Tuesday, July 3, 2012

You cannot be (too) serious!

John McEnroe / He not only makes watching tennis interesting,
he's affable, opinionated and makes each story line believable.

One of the joys of watching the Wimbledon fortnight unfold on TV is listening to the entertaining and insightful commentary of former world no. 1 tennis player John McEnroe.

During McEnroe's illustrious Hall of Fame career, he won seven Grand Slam singles titles, including three Wimbledon championships. McEnroe was a superb shot-making artist and a gifted volleyer. He was both a winner and a whiner.

Throughout his career, McEnroe was often confrontational on the court with chair umpires and linesmen, and his famous catchphrase "You cannot be serious!" grew out of an exchange he had with a chair umpire at Wimbledon in 1981.

Now 53, not only is "Johnny Mac" graying gracefully around the temples, he's much less controversial in the broadcast booth than he was on the court. In fact, McEnroe has become much more mellow and affable now that he speaks in the hushed tones favored by tennis commentators.

As a super-talented commentator much in demand ~ at this year's Wimbledon he is commenting on men's matches for both U.S. (ESPN) and British (BBC) audiences ~ McEnroe not only makes watching tennis interesting, he's not afraid to voice his opinion. He's honest and all about accountability. And, yet, he also enjoys drawing upon an historical perspective of the sport like few others can do, except, maybe Bud Collins, to enhance his gravitas.

Chances are good that over the course of a five-set match, McEnroe will bring up his epic 1980 championship match against his great rival Bjorn Borg ~ his first Wimbledon final. His recall of this famous match is very detailed and spot-on. McEnroe was booed by the crowd as he walked on Centre Court following heated exchanges he had with officials after his semifinal victory over Jimmy Connors. He saved five match points in a 20-minute, fourth-set tie-break and won it 18-16. Borg went on to win the fifth set 8-6 and the match, considered by many to be the greatest Wimbledon men's final of all time.

In sharing his opinion of today's players and of the sport he dearly loves, McEnroe makes excellent use of the English language that's part lyrical, part plain-spoken, part New York state of mind. In a 2008 interview with the New York Times, McEnroe said his "vow" as a broadcaster was "giving people an idea of what it's like to be out there." Still a competitor in the booth, this is what makes listening to McEnroe such great entertainment.

Last week, McEnroe observed the match involving seven-time French Open champion and world no. 2 Rafael Nadal, who was knocked out in the second round at Wimbledon by Lukas Rosol, the 100th-ranked player in the world. It was an outcome that stunned the Centre Court audience and nearly left McEnroe speechless after the match ~ well almost:

"I can't believe what I just witnessed," said McEnroe on ESPN's broadcast. "At the end of the day, (Rosol) had more energy than Rafa Nadal. He challenged (Rafa) every step of the way and stepped up like no one could ever imagine.

"Rafa's not only physically one of the most gifted players ever to play, but mentally he's so tough. He imposes his will eventually on you and wears you out both physically and emotionally. And, to think that this complete unknown (Rosol) could step it up ... Nadal was the guy who looked perplexed."

And speaking of Rosol, whom not many tennis fans had ever heard of before his epic upset of Nadal, McEnroe opined:

"Lukas who? Three aces and a forehand winner. He looked really tight in that last game. It's going to be inspirational to a lot of guys. It was an inspirational performance. Talk about unpredictable. In my wildest dreams, I never thought it would happen."

McEnroe was also in ESPN's broadcast booth at Centre Court last Friday night for Roger Federer's five-set, come-from-behind victory over journeyman Julien Benneteau. Naturally, he had plenty to comment upon. As Federer was serving for the match, ahead 5-1, McEnroe said:

"It's a formality now, but  you've got to hand it to Benneteau. He's really persevered out here tonight." After match point, he added: "It's torture that Roger's put himself through, but in the end it's all worth it."

McEnroe isn't afraid to give props to the losers, especially if they've given their all out on the court. On Benneteau's spirit, he said:

"It's a brutal game; he's played the match of his life and now, he's limping off the court. But he gets a standing ovation. Now, he doesn't want to leave the court and you can hardly blame him."

Often, McEnroe is given the opportunity by his broadcast partners ~ Ted Robinson of NBC (McEnroe comments on the French Open for NBC), Bill Macatee of CBS (McEnroe also comments on the U.S. Open for CBS) and Chris Fowler of ESPN ~ to get in the last word before signing off. In his postmortem of the Federer-Benneteau match, he shared these final thoughts:

"Julien Benneteau played the match of his life and swung for the fences. He played an intelligent match and deserved to have the crowd appreciate his efforts. At the end of the day, a lot of people, including myself, picked Federer to win this. You would like to see him win another Slam. The fact he's already got six (Wimbledon titles), he's still hungry. He still finds a way to dig deeper and beat an unknown like Benneteau."

Like Federer, McEnroe's still hungry. Just a tad mellower. The Grand Slams are his time to shine. He understands the characters of tennis and their emotions ~ and, best of all, he makes each story line believable.

John McEnroe photograph courtesy of AELTC, copyright 2012.

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