Tennis legend John McEnroe encourages the next generation of players through his eponymous foundation, which hosts a pro-am fundraiser in East Hampton this weekend.
"I want to make tennis a game that kids want to play,” says John McEnroe, who over the course of his three-decade pro career won a whopping 77 Association of Tennis Professionals singles titles and seven Grand Slam singles championships as well as 71 ATP doubles titles and nine Grand Slam doubles titles. “I want to cultivate talent from urban areas and make the sport fun so that more kids want to play tennis. My goal is to go into places nearby, like Harlem and other urban centers, and help a lot of top-notch kids who grow up there. We’ve seen the impact that Serena and Venus Williams have had on the game, and they’re both from Compton, California. Parents think that if you’re in New York, you have to go to Florida [to train]. [My] foundation’s work is a long-term project, an uphill battle, but we’re optimistic!”
Raised in Queens, New York, McEnroe launched the Johnny Mac Tennis Project in 2011; the charity aims to promote tennis to players of all ages through scholarships, financial assistance, and thousands of hours of free coaching to young people in the New York metropolitan area. “Parents are guilty of pushing too hard too soon; that’s so unhealthy,” McEnroe says of some of the kids he sees in the sport today. “Practicing tennis doesn’t have to be miserable. It sounds basic and obvious, but… my parents didn’t live vicariously through me. My mom was an operating-room nurse; my father worked hard for a living and eventually became a partner in a law frm. I’m not going to say they didn’t push me, but they didn’t push me compared to a lot of parents whom I’ve seen. I wouldn’t have enjoyed [tennis] had they pushed.”
On August 22, McEnroe is hosting the Johnny Mac Tennis Project Hamptons Pro-Am at Sportime Amagansett in East Hampton as a fundraiser for his foundation. “The reason I became successful is that I didn’t just focus on tennis,” McEnroe says about his early experience as a multisport athlete. “I had a well-rounded upbringing—if you call growing up in New York City well-rounded. My philosophy is, number one, kids shouldn’t put all their eggs in one basket at a young age; studies show that playing other sports is helpful. Billie Jean King’s Team Tennis is a great concept for kids because it allows them to play on a team. It can’t seem like a job when they’re 10 years old. They have to have fun with tennis!”
It’s a surprising sentiment coming from the now-56-year-old former phenom, who was known throughout his career not just for the way he terrorized his opponents on the court with his quick refexes, lethal serve, and deft volleying, but also for his temper and eruptions against umpires. His most infamous rebuke, “You cannot be serious!” undoubtedly will follow him for life. Regardless of his antics, McEnroe won four US Open titles, three Wimbledon championships, and five Davis Cup titles during his distinguished career.
Although retired from the ATP regular tour since 1992, McEnroe remains tremendously involved in tennis by running his foundation as well as the John McEnroe Tennis Academy at its flagship location at Sportime on Randall’s Island in New York City and at annex sites in Syosset, Long Island, and Eastchester, New York. He’s also a leading television commentator, traveling the globe and covering the sport for ESPN, NBC, the BBC, and Australian television. “Commentating is never going to be quite like the moments when you’re out on center court,” says McEnroe. “It doesn’t replace that excitement, but I think it’s a damn good substitute. If I did it all the time, I’d feel like I did when I was playing the circuit. But I cover the four majors, I get to do the tennis academy, and I get to play some, which makes me appreciate how tough it is to do it, and I get to be in the booth. Not a bad combination!”
With the US Open at Flushing Meadows quickly approaching, McEnroe will be “in the booth” for his 23rd US Open telecast, often alongside his youngest brother, Patrick McEnroe. (Middle brother, Mark, is the managing director of corporate development of the Sportime clubs and executive director of Johnny Mac Tennis Project Inc.) “I get out to the Hamptons when I can, but working the French Open around Memorial Day weekend, Wimbledon during the Fourth of July, and the US Open over Labor Day, I don’t have a chance to enjoy the Hamptons as much as most people who have homes out here,” says McEnroe, who flls his days out East bodysurfng at the beach, swimming in his pool, biking, hiking, and “just chilling out.” “I never went east of Jones Beach as a kid. It wasn’t until I made a great living at playing tennis that I was able to appreciate what the Hamptons has to offer. Most of my kids [McEnroe has three children with his frst wife, actress Tatum O’Neal, and two with his current wife, rocker Patty Smyth, who also has a child from a previous marriage] wanted to stay in New York City when they were young. But now, it’s easier.”
Out East, McEnroe returns to his multisport-athlete roots, indulging in rounds of golf. “I like the idea of being out with a few friends. I’ve played some of the top courses on the East End, including Shinnecock and National, [but] Shinnecock exposes me as the bad golfer that I am,” he quips of the frequently frustrating sport, which is a new challenge for his notorious temper. “That’s why [golf is] defnitely a test for me! Hopefully, I can somehow fgure it out. If not, I’ll have to quit. I’ve taken a couple of lessons. I may have to stick to tennis.”
The Johnny Mac Tennis Project Hamptons Pro-Am, will take place on Saturday, August 22, at Sportime Amagansett, 320 Abrahams Path, East Hampton. Then the Foundation will host the Johnny Mac Tennis Project Benefit Night on Wednesday, August 26, at Sportime Randall’s Island, 1 Randall’s Island, NYC. The evening will feature 14-time major champion Rafael Nadal playing young Aussie talent Nick Kyrgios. Visit jmtpbeneft.com for more information or tickets to both events