John McEnroe is Hurting Tennis

To stand still is to die.  Self-development. Growth. Evolution. These are vital. Individuals, groups, organizations must look for ways to improve even if the impetus is merely financial.

Sporting organizations are of two types. Those that respond to this truth and those that choose to hold onto yesteryear. The NBA and NFL present excellent case studies. The former sometimes to the chagrin of fans continually assesses its mission and objectives, changing rules and the game to meet player, fans and societal needs. The latter, however, has codified and reinforced harmful practices of inequality and violence. These organizations are steadfast in their missions, for better or worse.

Tennis is far more like the NFL than the NBA. It is not proactive in meeting player, fan or societal needs. From accessibility to commentating, the sport is stuck in its comfortable country club norms. The changes it has made have been imposed by courageous cultural shifters: Alice Marble, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Serena and Venus Williams… These revolutionaries deserve more than pedestrian commentating, and so does the sport. No doubt this attributes to its flat numbers in popularity and growth as evidenced in the ubiquitously empty stadiums. Only a small group of rabid fans follow the sport’s insane eleven month calendar of  90 ATP and 61 WTA tournaments.

John McEnroe and to some extend Chrissie Evert are the ambassadors of the sport in the US. They are the voices tennis viewers hear four times a year at the grand slams. Tennis stars, turned commentators, their styles and commitment differ. Evert is not a natural. She has had to learn on the job and to her credit, she has improved, though she is no Mary Carillo or Chandra Rubin and definitely no Brett Haber or Cliff Drysdale. Unfortunately, McEnroe has veered into a different direction.

Commentating since 1992 on various networks (CBS, NBC, USA, ESPN and BBC) his words often end in controversy and fact-checking.  He has never seen a fact book (tournament or player) he liked much less read. Time and again his words have ignited fury and negative headlines for the sport. His commentating is more schtick than studied or prepared quips. He is neither analyst, reporter or host. Unlike some of his tennis colleagues, he lacks consistency. His below par commentating in the US aligns with this country’s radio like approach to tennis broadcasting; there must be no dead air! On NBC and ESPN there is an unwillingness to let him truly be his unfiltered self as he is on the BBC or Eurosport where he appears to read from a script.

In short, on-air McEnroe is neither sharp, knowledgeable, interesting or personable enough to help push the sport forward. He has to be paired with prepared colleagues to be palatable for viewers with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the sport. He is a tennis pundit, there for shock value disguised as honesty.  And even though he told NYT’s Sarah Lyall, “I put myself inside their head… it’s not about me, it’s about them,” he often gets lost in his own history as a buffer for his lack of player knowledge. His commentating style is that of a fan, simply sharing the joys and frustrations of what he is seeing and experiencing. This can produce neither insightful, outspoken or the colorful commentary his ESPN Biography touts.

John McEnroe: “At his peak (say 1980 to 1984), he was the greatest tennis player who ever lived – the most talented, the most beautiful, the most tormented: a genius. For me, watching McEnroe don a polyester blazer and do stiff lame truistic color commentary for TV is like watching Faulkner do a Gap ad.” David Foster Wallace String Theory

Retiring in 1994 with 77 singles titles in his legendary career,  his career is highlighted by seven Grand Slam singles titles, including four US Opens. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1999. The left handed star is often called superbrat,  McBrat, pugnacious,  irascible,  brash, colorful, enfant terrible, éminence grise, rascal, asshole… The self-appointed Commissioner of Tennis is a complicated human being, not mean, bad or sociopathic. He can make viewers chuckle, blush or nod occasionally but he rarely provides thought-provoking or edifying commentary.

His tennis temper and antics have been parodied and he has made a living mocking himself in films and commercials. He is paid ten times more than Martina Navratilova based largely on his brand and gender. He provides a tenth of the analysis and insight. If he had difficulty or a dislike for the IBM statistics, he will implode with the new UTR  (Universal Tennis Rating) System.

McEnroe is the John McCain (Senator) of tennis. Like many in tennis, he coasts on his record and the nostalgia we have for him. Admittedly, the transition from court to the booth must have been difficult, but it has been twenty-five years. He demonstrates no new analysis skills and his conflicts of interests continue to expand; serving as coach, consultant,  tennis academy  founder, product promoter all while commentating. John McEnroe embodies tennis’ unwillingness to grow, evolve. Not even the onslaught of tennis documentaries (Serena, Strokes of Genius) and films (Battle of the Sexes, Borg/McEnroe) can save the titanic that is tennis. If the captain, tennis’ ambassador, continues to pander to who he thinks the audience is instead of providing what the audience wants and needs this sport will sink. McEnroe is no Margaret Court, yet he too is unwittingly hurting the sport.

For more on tennis commentating:



One thought on “John McEnroe is Hurting Tennis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s