John McEnroe is a coach and who knows those words will light up this year’s Wimbledon. It still has a slightly askew ring to it: John McEnroe, tennis coach. Superbrat turns — in the expectations of his charge Milos Raonic at least — Supercoach?
Yet why should it feel this way? McEnroe is decades removed from those brattiest days, when the idea that he could have anything to teach to anyone other than a new swear word was as preposterous as the idea of smart phones.
Back then he made his thoughts on hiring a coach, or a kind of assistant, pretty clear. He was one of the few players who did not travel with an entourage and, when asked whether he would benefit from one, he said: “Boy is that the easy way out. You put all the problems on him.”
For fewer decades he has been an engaging and wry presence on TV screens as a commentator. His opinions, his thoughts and analysis still command space — a McEnroe assessment of a player’s chances is still to be taken seriously. But all this still places him on the game’s periphery, not in the grinder itself.
To jump back in now? It makes sense in the way it does that a bunch of former players have taken to coaching. Like Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl and Stefan Edberg, McEnroe is an unquestioned giant — sure he can bring some advantage to Raonic, right?
It makes less sense that he has dipped his toes — and it is not yet a headlong dive — so long after his active, professional career. He retired from the professional circuit 24 years ago. It has been so long that last year, he said he was even considering retiring from the seniors tour which he has so helped popularise, a retirement twice over.
It has been so long that a weird, brief stint he had as Becker’s coach in 1993 does not even count anymore as experience. And Raonic will hope it is not instructive: “He never listened to a word I said,” McEnroe said of it recently.
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But what we should by now know about McEnroe is that we cannot presume to really know about McEnroe. He was, and never has been, what he was made out to be. Even at his peak, he was always much more than just the tantrum-throwing tennis superstar with a villainously curly head of hair.
He was a particular kind of New Yorker, from a particular time and place in that city’s history when it was not the capital of the world, but just a big, boisterous, messy and dangerous city trying to deal with its unapologetic urbanity.
McEnroe was a curious blend: a child of privilege, educated at private schools, but also street-savvy, educated by his long commutes on the city’s subway when he went to practice tennis.
That blend, even more curiously, was evident in one of his greatest, most-cited meltdowns on court, the infamous first-round match of Wimbledon, 1981. “You can’t be serious man,” he yelled at the umpire Edward James, before constructing the expression of his rage more formally: “You cannot be serious!
“That ball was on the line, chalk flew up. It was clearly in. How can you possibly call that out? You guys are the absolute the pits of the world you know that?”
McEnroe was not averse to turning the air blue, but there was, as the tennis writer Stephen Tignor noted, a “poetic quality” about some of his outbursts as well. So much so that at times, McEnroe felt like an autobiographical rendering from the mind of another intrinsic New Yorker, Larry David. The Curb Your Enthusiasm episode in which McEnroe guest stars — and has a meltdown in — was perhaps just such a nod.
Who can say how this will go? It could get awkward, given that McEnroe will mix coaching with his TV assignments and could conceivably end up calling some Raonic matches.
Will he ask Raonic to blow a little hotter on court, to occasionally release the tensions that inhabit all elite athletes in competition? Could McEnroe provide fresh insight into the old, dying discipline of serve-and-volley, which Raonic is favourable to and wants to build upon this year?
Maybe McEnroe ends up benefiting Raonic outside the court. Raonic is an art connoisseur, as is McEnroe, and Raonic spoke, almost in awe, of McEnroe sharing a New York era with men such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michael Basquiat. They share other non-tennis but highbrow New York connections too.
However it does go, however long it lasts, best not to miss even a second of it.
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