John McEnroe, 1979 US Open

Extract from John McEnroe’s autobiography, Serious:

On the other side of the draw, Vitas was having a great run: he beat Clerc in the round of 16, Kriek in the quarterfinals, and in the semis, Tanner who had just gotten revenge on Borg for his Wimbledon loss. (It was funny how Vitas could beat guys who had beaten Borg, and yet, when it came down to it, couldn’t handle Borg himself. Tennis always works that way.)

But then in final, Vitas faced me.

I was coming off a year in which I had won three big victories over Connors: in the Masters, at Dallas (where I’d beaten Borg to win the tournament), and now here at the Open, in straight sets in the semis. There’s no other way to say it – I felt it was my time. I was a little uncomfortable about having to play my buddy Vitas in a big match – but not uncomfortable enough to lose.
In the end, it wasn’t even a particularly close match – I won in straight sets 7-5 6-3 and 6-3. In fact, I think that Vitas was more uncomfortable than I was. People were booing because they were angry that Connors and Borg weren’t playing. At that moment they were still the real stars – here we were just two guys from Queens! But I thought it was miraculous: two guys from Queens in the final of the US Open! I was convinced it was never going to happen again (I’m still convinced).

For a couple of years, I’d been working to hang out with Vitas, wondering if I could keep up with him off the court. I’d be trying to be his friend. I looked up to him. And now that I’d blown by him, the victory felt hollow. I had taken something from him. He was still a legitimate number four in the world, but now he was off the mountaintop. Now it was Borg, Connors and me .
Things were never quite the same between Vitas and me after that.

John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase, 1979 US Open

From John McEnroe‘s autobiography, Serious:

In the second round at the 1979 US Open, I faced Ilie Nastase. Nasty, who had won the tournament in 1972, was thirty-three and long past his prime, but he hadn’t mellowed with age – if anything, he was crazier than ever. And the big New York crowd at the Open always got him going.

Our night match drew a big crowd, eager to see Super Brat face down the aging enfant terrible of tennis. Frank Hammond was officiating the match. Of all the umpires out there, Frank – fat, bald, and dark-mustached, with a deep voice and a no-nonsense manner – was one of the few I liked. I always thought of him as a player’s umpire: he knew everyone by name, he treated you like a person.
Frank was known as an umpire who could control the crowd and the players in a difficult match, but that night he didn’t have a chance. There was a lot of drinking going on in the stands, and Nasty was on his worst behavior – stalling, arguing, cursing the officials, and generally trying to provoke me into going off the rails. Remarkably – and all too unusually – I kept it together. By the third set, Frank had had it: he lost his composure and ranted away at Nasty, docking him a penalty point. The crowd decided then and there that Frank couldn’t do anything right.

I was rattled myself, but then, at one set all and down a break, I began to pull it together, and won the third set 6-3. I was serving at 2-1, 15-love in the fourth set, when Nasty began arguing about another line call. He sat down in a linesman’s chair and refused to play. Frank literally begged him to go on, but Nasty wouldn’t stand up. It was clear that Nastase knew he was going to lose, and was simply looking to prolong everyone’s agony. ‘Game penalty, Nastase‘, Frank said. ‘McEnroe leads, three games to one‘.
Nasty stood up from the chair with his hands on his hips, screaming such vile obscenities at Frank that Frank, after further pleading, defaulted him. Now the crowd really went nuts, thowing paper cups and beer cans onto the court.

Mike Blanchard, the tournament referee, then came onto the court, and talked with Nasty and me. Figuring I was going to win anyway, and wanting to avoid a riot, I agreed to play on. Blanchard told the crowd that if things didn’t quiet down, the match would be discontinued.
Still, as soon as Frank tried to start play again, the crowd started chanting ‘Two to one, two to one‘ – the score before the game penalty. The chanting got louder and louder. I had never seen such pandemonium in a tennis match, and never would again, even in our wildest South American Davis Cup ties. Finally, Bill Talbert, the tournament director, decided to take Frank out of the match and put Blanchard in the chair. I felt terrible for Frank as he climbed down and walked off the court, the crowd pelting him with garbage. He had lost all credibility. What I found out only later was that the match had essentially destroyed his career. When the ATP decided to hire a group of full-time traveling officials, they didn’t choose Frank.

Once Frank was out off the court, I knew the air had gone out of Nasty, and ran out the rest of the match easily. Even the crowd seemed spent now. It was finally over at twelve thirty in the morning. Afte the match, I was somewhat astonished when Nastase came up to me and said ‘Hey, let’s go to dinner‘. Here was another lesson: business and pleasure must always be separated. ‘Sure‘, I said.

McEnroe and Lendl, Roland Garros 84

Extract: Serious by John McEnroe

It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: sometimes it still keeps me up nights.

It’s even tough for me to do the commentary at the French – I’ll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match. Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.

Connors had two Wimbledon titles and five US Opens at that point, but he’d never won the French. Borg had won the French six times, and Wimbledon five but never the US Open. Besides the Masters – which, because of the limited field, was a different kind of test than a regular tournament – Lendl had never won a major. Lendl choked away majors. Everyone knew that.
I had two Wimbledons and three Opens. A French title, followed by my third Wimbledon, would have given me that final, complete thing that I don’t have now – a legitimate claim as possibly the greatest player of all time.
Looking back, I try to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty – otherwise I’d tear out what little hair I have left, and work myself into a tizzy every day of my life, playing that match over and over and over again in my mind. I try not to do that, because? god knows, I’m an intense enough person as it is.

It was meant to be mine – even though the French is on slow red clay, which favors baseliners like Borg and Lendl, even though I’m a serve-and-volley player, and my best surfaces were always grass and hard-court, where my serve came off the ground fast and I had that extra fraction of a second to get to net and punch the volley. On red clay, the ball bites into the surface, and you lose that fraction, even with the fastest serve: the receiver gets extra milliseconds for a passing shot if you come in.
But I was at the top of my game that spring, and my game plan was this: don’t change a thing. Serve and come in. I knew my volley was the best in the business. I knew I couldn’t lose. Peter Fleming was planning a victory party even before the match began.

When I was introduced on Center Court at Stade Roland Garros, I got the greatest hand I’d ever received at the start of a match – a huge roar!

And by the end of the match, in my own inimitable way, I had somehow managed to get the entire crowd against me once again.

I had not only won the first two sets, I was ready to take over the third. Everything was perfect – it was astonishing how well I was playing – and then it happened. An NBC cameraman had taken his headset off, and it was sitting there, squitting, while I was trying to play. […] I know the squawking headset was an innocent technical glitch – it wasn’t as if anybody had said ‘Let’s screw McEnroe up’, but that’s how I took it – and, just like that, my concentration was shot.
I got very angy, because nobody was dealing with the situation. On the changeover, I went over to the headset and screamed into the little mike, ‘Shut the fuck up!’. Then , as I went over to my side, I thought, What the hell am I doing? If you start lashing out when things are going well, you may be letting your opponent think that you’re not as sure of yourself as you seem. […]

I went from two games to love in the third, to losing the set 4-6. But then I was up 4-2 in the fourth, serving a 40-30. And that, to me, is where I really lost the match.

Tony Roche had been coaching Lendl for a while , and they had worked on how to play me. They knew my left-handed slice serve in the ad court was a killer for most right-handers – the guy would be in the stands before he got his racket on it. Even Lendl, as good as he was, couldn’t drive that serve back.
So he and Roche determined that whenever I served wide to his backhand on the ad side, he was jus going to chip it crosscourt. The ball would be sinking, with backspin on it, and I’d have to hit my volley up instead of punching it deep. That let hil stay in the point and try to take back the offense with his big goundstrokes. That was his plan, and I knew it. So I served wide, and sure enough, he chipped crosscourt, and I was right there. My first inclination was to hit a drop- volley and go to the winner, but then I decided, no, no, just play it a little safe, because even though I’m known as someone with pretty good hands, a soft touch, the drop-volley is a low-percentage shot. I decided just to float the volley deep, make him pass me. I went against my gut. And I missed the volley. I pushed it the tiniest bit, and it floated out.

I don’t remember the points after that. It goes in a blur. It’s now eighteen years ago, but I’ve never watched that match once. I can’t bear to. So I can’t tell you the exact details of what happened next. It’s too sickening to me.

[…] Against most other guys, I would have won that French anyway. I have to give Lendl (grudging) credit for being who he was, and for being fit enough to be able to get better as the match progressed. It’s the only match in which I ever felt I was playing up to my capacities and lost.
But he didn’t beat me. I beat myself. Lendl got his first major, and I took his title, Choker-in-chief, away from him.
Temporarily.

6. The Davis Cup’s schedule also has to be brought into the real world. Should it be held for a week every other year, like golf’s Ryder Cup? Or maybe once a year? Whatever the answer, the powers-that-be need to
sit down and decide how to re-interest tennis’ top players in participating in this great event.

Changing the Davis Cup format has been a huge argument over recent years, as top players have shown their “intolerance” towards this event that is such a part of tennis history. Many suggested that it becomes a biennial event or a Ryder Cup style event. Rafael Nadal, one of the more frequent Davis Cup players, has also once stated it should be played at the best of three sets… I think these format changes would only depreciate the competition. The way it is, Davis Cup has contributed to bring the sport in many parts of the world that are excluded from élite tennis or can’t afford to host top-level tournaments. Maybe an increase of the number of matches in the ties would prevent a country with only a big player from succeeding and would provide a fairer representation of the real tennis power of a nation. Where players are right, instead, is on the calendar collocation of the Davis Cup. Such a big event can’t be placed in the week immediately after Wimbledon or the US Open: this is clearly an aspect that discourages the big names from taking part in it and on which the heads of the game should really work.

7. Only tennis’ top-notch amateurs should be allowed to compete in the Olympics. The lure of a gold medal would encourage young players to stay in college and wait longer to turn pro. The results would be more mature professionals and a purer Olympics.

To be admitted in the Olympics has been a great conquer for our sport. Though winning a gold medal will never be the same as winning a Major tournament for most of the players, you can’t deny that competing for your nation in a stage like the Olympics has a huge charm for any athlete. What would be the meaning of making amateurs compete at the Olympics? Do you really think a single person in the world would love to watch Mr. John Smith play on the Wimbledon Centre Court in 2012? Or do you think that a young who aims at becoming a professional tennis player would wait longer to turn pro, encouraged by the prospect of winning a gold medal for his/her country competing against other amateurs? Sports have changed since Pierre De Coubertin’s age. You can’t even think of sports today without thinking of the media and world-wide audiences. Tennis already struggles to find room on the general media. If played by amateurs, it would be completely cut off.

8. The service line should be moved three to six inches closer to the net. The serve has become far too important to tennis – especially at Wimbledon, where the best fans in the world sit patiently through rain delays, only to sit through boring serve-a-thons.

A lot (maybe too much…) has already been done to limit the service power over the last ten years. Indoor surfaces are no longer fast carpets, Wimbledon grass has higher and more regular rebounds (and there’s a roof on Wimbledon Centre Court, so… no more endless waiting for tennis…). I don’t remember a “service-only” player winning an important tournament in the last eight years. Maybe the last big success by a player who mostly based his game on service power has been the 2003 US Open won by Roddick. This point had sense maybe twenty years ago, in the era of Ivanisevic and Rosset. Tennis has moved on and has maybe gone too further on this aspect.

9. Let cords should be eliminated. Having to play all let serves would speed up the game and make it more exciting.

What would you think if, facing a match point, your opponent’s serve should hit the net and bounce just an inch beyond it? I would feel extremely angry…

10. Tennis players should be far more involved in charity work. The sport should champion a couple of causes as a group and try to make a difference – the kind of difference Andre Agassi and Andrea Jaeger have made, Andre with his school for disavantaged kids in Las Vegas, and Andrea with her Silver Lining Ranch for terminally ill children in Aspen, Colorado.

Again, much has changed on this aspect as well in recent years. I think the real turning point has been the “Rally for Relief” played in Indian Wells in 2005, that collected money for the populations hit by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean at the end of 2004. We have to give Roger Federer big credit on rising tennis world’s attention on charity. Maybe it’s never too much, but these events have increased by a great deal, compared to the past.

Article written by Tennis Buzz’s contributor Mauro Cappiello
Read the first part of the article»

Is there a way to make tennis better? Are you unsatisfied with some aspects of the game today? Maybe you will find interesting the last part of John McEnroe’s autobiography “Serious”. Published in 2002, just after the big turn into a new millennium, the book has a final chapter made up by the “Top 10 recommendations  for improving tennis in the 21st century”. Even though almost ten years have gone by since their formulation, some of McEnroe’s ideas are still very popular among tennis analysts and commentators. We would like to discuss them one by one, starting with the first five.

1. Tennis should have a commissioner. Baseball, football, and basketball all do, why not our sport? (I’m available…)

I don’t believe such a figure would contribute to make tennis a better sport. Tennis is a much different discipline from those listed by John. While baseball, football and basketball are “national” sports, tennis is international and I do think that a strictly central organization with the presence of a commissioner would only give the game an exaggerated uniformity it doesn’t need. It’s nice to leave some autonomy to all the tennis events, or all the tournaments would end up looking the same in every part of the world. What tennis really does need is a skilled CEO, able to solve its main problems before thinking of raising his/her wage. I’m referring to issues such as the formulation of the season calendar. What we have seen in recent years, with Etienne de Villiers’ ideas of tournaments with round robin groups and Adam Helfant’s calendar organization for the men’s tour from 2012 on, are not exactly the best solutions…

2. The United States should have a National Tennis Academy. Flushing Meadows would be a natural site, but if the logistics there are too daunting, there are many other possibilities. Kids with potential should be brought in from all over the country, on scholarship if necessary, and they could be developed in much the same way I was by tony Palafox and Harry Hopman at the Port Washington Academy (I’m available here, too…)

I’m not in favor of a central tennis academy, either. I think that United States already has an almost official National academy in Nick Bollettieri’s, even if it’s not managed by the USTA. But, if this tennis school has given tennis good results in terms of numbers over the years, producing players such as Agassi, Courier, Capriati, Seles all able to reach the summits of the game, it has also contributed to create a unique and uniformed style of play, electing two handed backhand and play from the baseline to a credo. I think that every player should be free to develop his/her own style and a National academy goes right in the opposite direction.

3. Players need to be more accessible to fans and the media (did I really say that?), the way NASCAR drivers are.

While I think that media relations are already a big part of players’ daily routine, Mac is right as far as interaction with fans is concerned. Players like Federer and Nadal brought a huge popularity to the sport which is not completely exploited. I mean, there are lots of occasions, during tournaments, to meet top players, but, for example, if you look at the fanzone of the ATP World Tour website, it doesn’t even provide straight contact between tennis fans and players. There should be a way to access them on the official site of the ATP, giving them the opportunity to answer the fans’ questions through the site, while this occasion of meeting is left to the players’ official websites and to their social media profiles. Also, there’s no real community on the ATP official website, no forum for the exchange of opinions among fans. The interaction through Facebook and Twitter is not the same thing. And a downloadable screensaver and a fantasy game are not enough.

4. A return to wooden rackets would be a huge improvement for professional tennis. The biggest change in the game in the last twenty-five years – the replacement of wood by graphite – has been a bad one. I happen to think that wooden rackets are beautiful aesthetically and purer for the game. Look at baseball: kids start with aluminum bats in Little League, then move on to graphite or kevlar or whatever in college , and then – and only then – if they make it to the majors, do they get to use those beautiful wooden rackets bats that require greater expertise for success. Why not do the same thing in tennis? I think it looks great to have a little wand in your hand, instead of some ultra-thick club big enough to kill somebody with! Wood to me has glamour. You need strategy and technique. Tennis, these days, is sadly lacking in all those things. It’s all Wham, bam, thank you, mma’am.

This is a complete nonsense that I even refuse to comment. The evolution of materials made tennis a totally different sport, but it’s too late now to complain and a step back is something totally out of the world, from a commercial, technical and logical point of view. I assume this is a provocation of yours, Mac…

5. Like other sports, tennis should have a season. I’d recommend February to October. For three months every year there wouldn’t be any tennis. Players could rest and recharge; fans could work up a little hunger to see the game again.

This is a very interesting point, instead. As I said for point 1, the formulation of a reasonable season calendar is one of the big problems tennis has to face. While top players often complain their off season is too short, they are the first to arrange very lucrative exhibitions in the month of December, the only one with three weeks without official tennis. I think three months without tournaments would be too much for players (and for addicted fans as well…). After all, players are professionals and as intense a sport as tennis can be, there’s no professional on earth with three months off in a year. Nevertheless, I believe players should be left free to make their own schedules, there should not be mandatory tournaments (something that has killed minor events). The more you play (and, of course, the bigger tournaments you play), the more points you gain. Quite easy. As far as the calendar, I think January is too early for a Grand Slam event that should be placed after at least one big warm-up tournament. There’s too little rest between the French Open and Wimbledon and the post-US Open season is too long. Let’s say I would give players (and fans) one, but just one, extra week of rest.

Article written by Tennis Buzz’s contributor Mauro Cappiello
Read the second part of the article»