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Patrick McEnroe’s Nine Rules for Watching the U.S. Open

The CBS tennis commentator, Davis Cup captain, former top-30 pro, Queens kid, brother of John, and possibly that guy you’ve seen hitting a ball against the wall in the park on Thompson and Spring, shares his tips on what to watch when you’re watching tennis.

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1. Find the hometown heroes
During the first week you always get unbelievable crowds of raucous fans on the outer courts who’ve come to see players from their home country, especially guys from Chile, Argentina, or Israel. So during the day, rather than staying at Stadium Court, walk around and go see a guy like [Nicolas] Massu, who’s a wild, scrappy guy from Chile, or Hyung-Taik Lee from Korea. Lee’s a solid player, and there are always a ton of Koreans who come out to watch him. Part of the beauty of the outside courts is that you can be so close to the players.

2. No head-turning—the ball is not a bone and you are not a dog.
Focus on one player for three or four points at a time instead of following the ball back and forth. Watch the way they set up and the way they move. Do they look like they’re rushing? Roger Federer, for instance, always looks like he has so much time, while you know the players that seem to be rushing are struggling.

3. Watch the players from behind
The best place to sit is behind the court, rather than to the side. You can see both players, and you don’t get caught up in going back and forth with the ball. You see the lateral movement and the way the points develop. If you can’t get behind the court, try to sit more toward the end of one side, so you still get a little perspective on the whole court. Stay on the opposite side of the umpire, so he doesn’t block the view.

4. Double down
The real tennis fans like to watch doubles because they can relate to it a little more. The athleticism of the game at the pro level has become so incredible that it’s hard to identify with the players. With the exception of a couple of top teams, like the Bryan brothers, who are always fun, doubles players are not making a lot of money, and the Open is their big chance. These guys are playing for their lives. It’s a different kind of tension, especially in mixed doubles. They could take home about half of what they make in a year. Go watch the old guy, Jonas Bjorkman, from Sweden. He’s been one of the best doubles players in the world for the last ten years. If you want to see someone who plays textbook tennis, he’s your guy.

5. Mind the mind games
The women are notorious for showing a lot of idiosyncrasy and gamesmanship when they play. They do all kinds of weird things. Before the opponents serve, they’ll turn their backs to them and stare at their strings, or they’ll bounce the ball about 25 times before serving.

6. Get to the Grandstand Court
I love it. It always has the most incredible atmosphere, because the crowd is really tightly packed. It’s the third biggest, and it only seats about 5,000. I was lucky enough to play some matches there in my career. They tend to be competitive matches between guys like me who aren’t the highest ranked, and inevitably there are a couple of wild ones there every year.

7. Silence is golden
Part of the charm of tennis is the incredible noise after a great point—and then the quiet. That quiet before a big point, when you can hear a pin drop: That’s part of the allure, especially when there’s a little something going on between the players. That moment when they walk out on the court. It’s hard to get that in any other sport.

8. Behold the greatest ever ...
Roger Federer is the best I’ve ever seen. He always looks like he has so much time. He has such great balance and an eye for the point. He’s just a phenomenal player. His forehand swing is actually shorter than most players’, but it’s so violent and so precise that it makes the ball just accelerate as it hits the court. He can attack, but he can also defend. If his aggressive game isn’t working, he can stay back and use his slice and wait for his opponent to miss. He does both better than anyone. He uses spin and depth. He uses the whole court. He can play the ball short, wide, high, or low. He has so much variety and he can pick what he needs to do. He dissects his opponent. He’ll find out what you don’t do well and he’ll just pick on that.

9. And hope he meets his match
Rafael Nadal is the best clay-court player since Bjorn Borg. If it weren’t for Federer, he might have had a couple of Wimbledon titles already, and he’s only 21. With the number of points he has, he’d be number one in any other era. So you’ve got those two guys with totally different personalities and styles of play. Federer is like a dancer. He plays tennis like Baryshnikov dances. Nadal is like a bull. He’s intense, athletic, and raw. Federer just glides, and all of a sudden, boom, you’re dead, you don’t even see it, whereas Nadal is just going to run right through you.

Interviewed by Ira Boudway


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