Tuesday, February 25, 2014

John McEnroe: 'Tennis needs to think out of the box'

   Love him or loathe him, John McEnroe has always been passionate about tennis.
   The 55-year-old legend remains heavily involved in the sport, serving as an outspoken TV commentator, running a junior academy in his hometown of New York and playing on the senior tour.
   Tennis, however, is struggling to attract casual sports fans in the United States. Serena Williams and Bob and Mike Bryan might be the greatest women's singles and men's doubles players, respectively, in history, but no American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick in the 2003 U.S. Open, and no U.S. men are ranked in the top 10 in singles.
   It's a far cry from McEnroe's prime in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His rivalries with Sweden's Bjorn Borg, fellow American Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia, as it was known at the time, captivated U.S. fans.
   McEnroe, who's scheduled to play in the Champions Shootout (www.powersharesseries.com) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, encourages innovation to revive interest while he and others try to develop the next superstar.
   "Tennis needs to think out of the box a lot more than it has to, sort of, stay relevant," he said during a recent conference call with reporters. "The foundation is great. It's a great game, but we need to reach out. We've got to try a lot more things, even if some of them fail."
   McEnroe, one of the greatest men's doubles player ever, raised eyebrows in December by suggesting the elimination of doubles and giving that prize money to singles players. 
   "I threw out the idea because there has been a lot of discussion and complaining from the guys ranked 200 to 800 (in singles) that they can't afford to stay on the tour," he said.
   On the conference call, McEnroe also mentioned the possibility of doubles players forming their own tour and nations playing the Davis Cup every Olympic year rather than annually.
   At the grass-roots level, McEnroe opened his academy in 2010.
   "My goal was and continues to be to try to open the game up to people that didn't know about it, can't afford it or both," he said. "Most of them are not going to be tennis professionals, but hopefully a couple of them could make it and it turn inspire some other kids from this area.
   "This sport has given me a lot. I feel I have the energy to give back, and I'd like to see this sport flourish again. It was great times when I was playing in the '70s and '80s with Borg and Connors and Ivan, and it feels like we lost some of that.
   "(Tennis has) some amazing players right now -- arguably two of the best players who ever lived (Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) -- but at the same time, the state of our sport is not as healthy, and the interest level, to me, is not the same as it was. There is a lot of work to be done."
   Joining McEnroe in the Champions Shootout will be countrymen Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and James Blake. Sampras won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, second to Federer's 17. McEnroe captured seven and Courier four. Blake reached three Grand Slam quarterfinals and peaked at No. 4 in the world.
   In the one-set semifinals, Sampras (42) will face Blake (34), and McEnroe will play Courier (43). The winners then will meet in a one-set final.
   The fiery McEnroe remains intense on the court but tries to have more fun than he did on the regular tour.
   "I think I'll always be intense," he said, "but I realize that I'm pretty fortunate to be out there still, and I try to show the sense of humor that I'm hopefully a little better at showing as a commentator than I used to when I played. It's not as life or death as it used to be for me."

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