Apr/18

6

Watching The Great Johnny Mac Play at 59

facing-mac
By Dan Markowitz

I was over at the John McEnroe Academy in New York City on Randall’s Island on Tuesday to shepherd my son to a workout where he actually played in a doubles group with Lindsay Davenport’s son, Jagger Leach, and as I was there, Johnny Mac appeared and was engaged in a singles match with who appeared to be a teaching pro at the academy. Mac who turned 59 in February and is as gray-haired as a white mink, had to have at least 30 years on his opponent.

It’s something to see Mac on the court even today, more than 30 years after his epic 1983 year where he won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and if memory serves me went something like 84-3 for the year. Mac looks thinner than the 25-year-old version of his old self, when he wore the short shorts that highlighted his soccer thighs. But he still walks or jaunts around the court in between points with that swagger caught in that great Nike poster where Mac is wearing an overcoat as he saunters through a NYC night.

What struck me as I watched him play and win a set, 6-3, is two things: he’s still so good, really really good, like his serve is big, I’d say 110 mph and he aced his opponent about two times a game, and he hits his backhand, particularly the return, with such stick and depth, it travels like a dart through the air; and secondly, he still is so competitive; one point he hit a backhand long and he called out to his opponent who hadn’t made the call clearly, “Out?” and when he was told yes, Mac hung his head in despair.

Mac was using a head racquet which is so weird after all those years of seeing him use a Dunlop stick and then for a short time, a Volkl, and he had on a pair of glasses with a sport strap attached to his head. The last time I saw Mac a couple of months ago, he said his eyes were going on him. He still covers the court beautifully and long rallies were exchanged and you get the impression that Mac orchestrates them. Is there a more iconic shot in the game than the McEnroe backhand or serve with his profile pierced over his shoulder as he doesn’t so much as hit the ball as he does sling it.

On a game point, he chased down a shot hit to his forehand corner and somehow popped it back whereupon the ball hit the net tape and dribbled over for a McEnroe-won game, and Johnny Mac raised his hands above his head like he’d just won his fifth US Open. Mac still plays with that famous grimace on his face like nothing is quite good enough for him. A woman watching him play, said, “He’s only made about three unforced errors, but he gets so upset.” Mac missed a first serve on set point and gave a derisive laugh like the tennis Gods are against him.

After he won the set, tennis academy kids came on the court and Mac sat with his legs crossed in front of him and watched the kids play for a while like he was assessing Jack Sock or another American hopeful. Another pro with dreadlocks talked with him and I heard Mac start to intone with his now famous voice as well, deep and New York-hued, about Djokovic and how doubt has now crept into his mind and it’s so hard to get that doubt out.

But Johnny Mac is still playing ridiculously sublime tennis and I looked for him when he left the court, but couldn’t find him. I wanted to ask him one question, “Where do you still get the drive to compete and keep your game and body at such a fine-tuned level?” It fascinates me as Johnny Mac always did and still done. His game and personality and drive for perfection has always been so great and it seemingly hasn’t waned much. IMG_0398

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Scoop Malinowski’s book Facing McEnroe is available at amazon for $9.99.

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16 comments

  • Thomas Tung · April 6, 2018 at 3:52 pm

    I remember that someone once said that McEnroe serves much bigger/harder than he did when he was a pro; and this was in reference to Edberg serving bigger because his back no longer allowed him to consistently go for the kick serve — was that true in the set John played?

  • Thomas Tung · April 6, 2018 at 3:55 pm

    Also, fun note about Callum re: “current college potential”:

    https://www.tennisrecruiting.net/player.asp?id=862771

  • catherine · April 6, 2018 at 5:18 pm

    I can’t see it would be possible for McEnroe, or anyone else, to serve faster at the age of 59 than in, say, their twenties. 110 mph isn’t ‘big’ – women can serve at that speed. But not at 59.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 6, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    Dan I think I can answer that question. He never lost an iota of his drive and his fighting spirit. He was born to compete on a tennis court. It’s what he does best. It’s what he still does very well. I feel similar. I still love to compete. Today I played an ex college player in Indiana, 15 years younger and he hit the ball a ton, with a big lefty serve. In the warmup I was worried. Up 40-love on my first service game, it turned into a four deuce game I survived. I was able to avoid his forehand and mix it up, working deep and high to his backhand and then waiting for the shot to go to the forehand up the line. Ended up winning 61 63. The guy aced me about seven times. Bring on McEnroe! I can handle Johnny Mac!

  • dan markowitz · April 7, 2018 at 7:30 am

    Just by using my observational senses, I’d say Mac serves harder today than he did 30 years ago. I know it sound silly, but he’s in very good shape, is apparently a workout king when he never was in his 20’s and he’s using a racquet with a lot more power than his old stick. Mac was hitting big. I just love his backhand as he hits it so far out in front and there’s little top-spin to the ball,it’s slung more than spin.

    Scoop, you’re an inspiration too, but judging on playing with you in Florida a couple of months ago, you would have little chance against Mac Which is not to be unexpected. His game it just too fluid and advanced for you I think, but maybe if you break down these higher level players you’d give John some troubles too. But he has much more stick on his shots than you do.

    Callum’s test is coming in the next couple of months. We go to Georgia for a National Level 3 tournament in two weeks and Orlando for the clay court Nationals in July. A lot depends on how well I do in getting him a fitness trainer to improve his overall strength and quickness and how well he does adjusting to the national competition.

  • catherine · April 7, 2018 at 7:45 am

    With all due respect, I doubt Mac serves faster at almost 60 than he did at 30 – the new racquets are maybe giving the speed now. I just don’t see how it would be possible, given the natural decline in muscle strength. Just say for his age he’s got a pretty hard serve. He also has great timing and knows where to place it, which would give him frequent aces against lesser players.

  • jg · April 7, 2018 at 10:28 am

    I believe even Mac says he is serving harder now, he said it in an interview a few years ago, he also seems to still have a live arm, which I have noticed with older players is the big difference, probably because he is so limber. Dan, I would be interested in his diet, how can he stay so slim? I would like to play him in a game of 21, I know I would have big problems with his lefty serve, at any speed.

  • Dan Markowitz · April 7, 2018 at 4:22 pm

    Jon,

    You better be on top of your game to take Mac on in any game even sans serve. I don’t think Mac is very limber, but I hear he does a lot of Pilates. He said his favorite food is pizza, but he must have a very good diet.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 7, 2018 at 5:59 pm

    Dan, that was not real tennis we played at Lavers in Delray Beach, that was a silly drill game. I just beat a solid 5.0 former college player in Indiana age 37, 63 61. This guy was far tougher than anyone on the court that day at Lavers.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 7, 2018 at 6:04 pm

    Dan did you get any sense the teaching pro (that Mac employs) was catering to Mac’s game and ego? When someone works for someone, do you really expect the employee to go all out to win vs the employer? I saw Peter Lundgren playing Federer in ping pong at US Open when it rained a ton that year and Lundgren was winning and clearly superior. But there was about ten of his watching and eventually Lundgren lost because he knew he had to lose, he couldn’t show up his employer in front of everyone and he could not afford to wound Fed’s competitive ego which could have carried over to the tennis court. I remember thinking Lundgren clearly tanked that ping pong game. He was showboating and cocky in the first half but then went mute and stoic in the second half, he lost on purpose.

  • Dan Markowitz · April 8, 2018 at 3:00 am

    No, this pro seemed to be going all out. Mac was just too good. Mac was making some really good gets in the corner and this pro’s ball had some real stick on it. I don’t know who this young man was and certainly when you’re playing Mac at his club there might be some deferential treatment, but it looked pretty legit to me.

    The interesting thing besides Mac’s new bifocals to me, who’s always sweating even when I play outside in New York in the 50’s, is Mac wore a long-sleeve shirt for the entire 6-3 set. The intensity of the points and their length, I would’ve been soaked through that shirt, but Mac looked like he was barely sweating.

    Scoop, you would’ve been proud, in Teaneck on some outside courts, in between matches at Court Sense in New Jersey, Cal played Jagger Leach in some mini-tennis games and even though Leach was No. 1 in the 10’s in So Cal, Callum beat him two games straight. Callum is a year older, but Cal is starting to play some mean junior tennis. He might be ready for you next time we hit the courts possibly in Newport.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 8, 2018 at 8:25 am

    Really Dan, Cal beat Davenport/Leach kid? That’s a heckuva win even if it’s practice. What were the courts? What street was it on? You should do an article about that, Cal taking on and beating tennis royalty.

  • Dan Markowitz · April 8, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    Yes, Jagger hits the ball really hard and he’s already taller than Callum and he’s 13 months younger. Very nice boy, thanked Callum for warming him up (he was playing in a 14’s at Randall’s Island later last night), thanked me when I gave him some grapes and apple sauce. Really good kid. In mini-tennis, I had to explain the rules to him (as I play it), bounce the ball when serving, it has to go cross-court, can’t be hit for a winner just to start point off, and then return also has to go cross-court, but then point starts and you can ball in either boxes, but can’t volley. Jagger was able to hit out on both sides topspin, but Callum had better touch and was a little quicker and won both games pretty easily.

    When they went to the backcourt, again Jagger hits a bigger ball, but flatter, Callum’s forehand has much more spin on it and I don’t think Jagger was used to that so much. Jagger uses a Wilson and I noted that most juniors their age, in the 12’s mostly, use Babolats or Heads and he said yes, and that most kids who used Wilson’s didn’t use the Federer racquet that he used, except he said he had the light version.

    Again, Jagger hits a flatter ball so Callum with his spin was able to angle balls better and it seems Jagger has been taught to hit out on everything so he doesn’t have as much touch as Callum. Callum thought he’d beat him if they played a match, but I didn’t see Jagger serve. At this age, when you’re one or two years younger than another kid, that’s a pretty big difference. Jagger said where he lives there are very few Har-Tru courts and they’re not in as good conditions as the Har-Tru’s in the New York-area. I think it helps kids to play on clay because they learn better footwork, they have to generally play more balls in a rally to win points and I worry about the pounding on the body, playing everyday on hard courts.

    These courts were right around the corner from Court Sense in Bogota that are owned I believe by Gordon Uehling, who’s son is 10 or 11 and Callum and his partner just beat his boy and his partner in the semis of this Eastern Empire Cup doubles tournament today. Uehling owns the compound where Djokovic stays at when he plays the US Open with the recovery orbs. These were two courts in Teaneck I think and we played in between Callum and his partner’s two matches yesterday. Jagger was there to root on Callum and his partner who’s house he’s staying at. It’ll be cool as these boys grow and develop to see who has the bigger upside.

  • Scoop Malinowski · April 8, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    Dan that’s really a big deal that Callum is rubbing shoulders on the courts with people like Davenport Leach and even outclassing them with his game. He is clearly an elite player. I know the two courts you are talking about, they are on River Rd, have only hit there once or twice, they are new courts. But I play on other side of town. When is the nationals at Orlando, if I’m still down here I will pop over to watch and support.

  • jg · April 8, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    Classic west coast vs. east, flat versus spin har tru vs hard courts, think Fritz vs Tiafoe. Change of subject did you see Jared Donaldson’s “ my tennis life” pretty cool he traveled to Austin to train with Roddick on the clay courts at the Austin club.

  • Dan Markowitz · April 8, 2018 at 8:33 pm

    Yes River Road, that’s the courts. Nationals in Orlando are USTA Boys’ 12 National Clay Court Championships July 16-22, 2018.

    Good analysis Jon, I have not seen the JD “tennis life” program, but that sounds pretty cool going to play against Roddick on clay courts in Austin. Does Donaldson look like he’s a little on the spectrum? He seems a little slow or awkward whenever I see him talk. Or maybe he’s just a very serious kind of bland dude or maybe I’m totally reading him wrong.

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