For tennis great John McEnroe, the desire to further the sport was one he was introduced to nearly 40 years ago.
That mission continues as he plans to play three matches with the New York Sportimes this season in the World TeamTennis league, which brings high-level tennis to markets not always on or near the ATP or WTA circuits.
The 54-year-old McEnroe recalled the day decades ago at the home of Mary Carillo — his friend with whom he won a mixed-doubles championship at the French Open in 1977 — when he met Billie Jean King, who helped create the league in 1974.
“I was probably 16, and she [King] was talking about it even then,” he said. “It’s amazing that she still carries the torch and wants it so bad. It’s always been difficult, an uphill battle for us, so mainly, I do it because I believe in the idea of what she represents for our sport and her commitment to it.”
The Sportimes will play their first five home matches in the University at Albany’s SEFCU Arena. In both of the last two seasons, they have played two matches in Albany, which coach Claude Okin said feels just like home, thanks to all the support they’ve seen.
“It feels comfortable, to be honest,” Okin said. “The real deal is that World TeamTennis is designed to bring high-quality professional tennis to markets that don’t have it every day. Down here, we have the U.S. Open. Our facility in New York is just about 12 minutes from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. In Albany, there’s been no ATP or WTA events for a long time. But it feels natural, and we’ve had great sponsor support. People have jumped right on the bandwagon.”
The Sportimes roster also features Robert Kendrick, Jesse Witten, Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke. New York was second in the Eastern Conference last season, making the playoffs but falling to back-to-back champion Washington, which is on a 32-match winning streak. Okin points out, though, in their past four or five meetings, New York has held several match points, having the end of the streak “on their racquets” in an entertaining rivalry.
McEnroe’s participation will be a special treat for three matches this season, two of them home matches.
He will play in the July 18 match in Albany against the Orange County Breakers. He also will play July 22 at Sportime Stadium on Randall’s Island in New York City, facing Jim Courier and the Texas Wild.
Visiting teams playing the Sportimes in Albany will also bring a few notable names. On July 9, Springfield will feature Andy Roddick, and on July 15, Philadelphia will feature Sloane Stephens. Ticket packages for all five matches at SEFCU
Arena can be purchased on the team’s website (www.nysportimes.com), and single-match tickets are available at Price Chopper stores.
The match with Courier is yet another way the Queens native is trying to give back to the sport that has given him so much. It will raise funds for the Johnny Mac Tennis Project, which will supply scholarships for young players in the New York Metro area to attend the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, which has locations in the city, on Long Island and in Westchester County.
“Unfortunately, the game is too expensive, still,” he said. “It’s not accessible enough to a lot of people, and that makes it difficult for a lot of people to even have the opportunity.”
McEnroe and Courier played several times last year on the Powershares Series and are familiar with each others’ games.
“We’ve played quite a few times. I’ve probably played Jim more than anyone in the last 10 years,” McEnroe said. “We have a pretty good handle on what we have to offer. It can go either way, it depends on who’s playing better. The slower the court would suit him more, the quicker would suit me. The court here is fairly quick, so I think that would suit my game. And when you play to five games, no-ad scoring, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. While it’s a charity, it’s also a match. It’s not as if we can just go and have some fun. Both guys are playing for teams. There’s four other matches, but it’s part of the whole package. Certainly, Jim can still play and keeps himself in great shape. People like Jim, they force me to work harder, so I can even compete with someone 10 years younger than me.”
Though he hasn’t lost his competitive nature, perspective gained over the years has somewhat mellowed, though not totally subdued, the passion McEnroe brings to the court.
“I’m not as intense. It’s not live-or-die, all-or-nothing attitude, win-at-all-costs that it felt like,” he said. “It felt like it meant everything and was all-encompassing. But certainly, if you compared me to the average person, I would still say I’d be highly competitive on a tennis court. I feel like it’s a happy medium, but when I go out there, I’m not going out there to lose. If I play well and lose, I’d feel better than if I played crappy and lost. But there’s a certain bit of yourself you put at stake every time you walk out on a court, so I want to be the best I absolutely can.”
That best is still pretty good.
McEnroe isn’t just out there for the purposes of nostalgia and a good draw at the gate.
“He plays like he’s 40. He really does,” Okin said. “He’s going out and playing the top-10 players, and he’s right there. Sometimes, he still schools them, so it’s pretty good to watch.”