Having grown up in Queens, Patrick McEnroe has a deep relationship with the tennis courts that make up Flushing Meadows.
"I used to take the subway from our home in Queens to get to the city to take the subway to get to school. So I used to go past it on the train every day all year," McEnroe said.
McEnroe, now a tennis analyst and color commentator for ESPN and CBS Sports, has spent plenty of time in Flushing Meadows as a player, as a supporter of his older brother John, and now as a member of the media. He's also taken on the role of general manager of player development for the United States Tennis Association, working to return American tennis to the pinnacle it occupied when players like Jimmy Connors, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras routinely appeared in the finals of every major. With the U.S. Open starting today, McEnroe spoke with STACK about Roger Federer's decline, Serena Williams' dominance, the young guns to watch for, and the current state of American tennis.
STACK: Roger Federer hasn't been to a U.S. Open final since 2009. We always seem to want to talk about his decline any time he bows out of a tournament early, like he did at Wimbledon. He's now ranked 7th in the world. Does his name still belong in the "Big Four" (Murray, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer)? Or has he lost a major step?
Patrick McEnroe: He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen up close and personal, so let’s put that out on the table right away. Obviously every great player is going to decline over time. I think Federer has been able to stay in the conversation as one of the best for a pretty long time. Is he No. 1? Absolutely not. But after winning Wimbledon last year, who knows what’s going to happen this year. He still very much deserves to be in the conversation. The fact that he hasn’t been to a U.S. Open final in a while, I don’t put a lot to that because he’s been so close. He’s lost a couple of unbelievable five-setters to Djokovic over that time. We talk about him losing early at the French—well he lost in the quarterfinals.
To sum up my answer, he definitely has a chance. Would I put him as the favorite? No. I would put Djokovic ahead of him and Nadal pretty close to him on a hard court. Certainly Roger is capable. Every time experts like us have said he’s done, and this shows that he’s really declining, he usually comes back with a great performance. Now whether or not that performance is enough to win another U.S. Open, that's highly questionable.
A member of the "Big Four" has won every major tournament since 2006, with the exception of Juan Martin del Potro winning the U.S. Open in 2009. Do you see this trend continuing, or are there players who can break into the club in the near future?
I think (certain players) have gotten a little bit closer. The three players that I would put in there would be [Thomas] Berdych, [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga and [Juan Martin] del Potro. Del Potro obviously has won a major before he got injured, but he's played his way back to that next level. Tsonga has improved and has beaten Federer on a couple of occasions.
I don’t think it’s going to be the same four over the next however many years, because, quite frankly, Roger is getting a little bit older. But it’s hard to imagine if Nadal stays healthy, that Nadal, Murray and Djokovic won’t be right at the top. Can one of those other guys sneak through and win one? I think they have a better chance now than they’ve had in the past. But the top three guys are not going to make it any easier. They are so good on every surface, they’re so professional, they’re so prepared.
You look to see if there is anybody young coming up, and you’re seeing, especially in men’s tennis, that the players are maturing a little bit later and coming into their prime a little bit later. That would lend you to think [Grigor] Dimitrov, maybe a Bernard Tomic, maybe a [Milos] Raonic. Out of that group, Ryan Harrison has taken a little step back. I would put Dimitrov as the most likely candidate, but he’s probably another year or two or three away. I think they’ve lessened the gap a little bit, but there’ still a definite gap there.
If there's one sleeper on the men's side, someone who might not have a chance to win the U.S. Open but could unexpectedly make some noise, who might that be?
Obviously I’m hoping to see some young Americans, even some Americans that are not so young, like a [Sam] Querrey or [John] Isner. Maybe Ryan Harrison if he can get his act together. Jack Sock I think has a lot of potential upside. You look at someone like I said, a Dimitrov, who is certainly knocking on the door. There’s not that many really young guys. So the short answer to your question is probably not. Unless you consider [Janko] Tipsarevic or someone like that who's been a top 10 player as an outsider. It’s pretty unusual now because of the depth of the men’s game and the fact that all the top players are so well conditioned and so well prepared that you’re not seeing that many players ranked 50-75 make some huge run in a major. It’s not happening as much. So it’s pretty unlikely to see that happening.
Let's turn to the women's side. Serena Williams has been on an absolute tear of late. Does anyone else have a chance at winning the U.S. Open?
Serena’s unbelievable. She’s playing the best tennis of her life, which is scary because she was already at another level. Serena’s become a great tennis player. The reason I say that is because she’s always been a great competitor, she’s always been a great athlete, she’s always been the greatest server, but now she’s become a great tennis player. She’s playing with more margin for error, she’s playing more thoughtful tennis. She’s pretty much unbeatable at the moment.
That being said, [Victoria] Azarenka is someone that’s beaten her and played her very tough at last year’s U.S. Open final. [Maria] Sharapova’s had a great last couple years, but she still doesn’t match up particularly well with Serena. Then you go down the line, and I think quite frankly there’s a couple of really good young Americans that are capable of making a big run. Sloane Stephens, Jamie Hampton, Madison Keys. We’ve got very good depth of young Americans coming up. What Serena’s been able to do the last few years has been, I think, to sort of transform herself from being one of the potential all-time greats to one of the all-time greats and maybe a chance to become the all-time great.
You talk about the strength of American tennis on the women's side, but it's been severely lacking on the men's side for a decade. No American has won a major since Andy Roddick won this tournament in 2003. As the general manager of USTA player development, what's your focus when it comes to bringing American tennis back to where it once was?
Our focus is trying to get the most out of what we have, so that’s No. 1. I said this a couple of years ago, I thought we were about half way, five out of 10, since I took over the program. I think we’re ahead of that now with the women, and I think we’re just about at a five with the men. Overall in the men's game, we need, as a country, to get more athletes playing tennis. We need better athletes, because with the physicality of the game, that’s becoming increasingly important. That being said, I think the players that we do have, like a Denis Kudla and a Steve Johnson, who was a great college player, or a Ryan Williams. I think those guys are starting to get with the program. In other words, they are starting to understand what it takes. What it takes is you've got to be all in. You can’t take any short cuts. I think those guys will maximize their potential. Now of course none of us knows exactly what that is, and some you would think have more than others, but that’s really what we try to do with every player that we work with. We try and get them to maximize the potential that they have.
What was the atmosphere like when Americans, from your brother John McEnroe to Jimmy Connors to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, were consistently playing at a high level and winning majors?
I think we as American tennis fans at some level took it for granted. I would go back to [Andy] Roddick and Agassi and Sampras obviously and throw in [Jim] Courier and [Michael] Chang into that mix. Before that, my brother and Connors, obviously they were right at the top. There was a little bit of a lull after them, but it was quickly filled by Sampras, Agassi, Chang and Courier.
It’s somewhat cyclical. I do believe that the game has changed, and it’s become a lot more global, so you’re seeing players come from all parts of the world. We obviously have a long way to go to get to that place, and whether or not we get there as a country remains to be seen. Whether or not any country can be that dominant as far as having top players and then having a multitude of players in the top 100, that's tough. Certainly Spain is the closest on the men’s side at the moment with Nadal and then double-digit numbers of men being ranked, and France would be not far behind, but France has never had a No. 1 player or Grand Slam winners even though they’ve got a great system and a lot of really, really good players. My hope, or at least my goal, for American tennis is to try and impact the numbers overall, and then obviously you hope that in doing that, you’re going to find a couple great talents and players that can be Grand Slam winners. That’s more difficult than it’s ever been, but in saying that, we are certainly still holding out hope that we can get there.