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American tennis got its latest savior last week and, Lord knows, he needs no introduction. With that mad-professor mug featured in commercials for everything from bran to rental cars, and his off-the-cuff yet strikingly on-point TV commentary a draw for even the non--tennis fan, John McEnroe, 51, is arguably the most popular U.S. player alive. Even his former British tormentors can't get enough of the guy: Superbrat is now so revered across the pond that he calls Wimbledon matches for the BBC. "An audience with John McEnroe remains one of the most eagerly sought in tennis," intoned the Times of London last June. "In any sport, come to that."
So when, last Wednesday, McEnroe announced the launch of his John McEnroe Tennis Academy at a new $18 million, 20-court facility on New York City's Randall's Island, it seemed the perfect confluence of man and moment. No event highlights the gasping state of the American game as vividly as the French Open, and the usual Yankee bewilderment this week on the red clay at Roland Garros will no doubt spark more hand-wringing about the future once Venus and Serena Williams retire. Après them, everyone figures, le déluge....
Cue the guitar solo: Enter Johnny B. Goode. McEnroe seems to be pushing a balanced alternative to total-immersion academies such as Nick Bollettieri's Florida hothouse and the lone-ranger approach that spawned American champs like Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras. Nothing wrong with that. McEnroe crafted his uniquely artful game at the Long Island academy run by Australian legend Harry Hopman while playing soccer and riding the train to school. "I'm living proof of someone who can live a 'normal life,'" he said, "and succeed in tennis."
Still, with McEnroe things are never simple, and it came as no shock to find his new venture animated by matters best examined by Dr. Freud. The United States Tennis Association had repeatedly rejected John's pleas to set up an eponymous academy at the National Tennis Center in Queens, with his younger brother Pat, general manager of the USTA's $15 million player development program since 2008, hardly embracing the idea. In his announcement John ripped the USTA, which clears $110 million annually at the U.S. Open alone, for sitting on "an obscene amount of money," told reporters to "call my brother up" to ask why the USTA is not funding his venture and all but laid blame for the lack of young American talent at Pat's door. "Why does their portfolio have $150 million in it?" John said. "Are they saving it? What are they saving it for? Why don't you check that out?" Asked if he hopes to work with Pat, John said, "I haven't spoken to him about it specifically, but he hasn't called to congratulate me. I don't know what that means."
It means that the calmer, less quotable, less tempestuous McEnroe—as usual—has found himself in yet another no-win situation with his now-beloved brother. The fact is, though never in John's league as a player, Pat, 43, has since proved his equal in retirement, establishing a solid broadcasting career, a far more successful tenure as Davis Cup captain and a root-to-branch program to jump-start American tennis. "We're looking at this as a three-, five- or 10-year plan," Pat said last Friday.
There's reason to be skeptical. The USTA has never produced a great player, and many coaches and parents would chime in with John's long-justified characterization of the organization as fat and out of touch. But during his short tenure Pat has made sharp changes: installing José Higueras as coaching director, establishing links with 12 regional training centers, providing a full-time trainer last winter for the surging John Isner and a full-time coach who has guided Sam Querrey into the top 25, sending coach Mike Sell to work with Serena Williams during the walk-up to this year's French Open. This summer the USTA will open its third national training academy—complete with clay courts—at Flushing Meadow.
"It's great for tennis that John's doing something he's passionate about," Pat says. But the unspoken thought can be summed up thusly—you cannot be serious. No one doubts John's motives; his valorous devotion to Davis Cup remains the most selfless strain in his career. But the man has never coached, and in this regard his playing genius may work against him: Like many superstars, he has trouble understanding the toil required by the average analyst, much less the average player. Coaching or just inspiring talent is an oft-thankless grind, and John's one previous stab at such a role ended in spectacular failure. In 1999, after lobbying and maneuvering to get himself a three-year contract as Davis Cup captain, John was stunned to find that top players weren't leaping at the chance to play for him. When it became clear that he'd actually have to recruit, he lost interest and quit after just 14 months.
Who knows whether John now has the required patience? He vows to be on hand at his academy "regularly," hopes to be "a great, hopefully, inspirational leader," and if that gets a racket into just one phenom's hands, he'll have helped the cause. But if there's to be another American tennis boom? Put your money on little brother to be the one to light the fuse.
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For S.L. Price's on-the-scene coverage of the French Open, go to SI.com/tennis