Jul/10

16

McEnroe, Roddick Bring Buzz Back To NY

The contrast in styles was as clear as the black and white shirts each wore in the generational clash between bold champions.

The Philadelphia Freedoms’ Andy Roddick, clad in black, and New York Sportimes’ John McEnroe, dressed in white, faced off in a World TeamTennis singles match on Randall’s Island in New York City Wednesday night. And while the clothing color scheme suggested a monochromatic match-up, the US Open champions lit up the multi-colored court with all the vigor and vitality of a duel between a power player armed with a paint ball gun and a finesse artist wielding a brush. It was a match that served as a reminder of just how many shades of stupefying splatter a yellow tennis ball can leave on a court and in your mind when you’ve got two completely different stylists striking it as they did.

Though the 51-year-old McEnroe has 23 years on Roddick he shrunk the distance between them in the frenetic first to 5-games, no-ad scoring format that is a WTT set in pushing Roddick to a tie breaker before the 2003 US Open champion prevailed.

Roddick, sporting a buzz cut so short his head looks almost completely shaved beneath his Lacoste baseball cap, and McEnroe, whose hair is gray but whose legs still show bounce of man gifted with elasticized limbs and a hyperactive motor, have games as different as their grips. Roddick wields the western grip on his topspin forehand while McEnroe still adheres to the continental on all his shots.

Their use of pace is impressive in that Roddick can blister a 130 mph + serve within inches of the service line while McEnroe can take a heavy topspin shot on the rise up near his shoulders and completely remove the pace from the ball while creating a paper-cut sharp angle in the process.

Their comfort zones are completely different: Roddick is at his best sidestepping to his left to dance around the backhand and whip that inside-out topspin forehand with accuracy and ambition into the opponents backhand corner. McEnroe conjured up memories of his Flushing Meadows past in fearlessly sprinting forward picking up some eye-popping half-volleys while moving in and lulling the ball to sleep with soft volley winners.

Before a near sell-out crowd that included Hall of Famer Billie Jean King, who spoke to the crowd after the doubles match, former New York City mayor David Dinkins, WTT Commissioner Ilana Kloss, US Davis Cup captain and television analyst Patrick McEnroe, Patty Smyth, McEnroe’s wife, Robin Quivers, co-host of the Howard Stern Show and a slew of juniors, who auditioned for a free scholarship to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall’s Island earlier in the day, Roddick and McEnroe didn’t dawdle or delve into hit-and-giggle tennis. They just dug in and played a memorable set that provided both powerful pyrotechnics courtesy of Roddick’s resounding serve and brilliant volleys that created such acute angles at times you found yourself wondering if McEnroe had enlisted a Toy Story stunt double for the ball that seemed to dart sideways like a fugitive felt slinky fleeing the confines of the court.

Roddick pulled out the set in a tie breaker, 5-4, and plopped down on the bench between teammates Ramon Delgado and Prakash Amritraj and exhaled audibly in a sigh of relief after edging the 51-year-old New Yorker in a highly-entertaining match that followed Roddick and Amritraj’s 5-4 double win over McEnroe and Robert Kendrick.

The exchange of the night occurred in doubles when Roddick, a few feet from net, undercut a soft angled backhand in an attempt to pull McEnroe wide in essence trying to pull a McEnroe ploy on McEnroe.

Anticipating it, McEnroe instinctively moved to his left and responded with a flick of his wrist that sent a sharp angle forehand sideways. An eye-popping play that brought a smile from Roddick while McEnroe paused to savor the shot wearing a sly half smile that suggested “you gotta be kidding to try to play a touch tennis with me.”

Roddick has been carrying the brunt of American men’s tennis hopes ever since Agassi retired and whether you appreciate the muscle and bluster of his game or not, one of of Roddick’s best qualities was on display during his performance in singles, doubles and mixed doubles last night: his competitiveness.

He is not as athletically gifted as several of the players ahead of him in the rankings — Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, to name a few — but what Roddick brings to the game is a commanding on-court presence and a love of a good fight. His serve may not be as fearsome as John Isner’s these days and his forehand may not carry the weight of Sam Querrey’s, but Roddick, even after seven straight years as a top 10 player, still gets off on competing and that’s both refreshing and exciting to see.

When you look at it from a technical and tactical perspective, there is little that Roddick shares with McEnroe and his former coach, Jimmy Connors, who also played with old-school grips and grit. The common link though is all three really relish the competition, exuding the intensity that could make them seem as in your face as a boxer cornering you in a phone booth.

Can the current younger Americans, Isner and Querrey, and those behind them, Ryan Harrison and Denis Kudla, emulate the staying power Roddick has shown?

“The thing that was so good about the golden ages of American tennis was there was always somebody right behind them,” Roddick said last night. “I got the time of Andre [Agassi] and Pete [Sampras] and [Jim] Courier and [Michael] Chang and [watched] the tail end of John [McEnroe] and Jimmy [Connors], so I was pretty lucky. First and foremost, I would like U.S. tennis to do well and would like to lead it to a good spot. I’m not as comfortable with my career if, as you say, the cavalry isn’t coming up behind. But I do think we are in better position than a year ago or even two years ago.”

Shrugging off the competitive hangover of his 4-6, 7-6(3), 7-6(4), 6-7(5), 9-7 loss to World No. 82 Yen-Hsun Lu in the Wimbledon fourth round, Roddick looked fit and played quickly though his inability to find the range on his first serve contributed to the closeness of the set. Roddick served just 48 percent in the set, while McEnroe, in his best serving performance perhaps of the year, served 72 percent often bewildering Roddick with his slice serve on the ad side that slithered away, causing Roddick to net a few backhand returns.

Serving-and-volleying on virtually every point, McEnroe made some startling volleys and had success attacking behind his underspin backhand short in the court. During those moments, you could see just how freakishly gifted McEnroe is when it comes to eye-hand coordination (in his book, “You Cannot Be Serious”, McEnroe writes about hitting whiffle balls at about the age of 5 or 6 pitched by his father in Central Park and people asking his parents if the child was in fact really a midget or circus performer because his eye-hand coordination was so astounding). Whereas Roddick’s inability to consistently connect on his backhand return caused one spectator to wonder: “How will he beat Nadal at the Open if he’s barely beating McEnroe in World TeamTennis?”

McEnroe still shows flashes of genius, while Roddick impresses more with his continued willingness to grind out the grunt work years after he reached No. 1, won the 2003 US Open and settled down with super model wife Brooklyn Decker.

Still, when Roddick made his first serve he was untouchable: Roddick won 10 of 10 first-serve points and 9 of 11 second-serve points. McEnroe still moves exceptionally well for a 51-year-old part-time player, particularly when he’s moving forward. More impressively, he’s a minimalist mover: there is no extraneous effort to McEnroe’s feet or racquet work. It’s a smooth style beautiful in its simplicity. With Roddick, you see, hear and feel the effort in his steps, partly because he’s such a thickly-muscled player he’s moving more weight around the court.

Watching them attack their trademark shots last night was reminiscent of the old adage comparing two of New York’s finest baseball players, center fielders Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays. DiMaggio, who seldome seemed to sweat or show much emotion, made the difficult catch look easy, while Mays could make the difficult catch look downright demanding (baseball cap often flying off his head while he raced toward a ball in the gap of the cavernous Polo Grounds) yet both were exciting in different ways.

McEnroe cannot move into the court diagonally and take the return on the rise the way he once did in his prime. When Roddick banged the flat first serve up the middle, McEnroe was barely getting his Dunlop racquet on the ball much of the time.

“Yeah, he serves pretty good,” McEnroe muttered to himself after one service winner buzzed by raising an eyebrow of approval to himself to highlight the observation.

The trademark tics both men have before serving — from his sideways stance McEnroe swipes the sweat off his face with the sleeve of his shirt in a stiff-armed motion wiping an annoying gnat off his neck while Roddick repeatedly tugs down the brim of his baseball cap as if checking it for fit and pulls up at his short sleeves — make them look like their mimicking the Mets third base coach and add an air of theatricality before each point.

Roddick double faulted on his first set point. On the final set point, McEnroe flicked back a lunging return off a second serve and moved forward behind a challenging approach. Roddick, who did a good job bending his knees and getting low to McEnroe’s slices, had been taking his forehand passes inside out for the most part, but this time turned and spun a blurring forehand pass cross court to conclude the most compelling set of the night.

A close second was the men’s doubles and an exhibition doubles pairing McEnroe and Roddick with two juniors who will train at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall’s Island. Neither kid looked tall enough to leap frog the net, but both shined in front of an appreciative crowd as one junior unleashed his inner Tommy Haas with a series of sensational one-handed backhands down the line.

Prior to the match, 200 juniors attended a try-out for a scholarship to the McEnroe Academy.

Aleksandar Kovacevic, 11, of Manhattan, was the full scholarship winner, while Jameson Corsillo, 7, of White Plains, N.Y., Ethan Leon, 9, of Woodhaven, N.Y., Mitchell Ostrovsky, 12, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lamar Remy, 14, of Roslyn, N.Y. will attend the Academy with substantial grant assistance.

Kovacevic and the other winners showed off their skills and had the chance to play with McEnroe and Roddick between events in the Sportimes’ match.

“I just went out and tried my best and I’m glad the coaches think I have potential, and I can’t wait to learn from the best,” said Aleksandar. “It was exciting to hit on the same court with John McEnroe and Andy Roddick, and I hope to be playing on this court as a pro one day.”

McEnroe and the Academy staff will conduct a similar tryout for girls, ages 8-16, at Sportime on Monday, July 19, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Almost 200 hopefuls have already signed up for the tryouts, which will last the entire day for those who progress to the final rounds. The finalists will be invited to watch the Sportimes and US Open Champion and former World No. 1 Kim Clijsters in their final home match of the season. Clijsters will help present the girls scholarship winner at halftime.

Clijsters and McEnroe will be joined by Claude Okin, Sportime CEO, Mark McEnroe, GM of Sportime at Randall’s Island and the Academy, and Gilad Bloom, Academy Tennis Director and former ATP Tour professional in conducting Monday’s tryout. Former World No. 1 Martina Hingis will also assist in Monday’s presentation to the winners.

The Sportimes stadium with its video replay screen is the ideal size for tennis: large enough to feel the buzz of energy emanating from the crowd but small enough that those in the front row could hear Roddick say to himself “Gotta play to Kendrick” after Abigail Spears stood her ground at net and answered three quick-strike Roddick forehands with sharp forehand volleys in succession.

“John McEnroe” oil painting by Scoop Malinowski

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11 comments

  • Dan Markowitz · July 17, 2010 at 2:06 am

    Scoop, I’m impressed by the Mac oil painting.

    Also, find it very interesting that Roddick took a wild card into the Atlanta event. I told Rich after Roddick just eked out the match with McEnroe that when Federer had so much trouble beating Sampras in the last exhibition they played in the Garden, it negatively affected the way he played losing in Indian Wells and Miami to Canas that year.

    I think Roddick asked for the wild card into Atlanta–when he probably wouldn’t’ve if McEnroe didn’t expose glaring weaknesses in his game–because he was embarrassed by the Mac encounter. Roddick will come out guns ablazing and should win the Atlanta event, who does he have to beat? Hewitt, Blake, Fish and Querrey, Isner–but the Mac match might ruin his summer season. You can’t almost lose to a 51-yr-old tennis announcer and academy director without it bothering you if your Roddick.

  • Dobey · July 17, 2010 at 7:03 am

    RP, fascinating article about McEnroe, age 51, holding his own with a 27 year old and still superb Andy Roddick. It would have fantastic to see them play when both were in their primes. What is interesting about McEnroe playing Roddick so tough is that toward the end of his ATP career, when he was late 20s early 30s, John was not able to hold his own against the top young players. I recall seeing him play a match against Courier in either 1991 or 92 at the US Open in which Courier just blasted him off the court. And then a year or so later at the US Open, Michael Chang could handle anything John could throw at him. John also had trouble with Becker and with Sampras. So it is amazing how at age 51, he can hold his own with Roddick, who is still a great player in his prime.
    It makes you wonder how McEnroe would have fared if he did not take a hiatus in the mid 80s and allow Lendl and some others to pass him.
    One possible guage of how McEnroe would have fared against huge serving guys like Roddick and Isner in his prime might be the 1985 Wimbledon match against Kevin Curren. Curren shellacked both McEnroe and Connors in succession. He would not them get into rallies with him. He just served them off the court and neutralized the great touch and finesse they both had.

  • vinko · July 17, 2010 at 11:52 am

    I wonder if the promoters told Andy to make sure that John got a few games. If it was a blowout the fans wouldn’t come back. Nobody wants to see a Rocky Marciano-Joe Louis situation where a great champ like Joe is battered into unconsciousness because he is too old to compete anymore. When Fed and Pete Sampras played their exo matches, they were close and Pete even won one of them. Given that Fed was at the top of his game and Pete hadn’t played for five years I have my suspicion that Roger took it easy on him.

  • Dan Markowitz · July 17, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    Someone should ask Mac straight out if there is complicit agreement between Roddick and McEnroe that Andy will basically gift John a couple of games and then it’s no-holds-barred. From the naked courtside eye, it certainly looked like Roddick was going all out against Mac and Mac the same.

    Knowing Mac’s personality and Roddick’s, I don’t see either one liking Roddick holding his punches. Rich and I were surprised that not only did Mac hold his service games, he held them easily with Roddick often netting big returns.

    If a reporter asked Mac, I can’t see him being anything but honest.

  • Tom Michael · July 17, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Wow! I refereed junior 10s and 12s tournaments won by a then 8 year old Alex Kovacdevic in Mt Vernon years ago. The article prints the name as Alex Kovacevic, now 11 years old. It could be the same player. I was impressed with the kid I saw at 8 years old, who was just kicking the butts of bigger and older kids. I only hope the best for him.

  • Dan Markowitz · July 17, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    I would like to watch Clijsters play, less so Hingis, but I don’t know if I can stomach watching Scoville Jenkins and Alex Doumajian or whatever his name is.

  • Richard Pagliaro · July 17, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Dobey, Vinko:
    The match will be replayed by the Tennis Channel this Wednesday night at 8 p.m., I believe so if you have TC check it out and let me know what you think. Initially, I thought Roddick would go easy for a few games to make it interesting. For instance, I was at MSG when Federer played Sampras and clearly Fed fed Pete some easy passes early on to try to help get him grooved as Sampras was shanking his bh at the outset.
    I am not so sure that was the case here. For one thing, they’re only playing to 5 games with no ad so there’s not a lot of time to be throwing points because the games go by quickly. Redhead and I were front row so we had a pretty good view on the serve and prior to that singles match in the men’s doubles Amritraj wasn’t putting Mac’s serves back in play either.
    Now, I realize Amritraj is not at Roddick’s level. The point is, McEnroe was really slice that serve wide and low and pulling the returner off the court. So Roddick, in some cases, is stretched out wide trying to return a low slice serve that is not coming up and has sidespin and he knows Mac is coming in behind it so he’s not only got to clear the net he’s got to try to keep the bh pass low to make a tough volley. Put all that together and he had some issues.
    On serve, Roddick was untouchable. Every time he made his first serve he won the point and McEnroe was barely touching some of his bigger serves. So you can argue maybe Roddick would hold back on serve but like I said he was not losing points on his first serve and the fact he only served 49 percent tells me he was going after the first serve. Especially the one down the middle as that’s the one he was missing more. That tells me he was trying to shorten it up a bit and get Mac to block back that return so Roddick would draw a mid-court ball off his fh. But if you get a chance watch the replay and let me know what you think.
    Re: Lendl vs. McEnroe I definitely plan to go to MSG for the Agassi vs. Sampras, Mac vs. Lendl exos. Common perception is Lendl beat McEnroe on power. I think Lendl just worked himself into becoming a better player. He was not only fitter and stronger, he imporved his serve under pressure, McEnroe has told me that Lendl does not get enough credit for improving his footwork. McEnroe once told me Lendl was never the fastest guy but he worked so hard on his fitness and footwork and that Mac felt that really helped Lendl a lot. When you watch the old tapes you see how Lendl wasted no time taking those quick steps to get around his backhand and he was so balanced hitting that forehand.
    I sometimes play tennis at Lendl’s Grand Slam Tennis Club in Banksville, NY and they have photos of him hitting the forehand on the walls and you see it’s not just the beautiful swing he had but he well he used his lower body and core to hit that shot.
    McEnroe, IMO, is still one of the most interesting players to watch because he’s so unique. No one does what he can do with the ball.
    Saw him play Boston last year and Todd Martin told me a thing that people seldom mention about McEnroe is, according to todd, one of the toughest things to do in tennis is take a no pace or off pace ball and generate your own pace with accuracy. He said McEnroe is brilliant at doing that – Roddick is accustomed to playing big hitters or heavy topspin guys and now all of a sudden here’s McEnroe sliding these slices out wide at extreme angles, shoveling these no pace angle volleys short into the court and it’s got to be unsettling even for a top 10 player. Because McEnroe makse you play awkward shots from uncomfortable positions and places you’re not used to hitting from.
    I thought Roddick did a really good job getting low to those balls. Sitting that close you appreciation how strong Roddick is from waist down and how well he uses his legs on the serve and fh. I mean his legs really make his serve what it is and everyone talks about how he has that loose, whippy right arm which is true. but the thing is he has a fairly low toss so you don’t really appreciate how well he explodes up and out into the court on his legs because it’s a quick motion. The ball is out of his hand and he’s up hitting it.
    But we were front row on the side so you could see the deep knee bend and how explosively he launches up – all the moving parts on heis serve are synchronized so well it’s really cool to see from that perspective.

  • Richard Pagliaro · July 17, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    One more thing, re: what Dobey said about how would McEnroe fare against Roddick, Isner, etc. in his prime.

    Scoop and I had a Q&A with McEnroe last year and Scoop asked McEnroe what boxer most reminded him of him? He gave one answer but then thought about it for a while and then he said “remember when you asked me about which boxer reminded me of my style? IT would be Marvin Hagler.”

    Now, when he first said that I was thinking to myself the only thing they had in common was being lefty. Because you think Hagler was the ultimate workhorse who didn’t have the flair and flash of Sugar Ray Leonard or perhaps the pure volatility of Hearns (though when he knocked Hearns out I will never forget it as I bet Hagler that fight and it remains one of the most exciting fights I ever saw).

    But then McEnroe explained it saying “Remember when Hagler fought Sugar Ray and he tried to change his style and go righty? I did that later in my career. I tried to change my style and tried to hit harder and play more power whereas I should have stuck with what I did best which was playing the angles, moving well, changing the pace…”

    I thought it was such a perceptive point as some players just cannot look at themselves or their games objectively. I’m not saying if he had done that he would have been beating on Lendl later n his career because clearly Lendl was the best player in the world at that stage. But I do think he’s right: that his natural game, changing up the pace, playing those short angles, working the width of the court, pulling the opponent into awkward angles, etc. is what makes him dangerous and difficult because no one else really plays like that (though certainly Fed has had great success using that short angle slice bh because he knows most guys today aren’t very good volleyers and that they want no part of net so Fed put them in places they did not want to be).

    Having said that though you see when Roddick just brought the heat McEnroe, at 51, just could not catch up to it, understandably so. But back to your point, I mean you put a prime time McEnroe against a Berdych or a Soderling in their primes and he would handle them, IMO.

    Getting back to Roddick, I still sometimes wish he would open up on the forehand a little more as he did in Miami when he beat Nadal. I mean he just threw everything he had at Nadal that day and played a fantastic match, but I also felt like he played with more ambition that he sometimes does.

    His forehand is very accurate and a high percentage shot. Two things: 1. I wish he would sometimes play the fh down the line a bit more as I think he sometimes gets predictable with the inside-out fh and I totally understand why – it is his best shot. He’s won titles with that shot, that shot is to his game what Agassi and Connors’ bhs were to their success. I just think he would open that shot up more if he showed the other guy the fh down the line earlier because these guys lean on that shot. They know it’s coming. Brad Gilbert once said of Jim Courier, when Courier was top 10: “If you let him play to the left of the center stripe and hammer that inside out fh he’s a top 5 player. But if you force him to hit that fh running to his right then he goes from a top 5 player to a top 20 player…”

    I think Roddick could make his life a little easier changing up that pattern just a bit and especially early. I give the guy credit he has worked to add elements to his game and you see he is a better player now than when he was #1. The problem is all the other guys ahead of him are better and most of them are better athletes too so they work him over on movement.

    But you look at Roddick’s season from January-April the guy was playing some tremendous tennis. He won Brisbane, got to quarters of Australia and took Cilic to 5 even though he wasn’t 100 percent, San Jose final, Indian Wells final, won Miami beating the 2 Wimbledon finalists, Berdych and Nadal, back to back.

    He had more hard court wins than anyone through the end of Miami, but Wimbledon was a bad loss, IMO, becuase he waited for Lu to lose rather than stepping up.

    For Wimbledon to matter, he’s gotta show that he learned you can’t play so cautiously in those moments. You’ve gotta go after which he did in Indian Wells and Miami – at the right times – and look at the results. I’m not saying he’s gotta come out and go for lines I just think you look at his best matches this year it’s when he stepped up and imposed himself on the match and took smart risk at the right times. HE’s gotta get back to that and this week in Atlanta is a good opportunity because he’s the only top 10 guy in the field.

  • vinko · July 18, 2010 at 3:34 am

    I would like to ask Mac why he never won a big one after he hit 25 but Jimmy Connors won slams into his 30s including wins over Mac at Wimbledon and Lendl at the US Open. In the videos of that era Mac looks really skinny which may explain the losses to Lendl who looks gaunt but in tip top shape, but how did Jimmy beat Lendl in those finals?

  • Dan Markowitz · July 18, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    If I go on Monday night, I’ll ask Mac that if I get the chance. My feeling is that he had lost that spark, the magic and was never really able to regain it until he started playing the senior tour again.

    And, I think it’s a telling remark that Mac said he changed his style to try to be a more power player instead of the instinctive genius he was as an all-court, finesse player with one of the greatest serves, at the time the greatest, in the game.

    I also think that on the emotional/psychological level, the Tatum O’Neal marriage made him doubt himself and took his attention off tennis. McEnroe is best when he’s all about McEnroe. I mean, he seems like a somewhat generous guy, but it has to be on his terms. When he became a father and husband, with Tatum, at least, it wasn’t all about Mac anymore. It’s more that way now. I was interested by Mac’s wife, Patty Smythe, watching and cheering vociferously when Mac played Roddick. You could tell she is into Mac being Mac the tennis celebrity and boy/man-genius.

    I think Lendl in his marriage, was catered to so that he could still play his best tennis after he got married and became a father. That’s a very important point, with Agassi and Brooke Shields, it hurt his tennis, but with Graf catering to Agassi, making his playing tennis easier even as he became a father, Agassi played better. If you get married or have a serious girlfriend, that wife/girlfriend better be into you being a great player. Like Roddick’s wife, she doesn’t seem to know a thing about tennis, but she comes to a lot of his matches and is not loud or showy or emotional when watching him play, but she seems to lend a quiet, strong support.

  • Dobey · July 19, 2010 at 3:59 am

    Dan, One question to ask John McEnroe that I have always been curious about. John won 3 straight big finals against Borg, 1980 US Open, 1981 Wimbledon and 1981 US Open. Clearly, Borg could not figure out how to play McEnroe. Or maybe Bjorn knew tactically what he should do but was unable to execute a game plan against John. But, Borg still won the French Open in 1981 in a tough match with Lendl. I don’t know what happened to McEnroe at the French Open, other than the 1984 finals. But I would love to know whether McEnroe thinks he could have held his own against Borg on the clay at Roland Garros. Had they met in the finals at Roland Garros, and Borg won decisively there against John, that would have changed the dynamics of the rivalry. Something seemed to go out of Federer’s legend when Rafa won 3 in a row, at the French, at Wimbledon and at Australia. Surely, the dynamics of the rivalry would have changed had Roger won one of the three.
    Second question for John if you have the chance. John defeated Boris Becker only a month or so before Boris won Wimbledon in 1985. After the finals, runner up Kevin Curren said there was no way Boris would have defeated John at Wimbledon in 1985. What does John think about Curren’s comment? And how did both John and Connors get shellacked by Curren at the 1985 Wimbledon?

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