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Coach McEnroe

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McEnroe and his brother Patrick in a 2006 exhibition doubles match.  

Is competing with Patrick difficult? “It depends how Patrick reacts to it, I suppose,” McEnroe says. “I’m doing this because I want to provide a spark of energy to kids in New York. I didn’t do it to compete with my brother. You know, he’s done everything I’ve done. He’s my little brother. I wouldn’t want what he’s got to deal with—it’s not like I want to sit there and be like a politician, which is a lot of what his job requires. Maybe he’s got better political skills than I do, because I say things honestly.”

Brothers fight, and John and Patrick have gone stretches without speaking to each other—usually, Patrick says, when John is “pissy about something.” That said, Patrick gives John credit for his career. When Patrick graduated from Stanford and decided to turn pro, their mother, Kay, from whom John inherited his mania for competition, was skeptical. She wanted Patrick to go to law school. “She said, ‘You’ll never be as good as your brother,’ ” Patrick recalls. “ ‘You’ll never live up to him.’ And it was John who said, ‘Mom, stay out of it. Patrick can make it.’ ”

According to Bodo, Kay’s nickname for Patrick growing up was “The Plugger.” John, on the other hand, was always the mercurial genius. “When I got to be number 30 in the world, she had trouble that I was only number 30,” Patrick recalls. “Being the 30th-best player in the world is not that bad. And John helped convince her of that.”

Kay McEnroe laughs heartily when she hears about her long-ago advice to her youngest son. “Even after he made the semifinals at Wimbledon at 18, I wanted John to be a dentist,” she says. “I told him, ‘You can play tennis in the mornings.’ ” Last month, when John played Roddick in the WTT match, Patrick dropped by to watch. The next week, a concerned Kay asked Mark, “Was Patrick cheering for John?”

It’s 7 p.m., and, after stopping in at tonight’s WTT hospitality suite to schmooze with corporate sponsors, McEnroe has sequestered himself in his office to prepare for a match against another 18-year-old up-and-comer. Prior to heading to the court, where he will bask in the enthusiastic applause of his fellow New Yorkers, McEnroe stops into the conference room to see his parents, who have just arrived to catch tonight’s action. He hugs and kisses Kay and John Sr. and tells them about yesterday’s traffic nightmare on his trip to pick up daughter Ava at camp. As they chat, a tennis official pokes her head in. “John, they’re ready for you,” she says.

McEnroe points at his parents. “Um, priorities,” he says, grabbing his bag. “Well, I guess I’ve gotta go take care of this situation.”

“Keep your eye on the ball, son,” says John Sr.

“I think I’ve heard that before,” McEnroe says, laughing, and then he’s out the door.

“I couldn’t be happier about John now,” Kay says. “The USTA put him off for obvious reasons—he was never into the Establishment. He’s said it: ‘I’m back to doing what I do best, tennis.’ And he’s doing it very much as his own man.”

She sounds relieved. Elite athletes, raised as prodigies and cheered in their youths by packed stadiums, face the abyss in their late twenties and early thirties, when the rest of us are still looking ahead. The ones who adjust to retirement find something to stand for beyond the orbit of their still-formidable egos. McEnroe’s notion of giving back to the game by mentoring the next great champion may well turn out to be his calling, and perhaps even lead him further down the path toward personal peace. But these are McEnroes, and John Sr. can’t help but interject some straight talk. “Let’s be clear,” he says. “He’s mellower now, but he’s not mellow. He still blows up out there.”

That’s in keeping with McEnroe’s description of this middle age as a “process.” A couple of hours earlier, after his afternoon hit, his legs were tightening and he was desperate for a massage. He prowled the facility in search of his massage therapist. He looked in the men’s locker room—to no avail. “Unbelievable,” he muttered. He looked in the training room. Nothing. “Ridiculous,” he said, stronger now.

In the bowels of the building, McEnroe stopped. “See, I’m getting annoyed now,” he said, the decibel level rising. “I’m getting frustrated because things are not the way they’re supposed to be.” His echo bounced off the vestibule’s walls. And then he caught himself. He took a deep breath. “I guess that’s life,” he said. There was the smallest hint of a self-aware smile.


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