How does America groom the next U.S. grand slam champion?
“That’s the million dollar question,” said John McEnroe, speaking at the PowerShares Series event in Chicago before dispatching both his former rival Ivan Lendl in the semi-finals and Pete Sampras in the final.
McEnroe, whose namesake is attached to three tennis academies in the New York City area, thinks we must make the game more “accessible, sexy and affordable to play” so that it appeals to kids who may be choosing to play other sports like basketball or football.
“The bottom line is that, in other countries, their best athletes are playing tennis. I think Djokovic and Nadal would be great at whatever they chose to do, and they chose to play tennis.”
But in terms of individual player development, McEnroe says it depends on the person.
“All kids should be treated somewhat differently depending on what you feel would be best for them. I don’t feel I would’ve succeeded had I been sent away from home at 12 years of age and made to live down in Florida. I would’ve quit. My academy believes in something different where that, god forbid, you could be a well-rounded person and, god forbid, maybe play other sports as a kid for a while and maybe go to college and that might actually help you as opposed to hurting you.”
He pointed to examples like top-ranked American John Isner, who graduated from the University of Georgia, and South African Kevin Anderson, who attended college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Still, McEnroe concedes that the prodigies play by different rules.
“Some people are exceptional. Murray’s one of them, Djokovic, Nadal. Nadal won the French when he was 18. They’re saying that people are maturing later; to some extent that’s true. But if you look at the top guys, they were very good at a young age.”
The legend says that modern nutritional knowledge and physical training probably allows players to last a bit longer on tour but cautions that, even with these advances, very few players will be as good at 30 years old as 25. Although there is that one outlier, Roger Federer, who remains atop the rankings at age 31.
Asked if he thought Murray, Djokovic or Nadal would be competing for that No. 1 ranking at Federer’s age, McEnroe said anything’s possible.
“I think they could be. Obviously there are some unknowns. Federer is arguably the greatest player that ever lived. I don’t think he’s as good as he was, but 90 percent is still better than almost anyone.”