the incident, shrugged and said he was a very young man at the time.”)

Considering Patrick McEnroe’s fair-minded approach to all of his subjects in the book, that reference to the one dollar valet tip was--- at least in my view--- should have been omitted. Agassi had maliciously written about this incident in his book called “Open”, although he describes it slightly differently. In his book, Agassi says he was having a meal with Brad Gilbert when Sampras briefly greeted them on his way out of the same place. According to Agassi, he and Gilbert wagered on how much Sampras would tip the valet, and later they managed to coax the information from a reluctant valet later on.

In any case, Agassi had then added insult to injury by replaying the valet incident back in March at Indian Wells. When he joined Rafael Nadal to play Sampras and Roger Federer in the “Hit for Haiti” exhibition, Agassi responded to Sampras’s playful imitation of his walk by pulling his pockets out of his tennis shorts and saying, “I haven’t got any money… Wait, I have a dollar.” That humiliating routine had incensed Sampras (leading him to serve a ball at Agassi as a warning that he had taken enough abuse), and caused a large stir in the tennis world. Agassi knew he had gone far astray with his routine. Since McEnroe was well aware of the “Valet Incident” and what a sore point that had become for Sampras, I wish Patrick would not have recycled that story in his book. Patrick gives some other examples of how “Pete kept close track of his money”, but the way I see it Sampras did not deserve to be disparaged in this fashion. Who really cares if Sampras is tight with his wallet or not? He has earned the right to guard what he has earned, he treats people with respect, and he is an honorable fellow. Moreover, he has given substantial sums of money to charities, including Agassi’s. Why not leave it at that?

Across the board in the rest of the book, McEnroe is fundamentally fair to everyone else, which is his nature. He demonstrates that fact irrefutably when he writes about the complexity of Serena Williams. “Serena has brought so much to tennis, no doubt about it. But she doesn’t seem to recognize that tennis has brought a lot to her, too. Serena has the star power and name recognition to be a female Andre Agassi. She could win big events for many years, and she’s at an age when maturity and self-awareness might transform her into a comparably iconic figure.”

He then tells his readers about something that rankled him concerning Serena at the end of 2009. McEnroe had been asked by Serena’s agent Jill Smoller if--- as head of USTA Player Development--- he would send one of his coaches named Mike Sell to Doha for the WTA Year-End Championships. Patrick went along with that request. Meanwhile, Serena was due to represent the US in the Fed Cup Final in Italy the following week. But after winning her semifinal in Doha (Serena would take the title by defeating her sister Venus in the championship match), Serena announced she was too hurt to play Fed Cup, and she withdrew.

As McEnroe writes with absolute candor, “I thought it was particularly galling that Serena pulled out of Fed Cup before she had even finished playing in Doha. I wrote Jill an email and said Serena certainly didn’t look very hurt to me. Jill wrote back that I should see what bad shape Serena was in, how much treatment she needed, just to keep going. But I wasn’t buying it. I knew Serena wasn’t at death’s door…. She just didn’t want to go to Italy.”

The book is filled with a great deal of clear-minded thinking from Patrick McEnroe. I may not agree with every observation he makes, but I respect him immensely for having the gumption to step forward and express himself with so little inhibition and so much honesty. He does it all without ever being hyperbolic about his self importance. In fact, the material on his own career is done with total humility; he was a very good but not a great player, and he refuses to inflate himself or his record in any misguided attempt to mislead his readers. Meanwhile, he has some intriguing segments in the book on those who have influenced him in the broadcast industry, most notably his longtime television partner Cliff Drysdale.

He calls Drysdale his “longtime comrade in arms on ESPN broadcasts.” Elaborating, McEnroe writes of Drysdale, “A suave, sophisticated guy, Cliff also became a little salty as he got older--- the kind of guy of whom people would say. “ He’s seen it all. “His wit is acerbic. And he cultivates a gruff manner, saving his best and most biting barbs for those he knows best….. I’ve known Cliff a long time, and I’d never seen him cry--- not until that July day in 2003 when Roger Federer won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. As soon as the last ball was hit, Cliff welled up and soon tears were running down his cheeks; he made me think of a proud papa watching his son triumph.”

The book is highly entertaining, filled with gripping stories, directed at tennis fans who have known Patrick McEnroe from a distance, aimed at people who want to get closer so they can find out who he is, where he stands, and how he thinks. Take it from me: “Hard Court Confidential” is a book that genuine tennis fans can’t afford to miss, written by a substantial man who has done himself proud. After all, McEnroe has been groomed by his proud parents to strive always for the highest standards and fulfill his largest dreams. In the final analysis, this book is a testament to his character and intelligence.

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