McEnroe and Evert weave a compelling conversational tapestry
John McEnroe is an imaginative, net-charging, left-handed New Yorker who’s as brash as Broadway. Chris Evert is a right-handed, baseline-hugging strokemeister who displayed an almost existential steadiness. Except for Nadal on clay, no one’s been more consistent. Forty-eight times in her first 49 slams she at least reached the semis. If there’s such a thing as an enigmatic yet powerful chuckle, Chrissie’s got one.
Serve and swagger is McEnroe’s brand. Some may dismiss him as the guy who famously pleaded, “You cannot be serious!” But he once also suggested, “Tennis points may be inspiring in the moment, but then the moment is gone. They’re like poetry written on water.”
The shoot-from-the-hip rebel McEnroe and the sweet-as-pie Chrissie Evert might not seem to have much in common. Wrong.
They both won the US Open in ’80 and Wimbledon in ’81. They both have great families, successful teaching academies and siblings who are great players. Chris’s mellow dad Jimmy was one of the great tennis fathers in sports history. Through thick or thin, there were few other more loyal tennis fathers than John’s dad Patrick.
For decades John and Chrissie have been at the forefront of the American game. What would tennis have been without them? With a few others, they set the table. And yes, they’re superb, often blunt commentators.
Friday ESPN brought Mac and Chrissie together for a delicious, wide-ranging telephone conversation with the international media. Here the Brits breathlessly asked about Andy Murray and Jo Konta. Canadian writers craved revelations about Milos Raonic, rebounding Genie Bouchard and flash phenom Denis Shapovalov. And, of course, Indians wanted the scoop on Rohan Bopanna. Go figure.
I’ve participated in dozens of these phone talkfests. But this was the best two-person, pre-tourney presser I can remember. For 45 minutes, two of the greatest minds in the game wove a compelling collage of staccato insights that combined to create a rich, nuanced mosaic.
Chrissie noted that grass is Serena Williams’s best surface and she has a good Wimbledon draw. “I give her as much chance as anybody else because the field is completely open. I don’t know if the favorite is Halep, Muguruza, Kvitova or Serena…
“Serena has embraced motherhood to the maximum. I’m surprised that it hasn’t taken her edge away a little bit because when I had my first child, I just didn’t want to do anything else in life. [But] this is Serena, and she does the unimaginable, the unpredictable. You can never count her out…She needs to win a couple rounds, to get confident, to get that serve going, to get that movement going.”
Another pretty decent player who was off the tour is Federer. McEnroe noted, “Roger didn’t play the clay court season last year and he won Wimbledon. It was a no-brainer that he was going to do the same thing [this year.] Why would he do something different? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…He went and won Australia again. It’s incredible what he’s doing.”
Mac thought because Roger hadn’t played in three months and then played nine matches in two weeks, that he might be vulnerable. But then again, Federer’s had a week to recover.
McEnroe added, “We keep waiting for the people to step up. [Grigor] Dimitrov hasn’t seemed to have done it. Milos [Raonic] has gotten deep. Is [Alexander] Zverev going to step up? Borna Coric? Who is it going to be? Kyrgios had the opportunity. He doesn’t seem to have taken advantage. American Jack Sock broke into the top 10, but he’s had a poor year. You don’t see anyone just grabbing it.
“Credit to the all-time greats [Roger, Rafa, Djokovic, Murray]. They’re just taking it to these guys, notching up one [title] after the other.”
Sports re-invents itself, and it’s special when a legend sees himself in a rising talent. The once so fluid and imaginative McEnroe clearly sees himself in a vastly appealing, left-handed Canadian. “I’m a big fan of Denis Shapovalov. Watching him is like watching an 18-year-old like 40 years ago when I was a kid. He’s got an energy, a quickness, and an intensity…He’s going to be a great player.”
Still, McEnroe claimed that Aussie Kyrgios “is the most talented player of the last 10 years, since Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, Federer. He’s an incredible talent.”
Chrissie jumped in, saying, “I’ll talk about Nick a because he’s down in Boca [in Florida, at the Evert Academy] quite a bit. I observe him. The thing about Nick, he’s his own person. We can just stand by and marvel at his talent, appreciate the big wins, but expect the big losses, too. This is his temperament.
“I don’t know how much you can teach, hunger, focus and commitment. You can encourage it, but until it gets into his persona, until it gets into his conscience and heart, we’re not going to see the best of Nick. It’s just the way he is.
“It’s very often when things come very easy that the most talented players, sometimes mentally they’re not as tough because they don’t have to be. It’s the grinders that have to work harder that are sometimes mentally tougher. Nick’s got to find that desire and hunger inside himself. Nothing is for sure. Nothing is for sure.”
McEnroe added, “Like everyone, he’s got some issues with that fear of failure, laying it all out there and coming up a little short. That’s what makes Nadal so great. He’s willing to compete and start every match, each match, like he hasn’t played any before. That’s what separates the guys. The guys that are willing to dig in, dig deeper.”
Not surprisingly, one of the most mentally tough players of all time spoke about the role of the mind in tennis. “It’s probably the most important thing,” said Chris. “Mindset is crucial. The one thing I remember when I was getting older – I retired at 34 – I started to have days where I’d wake up and didn’t feel that inspiration to jump out of bed and race onto Centre Court. That’s where I marvel at these players, because they seem to get psyched up for every single match. That was tough for me.
“When you play 15, 20 years that’s the problem…not getting psyched. You just can’t do it. When you’re 18 or 19, you’re eager. Every day is a fresh day.”
“I agree,” said Mac. “I’m amazed how hungry the [veterans] still are, with as much as they’ve done. That’s what they should be given the most credit for. They keep doing what it takes to win, digging even deeper. That’s amazing. That’s why they’re the greatest ever. They seem to want it more than the guys that haven’t won anything.”
Speaking of “greatest ever,” this year Wimbledon is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the greatest match ever played – Nadal’s Wimbledon final win over Federer in “The Battle in the Dusk.” Amazingly, the duo are still No. 1 and 2 and have collected the last six straight Slams. Incredible!
And yes, McEnroe was in the broadcast booth for the 2008 classic. He recalled it with an uncanny precision: “I believe there was a rain delay before the match. There were a couple rain delays during the match. There were all types of things that went on…The way it ended [in near darkness] where it looked like they couldn’t play another point. Roger was up 4-1 in the second, he lost that set. Won the third in a tiebreaker. Saved match points in the fourth set. Looked like they were going to stop at 7-all or 8-all. Flashlights were going all over the place. It ended past 9:00. When you’re able to call a match where you’re basically not saying anything…Let it speak for itself. It was the best match I’d ever witnessed in terms of overall quality, the excitement, the unpredictability, the way it ended.
“That may have been my best call ever, not saying anything (laughter)…They were spectacular players…They’re the two best players. Thank God for the game that they’re still here and have that hunger and love it so much, that we get to enjoy this another couple years.”
The Mac-Chrissie dialogue skipped over the tennis landscape with its own form and fancy. We were told that much of Djokovic’s mysterious problems have been physical. Now he’s a work in progress – he’s advancing. He had a match-point against in the Queens final against Marin Cilic, who could well win Wimbledon.
Chrissie spoke of the joy of seeing a smile on Murray’s face and how players often come back from injuries with a renewed zest. Mac thought Andy might well return to the top five, but wondered why John Isner, with his great serve, hasn’t done much better at Wimbledon.
As for the women, Evert spoke of Jo Konta’s fine strokes and some good recent wins, but then said, “She’s kind of a nervous type of player…She just gets a little fidgety, hyped and nervous…She still is not there playing with the freedom that you need. The top players play with sort of a relaxed freedom. They have trust in their shots. She’s a little tense…It’s really up to her. She’s got to talk to herself. She has to believe. She has to relax and play with a new kind of freedom.”
Evert was more upbeat about Czech Petra Kvitova. Seemingly inspired after coming back from a terrible knife attack, the two-time Wimbledon champ has, according to Chris, “the best form on the grass” and, with her great serve and improved fitness, could be the favorite.
Then it was my turn to ask a question. I went for it, putting the two on the spot with a kind of “who is-your-favorite-child” query. I noted that this year both Wimbledon and the US Open were celebrating their 50th year anniversary as Open tournaments. So I asked them what was their single favorite moment at the two great events.
Understandably, Chrissie was taken aback. “Gee, why didn’t you give us more time to think about it?” she complained. “No problem,” I thought. “Chrissie, just give me your contact info and next time I’ll give you a proper heads up.”
In any case, McEnroe, who is a quick and brilliant communicator, stepped right in as if he was knocking off one of his inspired volleys.
“Obviously, for me, with Wimbledon it’s 1980, the Borg final…I lost, but I came back and beat Lendl, Connors and Borg in the ’80 Open.
[As for the US Open] I would say that 1984 Super Saturday [when he beat Jimmy Connors in a late-night thriller for the ages.] That brought us all in, the whole nine yards. That seemed to spark talk [about tennis] that we hadn’t heard before. It seemed to bring the Open to a bigger level.” Mac then reflected on Connors, his arch rival, whom he once hated with such zeal. With an almost poignant appreciation that had clearly deepened over the years, he confided how Jimmy’s force made him dig deeper and improve.
Chrissie then jumped in: “Everyone thinks my greatest achievements happened on clay at the French, winning seven times. I feel the grass is such a challenge for my game, for my style. Those three [Wimbledon] wins meant more to me than anything, than any other title, because I had to compromise. I had to tweak my game and figure out how to make changes and be more aggressive – just the frame of mind and the growth I had to have and the changes I had to make when I walked out on grass. That made that tournament very special to me.
“For the US Open…It’s every time I walked out on stadium court. I felt the support and the excitement. Even though the US Open is at the end of the year and everybody is starting to get tired, it was very motivating and inspirational to be an American.
“It’s a feeling I never felt in any other tournament in the world. It’s being American. There’s just a lot of patriotism. John was a [crowd] favorite, Jimmy was a favorite, Billie Jean was and I was. Fans just embraced the American players.”
And for decades American tennis has embraced two great figures who have long enlivened our tennis courts and our living rooms – a woman who seamlessly combines grace and wisdom, and a feisty tennis savant with a love, knowledge and talent for tennis like few others.