NEW YORK — John McEnroe wants more anger in tennis.
Not the kind of racket-smashing, profanity-flying tantrums he threw as a player, when he could go from the sport’s best player to its baddest boy in the same service game.
He wants to see players get fed up that they can’t break through against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, that they remain stuck behind Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray heading into Wimbledon.
“Those are the two greatest players that ever played in my opinion right now, Nadal and Federer, but I’m amazed that guys aren’t hungrier or angrier about sort of their lack of success,” McEnroe said. “I mean, these guys are tremendous and better than the guys for the most part, but not every single day. You’ve got to come at these guys with everything you’ve got.”
That helped fuel McEnroe’s rise to the top of tennis. While he says he’s always had a good relationship with Bjorn Borg, whom he considers probably his greatest rival, the hatred of losing to Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl lasted from the center court at Grand Slams to the locker room during senior exhibitions.
He thinks players now might get along too well with Federer, who won his record 18th Grand Slam at the Australian Open, or be too in awe of Nadal, who added his 15th at the French Open.
“And you don’t have to, like, disparage a guy,” McEnroe said, “you’ve just got to have this hunger and will to try to — when I played Connors for example, I tried to get myself to think like, ‘Am I trying as hard as this guy, do I want it as bad as him?’ And most of the time it feels like it wasn’t, but I tried to and it feels like that’s what you’ve got to do against these guys.
“You’ve got to bring everything you’ve got every single point or else they’ll just walk all over you, and it seems like a lot of the guys have, to some extent, have let that happen.”
Life after his tour career is the focus of McEnroe’s new book, “But Seriously,” in which he details the ups and downs of his many roles outside of tennis: frustrated actor, amateur musician, art collector, remarried husband, proud parent. He still plays some, but without the interest level in the U.S. to really do a senior tour right, he knows that at age 58, he’s close to that ending.
“When I feel pretty good, like there’s certain days, one out of three days, where I’ll feel pretty good physically and that elevates my game,” McEnroe said. “I try to feel good every time, but it doesn’t work out that way where things start clicking. So that’s something that’s more fleeting and frustrating, so that’s why, I mean that’s why you walk away from the sport in the first place. I didn’t feel like I could win a major anymore, so I just didn’t feel like I could keep playing, or that I wanted to keep playing when I really felt like I had no chance of winning.”
He was only 25 when he won the last of his seven majors. He’s since found entertainment opportunities through his friends on both coasts, though the game show and talk show he hosted were both short-lived. He’s stayed involved in tennis as one of the sport’s top commentators, through his John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York and a little coaching, helping guide Canadian Milos Raonic to the Wimbledon finals last year.
Perhaps his own career would have been different had he played now. The top four on the men’s side are all 30 or over, and none is slowing down the way players did at that age when McEnroe played.
“They’ve got way more knowledge of how to recover, what to eat, how to train off the court as well as on the court, all those things,” McEnroe said. “It’s not like we had no idea, but it’s almost like a science now, so from that standpoint there’s no question I feel like I’d be different.
“And then the other obvious one, the amount of energy I wasted sort of complaining on line calls or whatever it is. They have this challenge system, so that’s sort of taken that out of the equation, so I think I would have been a 20 percent better player but probably quite a bit, even more than maybe 40 percent more boring, because you wouldn’t have had that whole thing.”
But he now appreciates his playing career more, as whatever frustrations he’s had in other pursuits in the years since have given him a perspective he didn’t have then.
“I don’t think there’s anything you do when you fail at it that you’re happy when it happens. I think the key is always to sort of learn from it,” he said. “If it helps you find your way or you head in a direction that’s better served, it’s OK.”
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