John McEnroe starts tennis academy

NEW YORK -- John McEnroe wants a hand in reviving American tennis. He wants to do it his way.

Neither of these statements should come as a surprise to anyone who has followed McEnroe's career over the last four decades -- either on the court or in "retirement," where he has remained every bit as fiery and unapologetic behind a microphone as he is with a tennis racket in hand.

The day after the U.S. Open ends, McEnroe's new journey will begin in full -- a journey with the ultimate goal of making sure the headline that appeared this summer is never seen again: "No American in top 10 for first time since rankings began in 1973."

On Sept. 13, the John McEnroe Tennis Academy will officially welcome its first class at the revamped 20-court, $18 million tennis complex on Randall's Island -- a strip of land between Manhattan and Queens that also houses Icahn Stadium, where Usain Bolt set his first world record.

It's not particularly easy to get to. Then again, almost anything worth doing in New York -- McEnroe's hometown and the center of the tennis universe during the U.S. Open -- involves some sacrifice. And besides, nothing about Johnny Mac's journey back into the languishing grass roots of his sport has been simple.

"Hopefully, I can jolt things and get things going here again," McEnroe said of his goal to revive tennis in New York and, by extension, in the United States. "Hopefully I can be a regular presence and hopefully Patrick and the USTA will support what I'm doing."

Patrick would be his youngest brother, the longtime Davis Cup captain who the U.S. Tennis Association hired two years ago to run an elite player development program that gets mixed reviews from tennis insiders. The McEnroes have similar goals but different ideas of how to get there.

While Patrick McEnroe and the USTA enjoy the luxury of what his brother calls "unlimited money" -- about $15 million a year for the development program -- money that is sometimes used to filch players from the for-profit tennis academies, John McEnroe is starting from scratch. He's hoping to revive the youth tennis scene in New York and prove that it's still possible to build champions without sending them away to tennis camp and taking them out of their normal lives.

For a tennis prodigy, McEnroe enjoyed a relatively normal childhood. He grew up in the suburbs of New York, was schooled at Trinity on the Upper West Side, took tennis lessons at Port Washington Tennis Academy on Long Island under coach Harry Hopman -- who never made tennis larger than life -- and then spent a year at Stanford before going pro full-time.

Now, he is putting his own time, his own money and bringing in the middle McEnroe brother -- Mark, the lawyer -- to an effort he hopes will produce plenty of college players, a handful of pros and maybe, just maybe, the next American tennis champion.

"That's our bet," Mark McEnroe said. "John thinks it's realistic that we can find a top 10 player."

The odd relationship between John and Patrick has been described, in some parts of the tennis world, as a rift. The brothers, seven years apart, say family is more important than tennis but are on record as not always seeing eye to eye.

And indeed, there are differences. Most notably:

John thinks it's possible to become a great tennis player the way he did it back in the day -- by making the sport part of a typical American childhood that includes living at home, going to a school nearby, a few soccer games and friends. Patrick believes in more repetition and full-time commitment, the likes of which you see at the many academies-slash-boarding schools in Florida, Texas and California.

John has a long, well-known history of wanting to team up with the USTA to put his name behind a development program. Patrick has questions about how long John could stick with the bureaucracy that comes with the USTA.

"There's probably some skepticism on Patrick's part, as we all have, is John really going to do this?" Mark McEnroe said. "John wanted to do something like he's doing here at the USTA and that wasn't available."

What John and Patrick can agree on is the pain they feel when they watch the sport they grew up in, starred in and made careers out of, get relegated to page four in the sports section on good days and completely out of the American consciousness for much of the time.

"Alarm bells have been going off for a while, but there's been enough success that it hasn't been a cacophony of noises," John McEnroe says, crediting the Williams sisters -- who also didn't attend tennis academies and are known for taking long breaks from tennis -- with the lion's share of American success over the past decade. "Clearly, there's a lot more that needs to be done and there's a great level of concern."

The concern is even greater during weeks like these, when, for instance, Nike holds a publicity function featuring its top stars and trots out Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova -- but only one active American, Serena Williams, who is out of this year's tournament because of an injury.

It grows when Andy Roddick, who moved back as the only American in the top 10 after his brief drop to No. 12, finds virtually no company around him. Sam Querrey is at No. 22. Mardy Fish just moved up 15 spots to get to No. 21. John Isner is at No. 20 after moving up 35 spots from this time last year but still needs a breakthrough to be known for more than his famous 70-68 fifth-set win at Wimbledon earlier this year.

And it grows when Gilad Bloom, the former touring pro who will run the day-to-day teaching operation at McEnroe's academy, points out startling stats such as these: In 1980, there were 41 American men ranked in the world's top 100. By 1996, that number had dropped to 13. Today, it's seven.

"It's not an aberration. It's a pattern. And the pattern is very clear," Bloom said.

McEnroe knows he can't stopt this slide all by himself. All he can hope is that his name -- and the spark and fire it conjures -- might inspire some young, athletic kid to pick up a tennis racket instead of a basketball or football.

"The long-term project is, what would tennis look like if we had a Michael Jordan or a Terrell Owens or someone else like that get steered toward tennis when they were a kid?" Mark McEnroe said.

In the short term, John McEnroe and the company he's in partnership with, Sportime New York, are teaming with Nike to fund scholarships for the academy. While USTA programs are run on that so-called "unlimited money" that McEnroe rails about, most players at his academy pay tuition bills -- ranging from $3,600 to $4,800 for 34 weeks of two-hour lessons -- that help pay the bills. In the long term, McEnroe is hoping for greater contributions from Nike or other corporate sponsors.

Among the promising students at McEnroe's academy is Alex Kovacevic, ranked 11th in the 12-and-under division in the East. He followed Bloom from his old school in the Bronx to Randall's Island. His parents don't want to put him in a full-time academy in Florida or Texas.

"We want him to do the school thing," said his mother, Millie. "We want him to still play soccer, though he'll probably do that less seriously as time goes on."

Bloom has big plans for Alex -- the kid they call "Little Federer" because of his smooth footwork and whippy topspin groundstrokes. He'd also like to get Alex's younger sister signed up.

John McEnroe will not be feeding balls to the kids. But it's his vision, even if it's not the exact same as the one his brother and the USTA have.

"It's awesome for tennis," Patrick McEnroe said. "We're both from New York. We both have tremendous pride in American tennis, but also a desire to help tennis in New York. I certainly see it as a total bonus that John has thrown himself into it. It's a total win-win."