Tennis: McEnroe the rebel with a new cause

Tennis's former `Superbrat' is determined to take key role in shaping the game's future.
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The Independent Online
HAVING PUT himself forward as a self-styled "Commissioner of Tennis", John McEnroe was happy to discuss everything from the state of the British game to the state of his hair.

"You ought to be awful disappointed right now, because they blew that match," he said, referring to Britain's 3-2 Davis Cup defeat by the United States in Birmingham last month.

But the question concerned the possibility of Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski winning Wimbledon. "If you pick 10 guys, those are two of the guys that have a shot," McEnroe said. "Clearly they have a great opportunity. You've got to figure sooner or later [Pete] Sampras is going to slow down.

"Now, how they react from losing in Davis Cup, and how that propels them through the rest of the year..." he persisted. "That was quite a loss for them. They were heavy favourites to win. Maybe in England they portrayed it as the heroic effort that was just short. But the way I see it, it was a match they should have won, that they choked and didn't win. And that could quite possibly hurt them mentally as far as their confidence is concerned.

"But maybe it's possible to turn it around in a more positive way, and perhaps the excitement level that it brought to the fans may help the excitement level at Wimbledon when they play, and help them get more energy from the fans."

Speaking of energy, McEnroe, 40, is keen to take as wide a role in the sport as possible. During a break from television commentary and his preparation for senior tour events in Washington DC, New York and San Diego, he visited the president of the United States Tennis Association, Judy Levering, and offered his assistance.

"I figured it was appropriate to meet with her, that maybe there was an opportunity, given the fact that here we have the first lady president, we have a time where there is a need of critical change, that I would look her eye-to-eye, and say, `I am interested in helping in a number of ways, and I want to say it to you personally'. Hopefully something will come from this, that they [the USTA] are willing to go out and maybe take... if you want to call it a chance, I call it a step in the right direction. I like to think I'm an optimistic person."

Considering how McEnroe's career has been such an extraordinary mixture of the profound and the profane, the American tennis community must be bracing itself for the Punch and Judy Show, or One Flew Over Flushing Meadows.

And there's more.

McEnroe would love to find a niche with the sport's governing bodies, the International Tennis Federation, the ATP Tour and the Women's Tennis Association Tour. "I would call it the Commissioner of Tennis," he said. "It would be a sort of liaison role. Someone who has a sense of the future of the game and can do something about it as well. He can walk out on the tennis court and hopefully excite young kids into playing, as well as having a good idea of what it would take to allow the professional players to play their best. Whether or not it's me, I happen to think I would be a good candidate."

Would he support the WTA Tour's demand for equal prize money, which Wimbledon has rejected? "My thoughts have changed to the point where I believe that whoever is garnering the attention should be getting the money. We've gone over the old argument that, maybe, because of best of five sets, male players are out there for a far longer period of time, and then you talk about the quality difference in terms of ability. It's like NBA basketball and WNBA. But the women appear to me to have more personality in their game than the men. The only true way to find out is if you separated the men and women entirely and see who draws better. In that case, I'd take the men's chances."

Yevgeny Kafelnikov's elevation to world No 1, even though the Russian has not won a match on the ATP Tour since 26 February, is "a perfect example of what's wrong with the ranking system on the tour", McEnroe said. "Clearly it's a joke when your No 1 player in the world lost six straight matches. However, he did win the Australian Open, and anybody who knows anything about the game knows there's a lot more points involved there. And everyone also knows that this is a 12-month thing, and the tournaments he's lost are not exactly big events for the most part. Nevertheless, it's just another indication, of many, many indications, that something far more drastic than they're proposing needs to be done. They're talking about band-aid changes so far."

McEnroe has more in his head than the development of tennis, according to an advertisement in an American magazine. Is he truly growing hair? "I hope so. I sincerely hope so."

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