The clash with Patrick was on display from the first press conference McEnroe held to announce the academy in May. McEnroe was in a particularly pugnacious mood, and he took shots at the USTA, and his brother. “I haven’t spoken to [Patrick] about it specifically, but he hasn’t called to congratulate me. I don’t know what that means,” McEnroe said. He went on to blast the USTA for not funding his venture, and for never producing a great player. “Call my brother up,” he urged reporters. “Ask why does their portfolio have $150 million in it? Are they saving it? What are they saving it for? Why don’t you check that out?”
Roughly a week later, both brothers were in Paris for the French Open and they sat outside over dinner at Le Stresa, a trendy Italian restaurant John has frequented for years. John was mad that Patrick hadn’t called him. “I said, ‘John, c’mon, I’ve been at your academy, I’ve toured it with you personally,’ ” Patrick says. John was also angry that Patrick was quoted questioning whether his brother would “show up at 8 a.m. and work with the kids until 8 p.m.” It sounded like a challenge to John’s commitment.
Recent history suggests it’s a fair question. In 1999, McEnroe lobbied the USTA to become the Davis Cup captain. There can be no second-guessing McEnroe’s playing commitment to the Davis Cup, the international team competition. He’s arguably the greatest Davis Cup player in history—and he played even when other top players, focused on their singles rankings, refused. But he was given a lucrative three-year contract as coach, only to resign after fourteen months. During that time, he alienated top stars like Pete Sampras, who was said to be annoyed by McEnroe’s lobbying him to play, for all to hear, during McEnroe’s on-air tennis commentary. He reportedly showed up for a captain’s meeting in his bathrobe. His replacement as coach was none other than Patrick, who has had success, winning the Cup in 2007.
“John’s approach was, ‘I’m John McEnroe and Pete Sampras will pick up my phone call and come play for me,’ ” says Tennis magazine’s Peter Bodo, who partnered with Patrick on his recently released book, Hardcourt Confidential. “Patrick’s approach was to sell guys like Roddick and James Blake on being a team. Patrick’s approach worked.”
“See, I’m annoyed now. I’m frustrated because things are not the way they’re supposed to be!”
Back in his office, shirtless after his afternoon hit (“I left my goddamned forehand in Europe,” he had grumbled to himself while, across the net, a 13-year-old nervously returned his sizzling groundstrokes), McEnroe bristles when it’s suggested that his Davis Cup flameout could be seen as dilettantism. “That [Davis Cup] wasn’t even coaching,” he snaps, toweling himself dry. “It was begging guys to play for you. It has nothing to do with my commitment to teaching 8-year-olds. Gimme a break.” He goes on to describe the Davis Cup as “on life support,” and then, somehow, suddenly, in that stream-of-consciousness way of his, he’s settling old scores: “No one cares about the Davis Cup. How many people know I won five Davis Cups and seven majors, but that I rarely played the Australian Open? Then you look at a guy like [Ivan] Lendl, who won eight majors, but he won three or four Australians. I don’t know. Maybe I should have played two more Australians and two less Davis Cups? I could have had more majors and still have three Davis Cups when most people don’t have one.”
Patrick, for his part, was annoyed by John’s implication that the USTA was sitting on millions of dollars. At dinner in Paris, he tried to explain that player development was actually a fraction of the overall USTA budget, that things like promoting community tennis, marketing, facilities improvements, and funding of the Pan-Am and Olympic games were also priorities. At the end of dinner, John and Patrick agreed they’re brothers first—and that they both want what is best for tennis. But they also agreed that, if one of Patrick’s kids competes in a tournament against one of John’s, it will be war—not unlike the brothers’ own garage Ping-Pong battles growing up in Queens. When the check came, Patrick picked it up. “See, John,” he quipped. “This is on the USTA. You can’t say the USTA never did anything for you now.”
Patrick says their Paris dinner was a good reminder that blood is thicker than tennis, but the drama will doubtless continue. Back in his office, McEnroe gathers his team of coaches in a conference room to settle on the six finalists of girls competing for the Academy scholarship. When a particularly promising 12-year-old is mentioned, McEnroe offers a detailed analysis of her game, praising her “racket-head speed.” There’s a pause. “John,” someone says, “she’s in your brother’s program.” Another pause. “Let’s get her then!” another coach yells, drawing laughs from everyone, McEnroe included. Moments later, McEnroe decides that the girl in Patrick’s program will be the scholarship recipient.