SKILLMAN, NJ – Patrick McEnroe is a tennis lifer, and he’s perfectly happy with that.
Whether it be as a player, coach, leader, television analyst or doting parent, McEnroe has spent countless hours on and around tennis courts spanning the globe, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
As a member of the Stanford University team led by legendary coach Dick Gould, McEnroe helped guide the Cardinal to NCAA Championships in 1986 and 1988. In his professional career, he soared as high as No. 3 in doubles and No. 28 in singles in the world rankings, and won the 1989 French Open doubles championship.
Recently, McEnroe, a longtime supporter and proponent of college tennis, took some time out of his schedule for an in-depth Q&A with Dan Johnson, ITA Director of Communications. The conversation appears below.
Question: Patrick, there has been a lot of discussion recently about college tennis being a viable pathway to becoming a professional tennis player. As a former collegiate and professional player, how do you see college tennis factoring into that equation?
Answer: I think college tennis is a great pathway to being a pro. Right now, you’re seeing a lot of the best Americans playing college and going pro. It’s very viable. The average age of the professional player hitting his/her prime is later than it has been in years past, with some players not reaching that prime until their early 30’s. Guys like John Isner and Steve Johnson are showing it is possible to play four years of college and be a top (professional) player.
Q: You played college tennis at Stanford, one of the elite programs in the nation. What do you recall about that experience?
A: You know, it’s funny. I played college tennis, but before that I was playing juniors and obviously, after college I played on the pro tour, there’s certainly a lot of great memories in tennis. But, also a lot of things you don’t remember. I find that when I look back on my career, the moments and matches that stand out more than the others are the ones I played in college.
Q: Why is that?
A: College tennis is truly a unique experience, one that you can’t replicate on tour. Being a part of a team, cheering on your teammates while at the same time playing your match, it pumps you up. I’m a huge proponent of doubles, too, and back when I played, we played doubles after singles, so you can imagine how intense some of those matches were. I can still vividly remember playing for the NCAA Championship as a freshman at Stanford in Georgia. Those were great times and are great memories.
Q: Beyond the on-court aspect of continuing to develop your individual game, how did your time at Stanford as a student-athlete prepare you for your professional tennis career?
A: At Stanford, the academics were quite strenuous, so I know for me, I had to quickly learn how to organize my daily life. That’s huge. When you go on tour, you can waste time, because you really have more time than you need. College forces you to maximize your time between practice, gym work, studying and everyday life activities and responsibilities that come with living on your own, either in a dorm or apartment. College is a great life experience and certainly helps in tennis with maturity and time management. If you go straight to the pros as a teen, it can be a big transition.
Q: It’s 2015 and you’re still very much involved in tennis. You’ve been captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, were the General Manager of the USTA Player Development program and are still currently active as a television broadcaster on ESPN (McEnroe called the men’s and women’s singles semifinals and finals at the 2015 USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships on ESPN3 in November). Did you envision having such a long career in tennis when you were going through the juniors and collegiate ranks?
A: The short answer is no. This has far exceeded my expectations. I love being around the game and it has given me so many positive things in my life. One of my daughters is now 9 (McEnroe and his wife, Melissa Errico, have two daughters) and she’s playing, so it’s fun getting to see that side of the game now as a parent.
Q: You seem very comfortable in front of the television cameras when you’re broadcasting tennis. Was that always the case?
A: When I was 12, John (McEnroe, Patrick’s older brother who also played at and attended Stanford University before launching one of the all-time great professional careers) had won the US Open, and understandably, people wanted to talk to me, so I grew up used to being John’s brother and learning how to answer question and interact with the media. When I got the opportunity, it didn’t seem that difficult to me. It’s different and like anything, after time you start to learn some of the tricks of the trade. I worked for CBS for many years covering the US Open and doing the late-night studio show, and that gave me a more thorough view of how (television) worked. I’m always trying to improve and get better.
When I was playing on tour, I was unlucky to have had a couple of shoulder surgeries that took me out of the game, but the injuries gave me an opportunity to dabble in broadcasting as I rehabbed. At the time, ESPN was looking for someone fresh off the tour to discuss the game. I happened to be in the right place and ESPN was willing to work with me for two years as I worked back from injury, because at the time, I wasn’t sure if I was done playing yet. They were very generous to me to give me the opportunity to allow me to finish playing and leave the game on my own terms. It’s worked out well.
Q: When there’s a former college tennis player in a match you’re commentating on, you always make a point to bring up the institution he played for and collegiate career highlights. Is that something you research going into a match, or is that just coming off the cuff?
A: I don’t feel like I go out of my way to make those points; I just like to tell it like it is. Steve Johnson loves USC and college tennis and John Isner is still a big supporter of the University of Georgia. It’s a great thing to have that connection. I remember talking to Peter Smith (men’s tennis head coach) when Stevie was in college, saying that Stevie was going to make. Peter said it was going to take him some time when got on tour to figure out what to do to make it, but sure enough, looking at the other players he was competing against at the highest levels in college, he’s really distanced himself from those players in the pros.
Q: No-ad scoring was around when you played college tennis. This past fall, the NCAA voted to adopt the current ITA no-Ad scoring format for the Division I National Championships, starting in 2016. What’s your opinion on no-Ad scoring?
A: No-ad scoring is great for tennis. It’s great for fans. I think this idea that’s out there that no-ad doesn’t prepare you for the pros, I just don’t buy it. I played junior tennis when we played Ad scoring, and college was no-Ad. The better player is going to win most of the time, and they’ll figure out how to play the big points at the right time. No-Ad keeps matches moving and overall dual matches shorter, which I think is smart. It’s keeping things viable at the collegiate level. Changes you can make reasonably to make college tennis more interesting to the AD’s and those that don’t want tennis to fall by the wayside is a really good thing and it’s exciting.
Some of the most exciting matches I played, and back when I played we played doubles second, was when it came down to the final match and it’s four-all, three-all in the third set. It was stressful, but no doubt about it, very exciting. That helps college tennis overall and makes it more exciting and makes it more sellable to AD’s looking at the overall athletics landscape, so it’s important to make tennis as viable as possible.