PAJAMA GAME: Rod Laver, as a young boy, first impressed his coach Charlie Hollis when he stroked some tennis balls in his pajamas. Now and then these days players show up in outfits that look a bit like pajamas. And when Latvian Ernests Gulbis was asked about his questionable training habits, he quoted boxer Marvin Hagler, “If you sleep in silk pajamas, it’s tough to wake up at six in the morning and go for a run.”
But none other than the queen of tennis, Chrissie Evert, shared with us the best tennis and pajamas tale we’ve ever come across. We asked Evert to share a good story about her friend, the late President George H.W. Bush. She recalled, “The first time I ever met George Bush. Pam Shriver was the one who introduced us, and he was Vice President then. We were going to a dinner with the Chinese [prime] minister. I spent the night at President and Barbara Bush’s house. We went to the dinner…He wanted to know all the scoop and gossip about the tennis players. [Then I] came home, went to bed. [The next morning at] 7:00 in the morning there’s a knock on my bedroom door. It was President Bush. He said, “Chrissie?”
I said, “Yeah?”
He said, “Why don’t you come over to Barb’s and our bedroom, we have some newspapers waiting for you.”
“Let me get dressed first, I’ll come over in a few minutes.”
He said, “Don’t get dressed, come over in your P.J.s.”
I go into their bedroom, they’re both in their P.J.s, with newspapers thrown all over the bed. He offered me a cup of coffee. I jumped on the bed, lounged on it, had my cup of coffee with Barb and Vice President Bush – the first time I ever met them in bed…I knew right away what kind of a guy he was. The most down-to-earth, kind, normal person that there was. That’s my story.”
NEWSY NOTES: Federer didn’t retire, Serena didn’t disclose that she’s pregnant again. Naomi Osaka didn’t reveal she was married. But of late, there has been a whole lot going on. Within 48 hours, former US No. 1 Mardy Fish was named to be America’s new Davis Cup Captain and Andy Murray, 31, tearfully informed us that sometime between now and Wimbledon he’s going to retire, due to the lingering pain in his right hip. And then Gordon Smith announced that he is retiring as the USTA’s Executive Director, after an impactful 12-year stretch in which stadiums rose, grounds were expanded, rules were changed, a national campus was built, and many a crisis was navigated.
On top of that, there are indications of a movement to possibly oust ATP Executive Director Chris Kermode because, inside ATP political circles, players feel he tends to favor the desires of tournament owners more than he backs the interests of the players.
In the first days of January before the Aussie Open, tennis can be kind of sleepy, a kind of quiet before the storm – but not this year. And, by the way, did we mention that the two most famous players in tennis, Roger and Serena, faced off in a Hopman Cup mixed doubles match in Perth, where the Swiss and his partner Belinda Bencic prevailed over Serena and Frances Tiafoe?
GO FIGURE: Djokovic and Federer have prevailed in 12 of the last 14 Aussie Opens. Nadal has won one, but he always seems to have issues.
NO KIDDING: Federer, who like many others was stunned by Andy Murray’s farewell announcement, said that he wanted his own retirement to be a celebration. He added that Andy had a fabulous career and the Scot wasn’t unlucky to have played in the era of himself, Nadal and Djokovic.
QUARTER OF DEATH: Serena, Halep, Venus Williams, Garbiñe Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova are all bundled into a stacked “quarter of death” at the Australian Open. Serena is seeded No. 16 and first plays German Tatjana Maria and then could face Genie Bouchard and get Simona Halep in the third round. Halep opens with Kaia Kanepi, who stunned her in the first round at the U.S. Open. The Estonian isn’t going to oust the No. 1 player in the world in back-to-back Slams – right? Halep could have to play Venus and Serena in the third and fourth rounds. The Williams sisters could meet in the fourth round.
A PRINCE WITH A PROBLEM: He’s a prince awaiting his coronation. German Alexander Zverev is the hottest young prospect in the tennis. He won the ATP Championship in November, but the best he’s ever done in a Slam was reaching last year’s French Open quarterfinals. Now, in Melbourne, he’ll face a certain weight of expectation. To get to the final he might have to beat Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic. Novak has the easiest draw of the top four. He could face a hit-and-miss Denis Shapovalov, another Next-Gen hopeful in Medvedev, and, if all goes well, Kei Nishikori in the quarters. Andy Murray, who is now ranked No. 240, has a tough first round challenge. He’ll face Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut.
SABALENKA WILL WIN THE AUSSIE OPEN?: Serena Williams is the most renowned younger sister in sports. Yet, tennis has a fabulous litany of younger brothers. We’re not only talking about Mike Bryan, who is minutes younger than his brother Bob. Icon Andy Murray, who is going to retire, is Jamie’s younger bro. Alexander Zverev has been guided by his older sibling Mischa. There were many other younger brothers who excelled, including James Blake, Murphy Jensen and Wayne Black, just to name a few more.
But our favorite younger brother is Patrick McEnroe. The former Aussie Open semi finalist was captured in priceless photos having to endure the antics of his older brother, a darn good player who made the phrase “You Can’t Be Serious” famous. Patrick deserves a medal for being John’s more-than-loyal bro.
Patrick has done it all in tennis: college play, ATP singles, doubles, USTA player development chief, ESPN chat-master, author and the last American Davis Cup Captain to lead our nation to victory. But what we love about the personable sage is his shoot-from-the-New-York-hip bluntness and his fearless predictions. The other day on a telephone press conference sponsored by ESPN, Inside Tennis and Chris Evert opened the door for a deep-think reflection on the role of luck in our sport. Evert said, “There’s always a little luck involved. Don’t you think, Patrick?”
But McEnroe abruptly dismissed the notion. “No, I don’t think so at all. No luck involved.”
When asked for the ka-billionth time whether the sad fate of American men’s tennis was going to shift soon, Patrick said, “It’s not going to happen any time soon. Nor is it happening for many other countries around the world, okay, including France and other huge tennis countries [like] Australia.”
Most of all we love Patrick’s predictions. They have long been some of the most interesting in the game. He unabashedly noted a superb call he made last year when he reminded us, “I told you all last year that Osaka was going to win a major. Let’s not get caught up in the details that I said it was Wimbledon and not the US Open. Don’t get caught up in the details of that.”
And let’s not get caught up in another detail – that when the 1998 French Open was just getting going, he told his brother on air that he predicted that Amelie Mauresmo would win the tourney. John lowered his voice and informed his bro that his pick had already lost on a back court.
Oh well, stuff happens. Just a few days before the start of play in Melbourne the ever-bold Patrick proclaimed, “I’m telling you here right now that the winner of the Australian Open women’s side is going to be [Belarusian Aryna] Sabalenka, okay? She’s going to win the Australian Open…She, as Chrissie said, is going to make a breakthrough this year. I say why not happen at the Australian Open?”
Last, year Sabalenka’s loud play caused a stir when she suffered a loud defeat in the first round of the Aussie Open. Later she would apologize for all her noise and confided, “Sometimes I scream like a crazy [person.]” And we will scream with crazy amazement if it turns out that the twenty-year-old players win back-to-back Slams and, like Osaka in New York, Sabalenka wins the big prize in Melbourne.
We’ll be watching Patrick.
TENNYS TRIUMPHS IN AUCKLAND: American Tennys Sandgren won his first ATP title in Auckland and Floridian Sonia Kenin captured her first tour level title in Hobart. At the Sydney warm-up tourneys, veteran Petra Kvitova and teen Alex De Minaur prevailed.