On World Team Tennis, the New York Empire, and the future of American tennis
When World Team Tennis returns to the courts this summer, a lot of things will have changed. For one, it will be beginning its season as the fifth (and newest) major professional team sports league in the United States to reach the 40th season mark, an honor it achieved last season and shares with the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. Second, World Team Tennis will be expanding its local and international coverage, which will include 45 hours of live match coverage on ESPN3 and many more on alternate local networks, as well as preview shows and weekly highlight series’ airing on networks in over 100 countries. But most significantly, World Team Tennis will be returning to New York.
Meet the New York Empire, Mylan World Team Tennis’ newest franchise.
The New York Empire, playing their inaugural season in World Team Tennis, will play its home matches at the legendary Forest Hills Stadium at the West Side Tennis Club in Queens, New York, former home of the US Open before its move to Flushing Meadows in 1978. The New York Empire will be the first WTT return to New York since the New York Sportimes relocated to San Diego in 2013.
It gets better.
Patrick McEnroe, current ESPN commentator, former professional player, Doubles Grand Slam Champion, General Manager of USTA player development, and US Davis Cup player and captain (which was the longest run of any US Davis Cup captain, and included a Davis Cup title in 2007), will coach the New York Empire. Meanwhile, the WTT players draft still remains to be held on March 25th, Andy Roddick, former World No. 1 and multiple Grand Slam Champion, was acquired in a transaction with the Orange County Breakers, and will lead the New York Empire as their marquee player. This will be Roddick’s ninth season playing in World Team Tennis, and his first time partnering with McEnroe since they won the Davis Cup for the United States in 2007.
We recently spoke with Patrick McEnroe, and took the opportunity to ask him about World Team Tennis, New York Empire, and the future of American Men’s Tennis:
Jonathan D’Rozario: First of all, congratulations on being made captain of New York Empire, that’s fantastic!
Patrick McEnroe: Thank you, thank you very much!
JD: So first of all, how does it feel to be made the coach? What does it mean to you?
PM: Well, I’ll tell you, I have a very soft spot in my heart for two things here. Number one is team tennis in general because obviously, what Billie Jean [King] has been able to do for so many years is amazing, and you know, I’ve been through pretty much every part of team tennis - I’ve been an employer, I’ve been an owner, I’ve been a broadcaster for it, and so to come full circle and be a coach is pretty cool. But what makes it even cooler is that we’re playing in New York, at the West Side Tennis Club, which is another place that I have a very soft spot for in my heart for, because I remember going there as a, let’s see, I was nine, ten, eleven years old, going there to watch the US Open, before it moved to Flushing Meadows. So I have very vivid memories of going there as a little kid. I also have very vivid memories of going there as a slightly older junior tennis player because there used to be a couple of tournaments where if you made the semi-finals or finals you got to play on stadium court at Forest Hills at the West Side Tennis Club. So that was a huge moment for me as a kid to be able to go and play there at that age, and then come back years later as a pro and play there in a couple pro events after the US Open moved. So when you put those factors together I’m really excited about bringing back this type of tennis, which is unique, fun, fan-friendly, and where you have men and women playing on equal footing, is really a great way for professional tennis to come back there.
JD: That’s great. Given that you’ve had the longest run as US Davis Cup Captain of anyone, and that you captained the team that won in 2007 with Andy [Roddick], how do you think coaching the New York Empire is going to compare with captaining Davis Cup? They’re obviously very different.
PM: Well obviously the format is quite different. You’re still playing for a team but the format of team tennis with men and women playing, and single sets, is a lot different. But what’s not different is how as a coach or a captain you communicate with your players. I learned from my long-time coach Dick Gould, he was a legendary coach at Stanford men’s tennis for many years. He told me something that I always remembered when I was Davis Cup captain, which was that in tennis, and when you’re dealing with tennis players, because it’s an individual sport, you treat everybody fairly, but not necessarily the same, and that’s certainly something I used in my years as the [US] Davis Cup captain - if Andy Roddick came to me one day and said “Captain, I’m a little tired today, I only want to do one practice and then I want to rest”, I would say “absolutely”, whereas with another younger player coming up [I] wouldn’t necessarily give them that option. You learn to deal with different personalities, and you know, players that have different track records, etcetera, and also in different times in their careers. The great thing about team tennis is that you could have a teenager on your team, or you could have somebody like an Andy Roddick, who’s a legendary player, or you could have a Martina Hingis or a Leander Paes, these are players who have won multiple Grand Slam titles and also been on the tour for fifteen, twenty years, so you deal with them a little bit differently than the young up-and-comers. I think you can take some of those traits that you picked up and learned and certainly work them in to the team tennis concept, in the same way that you do Davis Cup.
JD: Going off what you said about Andy Roddick, obviously the draft still has to happen for World Team Tennis but it’s already been said that you’re the coach and that Andy Roddick is gonna be the first player [for New York Empire]. What does it mean to be back in this together with Andy?
PM: It’s just absolutely awesome, because this is a guy who was one of the most fiery players I’ve ever seen, was firmly committed to playing for his country and playing for his teammates. Never once did I see him not give 110% in a Davis Cup match or a Davis Cup practice. He was the true leader of the team, he led by example, but he also pushed the other guys as well, so he made me look good. He was a big part of the reason we had a great team spirit and camaraderie, so I’m very indebted to him. And also, we had a lot of fun, because he’s a very charismatic guy, he’s a very intense guy. There were times that we butted heads for sure, but in a positive way, because we were both very passionate about what we did, so I’m excited, because he’s obviously in a different stage of his life, he just had his first kid recently, he’s happily married, he still likes to play tennis competitively, but obviously not on the tour full time. We have some great memories of our Davis Cup journey, not just winning the Davis Cup, which was obviously a great goal realised for both of us - it was one of his dreams to be on a winning Davis Cup Team - but really, I remember the journey. I remember the losses also because, as I said, he was the ultimate competitor and he never backed down from even the most difficult situations. He always gave 110% even in a losing effort, which I very, very much admire about him.
JD: Yeah, I remember when I was really getting into tennis I was watching the 2009 Wimbledon final with my dad, and the amount of respect for Andy I had was crazy.
PM: That was probably the toughest loss of his career. I mean, it was a little bit like when my brother lost to [Ivan] Lendl in that French Open final. I saw Andy that night and he was absolutely distraught, all I could say to him was “you played an unbelievable match, you played the match of your life”, and the way the crowd responded to him I think said it all, that he made that many fans in a losing effort, but that was maybe the best match he ever played, so that’s hard to take.
JD: So the last two or so years the Indian Premier Tennis League has just been introduced, and that was massively successful, and World Team Tennis has been happening for, I think, it’s been four-and-a-half, five decades, which is amazing. Do you see these kinds of team-based tennis events expanding further?
PM: I think there’s a great place for them in tennis. The fact that Billie Jean [King] has been able to keep team tennis going for this long is a testament to her strength and personality, and also the format because it’s fun. Obviously tennis is one of the only sports in the world where men and women can play on the same court, and play on equal footing, whether it’s singles, doubles, or mixed doubles, and so I think that’s tremendous. It’s a great lesson for people everywhere, especially for kids that are getting into tennis, that you can play alongside girls and boys, and you can compete your butt off, and have a great time doing it. Is it ever going to replace Wimbledon or the US Open? No, but nothing’s gonna replace it, because I think what I think we saw in India is that those matches are very entertaining. Again, I love the idea of these kind of legendary players that are maybe just retired from the tour playing alongside the current great players. And I think you can see by the reactions of the players how into it they are, and how cool that is, because that’s not always easy to do in tennis. You go to the All-Star Game in basketball, or you see old-timers in baseball in the All-Star Game, you see former players out there, and I think tennis needs more of that in our sport, to have great players alongside current players, and I think we need to try to make that happen on a more regular basis.
JD: For so much of your career you were acting as a coach, you were working with the USTA on younger player development. What do you think the impact is of World Team Tennis on younger players like, say, Taylor Fritz, who was playing for the San Diego Aviators?
PM: It’s awesome. The first time I ever saw Andy Roddick I was playing against him in team tennis, you know, when he was an 18-year-old kid, and I thought “this kid’s got some gumption, I might want to get him on my Davis Cup team at some point”. It’s awesome, because first of all, they get the experience of being around some professional players, so they can taste what the professional life is like, as far as, you know, preparing for a match, playing at night, playing in front of a boisterous, bigger crowd than they’re used to, and also getting used to the sort of grind of the pro tour without being in a “regular tournament”. But I think the mentorship that can go on in team tennis is amazing, you see that some of these players form great friendships that end up playing together on the regular tour. Tennis is a pretty lonely sport at times. It’s an individual sport, and I always loved the team aspect of college tennis, of obviously Davis Cup, and generally team tennis, because it allows you to bring the team concept into our individual sport, and I think that’s really important because for kids especially, they want to be around other kids and that’s a big part of keeping them interested and involved in tennis at a young age, and I think if they can continue to do that when they’re a Taylor Fritz of the world, a CiCi Bellis, there’s a camaraderie in that, you know - “we’re all in this together. We’re here supporting tennis, and this is what we do. We love tennis” - it’s pretty hard to make it to the highest level in tennis if you don’t love it, and so to be around other people that have the same experience that you’re competing with is just a win-win.
JD: Shifting just slightly towards juniors, I think there are two American players under twenty-three in the Top 100, but there are six, including Taylor Fritz, in the 100-200 range. Do you think that the US is poised to return to the top of men’s tennis sometime soon?
PM: I think we’re in the best position we’ve been in a long time, and I’m very excited about this group of young guys. There’s a lot of big talent leading the way at the moment - Francis Tiafoe, Stefan Koslov, Jared Donaldson, Tommy Paul, Reilly Opelka - all those players to me have a chance to be at least top fifty, and I think a couple of them even have a chance to be top twenty, even top ten, maybe even higher. When you have a group like that it takes a little pressure off of each of them because they know that there are some other players around so the intention won’t be all on them at one particular moment, so I think it’s great to see. I mean, obviously everybody’s worked hard, including my former team at the USTA, they’re continuing to do that, including all these kids’ parents, and coaches when they were coming up - it really does take a village to create a really high level tennis player, and I think that’s certainly one thing I’ve taken away from my years with the USTA - that the USTA can’t do it alone, nor can a parent do it alone, nor can a player or an individual coach, and I think we’ve made real strides in that area of getting more people that work together, because it’s harder now. It’s harder to make it. There’s more competition, there’s better athletes, there’s better players, there’s better training happening all over the world, and I think quite frankly, we fell a little bit behind our European counterparts in the last fifteen, twenty years, just generally speaking, as a country, and I think we’ve started to catch up. I think we’ve started to see it in some of these boys, and in the last five, six years we’ve had a good crop of young girls breaking through in good numbers. We’ve had some players in the top hundred on the female side, and I think all these players are capable of being legitimate professional players, and let’s hope that a couple of them can contend for major tournaments.
JD: Well thank you very much Mr. McEnroe, this was really cool.
PM: My pleasure. Absolutely my pleasure, any time.
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