Tennis, Patrick McEnroe, Sports, McEnroe

Pat MacEnroe: Dishes The Sib, 20 Years of Tennis

Imagine being at the center of a major sport and the brother of a star who was labeled as tennis’s bad boy. Patrick McEnroe experienced all of that with his brother John who he even admits there were times when the brothers weren’t on speaking terms. Patrick discusses this along with the ups and downs of his entire career as a singles and doubles player in his new book Hardcourt Confidential.

McEnroe’s book though was never meant to be a memoir and it isn’t. Instead it’s a collection of stories from his experiences in tennis from 20 plus years wrapped around a perspective of the sport itself and how it has evolved in those two decades. Readers will get the chance to see Patrick take to task the best American players in the world while evaluating the positives and negatives of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, the Williams Sisters and Andy Roddick among others.

There are also stories about Agassi thinking the game has passed him by and Sampras’s taste for gambling just to name a few. He also shares his life experiences as an analyst for ESPN and his highs and lows as the captain of the Davis Cup team for the United States. McEnroe says leading the team to victory in 2007 was the greatest moment of his career.

The industry of tennis is a small group of individuals who frequently see each other. Only a few players are making the really big money on tour and every week most players are out playing across the world for their livelihood. For an outsider that knows nothing about the most important events and backgrounds that define the sport, readers get a view of what makes the sport tick from tennis royalty who has as much, if not more passion for the game than his more famous brother John.

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Chris Yandek: When you open to start the book, you think you’re getting a lot of stories just from the last 20 years of your career, but you also wrapped those stories around the last 20 of the history of tennis. Did you realize that when you finished writing it that this was really a book that covered tennis from all the angles young, old, new, on and off the court?

Patrick McEnroe: “Well, I’m glad to hear you say that Chris cause that was exactly the intent that I had when I was putting this book together and putting the idea together for the book. I really felt that there wasn’t a book out there certainly by a player that really looked at the state of the game and obviously there has been a lot of books written, sort of autobiographies which are great. There’s a lot of sort of just strictly encyclopedia kind of books and I felt that what wasn’t really, what hadn’t really been done was a book about kind of combining it all.

Combining the state of the game the way I’ve seen it and also mixing in some of my own stories just to kinda back up the broader view of where the game has come and how it’s ended up where it is at this point and kind of how it’s gotten there. It never was meant to be a memoir of sorts. It was meant to be an overview of the state of professional tennis and I feel very good about the fact that I think I was able to accomplish that along with my coauthor Peter Bodo who’s spent his life writing about tennis. He really, we worked well together in sort of shaping the way the book came across and the way we were able to tell a story, but also kind of give an overview of the state of the game.”

CY: Well, I know it’s your job to do analysis today on the major players in the book, but you were very open analyzing the positive and negatives of every major player that plays tennis today. Are you worried about anything that you wrote in the book and how someone might react? I know it’s your job to be an analyst now with ESPN and all those things and to show the positives and weaknesses of every player, but are you concerned at all about some of the things you might’ve said?

PM: “Well, I like to be light, so yes, I guess I am. I certainly never wanted to write a book that was a tell all that looked to slam any particular player. But you know the bottom line is that all these players are human and I think that’s kind of the overriding theme here is that even the greatest players in the world, part of their greatness is actually that they probably have some sort of flaw or that flaw may be actually part of the reason they’re so great. In the case of Andre Agassi, he turned out to be a little bit of a control freak late in his career, but that helped him. That made him. That kind of helped him become the legendary figure that he became as a player. Pete Sampras had a tough streak.

He was a tough mother. I think that’s part of his greatness. My brother John had a lot of that as well and I sort of learned from him along the way and saw things in him when I played doubles with him that were pretty amazing. It kind of gave me an insight into what made him great as a player, but also what flawed him for instance as the Davis Cup captain. That being a great player and being in control of everything around you and then being a captain and trying to lead other great players is a little bit of a different story. So I tried to talk about all those things sure. As I said, if I wanted to write a book that would have pissed people off, I would’ve written, revealed a lot more about things that had gone on, but that really wasn’t my intent. My intent was to write about the state of the game and these interesting characters and also let people in a little bit that sure that people are human. Part of what makes great athletes great is they have some traits that not everybody else has.”

CY: One example I like to point out is when you refer to Serena Williams not grasping or realizing how great a tennis player she could be but instead she wants to become bigger outside the tennis world when she tried acting in recent years. On the other hand you have guys like the Bryan Brothers who seem to live, breathe and eat tennis. Do you think more so than ever we have such a different core of tennis players today maybe more so than 20 years ago when maybe it was just more about winning and today other things are in their motivation factor like Serena for example?

PM: “Well, I think that’s a great point. That’s true of all great athletes. I mean because there is so much more out there for athletes to accomplish. There’s a lot more money for them to make doing ads and doing different things, etc. Look at Lebron James. He wants to be a global icon. Back thirty years ago he just wanted to be a great basketball player. So that happens. I think Serena kind of got sucked in by that a little bit four or five years ago. Hey! I can just be a great actress and be a superstar in movies and then she probably realized pretty quickly that people that do that for the most part have probably worked their whole life to get to that point and so is she to get to where she is in tennis. A little bit like Andre Agassi figured out when his first marriage broke up with Brooke Shields that I was put here to be a tennis player and Andre has often said tennis is my platform. So he kind of grasped that.

So my sort of challenge to Serena, which by the way I think she’s done a much better job of in the last year and a half, two years is to be a tennis player. Have your other interests, do your other things, walk the red carpet and do those things that make you a celebrity as well but first and foremost try to win majors and she’s certainly been able to do that throughout her career and I think that she really has the opportunity to really dominate in sort of the last years of her career much in the way that Andre Agassi did and while doing so maybe get more people on her side because I think her attitude sometimes has rubbed people the wrong way. She doesn’t have the habit of giving a lot of credit to her opponents when she loses and I think that’s something that she could improve upon if she cares. She may not care. She may not care what anybody else thinks and there’s something to be said for that too as far as the mind of a great player. They just don’t care what you think.”

CY: One of the most personal things is when you talk about how there were certain times where you and your brother John had differences and didn’t speak to each other. What can you tell me about the most difficult times with your brother?

PM: “Well, I think for the most part obviously we’re very close and he’s as I talk about in the book, he’s supported me more than anybody else ever when it came to believing that I could actually make it as a professional tennis player when I graduated from Stanford. But the fact is that we’ve been in the same quote on quote business whether it’s as a player, as a commentator, as a Davis Cup captain. So there’s a natural sort of competitiveness there when you’re sort of in the same realm all the time and let’s be honest, he’s the big brother and he’s the one that set the road for me in a lot of different ways and so there’s gotta be a part of him that’s like ah, can you just get away from me my little brother?

Let me do my own thing here and obviously as a player there’s no comparison what we’ve done. As a commentator he’s at the top of the list, but I think I’ve made my way there as well, but we’ve had some tough times when it comes to he was up for the Davis Cup captain occupancy the first time when he got the job and the USTA had actually approached me about taking the job as well so that really irritated him to be honest that I was kind of even in the running. I ended up taking myself out of the running because it was clearly John’s time to be the captain and he really wanted to be.

As it turned out he only lasted a year and then I was able to get the job and sort of go full blare after it. That didn’t, he wasn’t real pleased with that that I kind of had my name in the mix at some point. He thought, hey, this is my time. He was right. It was his time. So I probably never should’ve put myself, even discussed it with the USTA at some point, but I did and so those are the kind of things that we’ve had our differences on and when we played against each other it was never comfortable.

He was obviously a far better player than I was, but he certainly didn’t want to lose to his little brother even the one match we played I talk about in the finals of a tournament in Chicago where I actually had a chance to beat him because I was sort of at the peak of my career and he was at the tail end of his career and deep down I really didn’t want to beat my big brother. It wasn’t a driving goal of mine. Of course the last thing he wanted to do was lose to his little brother and therein lies probably part of the reason why he was such a great player and I was a pretty good player you know. Obviously talent wise there was a big difference, but also that’s the kind of thing I like to reveal in the book is these different mentalities of these great players whether it’s a Serena, whether it’s an Andre Agassi, a Pete Sampras, my brother, [Roger] Federer, [Rafael] Nadal. How they had that little extra something inside their head that makes them champions.”

CY: The story about Pete Sampras and fellow players on tour dodging him when he wanted to go to the casino because they couldn’t afford to gamble with the money he be would risking I found to be quite interesting. There has been a lot of conversation in recent years about athletes in general across the board when it comes to gambling, do you think that’s an issue in the world of tennis?

PM: “I don’t think it’s a huge issue to be honest. No. I think it’s obvious you gotta be extremely careful when it comes to gambling just on matches you know, which was a big controversy a couple years ago cause tennis is actually the easiest sport to fix that there is out there. All you need is one player to just kind of not go for a particular shot at three all in the fifth set and they can change the outcome. But the players are well aware absolutely. If you do something like that you could be banned for life from the sport. I think the case of Pete liking to gamble as far as playing cards and doing that stuff, you find that with a lot of these great athletes with the Michael Jordan’s and Charles Barkley’s. I think sometimes it gets them into trouble and those guys are a couple of instances where it has. I don’t think it’s ever gotten to that level with Pete, but it’s a certainly a buzz that they get.

They’ve got a lot of money. They can afford to do certain things. That’s what I talk about in the book that other players, 1000 bucks a hand is a big deal for them. So the other thing it kind of points out in tennis is there is really huge discrepancies between the top few players and even a guy who’s really good who is 20, 25 in the world. It’s much different pay scales than it is for a basketball team. You got a star making 17 million, but then you’ve got the next guys making 11 or 12 million. In tennis if you got one guy making millions and the next guy is making half a million or something like that. So the pay scale is a lot different and that’s also I think a misperception that a lot of people have about tennis players. Only the really top couple players in the world make the huge, huge money. I think tennis players actually don’t get the respect they deserve for the fact that we tennis players earn our money every single week. There’s no guaranteed contracts in tennis. You’re injured, you don’t make money and so it’s a pretty tough business to be in especially if you’re not one of the top couple players in the world.”

CY: The most personal story I thought was on page 169 when in 1997 during some tough years for Andre Agassi he asked you, “Do you think the game is passing me by?” You replied with, “No…But I think the game is improving and now you’ve got to bust it, work your ass off, just to survive.” At the time, what did it feel like to hear that from one of the icons looking back on that today?

Patrick MacEnroe
Patrick MacEnroe

PM: “It was pretty eye opening. I was going through my own issues with my shoulder and that was kind of the start of my demise as a player, but it was very interesting because you know in a lot of ways Andre was pretty insecure which coming from me, a guy who looked at him, this guy’s got so much talent, he’s such a great player and he beats the crap out of me every time I play against him. Not that that meant a whole a lot, but you kind of saw in his eyes like that fear about him am I good enough? Can I really do this? To me that’s what makes what he did after that all the more remarkable of a story because he didn’t have that same swagger that a Pete Sampras had naturally, that a Roger Federer has naturally, even a Rafael Nadal has naturally that they just know what great athletes they are.

Yes they lose sometimes, but deep down they know if I play my best I’m going to win and that wasn’t always the case with Andre. That’s why I give him so much respect for what he was able to do in that sort of second stage of his career when it was Brad Gilbert coaching him and then Darren Cahill and how much those guys worked with him and got him to really have the most success he ever had. All of a sudden the light clicked on with Andre where he said, I’m gonna do absolutely everything I can to leave no stone unturned, to be the best player I can and if I lose, at least I can look. What he use to do as a kid, as a youngster is he would come up with excuses to use before he went out on the court. Oh I didn’t eat right. Oh I didn’t practice that much. Oh I did this. I didn’t sleep. I went out all night.

Whatever it was he would kind of have that excuse there and in some ways that made failure more palatable and a lot of players do that to even kind of sometimes subconsciously, but what I respect about Andre is he made that decision that I’m never gonna let that happen again. I may lose and I may get beat by Pete Sampras in the US Open final when I should win, but I’m gonna do everything I can to win and him and Gil Reyes his trainer that was with him for so many years really worked hand and hand sort of making that commitment to each other and to Andre and I think that’s why so many people sort of just admired him and loved him so much the last couple years of his career.”

CY: You’re very descriptive of your passion for how badly you wanted to be a good singles player, but more so I think your greatest passion is being the captain of the Davis Cup team and taking them to a win in 2007. Greatest moment of your career?

PM: “Absolutely. There’s no doubt that leading the team and it wasn’t so much winning the Davis Cup title, but sort of the way it all came about over those years which was unbelievable dedication from Andy Roddick, James Blake, the Bryan Brothers especially, a few more players that came in along the way. But those four core guys really went to bat and went to battle for us as a team for so long and in so many sorta distant places when quite frankly a lot of people weren’t paying a lot of attention. So to win it as a team, to do it at home, have each of those players win a match and sort of clinch it the way we did with the Bryan Brothers winning the doubles against the Russians when we played in Portland, Oregon was awesome.

From a personal standpoint I just had my first baby, my first daughter and she was about a year and a half and my wife sort of rallied and flew out there two days before the match and my wife’s a great singer and she sang the National Anthem during that weekend and sort of inspired the guys and me so it was kind of like everything came together in a great way, but really for the most part it was sort of a dream of the team to do it and to do it as a team. We went out and celebrated that night and Andy Roddick was just overcome with emotion cause that was one of his lifetime dreams was to win the Davis Cup and kind of gave me a big hug and said, ‘We did it. Whatever happens from here on in we did it.’ I think that was really a touching moment for me. I know something that we all experienced as a team together and that was kind of like the journey made it more special than that actual result on that weekend.”

CY: There has not been a tennis star that has taken the Dancing with the Stars plunge yet, what former or current tennis star do you think would be most likely to do something like that?

PM: “Well, I’ve seen Andy Roddick dance up a storm. He’s very much into like the break dancing kind of style. One of the stories that I talk about in the book was one of those years when those guys were quite young Roddick and Black and Mardy Fish and Pete Sampras played on the team. I remember when we were in the team van and all the youngsters were playing all the hip hop and rap kind of music they were into. Pete kind of looked at them like, what is this stuff? Where is the old rock, the classic rock kind of stuff, the Pearl Jam and stuff? So it was kind of interesting to see the different kind of worlds coming together.

When we won those particular Davis Cup matches in Oklahoma City we went out and celebrated and Pete was there with his wife and my wife was there as well and Andy went out and danced with my wife on the dance floor and my wife came back and said, ‘Geez, he’s got some serious moves out there.’ I think Andy would be perfect for that. I’m not sure that he would do it at this point, but maybe in a couple of years. I would love to see him finally win Wimbledon. I know that’s a huge goal for him so it should be a very interesting Wimbledon that comes up here pretty soon.”

CY: Predictions for the men’s and women’s winners of Wimbledon and the US Open?

PM: “Well, I think that Wimbledon, I have a sneaky feeling that Roddick might finally do it. I think he’s the second, probably the third favorite behind Federer, Nadal and Roddick. A lot of it will depend on the draw. For instance, I think Roddick’s got a better chance to beat Nadal than he does Federer though he was certainly close to doing it last year. So I would love to see him do it. I think Nadal is going to be very tough to beat cause he’s playing with a lot of confidence the way he dominated the French Open. On the ladies side, it’s hard to bet against Venus and Serena at Wimbledon and even at the US Open.

I’d probably give the slight edge really to Serena in both of those, the Open and Wimbledon, but Venus really loves the grass. That’s her favorite surface. Justine Henin has kind of talked about in her comeback that Wimbledon is the one she really wants. I’m not sure she’s gonna get it. But if I had to bet, I would bet on Venus at Wimbledon and Serena at the US Open. As far as the US Open for the men, that ones a little tougher for me to go there because usually I need to see what happens at Wimbledon more so on the men’s side. I know one thing is that Rafael Nadal wants that title more than any other title out there. It’s the only major he hasn’t won. It’s the only major that he hasn’t been in the final.

Now in saying that, the courts are quite quick and the surface very tough on his body so it is his biggest challenge. It’s hard to bet against Federer at the Open. He finally lost in the final last year, six straight years. Del Potro the defending champ looks like he won’t be back because of his wrist injury which is really a blow to tennis because in my mind that guy had a chance to get to number one at some point. So I hope he comes back healthy and can make a run certainly at the beginning of the next year. But as far as the Open goes, it’s hard to bet against Mr. Federer. That surface really suits his game as well as any.”

CY: And how do you want to be remembered?

PM: “I want to be remembered as someone that was extremely passionate about obviously tennis in this sense. Obviously my family would be number one, but as far as the book goes and this as someone that was extremely lucky to grow up in a tennis family and that tennis has given me a lot and along the way I hope I’ve given back to it in a way that is appropriate as well.”

Editors note: Monica Seles competed in Dancing with the Stars as the first tennis player. A male tennis player has never competed.