Can McEnroe Get U.S. Tennis Back in the Game?

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Mark J. Terrill / AP

John McEnroe

As the U.S. Open gets under way Monday in New York City, the state of U.S. tennis couldn't be much worse. Earlier this month, for the first time since computerized world rankings began in 1973, no American man was ranked in the top 10 — though Andy Roddick has since slipped back into the ninth spot, as of Aug. 29. There are only four Americans among the 32 seeded players at the U.S. Open, and the three coming behind Roddick — John Isner, the beanstalk who won that multiday match at Wimbledon; Mardy Fish; and Sam Querrey — don't exactly make Rafael Nadal sweat in his headband (or ring a bell for most casual tennis observers).

The women's side is in even sorrier shape. How long can American fans count on the aging Williams sisters? Serena is still the top player in the world, but she's missing this year's U.S. Open with an injured foot. Venus is ranked fourth, but after her, it's all Russians, Czechs and a general assembly of nations before you land at the next American, Melanie Oudin, at 44th. In fact, not including the Williams sisters, the following countries have as many or more women ranked in the top 100 than the U.S's total of three: Austria (five), Belgium (four), China (three), the Czech Republic (seven), France (three), Germany (five), Italy (seven), Romania (four), Russia (a whopping 16), Serbia (three), Slovakia (three) and Spain (four).

It's enough to make a U.S. tennis fan cry out, You cannot be serious!

We are. And the man who so famously uttered that exasperated line to a Wimbledon umpire is now trying to do something about the problem. After this year's U.S. Open, John McEnroe, the American tennis icon, broadcaster and former superbrat, will open up a tennis academy in New York City in hopes of reviving America's fortunes on the courts. "It's somewhat frustrating," says McEnroe, who won seven Grand Slam titles, including four U.S. Opens. "I'd just like to be a part of bringing some energy, bringing some life back into tennis."

McEnroe knows there are no easy ways to get young Americans playing better. After all, plenty of kids are interested in tennis, and participation is actually growing in the U.S. He is starting in his native New York City, which he sees as a huge untapped tennis market. If it succeeds, he will surely draw young players from around the country to the Big Apple. His new academy will start with the unconventional proposition that playing less tennis is better for developing a kid's game. Nothing like a 24-hour tennis sweatshop that so many youngsters have enrolled in in Florida, the John McEnroe Tennis Academy is basically being set up as an after-school program, where kids practice five days a week and on weekends. He is so intent on shielding kids from the tennis burnout that has eaten up many promising careers that the program will also have the kids playing soccer and other nonracket sports.

"If you put all your eggs in one basket at an extremely young age, it makes you less versatile as a human being, and as a kid growing up," says McEnroe, who played soccer and basketball in high school in addition to tennis. "When you play other sports around other people and have other friendships, you don't become as isolated as you do in tennis."

McEnroe is clearly positioning himself away from Nick Bollettieri, whose Florida academy has produced champs like Andre Agassi and the Williams sisters but has also taken its toll on many players who bunked there. "People can send their kids to Bollettieri, but mine is going to be something where you can, God forbid, lead a normal life."

Bollettieri says he's delighted that McEnroe is opening up his academy. But he also insists that if a young player wants a college tennis scholarship, it's important to specialize in the sport early, since there are just too many competitive players around the world now. And in a not-so-subtle dig, he says he hopes that McEnroe is truly committed to coaching. "If he puts his name on those front gates, I hope he does what I have done," says Bollettieri, who cites his 15-hour workdays. "I would not talk about other academies and other coaches, and concentrate on what he has to do. The more you talk, the more you have to prove."

McEnroe was famous for berating umps, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he is still taking a few shots at authority, no matter what he's doing. He originally wanted to partner with the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA), the sport's chief governing body, to launch his academy at the National Tennis Center in Queens, the site of the U.S. Open. "I thought it would be a fantastic idea to have the John McEnroe Tennis Academy at the National Tennis Center," says McEnroe. "It seemed like a no-brainer because I was someone who grew up in Queens, who is still involved there as a commentator, who won the U.S. Open four times, who ball-boyed, who played Davis Cup there. I've been a New Yorker my whole life. But they didn't see it that way. I'm disappointed."

McEnroe is miffed because the U.S. Open mints money for the USTA — the event generated around $110 million in profit last year. "I don't know why they couldn't find more money for me," he says. "Or money, period. As far as I'm concerned, they should be supporting us. The USTA can put its eggs in every basket, they have so much money. It would be a win-win for them, because if they were involved with us and we had success, they could take credit for everything." This rancor is nothing new: McEnroe has long viewed the USTA as somewhat out of touch, while the USTA is likely still smarting from its experience with McEnroe as David Cup captain. Frustrated that, in his view, top players weren't committed to the Davis Cup program, McEnroe abruptly quit the captaincy in 2000 after only a year on the job.

For its part, the USTA has no interest in getting into a shouting match. "John McEnroe is a great champion, and a great ambassador for the sport," says USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier. "And we certainly wish him well with his new endeavor." Widmaier says that USTA profits are being reinvested in the game, and notes that the organization has already targeted junior development as a strategic initiative. And the facility in New York City is already being used to train promising players. Though Widmaier says the USTA may be willing to support McEnroe-trained players down the road, like it does for others who emerge from private academies, McEnroe is in effect competing against the USTA for elite talent. And just in case there isn't enough intrigue at work here, just guess who is head of elite-player development for the USTA? Patrick McEnroe, John's younger brother. (Patrick did not return an interview request.)

Shut out by the USTA, McEnroe partnered with Sportime, an owner of 13 fitness and tennis clubs in New York State, to house the academy at the company's $18 million tennis facility on Randall's Island, in the East River off northern Manhattan. Annual tuition is around $20,000, but McEnroe hopes scholarships funded by Sportime revenues, corporate backers like Nike, who has signed on as the first sponsor, and private donors could defray the cost for cash-strapped families. Over 100 players between the ages of 6 and 16 will enroll in the academy at the start. McEnroe's other brother, Mark, will run the day-to-day operations, but John has promised he won't be an absentee owner.

McEnroe says he wants to teach a more aggressive game, where players aren't afraid to mix it up at the net. "Taking the ball on the rise — people don't do that anymore," he says. "Using angles and the geometry on the court, things like that. We want to teach more than just power — using power in a more effective way." It may sound like a tribute to his own very successful playing style, the likes of which are rarely seen in today's power-serve and baseline-rally game. But as a coach, McEnroe sees himself as more of a Vince Lombardi–type motivator than someone too bogged down by technicalities. "I feel like I'm more of an inspirational leader," he says.