By Romana Cvitkovic
Former U.S. tennis player and current ESPN commentator John McEnroe held a conference call on Monday to discuss his World TeamTennis matchup against Andre Agassi in July and voiced his opinion on several hot topics in men’s tennis. He remarked on the upcoming summer Olympics, Madrid’s blue clay debacle, the current level of men’s tennis, and an outlook and review of the top three ATP Tour players Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Madrid’s blue clay
During the Mutua Madrid Open last week, the newly installed blue clay courts largely overshadowed the players’ performances. Players such as Novak Djokovic complained that the surface was too slippery, while others like Rafael Nadal claimed that it was poor scheduling to hold this tournament on blue clay as it is traditionally a warm-up event for Roland Garros, which is played on red clay.
McEnroe wasn’t afraid to dismiss the blue clay court as “pretty crappy” and partly defended Nadal’s and Djokovic’s outbursts:
“The blue looked weird to me, I’ll admit that, but it was more the fact how slippery it was. I don’t know what it was made out of. But it looked really rough to move on. So any guy, like Nadal or Djokovic, who get an edge from how well they move on the court would be frustrated that they would lose that edge. So I don’t blame them for being upset because the court looked like it was pretty crappy, to be honest.”
The blue clay was only instituted on a trial basis this year, and while true that the tournament held an increased media presence due to this innovation, it put the leadership into an unwelcome position with players who felt their voices were not heard. As Djokovic and Nadal have both threatened to not return to play Madrid next year if the blue clay is kept, hopefully the tournament has learned its lesson and will go back to a more traditional tennis surface.
It’s an honor for any athlete to play for their country at the Olympics. So why is it then that the leading organization in tennis is making it more difficult for players to participate?
The current state is that players earn considerably fewer points at the Olympics than each the four Slams and still fewer points than the next tier that includes nine Masters series tournaments. Currently, as it stands, the winner of a Slam receives 2000 points, the winner of a Masters title receives 1000 points and the gold medal winner in the men’s Olympics is expected to only receive 750 points. Additionally, there are still whispers of whether tennis should even award any points to players for participating. Give me a break!
I don’t see any players (other than American Mardy Fish) willingly pulling out of the Olympics, and it’s not fair to degrade the status of the Olympics due to some preconceived notion by the International Tennis Federation.
“Andre [Agassi] won [the Olympics] in ’96; I know it meant a great deal to him,” McEnroe admitted. “And in a way, I wish that I had played and won a gold, I can’t deny that. But I don’t think that any of the players think that it’s at the same level – certainly not like the slams. The points for winning the Olympics is less points than winning Madrid. This doesn’t make sense to me.”
To add salt to the wound, Davis Cup doesn’t take a break during Olympic years. So not only are players expected to be “available” for Davis Cup duty, they also somehow have to fit it into an already overcrowded schedule for the years prior to the Olympics in order to qualify for the Olympics. McEnroe is equally enraged by this and frames it clearly:
“I think what needs to happen is I think they shouldn’t have Davis Cup and the Olympics in the same year. That doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t know why that hasn’t changed because the players can’t support both of them in the same way [in the same year] and that’s why you see a lot of players not playing [Davis Cup this year].”
Federer: “the greatest, most beautiful player that ever lived”
There’s no denying that Roger Federer may be one of the very best, claiming 74 titles in his career already. But does he have it in him to win some more Slams given that he’s past his peak? According to McEnroe, Federer’s best bet is Wimbledon – and the better chance he has of meeting Andy Murray in the semifinals, the better.
“I think he can [win another Slam], and I still think Wimbledon is his best chance. To me, he’ll always be the greatest, most beautiful player that ever lived. The question is whether he can beat Nadal and Djokovic back-to-back.”
McEnroe then points out the next group of players who could vie for a Slam this summer would have a very tough task at hand to beat three of the top four in a two-week span. “I find that almost impossible for anyone to do,” McEnroe remarked. “It is possible if they have to only beat one or two” of the top four players. He believes that if anyone could step up this summer, it could be John Isner, Juan Martin Del Potro or Tomas Berdych “if they got hot.” McEnroe later re-emphasized that Isner “needs to conserve energy” and be able to win his early matches more easily in order to be considered a Slam hopeful.
Don’t forget about Nadal or Djokovic
If Rafael Nadal is able to win his seventh Roland Garros this year, he may just move ahead of Bjorn Borg as the best clay court player ever, according to McEnroe. Borg won there six times with a record of 49-2, while Nadal is 45-1 at the event. Additionally, McEnroe ranked Federer and Nadal as the third and fourth best hard court players, behind Pete Sampras and Rod Laver.
But let’s not forget to praise Djokovic’s illustrious streak last year and the possibility that he could win four Slams in a row if he claims Roland Garros this year.
“Djokovic has done something that was highly unexpected. He went from being the perennial number 3 to somehow lifting his game 20-30% and dominating these guys and winning almost every major. So if he were to win four in a row, that would probably jump him from 40 [on the Tennis Channel’s list of the 100 Greatest Players of All Time] to suddenly like the top 10!”
Given all that Djokovic has accomplished in so short of a time, he remarkably opens the door for future generations to break through in a similar fashion:
“Djokovic has been dominating [Federer and Nadal] for the last year-and-a-half, which seems unbelievable. So then you start to think ‘How good is he?’ ‘Can he keep this up?’ I find it rather amazing that he can keep it up. You’re starting to see the pressure being amped and it’s going to be interesting to see if he can keep it up. I don’t think it’s going to be easy at all. But then you wonder if someone else will come in the mix. That’s what’s fun about the sport. Just when you think that something can’t happen, it will happen.”
McEnroe’s generation of players were outspoken and emotional, utilizing wooden racquets in a mostly serve-and-volley game. Today’s “level generally and athletically is better than it has even been” admitted McEnroe. And technology has further boosted racquet equipment so that the players “strike the ball even harder.”
The surface conditions of courts some thirty years ago were not constructed or preserved well enough to compete against the level of play seen in today’s game, and McEnroe wasn’t afraid to state what today’s media and fans think of his generation:
“They dismiss us as crappy players. [Today’s] guys are certainly bigger and stronger. And to some extent it’s what happens in all sports. … But it’s an exciting time. I enjoy it; I’m like watching something that’s in foreign language.”
In his twelveth year as the New York Sportimes captain, McEnroe will take on fellow hall of famer Andre Agassi in a July 19th match to benefit the Johnny Mac Tennis Project, which helps develop young players in the New York area, and provides them with scholarships, transportation and training. The academy is currently aiming to further expand into Long Island and Westchester, N.Y.