On The Call: ESPN Tennis Analysts Chris Evert and John McEnroe Preview 2021 Wimbledon
(June 22, 2021) ESPN tennis analysts Chris Evert and John McEnroe spoke with media on Tuesday on a conference call, previewing 2021 Wimbledon and discussing issues in the sport. Wimbledon begins on June 28, 2021. Here is the transcript.:
Q. Just wondering about Serena right off the bat. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, catching the elusive 24th Grand Slam title. What does her window look like? What are the chances at Wimbledon this year?
CHRISSIE EVERT: That’s the question everybody’s been asking. Like Roger Federer, Serena’s best chance is on the grass obviously because of all the Grand Slams because of her power, because of her big serve, the first strike of the ball, shorter rallies. She’s won the most of any current player on grass. She has had the most experience and wisdom and instincts on the grass courts of any current player.
In saying that, I also have to say that if ever the field was at its most vulnerable, I would think it would be this year with the injuries, with the lack of grass court practice. This is to me her golden opportunity.
The big challenge for her in my mind will be stringing together seven matches where she plays at a high level mentally and physically. That’s always, for the aging athlete, the big thousand-dollar question: Can they string together seven high-quality matches? It’s physically, mentally staying healthy, staying involved with each match, staying present with each match.
I just think my first answer was, if there was ever a year that has looked good in the last few years, if there ever was a Grand Slam she is capable, more than capable, of winning, you can never count her out anyway, but it would be this year’s Wimbledon to me.
JOHN McENROE: I think Chrissie hit the nail on the head. I have nothing further to add.
Q. Chrissie, why is the field this year better for her?
CHRISSIE EVERT: I think they’re more vulnerable. When you look at Ash Barty, she is not playing a warmup tournament, am I correct? She’s not playing a warmup tournament. She’s been injured. Naomi Osaka, Serena’s big competitor, is not playing. Simona Halep who beat her two years ago is coming off an injury, is also not playing any warmup tournaments.
You look at the threats: Sabalenka, Kenny, Andreescu, Krejcikova, Pliskova, they’ve never established themselves to be great grass court players, nor have they had tremendous success.
In saying that, there’s always two sides to the coin. This new generation is fearless and confident. They don’t have that intimidation factor that the generation before them had when they played Serena. This is new to them. It’s a challenge to them and they play loose and relaxed.
I’m not dismissing the field by any means. I think one of 20 players could win this tournament. I’m just saying, unlike the clay, which everybody seemed to build, play practice tournaments, warmup tournaments, that was more of a threat to Serena and her game than playing a Wimbledon.
Q. My question is about Coco Gauff. What would you hope that she takes away from that quarterfinal loss at the French with the five set points that went wanting, ostensibly a path to the final that might have looked like a moment? What’s realistic to hope how she responds and what do you expect?
CHRISSIE EVERT: It’s so funny, after I saw that match and I saw she had a chance – you’re right, that draw would have really opened up for her – I remembered my first French Open final and I was 17. I think Steve Flink told me, I believe, that I was up a set and 5-3 and lost the match. The next year I won the French.
I think, if anything, her first reaction in the press conference was very positive. She said somebody came up to her and said, one of her coaches or somebody, You’re going to win a Grand Slam. This shows that you’re going to win a Grand Slam. So she took it as a positive.
She has I think developed her skill set even to another level during the clay court season. She got better and better with each tournament. I think if her serve is on, she could very well get to the second week, even make a quarter or a semi, very possible at Wimbledon.
It’s all good. It’s all good. Even her losses are going to be good because she’s the type of person that will learn from her losses and not get discouraged by them.
Q. John, anything you want to add?
JOHN McENROE: The only thing I would add is my biggest concern, along with a lot of others, is how she’s handled in her teenage years. Certainly Chrissie knows a lot about that, how the expectations grow.
It seems like they’re in a good spot, the parents and Coco. I think she could potentially absolutely get to late in the event, semis, finals. It’s conceivable if things go well.
Q. About Roger, obviously comes in with few matches. Does he have a chance here? How much longer do you think he’s going to go? Do you think he’ll make it to the US Open after the Olympics or his knees won’t be able to hold up?
JOHN McENROE: Those are questions we don’t know the answer to. We hope that he’s able to play as long as he wants to play. I mean, he’s sort of like our Tom Brady. I mean, you look at these older guys, they’re inspiring people like Roger certainly.
I don’t think he’s worried about he lost second round in Halle as long as he’s feeling good. The bottom line is, as Chrissie said about Serena, it’s no question that Roger’s best chance is here. I believe he’s out of a handful of guys. Obviously Novak is a huge favorite. After that you would put him in the mix of the next five, six guys in my book still to make a run.
It’s the same issue he’s got as Serena: how is the body going to hold up, can he go through seven matches. That’s iffy. He looked fine in the French. He played a four-hour match, won that, then defaulted. It’s hard to say how he was feeling that next day, if he could have gone if he had to go.
These are questions that we don’t know the answer to. But hopefully he’ll go out on his terms.
CHRISSIE EVERT: Yeah, I think it’s going to be an uphill battle for Roger only because, like, when you watch that last match that he lost, he voices his sentiments that he was so disappointed that he had to take a couple hours to think about it, disappointed in himself.
The thing is, John and I played — John, did you play past 30?
JOHN McENROE: Yeah, I made it to almost 34. Two months shy.
CHRISSIE EVERT: Yeah, I made it to 34. We were pretty similar when they stopped.
There gets a point where you wake up in the morning, you go out, even the will to win isn’t enough. It’s just not there. That’s why I’ve said for the last four years about Serena, can she string together seven matches? People would look at me like, Why not? People don’t understand. They think you’re going to come out there every day and play your A game. That doesn’t happen, especially when you play 20 years on the tour. In her case, 25 years. In Roger’s case also.
It’s going to be really monumental, to me, if he could even reach the final. It’s possible obviously. To me it’s just going to be very, very hard to do that.
Q. A quick Novak question. He’s coming off an amazing Roland Garros. He said after he’d like to go for the Golden Slam this year. How realistic is that? What will be his biggest challenge to achieving that. And are there any Grand Slam traditions you would like to see eliminated or any that you would like to see resume?
JOHN McENROE: That’s a tough part, the second part of that question, what could be done differently. That’s a tough call.
I think it’s smart that Wimbledon is playing on Sunday. I didn’t get that personally. That will be eliminated.
While I’m thinking about that, I’ll answer the Novak. His biggest obstacle to me is if his body holds up through this. It looks amazing. He looked phenomenal. He’s halfway home. He won the tougher one. He’s the best player that ever lived, I would say, on hard courts. If he’s able to maintain his health through this, I mean, I think he’s got a great shot at winning the slam.
I guess that means he’s going to go to Tokyo, which would be phenomenal for Serbia. I was wondering whether he’d do that. At this point the fact that he’s saying it shows you how much he believes he can do it. Normally you wouldn’t bring that up. It’s like saying, I’m about to pitch a no-hitter after six innings. That’s pretty gutsy in itself, shows you how confident he is.
I also wouldn’t have the 15th day in the French, as well.
CHRISSIE EVERT: Realistically I think he could do it, yeah. It’s not unrealistic at all. He just showed us at the French Open why he’s different than everybody else. His reserve is just deeper than anybody else’s.
The thing is, he’s not flashy, but he’s brilliant in the way he plays. There are so many articles written about his balance and his timing, his flexibility. But if he’s losing, he just has the ability to wait it out, wait it out. He gets one opportunity, he jumps in and he makes it happen. He makes it better than any other player.
He seems to be on a mission. He seems to just have that intensity that more and more every year I see and that confidence. So do I think he can do it? Sure, I do think he can do it.
You know what he does well? He also manages himself, his schedule, his emotions, his practice. His whole life is just managed to the T. He’s in the moment every match. I think, again, I would say he’s got a very good chance.
Q. A question on Andy Murray. What are you expecting from him? What have you seen of him since he’s been competing the last few months?
JOHN McENROE: I’ll tell you what I’ve seen, and I haven’t seen very much, he hasn’t played very much, but what I have seen is someone who is trying to get healthy. Seems like he’s struggling to get back to that movement which is so key.
I just hope he’s able to maintain a level of health where he can do his thing. If he was able to do that, he’d be in the top 10. Obviously to me he’s not able to go a hundred percent. I don’t know if that will change or if this is just permanent. I don’t know how much longer he can go if, in fact, he’s playing at 80%, whatever percent it is, however much less than a hundred it is. It’s clear that it’s not at a hundred.
I’m not a doctor. I hope he can get back to as close to a hundred percent as possible. If he get into the 90s, you’d see his ranking go up in a hurry because it’s clear he still wants to play. I think he’s looking at Novak and the other guys, Rafa and Roger, I can still win events if I’m able to be healthy.
It really all depends on that.
CHRISSIE EVERT: John, I think you brought up a good point. He’s drawing inspiration from these other champions that are also middle or late 30s. Like Serena even. If they can do it, I can do it.
What I see is a passionate man. He’s so passionate about his tennis. I saw the first match at Queen’s, he looked great. He was moving well. He was serving well. Everything looked good, pretty sharp, considering he hasn’t played at all. I don’t know what happened the second match.
I think at this point Wimbledon and the Brits should rejoice that he’s out there and celebrate that she’s still out there playing, giving his heart and soul to a game that he clearly and dearly loves.
I mean, anything’s icing on the cake as far as I’m concerned with Andy Murray.
Q. This is relating to Serena, to Roger, maybe even an element of Andy. Does it baffle you that there’s elements of the media, the public, are always trying to push players into retirement? This is going to be their last Wimbledon, they’re going to retire. Andy Murray gets a wild card. On social media there’s points made how dare he get a wild card, he’s taking a place away from a young, aspiring player, things like that. I can’t remember Chris or John ever being pressured and pestered by media or the public pushing you all into retirement.
CHRISSIE EVERT: Thank God we didn’t have social media in our day. I thank God all the time. I’m so glad I came up in the ’70s and the ’80s where we were building a tour, there was camaraderie. The press just traveled with us, a handful of written press. It was really a lot more simple and not as intrusive in our day. I feel bad for this generation, that they have to read all these negative comments.
At the same time I remember being asked a lot in press conferences, when I lost my No. 1 spot, Martina started beating me, Steffi and Monica started beating me, the natural question obviously was…
You got to be thick-skinned. If you’re in an individual sport, you got to have some thick skin, not let things go to your head, not take it personal, not take it personal.
I think I was offended at times. At other times it was just, Don’t let it affect you. But it really is different in this day and age. Nothing is private any more. Every opinion in the world is out there. I just think it makes it really a lot harder for this generation.
JOHN McENROE: It felt pretty intrusive at certain times in my career. Some of it was self-inflicted. You try to rationalize that people are trying to sell papers, I guess. Because of what’s happened with everything or a lot of things going online, a lot of newspapers dying, maybe there’s just more of an effort to try to drum up something that will be a headline or something.
I’d always felt like, especially when Borg stopped so young, for me he was my greatest rival, people were asking all the time, Are you going to keep playing? It started with Bjorn because maybe he was the first guy that could afford to stop financially in our sport. Maybe that’s changed things.
I think for a while it seemed like if you made it past 30, that was incredible. Now the top players, the four ones that we’ve talked the most about, they’re well into their 30s. That would beg the question more often because you see they’ve gone through a lot. Roger’s got a bunch of surgeries, he’s almost 40. Wow, how and why is he still playing?
Because of the fact that you’re able to compete longer because people have more knowledge of how to take care of themselves and recover, et cetera, that allows for the players to play longer. Subsequently people ask about it more, in my opinion.
Q. I’m not sure how much either of you over the years since retiring, maybe particularly recently, has gotten a chance to step out on the courts on the All England Club and play or hit. Based on that and/or watching, could you describe how you think the grass courts have changed over the years since you were playing up to now, and how that affects the game, maybe as a disincentive for serve-and-volley play?
JOHN McENROE: I would say certainly back in either 2001 or ’02 that the All England Club decided to mix the grasses a little more to change the bounce. The bounce has become truer. Subsequently, if you look at the sport in general, it seems to have been homogenized where clay courts are faster, hard courts are slower, there’s not as many indoor events.
It seems like because of that, there’s not specialists as there used to be, like grass court specialists who were serve-and-volleyers. The technology, the racquets have gotten to be more powerful, the return of serve comes back a lot faster. The strings, there’s a lot more spin.
Kids at a young age, they hit harder, but they’re not as inclined or taught as much to move forward and come to net. Subsequently you’ve seen this unbelievable change, in my opinion, where back 20 years ago you had Rafter and Ivanisevic serving and volleying every point. The next year Nalbandian played Hewitt and not one served and volleyed one point. It’s an unbelievable change. In some ways it’s been good because you see more rallies.
I would have loved to play on a grass court that had a better bounce. I don’t know if it would have helped my results. I would like to think the best players that understand the court would do well anyway. I would still think certainly on a first serve and a lot of second serves, you still try to serve and volley.
You talk to players of today and others, they’re like, Djokovic would have blown every return by. You just can’t do it that way.
But certainly the bounce of the court is better, truer than it’s ever been. That’s allowed players, because of their inclination to stay back, to stay back.
CHRISSIE EVERT: I’m like, Darn it. I wish I could play in this day and age when it comes to the grass. The three years I won it, I beat three serve-and-volleyers who were coming in every point, serve, volley, first serve. The bounces were so low in the ’70s.
Now, like John says, it plays more like a hard court. The bounces are higher, the courts, when they’re dry. Angie Kerber and Simona Halep, you’re looking at players who are not known to be great volleyers or winning Wimbledon. You’ve got to figure the seed, whatever the surface, is different.
On the other hand the French Open used to be slower. I’m not quite sure it’s the clay. I don’t think the clay can change. I think it’s probably the balls maybe, the balls that they’re using now and the equipment.
Martina and I, we joke with each other a lot. She says to me, I would have maybe won more French Opens.
I look at her and say, Maybe I would have won more Wimbledons.
We kid each other because I dominated on the clay, she dominated on the grass. Like John said, you don’t have to be a specialist any more because the surfaces are really becoming more and more uniform.
Q. Chrissie, you talked about Coco a little earlier, but more off the court for her with Wimbledon and the Olympics. Where do you think Coco’s place as a brand and draw could be by this fall? What would your advice be for her given this unique opportunity with the way the calendars have aligned at the same time her game is evolving?
CHRISSIE EVERT: The good thing is, and I think John touched upon this, she has good people around her, a good team around her. Her parents are not getting carried away at all by this fame and fortune bit.
In a sense it’s been kind of gradual. I’m glad she hasn’t won a Grand Slam title thus far because then things would have gotten out of control if she would have done that at a young age.
Personally I think if her game continues to evolve like it has, she could be the biggest thing in tennis by the end of the year. She could be the biggest thing in sports by the end of the year. I mean, I’m saying this because I believe that she could be the biggest thing in tennis at the end of the year with some great results.
At the same time I don’t want to be like press building her up, building her up, building her up because then there’s more pressure on her.
I was amazed. I watched her play every tournament on clay. She started out a little slow. She beat some really quality players. Should have won the quarterfinal match at the French Open. She’s only 17. She’s got the game. She’s got the power. She’s got tremendous composure. You can tell it in her eyes, she wants it badly. There’s every indication she has the mental side and the skill set side to win a Grand Slam, to be No. 1 eventually. Now it’s just the waiting game.
I think it’s going to happen, but I think everybody’s just got to be patient about it and let it happen in its own time.
Q. How have you seen over time evolve the way the press and people around the tour handle young especially women athletes, how you have seen that change in the last year or two as it relates to Coco?
CHRISSIE EVERT: How they’ve treated Coco, the press?
CHRISSIE EVERT: With respect. With excitement. I haven’t seen any negativity at all. She’s been a breath of fresh air on the tour. I think she’s got a great personality and she’s very open and honest and mature about her statements.
You give respect, you get respect. There should be that respect between the player and the press because we’re all in this together. I think she has a good, healthy attitude about that.
Q. I’m a sports psychologist. Your quick views of how you see the competitors out there with the mindset? Who do you think may cave to a little bit of pressure and lose that focus and be distracted by certain things? Anybody that sticks out that may have a little bit more of a difficult time or is everybody up there and they should all do well? There is going to be some type of a setback, sometimes they get an injury or something doesn’t go their way with a certain call. Anybody that kind of stands out that may cave a little bit through the pressure? What advice would you give to them?
JOHN McENROE: I’m not sure that we want to be naming names.
CHRISSIE EVERT: (Laughter).
Q. Not naming names. But on a little bit of a scale, are there a couple that might be?
JOHN McENROE: I’ll tell you, all you have to do is look at Osaka and see what’s happened since she came out and talked about mental health, to see what type of explosion that’s been. Initially at the French, then it got to the point sadly where a total lose-lose happened. The Grand Slams attempted to deal with it and threatened to default her, then she pulled out and is not at Wimbledon. That tells you all you need to know about what type of effect it can be. For all the competitors, they’re going to be more aware of that, maybe somewhat more susceptible to it.
You just mentioned injuries. That’s a factor obviously in someone’s head. This goes tournament to tournament. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Zverev, for example, he was up two sets to love and a break in the finals at the Open. How would he handle it if he was in that position again? These are the type of things that depending on the situation you could go down the list of the top players.
Will his serve break down? Where is Thiem’s head at? He seems to have gone completely flat since he won the Open. He seems to be the player to me most negatively affected by this catastrophe that the whole world has been living through with corona.
It’s difficult to say, but there are certainly issues that some people – I’ll speak for myself for a second – but I was scrutinized more carefully at Wimbledon than I was at any other event for a combination of reasons.
You look at Murray, he’s trying to get back into the swing of things and be healthy, but everyone is going to be watching him. That adds even more pressure. It really depends.
You could go down the list of the top male and female players. Halep hasn’t played. She had to pull out of the French. What type of head space is she in? It’s hard to say.
CHRISSIE EVERT: Yeah, I mean, that’s a good question. I think everybody has their own personal issues, whether it’s physical or mental. You look at somebody like Sofia Kenin who has decided she doesn’t want her father to be her coach right now. Her father has been her coach her whole life, she won a Grand Slam with him. Her tennis hasn’t been up to snuff since then.
Caroline Garcia, she went through the same thing. This parent-child coaching relationship, when it breaks up, I think that can cause a lot of anguish. It upsets the apple cart a little bit because it’s something new and that security is kind of taken away.
Q. It’s more personal in that way.
CHRISSIE EVERT: It’s a personal relationship. I think when I look at even Martina Hingis when she had that one Wimbledon where her mother wasn’t in the stands, she lost first round, her mother who had been her coach her whole life.
Any time the parent-child coaching relationship is broken – on the women’s side anyway – the women have had an adjustment period and have had a tough time.
Dominic Thiem, he brought it to everybody’s attention, Dominic, he had seven intense years where he was training, he was training five hours a day, he was practicing, he was so intense that he never let up, and it got to him. He got burned out.
You got to know when to leave the game for a few months and when to change your schedule, your tournaments, your practice. I think that’s a learning process for a lot of these players. As John said, now you have like three lives on the tour, you can play for three decades now. It’s all about managing everything.
Q. Obviously last year’s Wimbledon was canceled. This year there will be live spectators, albeit at a limited capacity. What do you think the addition of fans and spectators after so long being fan-less, more limited capacity, how will that affect the mindset of the players? Would this possibly work in the favor of older, more experienced players like Federer or Serena?
CHRISSIE EVERT: Well, my first thought was during the pandemic when there were a lot of upsets. For a player ranked 50 in the world to go on to Arthur Ashe Stadium and play Serena when there’s five people in the stands, that’s I think a tremendous benefit to the player ranked 50 in the world. They’re not used to the big crowds. There’s always that intimidation factor.
The top players, they feed on the energy and excitement of the crowd. They’re used to it. It’s like they’re home with 20,000 people watching them. That’s where they feel comfortable, that’s where they get their juices flowing.
I think it’s going to be really great for the top seeds, the players who have been on center stage more so than the others. I think it’s going to be good. But it definitely was an equalizer when you had nobody in the stands. It definitely was an equalizer for the players.
JOHN McENROE: Having been at the Knicks game, the one they won against Atlanta, the energy was unbelievable. I’ve been hundreds of games, been at sporting events thousands of times. That had to be top five or 10 in terms of loudest.
I think in any sport, even in a one-on-one sport like tennis, it’s really going to help the players in general. Even the lower-ranked players that may have benefited from no fans deep down want to be able to pull off a win against the top people with fans and feel that energy and what it’s like to be in the packed house, Centre Court at Wimbledon. It’s at 50% now, but that’s better than none.
When Wimbledon was canceled last year, that was a shot in the gut for our sport. A terrible time. So to have it back is incredible. We got a little bit of a shot the other day when Rafa and Osaka withdrew the same day. That was bad. I’m sure 99.9% of the people around this sport are happy it’s back, for sure.
Q. The component of mental health, especially in such a tough time. I appreciate you, Chrissie, bringing up how tough it is nowadays with social media. I was curious from your experiences, how were you able to block out the criticism and doubts from the media? What advice would you have for some of the current athletes on how they should do something similar?
CHRISSIE EVERT: Again, our generation was so different in the sense that there are so many blogs and so many online press, so many written press, it’s so complicated now. It was different in our day.
Honestly in our day, like I said, the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, Frank Deford, a handful of people traveling the circuit with us. If there’s anything upsetting, I’m sorry, but they were our friends as well. A lot of them were anyway. If it really bothered us, we would go up to them and just ask them, Why did you print this? I have a problem with that. How do you justify this? There were so few press.
Again, I go through the thick skin. You have to have thick skin in an individual sport. If you’re making millions and millions of dollars, you have to recognize that at times people are going to be taking potshots at you. The tabloids especially will not always be telling the truth. You do your best to ignore it. It does affect you at times and it is hurtful at times.
I don’t know, John and I got through it. I think John had it tougher than I did. He seemed to have gotten through it unscathed, pretty good shape. Probably should ask him, too.
JOHN McENROE: I’m not on social media, number one. I feel like I could have got myself in a hell of a lot of trouble had I been back in the day, maybe even now, but certainly back in the day.
I would think that the players of today have to get their priorities right. How much do they care about winning? How much energy are they going to put into that? How much are they going to sort of complement that with what type of effort they’re going to put on social media?
Some people enjoy it. For the people that enjoy it, maybe it helps them a little bit de-stress. Others that feel like they’re pushed into it, maybe they have teams doing most of it, maybe they’re not quite as enthralled but they feel an obligation because it’ll good for their image, maybe good for some sponsors. I don’t really know.
The bottom line is that certainly it feels like you got to be extremely careful about anything you say at this stage. So the odds of something going off the rails seem to be a lot higher if you’re constantly on it.
So to me, if your focus is, Look, I just want to become the best player I can be, I would think you would try to do that as minimally as possible. That’s just my opinion.
CHRISSIE EVERT: It’s interesting. I’m going to add something.
I think in our day, we didn’t have brands. The first time that word ‘brand’ was brought to my attention, I thought of like Kellogg’s (smiling), Nabisco. What do you mean I’m a brand? I’m not a brand. I’m a human being.
I think in this day and age, the agents and the managers who are doing contracts, I think they put pressure on the player as well to have a brand. I think that the players are making more money if they mention, I’m with Canon camera. That’s always in a contract now.
Even somebody as old as me, if I sign for a product, it’s always in there, Social media, Instagram, tweet, try to get the word out there. That means dollar signs.
It’s a totally different world out there.
Q. John, between Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime, who will be the most successful on the grass this year and going forward? Who has the better tools to play on the grass?
JOHN McENROE: Very tough question. Both of them could go pretty deep in this tournament, without a doubt. I think both have made some great strides and progress. Denis is a little more advanced. I’d give him the slight edge. Felix just beat Roger. His confidence is on the rise. He’s looking to be more aggressive and move forward more.
It’s a tough call. I would give Denis a slight edge at this particular time. I think both of them are going to win majors at some stage in the not-too-distant future.
Q. Chrissie, how did you react to the end of the Andreescu-Bruneau association?
CHRISSIE EVERT: How did I react to the Andreescu-Bruneau? I haven’t heard that one, sorry. I haven’t heard that one. What’s going on there?
JOHN McENROE: A couple weeks ago she decided to move on from her coach.
CHRISSIE EVERT: For sure, okay.
JOHN McENROE: I guess that’s what he’s asking because I believe they were together for numerous years.
CHRISSIE EVERT: Oh, okay.
So you’re asking me then about the breakup? Look, only they know. I can’t speculate on anything. You don’t know. This is where you get in trouble when you speculate what goes on behind closed doors.
The good thing is, I mean, I knew they had split, but I think they had talked it out. I think that’s all you can do. I really don’t have any comment on that.
Q. With the response to Osaka’s initial and subsequent statement at the French, John, you were quite clear in saying that the French Open, the slams’ response, was heavy-handed. I think many people agree. The cost has been quite dear for that. Apart from getting the tone right as it relates to Naomi’s issues and maybe similar ones down the road, is there more that the slams are obligated to do or ought to do, and the two respective tours, in an affirmative way to help players deal with seemingly a borderline clinical emotional or psychological issue that could shorten their careers or imperil their ability to play? Is there a role to play they’re not playing apart from just stop threatening people?
JOHN McENROE: I think that’s a good question. I’m not sure we have an easy answer. Of course we have to sort of look within ourselves to see how we can get someone as introverted and shy but as big a star as Naomi Osaka to understand and embrace in a way that this is part of what a professional tennis player does, that if you don’t do well at the French, people are going to ask you why, and you should be able to handle a response like that.
I heard this, that some new people were brought in, it was like, This is interesting, she’s not going to do press conferences, she’s willing to be fined $15,000. This is giving people pause for thought and it’s actually interesting to see what the reaction will be because this is a bigger issue than has perhaps been in a hundred years because of this pandemic for a lot of people.
I bet you a lot of people do relate to that. Not many can relate when you’re making the type of money she’s making. There’s the other side where her agents and managers have her sponsoring 15 things. You have to do that also. She has a big following on social media. I mean, do you back off on that? It’s like people are saying, You shouldn’t be able to have your cake and eat it too all the time. There has to be a middle ground of some kind so we help our sport.
Lord knows now, in my opinion, tennis needs the attention. We need to get people talking about tennis. The weird part was if you believe in that argument ‘any press is good press’, that actually helped the ratings at the French Open because more people were sort of attuned to what was happening.
The lose-lose is she defaulted there, she’s not playing Wimbledon. You feel like the scrutiny is going to be intensified, if anything. That’s what I worry about. It’s going to be more intense when she comes back and tougher to deal with her, if she’s having that much trouble dealing with what was going to happen at the French.
It’s an ongoing dilemma. I know there were times I didn’t feel protected and it was frustrating. There were a lot of times that people were asking questions that had nothing to do with tennis. I could go on and on. There has to be a feeling of a partnership between all concerned in order for this to succeed and get to a better level.
CHRISSIE EVERT: At first when Naomi made that announcement, it was all about negative questions about her tennis on the clay court during the clay court season. She said that she wanted to always be in a positive environment, that it really brought her down, it made her doubt herself, she never wants to be in that position.
With that explanation, I was like, It’s part of the game. That’s your responsibility. You play a match, you lose, you take an hour, you collect yourself, you go in and you explain it. Okay, you can make the press conference shorter. You don’t have to talk for an hour. If you lose, talk for 10, 15 minutes, at least make that appearance.
But then when she later came out with the depression, I was like, Okay, that’s a whole new ballgame. That’s a whole different animal. You take all the time you need because that’s serious. You take all the time you need.
Then I kind of thought about it. I thought, I feel like it’s bigger than this whole thing about negative questions on the clay. I think it stems with she was an overnight success. It’s suddenly fame and fortune. One of the most celebrated athletes on the planet right now, a spokesperson as well. Here she is very shy and introverted.
There had to come a time when there would be a conflict really with all this because five years ago or four years ago she was living in very modest means, just her bubble was her mom, dad and sister. All of a sudden now her whole life, she’s living in L.A., she’s got all the fame and fortune. I just think, Oh, my gosh, two polar opposite ways to live your life.
People coming up, just telling her how great she is all the time. John and I know how that feels. Are you genuine? You lose your sense of reality a little bit.
I think it’s a bigger picture than this whole thing. You see it in showbiz. All the children in showbiz who have become famous had to go to therapy, whether it’s rehab or therapy or whatever. It’s a very complicated transition. I think that’s part of the problem that she’s having to deal with right now.
Q. The US Open just announced full capacity. You were on-site when it was empty last year. How excited are you the US Open is going full bore with fans?
JOHN McENROE: I was at the Atlanta game. The other day I was at the Foo Fighters show at the Garden which was sold out, unreal. Just the energy was incredible. I don’t think I even need to answer that in a way, how pumped up.
I’m just the commentator. I can only imagine for the players and the fans. People have been cooped up. They’re so chomping at the bit to get out and let it go a little bit, that this is going to be absolutely phenomenal in my opinion. It’s going to be just awesome for all concerned.
Barring any type of setback, which obviously none of us want, it’s going to just be, well, I was going to say back to normal, but it could even be better in a way actually.
Q. You were reminiscing about the ’80s, all that, those were really the days. It’s so different now. You can’t compare to what it is now.
CHRISSIE EVERT: You were there, Craig. You would know.
Q. It’s interesting about the tennis balls. Medvedev was making that point very clear at the French Open, that he liked those Wilson balls that were going used, how much difference that makes. And John, Nick is on his way to London. What are your thoughts there considering he hasn’t played anything other than the Australian Open? Chris, what about Maria Sakkari as a possibility? How hard is it to compare what a player has done at a previous major when they haven’t had the experience to come back and do it again so soon after?
JOHN McENROE: Nick, I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t play the clay. I was very surprised not to see him get to England earlier, or whenever he would go, to play a couple tune-up events considering he hasn’t played since Australia. That sort of worries me. Not that he can’t come out and hit 40 aces. I just have no idea what his conditioning is. The obvious questions: Where is his head at, the questions that we ask normally are magnified because he hasn’t played.
No one wants to play him first round, I can assure you that. But he’s going to be unseeded. He’s like 60, 70 in the world. It’s unbelievable that he’s a guy that talented with that ranking at this present time.
Hopefully, I mean, listen, I like Nick. He can be great for the game, but at the same time I don’t think even he could expect to just waltz his way in and suddenly pull off some incredible run. Maybe he’s doing something I’m unaware of as far as training. Maybe built a grass court at his house in Australia. I don’t know.
If he just left, is just getting there, he’s going to get there a couple days ahead of time. Well, I hope he’s ready to play. Let’s just put it that way.
CHRISSIE EVERT: You asked about Maria Sakkari. If she would have won the French, this could have been her. She was one point away from reaching the semi. Did she get to the quarters or semis?
CHRISSIE EVERT: To me, I think again that loss, when I read her press transcript, again she took it as a positive. It’s like I haven’t had that experience, now I’ve had that experience, I’ll never let it happen again, I’m glad I went through it in the sense I’ll never let it happen again.
A loss like that can make you more determined.
She’s a big hitter, she’s a great athlete and a good mover. Her serve has improved. She’s getting a little more power on that serve. She’s definitely one of six players in my mind that could win the tournament.
As far as winning back-to-back, first of all, I mean, the players haven’t played on grass in two years. Somebody like Krejcikova is coming. She only has two weeks to practice. You know it’s not only about the French. You know it’s about all the lead-up tournaments, it’s about that whole season of, what, six or seven weeks, the lead-up tournaments. It’s just playing on the clay, really adapting to the clay, then resting after a big win, which you need to do. You have one week of practice.
That’s why, again, it’s going to be asking a little too much for her too, I think, win the title. Again, she could surprise everyone and it would be wonderful if she did. It’s going to be very tough for her I would think. So much about grass is footing and feeling stable and experience, big first serves. It’s a different game altogether than the clay. That’s why very few men or women have been able to consolidate those two Grand Slams at the same time.
Q. It’s also a mental aspect. There’s an element of a letdown or emptiness at the end of the something like that. Francesca Schiavone, when she won the French. That would be the bigger aspect, wouldn’t it?
CHRISSIE EVERT: Yes. No doubt. No doubt. I alluded to that by saying there’s such a buildup in the six weeks before, then you have the French Open, then after that you just let down. Having had to play those two tournaments, you let down and you just completely feel like all your energy is out of you. You put so much into it then you got to get back up again. You got to get psyched up again for two more weeks of level A tennis. It is more the mental and emotional component that is tough, for sure. You’re absolutely right.