John McEnroe is rolling his eyes. A petulant sigh and exaggerated shoulder slump come next. Of course, there’s nothing new about the McEnroe eye-roll. It is, no doubt, what the first-grade teacher at St. Anastasia School saw, prompting the phone call home to tell John and Kay McEnroe their son was bored and probably too bright for the school. Later, we all saw it on Centre Court and at the U.S. Open, when McEnroe’s epic blow-ups (“You cannot be serious!”) made him the poster boy for anger management—a man the Times once called “the worst advertisement for our system of values since Al Capone.”
Right now, the 51-year-old tennis legend is reacting to news his younger brother Mark has just whispered into his ear. The brothers are on the sideline of one of the twenty courts at their $18 million, state-of-the-art tennis facility on Randall’s Island, a partnership between McEnroe and Sportime, which owns and operates thirteen tennis clubs in the region. Some 100 girls, ages 7 to 18, are competing today for a scholarship to join the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, which opens next month. This isn’t just a case of a celebrity lending his name to a building—John McEnroe wants to rejuvenate the sport in New York and, while he’s at it, save American men’s tennis, which hasn’t produced a class of champions since Sampras, Agassi, Courier, and Chang a generation ago.
“Why would they do that?” McEnroe asks Mark. Mark is the middle McEnroe boy; the youngest brother, Patrick, heads the United States Tennis Association’s player-development program, meaning that the brothers McEnroe will be competing against one another to discover and nurture the next great players, a competition that has already sparked some McEnroe family fireworks. Mark has just pointed out a girl who can’t be more than 12. John had seen her before at the facility; he’d hit with her and given her some pointers on her serve. But now Mark has told him her parents are thinking of homeschooling her so she can focus more on her tennis. That’s what touched a nerve in McEnroe, who believes that complete immersion in the sport from prepubescence on has created a generation of robotic, burned-out, and one-dimensional players. His way, what he aims to make the way, involves a more balanced approach, in which tennis is part of an elite prodigy’s life, not the definition of it. It’s how he sees tennis in his own life. Patrick, on the other hand, takes the more conventional approach: The sport is so competitive now that what worked for his brother may not work for other kids. Patrick and the USTA seem to view John as something of a romantic crank, however well-intentioned, bent on restoring the old ways.
McEnroe has spent many of the 26 years since he last won a Grand Slam singles title rebelling against, as he once put it, being “some tennis dude.” But now, happily married to former rocker Patty Smyth and a doting father to six children, McEnroe has put tennis back at the center of his life. He has established himself as the game’s smartest and most respected television commentator. He plays on the Champions Tour, in World TeamTennis matches, and in exhibitions (earlier in the day, he hit balls with a group of kids, wearing a T-shirt that read I FEEL PRETTY DAMNED GOOD FOR MY AGE). And he swears the academy represents a genuine commitment, the blueprint for his next twenty years and beyond. In middle age, the onetime enfant terrible seems to be seeking a larger purpose, a legacy even. The question is whether he can make something as ambitious as the academy work—and not lose his mind trying.
He takes a long look at the potentially homeschooled wonder child on the court in front of him. He’s sure her parents’ all-tennis-all-the-time leanings doom her to become a tennis victim-to-be. “What is wrong with people?” McEnroe says. “It’s a joke, that’s what it is. A farce!”
John McEnroe’s office, perched above kids whacking forehands down on the courts, is lined with mementos of his eighties superstardom. There he is backstage with a Jack Daniels–swilling Keith Richards and Tina Turner. There he is onstage with Sting, both men strumming guitars (Eric Clapton gave McEnroe lessons years ago). There he is with Nelson Mandela, who, upon their first meeting, told McEnroe he’d listened on the radio to the epic McEnroe-Borg 1980 Wimbledon final while imprisoned on Robben Island.
McEnroe in person is a fidgety presence, a coiled ball of energy. He doesn’t sit behind his desk so much as rock back and forth, gesticulating wildly, eyes darting. Then there’s the voice: He spits out words in italics, a kind of verbal artillery. At the height of his fame, he once donned a wig and fake beard to avoid being recognized. The first store clerk who heard him speak said, “You’re John McEnroe?”