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Tennis Blog Page

Patrick McEnroe, Renaissance Man

Elina Frumerman

  By Michael Probst, AP

By Michael Probst, AP

The caption for the 1971 Tennis USA group photo identifies John McEnroe as the nation's seventh-ranked 12-year-old and "at right, younger brother, Patrick, 5."

"He was already my younger brother at that time," John says with a wisp of amazement, considering how much that label amplified in the years that followed.

For better or worse, Patrick has labored in the illustrious shadow of his oldest sibling John, a seven-time Grand Slam tournament champion and tour-de-personality few can match.

"From his junior days, Patrick got more attention from being John's brother," says their father, John McEnroe Sr. "He had to deal with that issue all along. I think he's done it very, very successfully."

Indeed, with the USA's first Davis Cup title in a dozen years within grasp this weekend against defending champion Russia, Patrick McEnroe is in position to lay claim to one title his oldest brother cannot: captaincy of a Davis Cup title team.

"It would be a huge thing for us," says McEnroe, ever the team player, referring to sixth-ranked Andy Roddick, No. 13 James Blake and the top-ranked doubles duo of Bob and Mike Bryan. 

"Andy and James played for me in my first tie at home in 2001," adds McEnroe, ticking off life-altering events this tight-knit group has experienced, from the birth of his first child last year to the death of Blake's father from cancer in 2004 to Roddick's numerous coaching switches. "Think about all the things that have changed in those years. It's a big goal of mine, but to do it with this group of guys would mean that much more."

With his gifts for back-room politicking and restrained on-court nurturing — not to mention patience, hard work and perseverance — McEnroe, 41, has carved out a notable niche in his seven years as Davis Cup captain. His oldest brother (who played on five title-winning teams) spent one stormy year at the helm in 2000, which ended in a 5-0 semifinal loss to Spain after he couldn't persuade the best U.S. players to show up.

But Davis Cup is hardly McEnroe's only toehold in the sport. If top-ranked Swiss Roger Federer is Mr. Versatility on the court, McEnroe is an all-around virtuoso off it. Few wear as many hats as the native New Yorker, whose roles beyond Davis Cup include ESPN tennis commentator, occasional radio and TV talk show host, husband, father and, ultimately, tennis renaissance man.

"Patrick McEnroe has had success in more corners of the tennis world than almost anyone," says Arlen Kantarian, chief executive of professional tennis for the U.S. Tennis Association. "He can work the boardroom as well as the locker room."

Quietly and unassertively, McEnroe has become a force in the game.

"He's been able to find his own personality, his own identity, which wasn't easy," brother John says.

His own record 

Were he not constantly compared to his oldest brother, McEnroe would be considered a major success in his own right. A right-handed baseliner with a two-handed backhand, McEnroe played on two NCAA championship teams at Stanford, captaining the second in 1988. 

As a pro, he won 16 ATP doubles titles, including the 1989 French Open (with Jim Grabb), won one singles title, reached the semifinals of the 1991 Australian Open and achieved a career-high ranking of No. 28. He represented the USA in doubles for Davis Cup teams in 1993, 1994 and 1996, going 3-1. His other endeavors include part ownership of a World TeamTennis franchise and occasionally Mr. Mom duties for 1-year-old daughter Victoria when his wife, actress Melissa Errico, travels.

"I'm proud of everything he's done," McEnroe Sr. says of his youngest son. "On the other hand, of course, his brother remains John, who is undoubtedly one of the best players there has ever been. That's not an easy road to go."

Kantarian says the easygoing but quietly driven youngest McEnroe is adept at balancing family life, travel, broadcasting duties and Davis Cup. One day this month, for instance, McEnroe was up at 6:30 a.m. to do two dozen media interviews, drove to Baltimore to check out the surface for the Davis Cup final being held in Portland, Ore., then hopped a 1 a.m. flight to Shanghai to call the Masters Cup for ESPN. 

"He's playing an awful lot of roles, and he plays them all very capably," Kantarian says. "He has the ability to compartmentalize them."

The youngest of three tennis-playing brothers — Mark, the middle child, played at Stanford as a walk-on but chose to pursue law, like his father — McEnroe learned at an early age he would be scrutinized because of his last name. As a junior tennis player, he recalls making a few grimaces at an event in Tennessee only to find the headlines in the next day's local newspaper screaming "Little Super Brat."

"I think it made me more aware that people were watching me more closely than normal 13- and 14-year-olds," he says. "I learned from a young age it would be best to control myself more. I have a little bit of a temper, too."

Stanford coach Dick Gould remembers him as a good student of the game "who developed his own style and didn't try to mimic John," who was a creative, net-charging southpaw. "The team really looked to him," says Gould, who retired in 2004 with 17 NCAA titles. "Guys respected what he said. He's one of those kids that comes along once in a while who you want to take home to your daughter."

"I guess he didn't know me very well," McEnroe says when told what Gould said.

That is representative of the innate, self-deprecating, quick wit McEnroe uses in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

McEnroe showed it in 1991 when he surprisingly reached the Australian Open semifinals with Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl and told a room packed with reporters, "It's just like you all expected — Becker, Edberg, Lendl and McEnroe."

"I learned a lot from Dick Gould," says McEnroe, who says what he took most from his college experience was how Gould "treated all the players fairly, but he didn't treat them the same."

"It's communicating with each player individually while still setting ground rules for the team concept," McEnroe says.

His surname brought moments of discomfort, too, when he joined the tour and received wild cards and hordes of media attention at small-time events. McEnroe used the fame as a building block instead of a crutch. 

"It helped me professionally as far as my TV career and with Davis Cup," says McEnroe, whose work includes stints on programs such as ESPN's Pardon the Interruption and First Take

"I was on the radar because of my name. I think because of my work and work ethic I showed that I was deserving of those opportunities and made the best of them."

Some might wonder about his objectivity in calling matches as a tennis insider, but his ESPN bosses are not concerned.

"Based on his omnipresent role in our tennis, including three of the four majors, we see no conflict of interest with his Davis Cup duties," says Norby Williamson, ESPN executive vice president of production.

"Patrick calls them like he sees them, no holds barred."

Creating team spirit 

His many roles aside, McEnroe might be remembered most for creating an espirit de corps that rivals any in Davis Cup history. Roddick, for instance, has missed only one Cup tie since making his debut in 2001, and that was because of injury. "That's a tribute to Patrick," says Tom Gullikson, the U.S. coach from 1994 to 1999.

McEnroe's laid-back but decisive personality is simply better suited to the job than John's, their father says. "John wanted to run out there and take the racket out of the guy's hand and say, 'Look, this is the way you're supposed to do it,' " McEnroe Sr. says. "It was very frustrating for him."

His youngest son has excelled at keeping his ego sublimated and letting his players take the limelight. He manages with a blend of reality and team discipline. 

McEnroe lets players bring their coaches to Cup ties, a practice shunned by some in the past, but won't allow girlfriends until later in the week after the pre-match preparation is done. He encourages camaraderie with card games and near-mandatory team dinners.

He also has learned the quirks of managing his players, from the headstrong Roddick to the temperamental Blake to the effervescent Bryans. That means keeping the chatter to a minimum with Roddick, picking his spots to encourage Blake or firing off more traditional pep talks to the Bryans. 

"He's a different captain now than he was at the beginning, which is a credit to him, because I think we're not all 18 anymore," says Roddick, 25. "I think he's done a good job keeping us together."

"The reason why we like him and we want to play for him is that he's a loyal friend," Bob Bryan says. "He keeps in touch three, four times a week via e-mail or phone. He always has your back. He'll take the fall for us. He's willing to put in 12 hours on the court. … He knows we have coaches, and he doesn't overcoach. He just says the things that are always important, and when he says stuff, you listen."

Behind the scenes, McEnroe also stands out. He enjoys all aspects of being U.S. Davis Cup captain, which includes off-court politics, schmoozing with USTA officials and nurturing the up-and-coming prospects. "He's a good company man," his oldest brother says. 

Pulls no punches 

As an ESPN commentator, McEnroe has to call it as he sees it, even if, as friend and fellow broadcaster Cliff Drysdale says, "He swallows hard sometimes when he says something negative because he realizes the potential implications."

At times, these roles have put McEnroe at odds with his players, particularly Roddick, who tends to remember perceived slights or unfair criticism. 

McEnroe also has butted heads with Blake and came under attack from the Bryans when they felt they were undeservedly left off the U.S. Davis Cup team. "He has to tell it straight to the public, but sometimes he says too much," Mike Bryan says.

McEnroe is the first to admit he sometimes has to walk a fine line in his various jobs. "It's a balancing act," he says. "I always try to be extremely honest about what players are doing on court. Yes, that's ticked off my guys at different times, especially Andy. We've had some real sit-down, knock 'em out conversations."

"He does walk a tough line when you are asked to criticize your team in public," says Jim Courier, the former U.S. Davis Cup standout and four-time major winner who also does occasional TV work. "There are media critics of the media who say he isn't being tough enough. His own guys can wince at what he says or hold it against him. That's a lose-lose situation, but Patrick is savvy enough to placate both sides."

McEnroe, though, says he and his players have come to a "meeting of the minds."

"At the end of the day, the guys know I want them to do well," he says. "I like to see American players do well. That doesn't mean I openly root for them to win."

"He criticized me," says Blake, 27. "He criticized Andy. … But luckily, Andy and I are pretty thick-skinned. We know it's part of his job."

McEnroe says Davis Cup is "my most rewarding job professionally" and he would probably sign up to be captain for the next 20 years, if asked. Long term, he aims to broaden his broadcasting repertoire.

"We continue to give him opportunities to showcase his talents on different projects," Williamson says. "We look forward to expanding his presence on ESPN."

Even if the Americans fail to end their record 12-year title drought this weekend, McEnroe has laid the foundation for teams to come. Considering the pitfalls he has faced growing up in the same field as his oldest brother, he also has laid a solid future for himself in the sport.

As his oldest brother says, "I think he's come out of the other end in rather a positive way."