He calls them “my girls” and “my boys” … Thirty years after the end of his career, the legend of the seven Grand Slam tournaments has become a super coach. Surprised by the delirious cost of tennis schools, he chose to pass on his desire to win over young talent from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many sponsors, including the French bank BNP Paribas, followed him on the adventure. Meeting with the champion.
You stopped your career thirty years ago. And yet, you’re still recognized in New York restaurants. What is your relationship with fame?
John McEnroe. Somehow it always flatters my ego to be in people’s minds, not to have been forgotten. I owe a lot to my activities as a tennis commentator on American television where I still work on NBC, CBS or ESPN. That said, none of the kids at my academy had heard of me before joining us. For the younger generations, I am a dinosaur.
Also read: John McEnroe, visit to the bad boy tennis academy
You exaggerate. Slim, slender, you look great. What is the secret of this longevity?
I have a good metabolism (laughs). In fact, until recently I played quite a bit on old glory circuits like the Champions Tour or the Senior Tour. We had to keep fit. And then I went there not only for the fun and the show, but also to offer the best show being prepared and sharp. And if it is possible to win. It’s always better to win than to lose, isn’t it?
Why this idea of academia?
I wanted to go back to New York and tennis what they gave me. A kind of inheritance. I had the opportunity to start in a prime location, in Port Washington, not far from here with an outstanding Australian coach, Harry Hopman. I try, like him, to be in turn a leader and mentor of the new generations, to feed him with my experience and my philosophy of tennis. You know, I was a ballboy in New York at the U.S. Open. I’ve won the tournament four times, the last of which was in 1984. If one of my boys or girls from the Bronx, Manhattan or Queens won Flushing Meadows, it would give a boost to tennis. And on a personal level, the circle would end.
What do you bring to the children?
My energy, my ability to get into their head and help them perform better. I want them to understand that tennis is a strategy game. Like chess. You just have to be more discriminating with the help you render toward other people.
However, is tennis no longer a very democratic sport in the United States?
It is two or three times more expensive than when I was little. I would even say more: it has become too expensive. At the age of 13 to 14, having the right coaches and the hope to shine nationally requires a minimum budget of $ 50,000 a year. We can allow young people to afford this dream thanks to the collaboration we have with the BNP supporting the most promising talents. But that only affects a small elite.
Before, athletes had nothing to say to artists, and stylists systematically lost. Today, brute force prevails over beautiful play
What would you like to do to improve the situation?
I look forward to establishing partnerships with schools. Tennis is losing ground here at school level in the face of football, your football, “football”. It is easier and more profitable to put twenty children on a football field than on a tennis court. It’s a shame. In terms of education, tennis is a great sport. You can learn a lot about yourself and about life. It helps build a personality. It teaches you to win and lose, to be focused and to make decisions.
In the 80’s, the high point of your career, this sport enjoyed a strong notoriety, what happened?
I was lucky enough to live in a pioneering time. Tennis was all the rage. We were constantly under fire from the media. There with Nadal, Federer and Djokovic we have three of the biggest names of all time and we talk less about tennis in the United States. Because ? Because they are European. Among men, Americans, a bit like you French, we need a superstar. It will soon be twenty years since an American won a Grand Slam (Editor’s note: Andy Roddick in 2003)
How do you judge the evolution of the game
Tennis has become stereotyped. Technology, I think mostly of snowshoes, and the new rules have loaded the dice. Before, athletes had nothing to say to artists and stylists. They always lost. Today, brute force prevails over the beautiful game. There are too many giants sending missiles from the right or serving on the circuit. Tennis needs to be reinvented in terms of marketing to be exciting again
I love Paris. My wife too. I only have great memories there except my final lost in 1984
Would you be tempted by a new coaching experience after Raonic in 2016?
For sure. I had a lot of fun coaching Canadian Milos Raonic and taking him to the Wimbledon final in 2016. I would still like to train but not full time. Let’s say 10 weeks a year. There are a lot of players I would like the other Canadian, Denis Shapovalov, to be left, like me, explosive like me: a real wild thoroughbred. I also like the Australian Kyrgios or the Italian Sinner. What I would love to do is fall into their brains and make them better competitors. I know I can do it.
What do you expect from Roland Garros 2022?
I love Paris. My wife too. I only have great memories of it apart from my lost final in 1984. Your federation did a great job. The tournament has improved a lot. This year, as far as tennis is concerned, I have no special expectations or hopes. Of course, I’m curious to see the Greek Tsitsipas, the Spanish phenomenon Alcaraz. I also like to see tough veterans like Wavrinka and see how they perform. I don’t expect much from the Americans, like the French.
Are you going to play at Porte d’Auteuil?
I have to take part in the legend tournament with Tommy Haas, 43. I had knee problems and, like everyone else, took Covid. I look forward to participating. I have always adored the Parisian public.
On your desk is a photo of Boris Becker who has just been jailed in London for tax evasion. Do you think about it?
Yes. It’s terrible what happened to him. I promised myself I would go see him in London when he goes to comment on Wimbledon this summer. I will do. I will go to see him in prison and show him my friendship.