McEnroe has talked about opening a tennis academy for years. In effect, he’s proposing a new way of developing the next generation of players, at a time when the United States lags well behind Europe. (For the first time since computerized rankings began in 1973, there is no American men’s singles player in the sport’s top ten.) Actually, what he’s proposing is a return to the old ways. McEnroe was a product of Long Island’s Port Washington Tennis Academy in the seventies, under legendary coach Harry Hopman. It was the golden age of New York tennis; not only did the Academy produce McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis, but also top players like Peter Fleming, Peter Rennert, and Fritz Buehning. “We had normal childhoods, if you can call growing up in New York normal,” McEnroe says. He played soccer for four years at the tony Trinity School on the Upper West Side, and basketball for two. (“The coach didn’t realize what a gem he had,” McEnroe jokes.) After school and on weekends, he’d play tennis a few times per week at Port Washington under Hopman’s low-key tutelage.
Not devoting himself entirely to tennis enabled him to be a kid, he says. He and his buddies jumped subway turnstiles while shouting “U.N. delegate!,” and he drove a ’72 Pinto nicknamed the Deathmobile. He spent a year at Stanford, and it was only after making the semifinals of Wimbledon at 18 that he started playing tennis full time. He was also able to form a worldview before the trappings of celebrity took hold.
The populism that led him to take on his sport’s class pretensions was cemented at Trinity, with its tweed-jacketed headmaster. It was McEnroe’s first taste of the stodgy upper class he’d later wage war against at Wimbledon. (Not that he wasn’t a product of the Establishment: His father was a partner in a major white-shoe corporate law firm.) The John McEnroe Tennis Academy is his attempt to resurrect the ethos of his youth by using Port Washington as its template, with McEnroe playing the role of Hopman. Kids will come to the academy after school for elite coaching and competition, and McEnroe will be, in his words, the “inspirational leader” like Hopman, whose mere presence inspired McEnroe and the others because they so wanted to impress the old man, who had been the Davis Cup captain in his native Australia before settling in Long Island.
McEnroe cites Agassi as an object lesson in the dangers of the current all-consuming way of teaching the game. In his 2009 best seller, Open, Agassi detailed his antipathy for the way he learned the sport. “You read Andre’s book—it’s like tennis’s version of Lord of the Flies down there at the Bollettieri Academy and those places,” McEnroe says. “Now, if Andre hated it as much as he said he hated it every ten pages—he must have said it 100 times—he would have stopped playing. So there’s part of him that doesn’t want to admit he actually liked it. But I think he’s right that these people who think that in order to succeed you have to give up everything at 10 and focus exclusively on tennis are crazy.”
McEnroe has long had a tempestuous relationship with the tennis Establishment. When the sport suspended him in the mid-eighties for his boorish on-court behavior, none other than Jack Nicholson and Mick Jagger separately approached him at a party with the same message: “Johnny Mac, don’t you ever change.” McEnroe later said, if you’re 26 and the best player in the world, who are you going to listen to: “Jagger and Nicholson, or some old farts in the United States Tennis Association?” For more than a decade, though, McEnroe flirted with the USTA about partnering on an academy at the U.S. Open tennis center. As a boy, McEnroe worked as a ball boy at the former U.S. Open site, and the tournament was the scene of some of his most dazzling professional triumphs. McEnroe thought the partnership would be a “no-brainer.” But the USTA, perhaps threatened by the bigness of McEnroe’s personality and concerned about how serious a commitment the celebrity was willing to make, ultimately wasn’t interested.
Enter Sportime CEO Claude Okin, whom McEnroe had gotten to know through World TeamTennis. Okin, a self-made entrepreneur, grew up in a middle-class family on the Upper West Side—“when the middle class still lived on the Upper West Side,” he says. He shares McEnroe’s vision of a teaching center in New York that would allow elite players to learn the game without devoting their entire lives to it, revive the New York tennis scene, and perhaps open up the country-club sport to a new, more diverse group of athletes. Not that there wasn’t some trepidation early on. “When I first met John, I was concerned he was going to be this scary guy,” Okin told me, laughing. “Unpredictable, unmanageable, and sort of hard to be around. And there are moments when he’s iconic John—he can be bristly, he’s used to getting his way. But I got to know the other John—the family man and the teammate. He’s a patient, loving guy and a good listener. I became convinced he wanted to work with kids and have an impact on the sport in some way that didn’t feel like he was going to be bucking some authority that would hold him down and stifle his creativity.”