Tennis: US Open - Captain Mac seeks supremo role

Ronald Atkin in New York on a superbrat's rise to superpower status
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The Independent Online
NEVER MIND the Grand Slam trophies, it's when you get your face on the side of buses that you become an icon. John McEnroe has attained that status in New York, so what else could the United States Tennis Association do but make him captain of their Davis Cup team?

Since he stopped playing big-time tennis seven years ago, McEnroe has devoted much of his life to talking about the game on television and has lobbied relentlessly for the job he was formally handed last Wednesday.

As one of the best talkers and smartest operators in the sport, McEnroe has further ambitions. He would like, he admitted, to be the commissioner of tennis one day. The fact that no such post exists does not faze him. Here, they have commissioners running things like baseball and basketball and McEnroe barrels through the fact that tennis is a world sport run by an international federation. Already he has his eye on the distant winning post. "Perhaps in seven years when I have had my run as Davis Cup captain I can move to some type of role like that," he said in the wake of last week's appointment.

Not everyone is ecstatic about McEnroe's captaincy. The broadcaster and tennis scribe Bud Collins grumbled that, in his playing days, Johnny Mac was "a one-man international incident who has been very combative in a very unattractive and unprofessional way." And, though he put a diplomatic face on it, the outgoing captain, Tom Gullikson, was deeply unhappy about his dismissal from a job he had done for five years with some success.

The aim of the USTA president, Julia Levering, in making the appointment was to unite players behind a man they all admire for his unique Davis Cup achievements: five championships, 12 years on the team, 69 matches played, 59 won.

Andre Agassi, who fell out with Levering's predecessor, Harry Marmion, and vowed never to play for his country again, has put his considerable presence behind McEnroe. Spotting the arrival of player- power in the USTA's cobwebbed corridors, Agassi said: "I have felt rather strong about John being the captain and I am glad it has happened. But, it's more important that it was a decision made by the players behind closed doors."

Levering did indeed consult the leading four Americans, Agassi, Pete Sampras, Todd Martin and Jim Courier, before appointing McEnroe, but Sampras, at home in Los Angeles resting the back injury which forced him out of the US Open here, has not by any means leapt on the bandwagon. He is close to Tom Gullikson, twin brother of his late coach Tim, and confined himself to the comment: "It is something that John has wanted for a long time. I know he will do a great job."

Undismayed by the coolness of that statement, and egged on by the network for which he is working at the Open, McEnroe phoned Sampras for an on- air chat during Agassi's quarter-final match with Nicolas Escude. Told by McEnroe: "I wanted to be the first to tell you it would be my honour to have you play for me", an embarrassed Sampras replied: "You're putting me on the spot." Then he added that there was "a good chance" he would play in the competition next year.

At the age of 40, McEnroe already has a life brimming with commitment. He is reigning champion of the senior tour for over-35s, runs an art gallery in New York, commentates round the clock during Grand Slams, is quietly active in charity work, and is father to a family which, at the last count, had grown to six.

The American acknowledges the need to cut back on his own playing commitments in order to make a go of the Davis Cup job now that he has landed it after years of opposition from bigwigs in the USTA, who remember with embarrassment his antics, even in Davis Cup ties on occasion.

McEnroe feels the commentating he has done, acclaimed as outstanding by everyone in the game, plus the ageing process, has helped him become a gentler advocate of change when dealing with the USTA. "I think we both changed for the better," he said. "We both learned from some mistakes and we're better because of it. I am a better person now and a more mature person. Now that I have the captaincy I feel there's an added responsibility to be more of an ambassador."

Billie Jean King, who also combines TV work with captaincy of the US women's Fed Cup team, and who has had her own share of run-ins with officialdom over the years, said: "I am sure some USTA people are turning in their graves. But John has got fire in his belly, and that's what the sport needs."

There is a chance of a few people being scorched by that fire, but next year promises to be a lively ride for the man with his face on the side of buses.