There is one subject that always gets John McEnroe talking. It is not art or music or Jimmy Connors or even his beloved Knicks. It is the state of tennis in America, and what needs to be done to get things righted. On Wednesday, Johnny Mac took center stage with over 40 kids from the New York Junior Tennis League, giving pointers to each on the courts of Sportime Randall’s Island, located on the plot of land in the East River equidistant from the shores of the upper east side of Manhattan, The Bronx and Queens. McEnroe was on the courts, the same ones where his John McEnroe Tennis Academy is thriving, as the spokesperson for Monday nights’ BNP Paribas Showdown which will be held just southwest of Sportime, at the newly refurbished Madison Square Garden.
Monday’s event, will feature matches between Andy Roddick and Roger Federer, as well as Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, are all part of the annual early March “Tennis Night In America” event, the unofficial kickoff to the tennis season in the United States, created by Stargames.
Before taking the court, Johnny Mac let loose on tennis, the Knicks and growing the game he loves.
Q: Big Lead Sports: There is the constant talk about what can be done to grow tennis in America, what has to be done to get things back on the professional side?
It’s pretty simple, we have to do a better job getting athletes from other sports interested in the game at a younger age. Tennis today has the same obstacles it had when I was growing up, it’s always been expensive, it has always had access issues in inner cities, so these are not new problems. We as a sport have to go and find ways to get kids who might be playing basketball or football or soccer interested in tennis, and the way to do that is to get rackets in the hands of kids, especially in the inner city. Events like this are a start but we always need to do more, and to do a better job of promoting the value tennis has as a sport. Out of those kids will come better players, not just on the pro level but ones who will take the sport up for life, and that is very important too.
Q: Big Lead Sports: Tennis is obviously a global game, do we place too much focus on following American stars?
It does not seem to be an issue in basketball or baseball these days, where everyone champions the fact that the NBA and MLB are such global sports. Tennis goes the other way. We don’t appreciate the non-American players enough, there is no player with a more beautiful game than Roger Federer, yet we bemoan not having American stars at the top right now. It’s an issue sure, but we should be able to look beyond the nationality at this point, like other sports do.
Q: Big Lead Sports: Monday night the sport gets to take the court at a newly refurbished Madison Square Garden, how important is MSG to the fabric of tennis in America?
It is always a happening and an experience. A big event at Madison Square Garden, whether it’s a concert or now with the Knicks and the Rangers again, is amazing. I still think one of the biggest mistakes we made as a sport was taking the men’s year-ending event out of MSG, but I’m glad this event is back and growing. I loved playing in it last year, I was just bummed I sprained my ankle two hours before and couldn’t finish what I started.
Q: Big Lead Sports: What do you think it will be like for those playing Monday night?
I think the crowd will be a lift for Andy, and he needs to bring his best game because Roger is not going to back down, especially on that stage. I also think the women’s matchup is string and will be exciting, Sharapova has her string game and I think Wozniacki has lots of the skills that make her enjoyable to watch. It should be a fun night of tennis, and hopefully will get back more of the buzz in the sport for all of us.
Q: Big Lead Sports: How does tennis get that buzz back?
We have to go back to what built the sport…we have to do a better job of promoting all the stars of the game, we have to get more young athletes interested in the game, and we have to make the game as accessible as possible. It is certainly not easy but tennis is a great game and I don’t think we do enough to tell our story.
Q: Big Lead Sports: In terms of access, how is the academy doing?
It’s doing well but it’s not easy given the competition for kids. I feel we have a goldmine of potential talent just across the river in Harlem and in the other boroughs, and the guys here have built a great facility with $19 million of their own money, but it is still not easy. It’s not cheap, and we are getting more sponsors to get scholarships funded to get more kids in here, but this is a business as well and you have to walk a fine line.
The courts here are always and people can come and play here with a pass from all over the city, and most of the time we are full so that’s encouraging. We have a great amount of kids who are coming and they seem to like what we are doing, but it is still building and will always be evolving to the times.
Q: Big Lead Sports: Can you find stars from kids in the innercity?
I think so. This is not dissimilar from an environment my family was involved with, only this facility is so much better than what we ever had in terms of access. If you get better athletes to take up the game, you will find your Michael Jordan at some point. It’s a matter of numbers and access.
Q: Big Lead Sports: Speaking of numbers, can Federer get back to number one or even move up?
It will be hard to do. He has other things going on in his life right now with his family, and he is a little older and the guys ahead of him are phenomenal, plus Andy Murray is working hard to get into the top four. I don’t know if he will play enough to move up, but then again his game is so beautiful that he may not want to play all those events that it would take to move back up. It’s a tough challenge, but he is still such a phenomenal player that I don’t know how much the ranking means to him in his life right now. He will always bring his best though, and that is what fans want.
Q: Big Lead Sports: Lastly, what do you think of Linsanity?
It’s great for the Knicks and great for the city. Hard working kid who has helped bring a lot of surprise and excitement back to the Garden, and we need that in New York.