World Team Tennis, on Randall’s Island, is a sports version of the traveling carnival show. A team of players play one set of tennis per pair or doubles pair—the rotating format gives the audience a look at many different players. The sets are scored differently from regular tennis – the games are best out of 5, after the first player gets to 4. Or something like that. The point is, the players compete for a briefer time than usual (there’s no “deuce”). And the scoring is cumulative, if that means anything to you.
The atmosphere is rowdy instead of reverent. An announcer tries to amp the crowd with repeated cries of “Make some noise!” Teammates watch from a bench, cheering each other on. One player with silver hair makes a striking figure in the mostly youthful lineup – it’s John McEnroe, of course, whose tennis academy hosts World Team Tennis in New York and who lamented repeatedly in his autobiography that tennis was the loneliest sport in the world, and that if he had it to do over, he’d play a team sport. Well, now he can, and he seems to enjoy it. As a member of the New York Sportimes, he sits collegially watching his fellow players, and the night I went (July 25) he competed in both regular and mixed doubles.
I’m not sure why most people trekked to Randall's Island that night to watch World Team Tennis, but I was there for John McEnroe. People keep saying we’re in a golden era of men’s tennis, pointing to the skills of the top players, the high quality of the rivalries. For me, enhancing that general high quality is McEnroe as a commentator, adding his always respectful insights, touched with rue, as he comments on the current game, often referencing his own playing days (far too often, in some people’s opinion). McEnroe is a surprisingly likable commentator, given his irascible nature during his playing years. He’s both admiring and fair toward all the players, and jousts good-naturedly with other commentators, even in response to (what he sometimes seems eternally locked into) the often bland chatter of Ted Robinson. Indeed, McEnroe and Robinson seem to be heading for a Edgar Bergen and Charles McCarthy type of immortality, appearing year after year in chipper partnership, seeming as tickled by each other as they are by the tennis they watch at ringside. Their gleeful miens, surveying Wimbledon Centre Court, have been as much a part of the tradition as anything else for as long as I can remember.
The most important aspect of McEnroe as a commentator, I think, is that he gives players their due, and he knows what their due is. He’s not ashamed to gush like a schoolgirl if it’s appropriate – for instance, while watching a dialed-in Nadal, for whom he seems to hold a special reverence. But he also gushed over Maria Sharapova this year, and never fails to rise to the occasion for Federer’s surges of brilliance. He holds nothing back, in other words, in placing himself in our proxy and embodying our breathless fandom, even though such a position might be mildly disgruntling for a former champion, and superstar, such as himself. If it is, he doesn’t let you know.
Seeing him out on a tennis court these days is different—there, he is not affable, nor is he kind to anyone, especially himself. He may have been nursing an injury the night I saw him, because he held himself a bit stiffly, and – though I think it’s admirable he does nothing to disguise his age – his silver hair and pale skin gave him a striking pallor. He looks a bit fragile, to be honest, so when he lunges to reach down for a volley, groaning, it’s rather excruciating. His effort is so audible – the result so sad and humbling – the memory of countless earlier lunges successfully pulled off mockingly near.
Something I realized watching him in person is something that’s written many times about him but not fully felt till you can see it in the flesh. That’s that every point matters to him. His focus and desire are joined in the same laser beam they were 30 years ago. You can see it when he leaps for wide springing balls he could have reached easily in his prime – he still wants to crack them back, but he’s a step slower and that’s a crucial step. You can see it in his looks of fury and occasional shamefaced glances at partner Martina Hingis after he flubs a shot – it kills him. Hingis also flubs shots, but she has a rubbery, youthful springiness – she leaps back into her game stance, and you can see in her face and her demeanor that she’s ready to fight, she’s calling on her body to respond and meet the challenge better than it did in the point before. With McEnroe’s cautious crouch, you don’t feel his belief in that thing. You feel some resolve but also a weight of doubts.
After misses, he stands staring, immobilized, outraged. When one shot goes into the net, he yells, “Come on!” but at himself now, not any other force. He’s still barking at himself when the next point starts, too involved in self-abuse to even go into his receiving crouch. At every error his whole frame radiates “You cannot be serious!” but it’s directed at his own aging process, its remorseless, inevitable toll.
After his first doubles match, McEnroe sat watching Hingis play singles, holding his racquet between his legs. Occasionally he handled the racquet, wistfully making shadow shots. “Like that,” you can see him thinking. “That should have worked … why doesn’t that work anymore?” Hingis won her singles match in a spirited show, but New York lost to Washington, 21-16.
When the tennis was over, McEnroe genially posed for photos with eight winners of full or partial scholarships to his tennis academy (see photo, above), high fiving and putting his arm around kids for photos. But very shortly later, I was forcibly reminded of how much he hates losing when I was part of a crowd waiting by the exit – I felt a hand on my shoulder, pushing it gently but firmly, and heard an urgent “Excuse me!” I turned my head to see the sleek yellow-white pelt and tense profile of McEnroe, inches from my own head, as he headed for a quick escape. “Excuse me!” echoed a security guard protectively. McEnroe was gone, his stride fast and determined. Getting out after a lousy night is something he definitely remembers how to do.