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Book Review: Patrick McEnroe's Hardcourt Confidential

By Kent Oswald

(June 8, 2010) The essence of Hardcourt Confidential: Tales from Twenty Years in the Pro Tennis Trenches can be boiled down to the dilemma Patrick McEnroe faced in Cincinnati the summer of 2007.

He was working the Western & Southern Financial Group (ATP) Masters as a commentator for both CBS and ESPN. As U.S. Davis Cup captain he was also on-call as a resource for James Blake, a streaky, stubborn mainstay of team in the seventh year of McEnroe’s captaincy. (Younger brother Patrick had taken over the team in the wake of brother John’s troubled 14-month reign.) As a former top-30 pro, he could also be relied upon to provide a light hit for a player at the highest level of the game when a tournament had reached its final match and almost everyone else had moved on to the next stop in the traveling tennis sideshow … which is why Roger Federer’s agent called to ask if he would warm up the world No. 1 before his match with Blake. The call forced McEnroe to figure out all the ramifications of any action within this tennis web.

Are there conflicts in his life as he comments on players he befriends and coaches; as a world-ranked tennis player who isn’t even the best in his own family; as political force in the USTA (and now dispenser of money as head of U.S. player development), who is also expected to be an impartial but incisive journalist? Absolutely, but the guy you see on television, the stylishly dressed, politically correct, calmly analytical friend of nearly everyone in tennis, is also someone who never seems to get knotted up by having so many potentially contradictory roles. He hit with Federer and all worked out just fine, which is pretty much the book‘s tone throughout.

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Not to make too much of this, but McEnroe and co-writer and veteran tennis journalist Peter Bodo probably should have Hawk-eyed the title. Although "confidential" and "trenches" promise fuzzy yellow ball salaciousness, that delivery misses the mark like an overhit first serve. Instead, McEnroe and Bodo (who previously collaborated on Tennis for Dummies)  offer up a professional second serve. Their work — structured to line up 30-some years of anecdotes with the tennis calendar as it moves from Australia through the Davis Cup finals — is tactical, it is deep and there is just enough spin to make it not completely predictable.

Among the somewhat surprising discussions are how Jimmy Connors used him to get at John; Pete Sampras’s strong attraction to gambling and occasional, even intentional real jerk behavior; his own struggles with the parents of one-time "next big thing" Donald Young; and his own ups and downs with his brother (suggestions of which can also be found with discussion of John’s tennis academy and how it competes or complements the USTA efforts led by Patrick). Less surprising, but subjects he comes across as more passionate about are P-Mac’s thoughts on Andre Agassi’s crystal meth use; the differences between "developmental" and "elite" coaches; and what he is looking for in his refashioning of U.S. player development.

For some there may be too much Davis Cup. It comes up four times a tennis calendar year, giving McEnroe plenty of excuse to tell the stories of a competition he revels in … as well as exult in the individuals and success of the 2007 team he guided to a championship. Others may be sorry that they can’t find more of the sex and intrigue that are a part of the backstage world (in fact, given that the publisher’s didn’t spring for an index it is sort of hard to find anything). And, of course, there will be complaints about who is or isn’t aimed and arguments with the opinions McEnroe offers.

There are some minor revelations and a sense of scores settled.

For years, McEnroe has publicly taken the rap for the 3-2 loss the American "Dream Team" of Agassi, Andy Roddick and the Bryan brothers suffered to an Ivan Ljubicic-led Croatian squad before a disappointing crowd in Carson, California in the 2005 Davis Cup first round. It is a particularly painful loss for McEnroe, who had recruited Agassi for the tie and for a run at the Cup only to see Croatia score the upset (Tennis Week ran the headline "Ljubicic 3, USA 2" on its cover) and go on to win its first Davis Cup.

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McEnroe has said in the past his choice of a slower hard court that elicited a higher bounce hurt his players. While confessing that he "neglected to personally check out the speed and surface properties of the court," he also paints Agassi as a surprisingly fragile and petty player unable and unwilling to adjust to the surface, who spends some of his time off court mercilessly teasing Bob Bryan over his relationship with an actress. Agassi, according to McEnroe, had developed an antipathy for actresses following his divorce from Brooke Shields. McEnroe reveals Agassi spent much of the practice week yelling a chronic complaint:  "I can't get any progress!", before he bailed out on the team following Ljubicic's five-set win over Roddick on the third day of play with a curt "I'm outta here."

McEnroe stops short of suggesting Agassi tanked, but was clearly hurt by the passionless performance from a man who had been one of the most devoted and successful Davis Cup competitors of his generation but behaved as a big buzz kill in Carson.

"It almost looked like he was going through the motions," McEnroe writes of Agassi. "I kept thinking, 'Andre, forget progress and forget about the nature of the surface, just find a way to make the guy hit five or six fu--ing balls. At least make him work."

Agassi isn't the only American Grand Slam champion McEnroe calls out for self-indulgent behavior. Serena Williams is presented as a calculating diva who asks the USTA to send a coach to help her prepare for the 2009 season-ending WTA Tour Championships with the implicit understanding she would reciprocate by representing the U.S. Fed Cup team in the final against host Italy on the red clay of Calabria.

After the USTA complied with her request, Serena wound up withdrawing from last November's Fed Cup final, provoking an angry text exchange between McEnroe and Serena's unsympathetic agent, Jill Smoller, who snaps back at the Davis Cup captain. McEnroe suggests Serena may have never intended to play in the first place, but used the occasion to try to finagle a lower fine for herself after her profanity-lace outburst in the US Open semifinals.

It's a revealing observation from McEnroe, who has showed shrewd political acumen in surviving and thriving at the USTA, but calls Serena out for working the system solely to her advantage.

"If you don't want to play; say so. But don't yank everyone's chain," McEnroe writes. "The thing that bothered me is I had a suspicion she had no intention of going from the get go. It occurred to me that maybe she had said all those nice things about going to Italy to suck up to to the USTA when the organization was part of the group debating what further punishment was appropriate...."

Throughout the book, McEnroe points out the difference in his approach to tennis as a hard-working student of the game willing to put in the hard yards of physical training and the hours of sometime mind-numbing repetition on the practice court in an effort to compensate for his lack of physical gifts, while ultra-talented older brother John, like the gifted student who can blow off a week of classes only to waltz in and ace a mid-term exam, questions exactly what Patrick and his practice partners are really accomplishing with what he views as monotonous drills?

Given what Patrick suggests is John's disdain for practical practice drills perhaps it is not surprising the brothers have not joined forces in the USTA Elite Player Development Program Patrick now heads.

For years, John McEnroe publicly lobbied for the USTA to hire him to head a John McEnroe Tennis Academy at the Billie Jean King USTA National Center and when his youngest brother was named General Manager of elite player development it seemed that dream was within reach.

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Asked in an interview last April if Patrick's presence as the head of USTA elite player development might help his aim to open the John McEnroe Tennis Academy at the NTC, John McEnroe replied "You would think so, wouldn't you? That remains to be seen."

However, when John announced the opening of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall's Island last month he said he had not not directly discussed the project in depth with Patrick.

"He hasn't called me to congratulate me yet. I don't know what that means," said John, before blasting the USTA for its lack of elite player development success while saying the Sportime facility that hosts his Academy and boasts 10 hard courts and 10 har-tru courts,  is "as good or better than the facility at the National Tennis Center."

While it is unlikely the book will have the crossover appeal of brother John’s 2002 best seller, You Cannot Be Serious, (and it is difficult to imagine, and mostly undiscussed, how hard it must be to come in second to a brother so often on a public stage) this is the story — an interesting one and the only one he is willing to share with the public — of the man his mom called "the plugger" and other family members labeled as "perfect Patrick."

Kent Oswald is the producer of the Jock Book Review, the former editor of Tennis Week and a long-time tennis journalist. He lives in New York. His previous features for Tennis Now are: Roger Federer As Philosophical Force And other Tennis Tenets and Rapp On SAP: Behind The Scenes In San Jose.


 

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