(June 18, 2013) ESPN tennis analysts Chris Evert and John McEnroe spoke with media about Wimbledon, which starts Monday, June 24, exclusively across ESPN platformes. Much of the conversation centered on the dominance of Serena Williams, the Big Four of men’s tennis, the emerging new generation of U.S. players and the magic that is Wimbledon…both saying if they could only win one major, it would be at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Highlights:
Q. Think like a coach for me and explain how you would tell a player to try to beat Serena Williams on grass. Where, if anywhere, do you see a weakness or vulnerability in her game?
JOHN McENROE: I don’t see a weakness. I see someone who perhaps is more comfortable at the baseline. I thought they did a pretty darn good job at the French at the net. What I would tell her is she can do pretty much anything, but she may have a little bit more difficulty in handling sort of off-speed, junk-ball type stuff where it might entice her to go for too much. Her serve is the best serve in the history of women’s tennis by far. Her presence is very intimidating. But I would not try to match power with her, I would try to do anything possible, if they’re capable of that, to throw off her rhythm.
CHRIS EVERT: Well, it’s interesting you say that because I was thinking about that. Even on the red clay, I kind of had my feelings about how to play her. But on the grass, it’s a little different. First of all, I would hope I would have a big serve, my protege, would have a big serve, or you’re going to lose 0-0. You have to have a big serve working. Anytime Maria Sharapova had success against Serena it’s because she’s been serving big and consistently. Your serve better be working that day.
The other thing, when I’m returning serve, I wouldn’t stand back that far. I would actually chip the returns back. I would really just chip the returns back. At this point Serena, you know, she beats everybody in the world from the baseline, but nobody’s really tried bringing her in, forcing her to come in. As good a volleyer as she is because of doubles, she’s still not as comfortable at the net as she is on the baseline. I would take off some of the pace. John McEnroe would have had a great game to play against her because he could just chip it back and be prepared for the next shot because she’s going to come in, be prepared for the next shot. If she comes into the net, if she misses it, hits a winner, you have to accept it.
I just think you really can’t hit with her from the baseline. You’ve got to either hit short angles, dropshots, chip, do something to throw her timing off. Once she gets in a rhythm, she’s deadly. But you got to have a big serve. You have to be able to hold your serve most of the time. You can’t be just slugging balls with her. That’s been proven a thousand million times. It doesn’t work. If Maria is holding serve, once the point starts, she has about as good a chance as any. On the grass, it’s going to be more difficult for Maria because of the movement. You just have to try to throw her timing off.
Q. Would you be surprised if she didn’t win this title?
CHRIS EVERT: Yeah, I would be surprised. Trust me, nothing is set in stone. It’s a two-week tournament. I don’t care what anybody says, when you get to be at the 28, 30, 31 age, you played 10 years, 12 years, 15 years on the tour, there are days that it isn’t there. There are days your body is not working. There’s days you would rather not be out there, you’d rather be in bed, not get out of bed. Roger Federer, I think we’ve seen a couple days like that with him. I know Serena has been out of the game, she’s pumped up, and that’s probably not going to happen. Sometimes it does happen to players that have played a lot.
JOHN McENROE: I would be very surprised. I think she’s playing the best tennis of her career. She’s not only in the best place I’ve ever seen, I think she’s the best player that’s ever lived. I said that a while ago. But she’s cementing it in everyone’s mind. She’s just a level above anyone. There’s no doubt about it.
I think actually in a way what’s happened with her sister, the difficulties she’s had as she’s gotten into the later stages of her career, actually in a way helped Serena because it made her realize she wanted to enjoy and take advantage of these last couple years. She realized and maybe appreciated a little bit more the talent that she has.
Q. Do you think on the men’s side in the U.S. there’s a lack of a major personality since Andy Roddick has gone?
JOHN McENROE: Well, I think these players, we’re at an exceptional time in our sport certainly. What we’re seeing is something the level of which we haven’t seen before. In a way, the players are doing anything and everything to sort of allow the tennis to speak for themselves. I think Djokovic is making an effort to spread the word, spread his personality. I think Nadal has a lot of personality on the court. Federer is the most beautiful player I’ve ever seen play.
None of these guys are out there doing the things that Connors and I were doing. That’s the way they are. They choose to do it in a different way and that’s perfectly acceptable because there’s a variety of reasons. That’s a whole other issue, a whole other question about why that is.
But certainly in any one-on-one sport, it’s imperative, when people are getting behind cities or teams, when they root for what we call soccer, you call football, American basketball, whatever team you’re behind, you’re behind the whole city and team as opposed to an individual. We need to do more to make people have a rooting interest, get to know the players a little more, do a better job promoting them, et cetera.
Q. Recently at the French Open there was a lot of talk about the top four, the dominance of the top four, making men’s tennis boring. I wanted to know what your feeling about that was.
JOHN McENROE: I think it’s important that you have people that separate themselves and there’s great rivalries like Nadal/Federer, Nadal/Djokovic, now Murray trying to break into the mix. They have been unbelievably dominant, how successful they’ve been. If you look at the run that some of the other guys, when I played Connors, Borg, Ivan, there were four guys separated from the pack for a while. There’s times where that happens. This isn’t that unusual.
I think in a way it should be, if anything, an incentive to the other guys to try to break into the mix. If these guys are too good, more power to them. I think it just shows you how great they are. Everyone is saying how athletic the game is getting, equipment is an equalizer for everyone, but these guys are still winning. I think we should enjoy it while we can.
CHRIS EVERT: There’s nothing boring about greatness. Those top players, like John said, are at a level by themselves. That will form rivalries. Hopefully there’s one stirring up right now with Nadal/Djokovic. Their matches are epic matches. So I don’t think ‘boring’ is the right word. I wished the women had four up there like the men do right now. Right now it just seems to be one.
Q. John, you talked earlier about Serena being a favorite for the women’s side. Could you tip who you have for the men’s title this year. Seems like it’s a tough pick coming in with different forms, Andy Murray having skipped Roland Garros.
JOHN McENROE: Yeah, I think it is a tougher call to see who the favorite would be. I would pick Djokovic 1 and Murray 2. This is me personally based on sort of what’s been going on. I think Murray will be hungrier not playing the French, maybe a little fresher. Then Roger, because he still has such a great game for grass. It’s tough to win it back-to-back at his age. Rafa having come back so great, maybe I’m wrong, ’cause I thought he would be a little tired. After the Djokovic semi, there will be some type of letdown, and he can’t impose his will as easily as on other courts. I would put him a close 4. That would be the order if I had to pick 1 to 4.
Q. What about for you, Chrissy, a thought on the men’s side?
CHRIS EVERT: Yeah, I think this is the beauty of having the top four players playing so evenly and closely.
Djokovic comes to mind only because I think the disappointment at the French Open. Then Federer, you know, the thing is that I have a sneaking suspicion that Federer has put all his eggs in one basket and he’s gunning for Wimbledon. It’s the only Grand Slam that he really has a legitimate chance. I don’t mean that against him, it’s just that the competition is so good. Then, you know, Andy Murray, really depends on the nerves, how he reacts. Every year that he doesn’t win it, there’s more and more pressure on him. Nadal, I mean, he could come out of the gate and just surprise us all. I think you kind of wonder after winning the French, I know he’s always hungry, but I think this court doesn’t suit him as well as it does the other players.
It’s just totally up in the air. That’s the wonderful thing about it. That’s the wonderful thing about having the top four men playing so closely and evenly. It’s a hard question, and I don’t know if John agrees with it, coming into a tournament, as an analyst, you like to see the first few rounds and see how they’re playing. Especially after the first week, you kind of have a better view.
JOHN McENROE: Nadal seeded 5, and he plays Djokovic in the quarters, that’s going to impact more than just those two people. We have to first wait and see what they decide to do with Nadal.
Q. John, you mentioned a moment ago that Serena you thought was the best player that ever lived. If she creeps up in singles Grand Slam titles to Roger, I’m wondering if it’s fair or your thoughts on whether or not she’s the best player of her generation, male or female?
JOHN McENROE: Well, that’s a difficult one to answer. I mean, I think you’re talking about apples and oranges.
She’s certainly one of the greatest athletes in the history of our sport, male or female, there’s no doubt about that. I mean, that’s a given.
I don’t see where you can really get very far saying — when you get in direct comparisons with both of them. That’s like saying, Who is better, Steffi or Andre? You get into all different types of things. And I don’t think there’s an answer. I would definitely say she’s one of the greatest athletes and players, male or female. I would definitely say that.
Q. They’re both defending champions. Talk about their sort of preparation, their momentum going into Wimbledon, both Federer and Serena.
JOHN McENROE: Obviously they do things different. Roger played and won Halle. Serena, as far as I understood, went back to the States. They know exactly what they need to do now more than ever.
I think clearly it’s tougher for Roger at this stage ’cause he has to go out and play best-of-five. The recovery for longer matches would be tougher, especially if he had to do a few in a row.
I do think for Roger that his best chance remains Wimbledon. As I said last year, it’s his best bet to win a major. And Serena has proved she can win and is a big favorite anywhere. She’s got such an intimidation factor that it’s going to be difficult for anyone to beat her.
As we all know, everyone has bad days. She was down 2-Love, couple breakpoints to Kuznetsova in the quarters, had to pull out. In almost any tournament, you’re going to have one or two days where you’re going to be struggling a little bit.
There’s perhaps a handful of players on the other side of the draw that could possibly be able to step in and pull off an upset in that situation, more so on the men’s side than the women’s because there’s huge guys like Rosol type of guy who on a given day could provide more problems.
Q. John, I wanted to ask about Nadal. Do you have any insight into the toll that winning the French this time around took on him, especially the five-setter against Djokovic? As part of that, could you discuss the pros and cons in Nadal’s case of skipping a grass court tune-up this year heading into Wimbledon?
JOHN McENROE: First of all, I think he made the right move not playing. Last year when he played the French, he went and played Halle. I can’t say this because he was probably having trouble with the knees already, but to me it did contribute to make them even worse, his uncertainty. I think he needed the break, particularly since that was the first best-of-five set, first major he played since Wimbledon of last year.
As far as the wear and tear, emotionally, physically, it’s difficult to say. I interviewed him after he won the French. I was amazed how well he bounced back from the Djokovic match, given the fact he hadn’t played as tough a match as that. He’s certainly phenomenal. He’s unbelievable. I hope that he stays healthy. I would just say emotionally after everything he went through, it would be hard not to have some type of letdown for a period of time.
I think for me coming into Wimbledon, because of everything that sort of goes into winning an event like that, to me I would pick him the fourth most likely guy to win it. I would drop him down below the other three guys there because I think there will be some toll that will be taken, maybe even more emotional than physical. The movement that he banks on on clay is not going to be quite as easy on grass for him. He may not be quite as confident. Having said that, maybe he’ll take the opposite and he’ll be so happy he’s back out there, it wouldn’t shock me if he won it.
Q. (Question regarding the men’s seedings and whether they should deviate from current rankings.)
JOHN McENROE: I think they should seed Nadal in the top four. I don’t think anyone would murmur any complaint whatsoever. I think Wimbledon is the only tournament I’m aware of out of the four majors that does change the seedings. I don’t know exactly how they do it. Apparently there’s a formula, a committee, a combination. But clearly he should be one of the top four seeds in my book.
Q. Let’s say they don’t. That would obviously have an enormous effect on the other four.
JOHN McENROE: Ferrer is going to be the five seed if he’s not the four seed. Therefore, if he played Nadal in the quarters anyway, it would be like the same old, same old for him, because he’s always had to play one of those four guys in the quarters. If you were to, say, have Nadal play Djokovic in the quarters, possibly Murray or Federer, that would be a big difference, yeah. It would be absolutely wrong for that to happen, in my opinion.
Q. We saw Rafa do an incredible exhibition at Roland Garros. How do you break down Rafael Nadal on clay?
JOHN McENROE: It’s sort of like what the person asked before about breaking down Serena on grass. I’ve watched and played a lot. I grew up playing a lot of clay, certainly experienced the ups and downs. Watching the best of the best, Borg and others. But this guy is without a doubt the ultimate nightmare to play on that surface because I used to think you could take advantage of his serve. His serve has gotten a lot better. I used to think maybe you could bring him in. He’s one of the best volleyers in the world. He’s certainly one of the fittest in the world. He’s certainly got more topspin than I’ve ever seen. He seems to have more shots than anyone on that surface.
The only hope you do have is if you were blessed to be born 6’5″, 6’6″, you swing for the fences, you have one of those days where everything works, you basically go for broke the way everybody did, the way some guys that beat him. Otherwise, you’re in for a nightmare of a day.
Having said that, I think it gives you an idea of how determined and well Djokovic was that he put himself in a position to be up 4-3 in the fifth on a pretty hot day, be that close to winning, five points from winning the match. To me that was the greatest clay court match I’ve ever seen.
Q. You were both talented enough to win multiple major championships. If you could only win one major in tennis, is Wimbledon the one that everyone wants to win?
CHRIS EVERT: For me, yes. If I were to only win one, I would prefer to win Wimbledon rather than any of them.
JOHN McENROE: Growing up as a kid in New York, even though it’s very special to be close to home, ball boy at the event, there’s something magical, it seems so far away when you’re a kid, so beautiful when you’re on TV, to see grass courts, it’s certainly the one growing up that’s the most talked about. I think it still continues to be.
CHRIS EVERT: It’s the first one we saw on TV. I remember watching Margaret Court/Billie Jean King play the finals. I don’t know if it was black and white, but it pretty much was black and white. Like John said, I remember all the way across the ocean, the history of the event adds to it.
Q. Do you have any quick one final memory from any of the Wimbledons you participated in, something that sticks in your head about the event itself?
CHRIS EVERT: I mean, it’s hard because we had 15- to 20-year careers. It’s the one tournament that’s bigger than the players. Wimbledon is the star more than the players. It’s the showcase. That showcase is more the star. That’s all I can say.
JOHN McENROE: For me personally, it was the tiebreaker in ’80 when I played the match with Borg that people come up to me a hundred times more than any other match I played. That would be the moment for me.
Q. Chrissy, a question about Madison Keys. What do you think about her potential?
CHRIS EVERT: Yeah, she definitely has the weapons to be top five. She has the weapons to be number one. There’s so much more that goes into it than physical weapons. I can almost say she almost matches Serena’s serve as far as power. Out of all the players out there, she comes the closest to Serena’s serve. The power off both sides is tremendous for someone that young.
So much remains to be seen. That’s the mental side of the game, which really hasn’t been tested as much because she is an up-and-coming player and she has no pressure when she’s playing these players right now.
That remains to be seen mentally how focused she is, how hungry she is for success. That remains to be seen. Of all the young players, I would have to say she, even more than Sloane Stephens, has the potential to be top 10.
Q. I’m curious to know who of the up-and-coming players will win their first slam, whether it be this Wimbledon or down the road?
CHRIS EVERT: You have to be a soothsayer to predict that. The head of the list would be Madison Keys, I think, along with Sloane Stephens. Bethanie Mattek, she’s had a lot of success the last three months. She’s like a different person, different player out there, so I wouldn’t rule her out. I think of the Americans, again, I think Madison or Sloane would have to be the next Grand Slam winner.
JOHN McENROE: If I had to pick one guy, I’d probably pick Dimitrov right now if you have someone who is going to do it. I think he’s on the right track again after sort of disappointing some of the people that predicted greatness early. He’s moving in the right direction. Then there’s going to be someone like Raonic, one of these guys, that gets it, figuring out how to utilize his weapons more on a court like Wimbledon.
Q. I wanted to see if you could weigh in overall on the state of American tennis.
JOHN McENROE: Basically, certainly we had a lot of success in the past, probably became pretty spoiled. Clearly Americans have come to expect and want Grand Slam contenders and winners. We’ve had some excellent players. Sam Querrey has been a solid professional, very solid. John Isner got to 10 in the world. Mardy Fish got to the top 10 before it overwhelmed him. If you want to compete and win majors at this stage, the athleticism necessary is becoming even more exceptional. That’s something we have to try to search out and provide the opportunity for kids that don’t have it. That’s the biggest thing.
Unlike women, or girls, I believe girls are much more likely to play tennis than boys. The greatest American athletes played football or basketball. We’re lower down on the totem pole. We need to do something like that. Unless you get a guy like John Isner, 6’10″, one of the biggest serves ever. Therefore, he can be a threat to anyone.
To go all the way in a major, you need a combination of things. That’s what we need to push towards. That’s a whole other discussion. But we’re certainly not where we want to be, no doubt about that. Ryan Harrison is a solid pro. He’s trying to make headway. Jack Sock is athletically good, but you have to be incredible. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, the next five, ten years, how we veer toward better and better athletes in our sport.
CHRIS EVERT: On the men’s side, all those guys that John mentioned, those guys came out in the last few years. On the women’s side, I think we have 10 in the top 100. That’s more than any other country in the world. That was at the French. That’s a big statement for some of the critics that have been criticizing American tennis, USTA, whatever. We’ve got a good stable of players. We’re not even naming Jamie Hampton, Melanie Oudin0, Alison Riske. There’s a lot of girls I see down in Boca Raton at the USTA center hammering it out every afternoon. There’s playing matches and matches, competing against each other, getting better and better as a result. I think it’s a good time for American women’s tennis. I think now people can kind of be quiet about their criticism of American tennis ’cause things are definitely starting to happen, pretty exciting things.
Q. Who could be the biggest surprise at Wimbledon this fortnight? Maybe Berdych or Del Potro, maybe Wawrinka is having a good year.
JOHN McENROE: First of all, Berdych has been in a Wimbledon final, and Del Potro has won a major. Stan’s game I don’t think is as well-suited. All those guys are veteran players. Certainly one of these big hitters, and Tsonga, are looking to have a better chance. Out in left field would be the guys I mentioned. These guys have worked hard to get in a position where they’re trying to get closer and closer to the top guys. I think that this would be a perfect opportunity depending on what happens. If they seed Nadal 5, that would open the door up for a couple of these other guys that could make a run a lot further where they wouldn’t have to play one of those guys in the semis. Berdych beat Djokovic and Federer one year and still had to beat Nadal in the final. Some of it’s going to depend on what happens with the draw.
Q. You spoke generally about U.S. players who might break through. Can you look ahead to the US Open and speculate about how you think the Americans will perform this year.
JOHN McENROE: Pretty hard to jump ahead. Most of the guys that we’ve talked about, Isner, Querrey, Ryan, they all seem to prefer the hard courts. That would improve our chances. Obviously they’re going to have the crowd in their favor, so that would help.
You have a lot of things leading up to it. The obvious ones: health, how they do leading up to Cincinnati. It’s difficult to say. Again, it’s not just the luck of the draw, but to some degree you have to see those things. Otherwise, I think the upside for Jack Sock is he’s probably the biggest upside we have for a young guy. Ryan would be close behind him. Those are the two guys that have the most room to improve to me right now, other than the juniors that we’re waiting to see who is going to break out.
CHRIS EVERT: Yeah, I think the Americans, young Americans, get really, really excited about the US Open, I think more than any other Grand Slam tournament. I think consequently they have good results because we’ve seen them. Primarily, like John said, they’re hard court players. American players are not natural grass court players or clay court players, they’re hard court players. Most of them have been brought up on the hard courts. I think with all that, the spirit of playing their country’s championship, the fact that they’re hard court players, the fact that I know on the women’s side they’re all pretty much supporting one another, I think we’re going to see some upsets, definitely upsets, some good results from the Americans.
Q. John, with Roger Federer winding down, do you think if he would win Wimbledon he would retire at the end of the season?
JOHN McENROE: I don’t know. I don’t think he’s going to retire for a couple years, he loves playing too much. The last guy that did that was Pete Sampras. Very few guys sort of go out winning a major. He quit right then.
Even though it was an awesome move and I respect it, I think sometimes even he questions it. He left a big void.
Roger seems to enjoy it almost more than any player I’ve ever seen. It would shock me if he would do that, absolutely shock me.
Q. Chris, this is really not about Wimbledon, per se, but it’s about the Women’s Tennis Association, I know their 40th anniversary is coming up. Could you speak about what the kind of risk and rewards seemed to be at the time that the WTA was formed, and in retrospect what has it accomplished in your view in terms of making tennis a viable career for women?
CHRIS EVERT: Let me just say, I was lucky enough to be around 40 years ago. I was not a part of the beginning. Basically I was a school girl. I just listened to everything my dad told me to do. I didn’t get involved in the politics of it. But I was aware of what was going on and thought it was pretty progressive, pretty ahead of the times that Billie Jean got these women together to form a union. I didn’t even know what a union was at 18 years old. I thought of maybe going down in the coal mines or something when I heard ‘union’. It was really pretty daring.
Then they formed the WTA, where they would have a president, officers, meetings, and basically the women would make the decisions, all the politics of the game, instead of having somebody tell us what to do all the time. I thought that was great.
Then Virginia Slims came along. I stuck with the WTA, being conservative. We had two tours. When Virginia Slims became the one tour, that’s when women’s tennis really took off. We were making good money. We were providing a living for a good 200 players down the road. Funny enough, that circuit at that time meant more to us than Grand Slam tournaments. That’s where it’s really changed over the years.
But if it wasn’t for Billie Jean, if she was in golf, golf would have been the premiere sport for women, not tennis. So thank God for her.
Q. John, you’ve said that Nelson Mandela is the most special person you ever met. What does it mean to you that he listened to your match from his cell, and did you go out there to the island?
JOHN McENROE: I didn’t go to the island, but rather felt like a complete jerk that he listened to the match at the Robben Island prison when I was whining about the call. It certainly gave me some perspective about the situation I was in. I shouldn’t have had a whole lot to complain about.
At the same time I feel immensely proud that in some way I was able to connect with people beyond your wildest dreams, the type of people you would be able to connect with that said I would have given $10 million that he felt it was an honor meeting me. I felt ludicrous him saying he was honored meeting me.
It was amazing he didn’t seem to have an ounce of bitterness or resentment towards anyone when I was lucky enough to meet him. It was certainly a moment I will never forget, or an hour. I gave him my racquet that I played with at that time. I saw him pick it up and hold it. I felt lucky that I was able to be part of that.
Q. Can you talk about the experience you have of meeting celebrities, whether it’s Pele, the Stones? Who are some of your favorites?
JOHN McENROE: I wouldn’t trade that for anything. There’s a mutual respect on some level. Sometimes you pinch yourself that you’re even hearing people like Pele, Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, all these great players, that sort of on some level look at you on equal footing. To me, that’s always been the greatest perk that I’ve been able to have, being lucky enough to be good at what I did for a living, playing tennis, that I could meet people, whether it was incredible athletes, a couple guys from the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, the Beatles, whatever it is. It’s unbelievable. I’ve never taken that for granted and I never will.
I think while it gives you a certain humility, it also gives you a great deal of satisfaction and pride that you feel on some level you’re inspiring in some tiny way, that they have even close to the same level of appreciation that I have for being around them a little bit.