ESPN / Australian Open Conference Call with Chrissie Evert, Patrick McEnroe
ESPN tennis analysts Chrissie Evert and Patrick McEnroe spoke with media Wednesday about the Australian Open, which starts Sunday, Jan. 15 (Monday in Melbourne), with 100 live hours over two weeks including the usual marathon overnight telecasts on ESPN television and 1,400 on WatchESPN that includes every match – singles, doubles and juniors, culminating with the women’s and men’s championships. Highlights of the call, followed by the full transcript:
On: The State of Serena
- “This is a woman with pride and ego and used to being No. 1, used to being the queen at the top. I’m sure that’s going to be motivation for her, not liking to see another name up there…I don’t think it’s a matter of if she’s going to win another Grand Slam, I think it’s when, and I think it will happen this year.” – Evert
On: The State of U.S. Tennis.
- “At one point we had hardly any American players in the top 100. Now women-wise anyway, we have 17. I think that’s more than any other. So we’ve got the depth. Congratulations, U.S. tennis. We have the depth, but where is that Grand Slam champion?” – Evert
- “There’s a group of seven or eight players, American men, 21 or under, that can be legit Grand Slam players. Out of that group, none of them are ready to be a Grand Slam winner or compete for a title at this point, except for maybe (Jack) Sock. I think within the next two years, it is finally realistic to say we might have someone come out of that group that could do it.” – McEnroe
On: Which is the bigger issue in tennis, PEDs or match fixing?
- “I’m going to say unequivocally match fixing is a big threat to any sport, not just tennis, but the integrity of that sport. That’s not in any way to minimize PEDs, what they can do…I think tennis generally has a better handle on the PED situation with the testing that’s done….The match fixing thing clearly is a huge problem potentially, but I don’t think it’s a huge problem at the highest level of tennis. I think it’s proven to be a problem that definitely is significant at the low levels of tennis, the minor leagues, so to speak, the challengers, et cetera. That has to be gotten more under control.” – McEnroe
On: What’s the one thing you would change about tennis?
- “Because I’m a TV girl now, I think more access to the players. I still don’t think it’s a bad idea to interview a player after a first set or after a second set. I think that’s very do-able. I think it’s progressive thinking. We’re really kind of in the Dark Ages when it comes to getting the players out there, just having a little more buzz about the players. I think on TV I’d like to see more coaches being interviewed.” – Evert
- “When we say the match starts at 7 p.m., it’s actually going to start at 7 p.m., not 7:13, which is basically what happens because the officials don’t have the gonads to tell the top players what to do.” – McEnroe
Q. I’ll start with some big names. What are your expectations for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for this tournament? They both said they want to play two to three more years. Patrick, do you see that happening? How long do you see both those players playing? What do you see from those two? What are your expectations? How long do you think they’ll keep playing?
- McENROE: Let’s hope they keep playing like 20 more years because they’ve been unbelievable for tennis. They’re two of the all time greats, two of the all-time class acts in men’s tennis.Let me address the first part of your question. I don’t realistically expect either of them to be holding up the trophy at the end of the tournament. I think probably if they took a truth test, they’d probably agree with that. But being as great as they are, I would guess three, four matches, wins under their belt, they’ll think they have a chance to win it. I think realistically getting to the second week should be their initial goal. Obviously seeing how they’re doing as they progress, the expectations would rise for them. I don’t expect either of them to be able to hold the trophy, particularly when you look at just the way Djokovic and Murray have looked in the last couple years, and have also started out the year. They played a great match already against each other in the Middle East. I’d really have to convince myself that they could pull something extraordinary to beat one or two of those guys in best-of-five sets, not to mention the rest of the field and the other players, the younger guys coming up like Thiem, Zverev, guys like that. I think it’s going to be tough for them to do that.I think it’s realistic for both of them to play two, three more years. Obviously for Roger it’s a little more precarious because of his age. Overall he said he had the surgery so he could give himself the opportunity to do that. As long as they’re playing at a relatively high level, and I think that’s really the key for those two guys, if the next year neither one of them makes the semis of a major, would they be willing to continue to play if they’re not a top five or even a top ten player. I would probably say that Roger is more likely to continue to play because he just loves to play so much. That’s something only they can answer personally.Q. We head into 2017 with the old question. We’re talking about players who aren’t American. Is there anybody on the horizon that looks like they could be somebody that we’re going to be talking about?
EVERT: I love your expressions when you ask that question. Is there anyone? Oh, boy (laughter). Yes, this is the question. At one point we had hardly any American players in the top 100. Now women-wise anyway, we have 17. I think that’s more than any other. So we’ve got the depth. Congratulations, U.S. tennis. We have the depth, but where is that Grand Slam champion? To me, I’ve always looked at Madison Keys, only because of the power. To me, she matches Serena’s power, on the groundstrokes, on the first serve for sure. When I look at a surface like grass, Wimbledon, she to me is potentially a Wimbledon champion. In saying that, yes, a lot of things have to happen. She has to be more mature. She has to be smarter on the court. As far as raw talent, she’s got the weapons to win a major.
As far as any other woman is concerned right now, I wouldn’t put my money on anybody else in American tennis. But the progress that has been made is the fact that we do have depth and we do have a lot of Americans in the top 100. I guess that’s the first step to getting a Grand Slam champion.
McENROE: Well, the short answer to your question is no. That’s the short answer. I agree with Chrissie on Madison Keys. She’s not playing in Australia. We hope she gets to be 100%. I think having Lindsay Davenport back in her camp will be a positive.
As far as the men go, there’s nobody. I mean, there’s nobody that can realistically win one. Certainly Jack Sock has made a lot of strides. I expect him to continue to make strides to where he could, I believe, threaten to be a top-10 player. If his backhand gets 25% better, he’s the type of player that could go deep in a major. That’s a big ‘if’, but he’s definitely gotten fitter, stronger. Mentally he’s better than he’s been. To sort of echo what Chrissie said on the women’s side, on the men’s side, there’s not as many numbers as the women, but for the first time for 15 or 20 years, we’ve got a group of players that can all legitimately be top 100, maybe top 50, and maybe a couple of them could be top-10 players. That’s Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz, Michael Mmoh, Tommy Paul, Stefan Kozlov, Reilly Opelka, Noah Rubin, Escobedo. There’s a group of seven or eight players, American men, 21 or under, that can be legit Grand Slam players. Out of that group, none of them are ready to be a Grand Slam winner or compete for a title at this point, except for maybe Sock. I think within the next two years, it is finally realistic to say we might have someone come out of that group that could do it. The worst-case scenario is I think we’re going to have multiple players flooding the top 100, which as Chrissie said is the first step. There’s nobody here that you can see is a threat to win this title, no.
Q. On the women’s side, Serena, what do you think getting engaged will have as far as an effect on her? On the men’s side, by Novak’s standards, had a little bit of a slip toward the end of last season while Andy Murray went on that big run. Do you think that sort of makes their rivalry even more interesting now that their positions are swapped?
EVERT: As far as Serena, that remains to be seen. You can’t predict when somebody gets engaged. It can go one of two ways. It can be a very pleasant distraction. You can lose your focus a little bit at the task at hand. Or it can be so inspiring, you feel so good, that you’re more settled. You really are in a really good place emotionally, and your tennis can improve. We’ve seen it both ways in tennis players. I don’t think we can predict that. In saying that, you know, the one good thing coming into the year, Serena seems to be healthy. She was fighting all kinds of things. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. The shoulder. If it wasn’t the shoulder, it was something else.
She had a long break, took the fall off. I’m sure, knowing her, you can only do so many appearances, endorsements. She was champing at the bit to get back competing. I think it’s motivation for her she’s ranked No. 2. This is a woman with pride and ego and used to being No. 1, used to being the queen at the top. I’m sure that’s going to be motivation for her, not liking to see another name up there. So if she’s healthy, she’s happy, I don’t worry about the fact that she already lost a match, because basically she needs a couple matches to really get into it. I don’t think it’s a matter of if she’s going to win another Grand Slam, I think it’s when, and I think it will happen this year.
McENROE: I don’t think the engagement will have anything to do with how Serena does. I’ll add to what Chrissie said. I think because of how little she played, this happened last year as well, she made it to the final, or the year before, she’ll be susceptible early in the tournament because of that. If she can get through the first couple of rounds, obviously she’ll be fine, I would expect.
I’m always excited for the Australian Open because it’s one of my favorite events. I think there’s a lot more buzz this year because of what you said partly, that Murray has taken over No. 1, not by a long shot, but an amazing effort to do that. Djokovic is going to feel like he’s got something to prove, even though he’s had a couple of the greatest years ever in the history of men’s tennis in the last couple years. Then you have Roger and Rafa coming back. You have still the guys knocking on the door, Nishikori. We haven’t mentioned Wawrinka, who has had an unbelievable couple years. He got down there early this year. There’s no reason he can’t make a big run there. He loves the conditions there.
The younger guys…Thiem had a great year in 2016. He could be a factor. Again, Zverev is a great young player. I think Kyrgios could definitely be a factor, although you wonder about him health-wise, how fit he is. Obviously mentally is another story. I think there’s a lot of storylines for the men. I do think that having Murray come in there as the No. 1 player, having never won down there, and Djokovic has really been the man the last four, five, six years in Australia, that adds a little extra spice to it in addition to those other guys coming back.
Q. How do you see Murray and Kerber handling the pressure being world No. 1? It’s the second year in a row the tournament is starting with a match fixing story that hit before it began. Do you think that match fixing is a bigger threat to tennis than PED use? What one do you think tennis has more effectively addressed?
EVERT: I’ll take the easy way out and go with the Kerber question. The thing about Kerber, there’s a saying that it’s easier to get to No. 1, it’s harder to stay there. I think she’s going to be tested. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how mentally tough she’s going to become and how she’s going to fend off the competition, because there’s some dangerous players: Pliskova, Muguruza, Konta. Very much like the men, you have really like 15, 20 tough, tough players, and good depth at the top now. Then with Serena, who is going to be even more motivated than before. I think it’s going to really test her toughness.
But in saying that, when you look at the top 10, I look at the list, to me Kerber is mentally the toughest of all of them, aside from Serena when she’s really focused. Angelique Kerber, her main strengths is her mental toughness, because she improved so much. Years ago, she was the one that was rough on her player box, kind of whining out there. She has improved that so much. So the mental toughness, and her I think physical fitness are the two things that she is head and shoulders really above everyone else. If anybody can maintain No. 1, I think that she will do it for a while. I think it depends on Serena, how much she wants it, how hungry she is. She’s really going to be the one that’s going to challenge her the most of anyone.
McENROE: I’m going to say unequivocally match fixing is a big threat to any sport, not just tennis, but the integrity of that sport. That’s not in any way to minimize PEDs, what they can do. Baseball went through a pretty heavy-duty PED problem. They’ve done okay. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen in tennis. I don’t expect that it will. I think tennis generally has a better handle on the PED situation with the testing that’s done. It could be better, but certainly it’s happened that they’ve been able to manage that and catch people, et cetera.
The match fixing thing clearly is a huge problem potentially, but I don’t think it’s a huge problem at the highest level of tennis. I think it’s proven to be a problem that definitely is significant at the low levels of tennis, the minor leagues, so to speak, the challengers, et cetera. That has to be gotten more under control. I think the Tennis Integrity Unit is doing what it can do to address that.
I think part of the issue with this is what I think has been a problem in tennis, as the prize money has grown at the big tournaments, particularly the Grand Slams, it’s to me gotten more and more top-heavy. The top players, meaning the players that win the tournaments, are making exponentially more money than the guy that gets to the third or fourth round. While I certainly believe that Djokovic and Serena certainly deserve to make more in prize money, I don’t believe it’s fair that they make that much more. I think the prize money distribution at the highest level of the game, it filters down into the rest of the tour events, should be more evenly disbursed, meaning more similar to the way they do it in golf. Basically now in a Grand Slam tournament, each match you win, essentially your prize money doubles. US Open last year I believe was $40,000 for the first round. People say, Wow, that’s a lot of money. That’s not really that much money when you compare it to what that similarly ranked player in basketball, baseball, soccer or golf around the world makes.
Look at the prize money that Djokovic and Serena make compared to someone who is, say, No. 10 in the world. I think it’s too significantly different. I think that is something that should be addressed. I think the Grand Slams have the opportunity to be the leaders in this area instead of saying, Hey, look at us, we have the biggest prize money winner check, two and a half or three million dollars. Don’t you think 1.7 is enough, and some of the other money gets filtered down to other players? The other players could make a lot more money, which they deserve to make, through other tournaments and guarantees, et cetera. I don’t think it needs to be that extreme a difference in the prize money distribution.
(As for Murray being No. 1) I think Andy will handle being No. 1 just fine. He’s been around long enough to know what it takes. He’s worked extremely hard to get there. Quite honestly, I didn’t think he could get there. I didn’t think he could certainly get there last year. But it was a hell of an effort to do it. The biggest difference in why he was able to do it was his consistency, being able to win a lot of matches every tournament, to be able to win on clay, which he hadn’t done in the past. I don’t think he’s going to lose it because he can’t handle being No. 1. I think he’s going to lose it in Djokovic steps up and plays better, which I think is certainly possible.
EVERT: I think he’s going to be comfortable, very comfortable, at the No. 1 spot because it’s been a gradual progression. It’s not like the guy went from No. 10 to No. 1. He’s been No. 3, he’s been No. 2, and now he’s No. 1. The fact that he’s won Grand Slams already, Grand Slam tournaments, that’s going to help prepare him for the pressure of being No. 1. I think Patrick said it the best. The same with Kerber. It depends on Serena, it depends on Djokovic, if these two are going to hold onto their spot.
Q. Maria Sharapova is supposed to return from her suspension the end of April. Do you think she could be top ten again, top five? How do you think the other players will react once she’s back on the circuit?
EVERT: I have a feeling there’s going to be a little different Maria that’s coming back. I think that she’s had a little bit of a wake-up call as far as living life. I feel like she’s out of her bubble now, as far as she went back to school for a little bit, she’s gotten better in her business, she’s made more appearances, she’s socializing more with her friends. I feel like it’s sort of a silver lining, this whole taking off the whatever it’s been, 18 months, year and a half. I think she’s going to be a little different. I think she’s going to be more open. I think she’s going to be friendlier. I think that she is going to come back a little more evolved as a person. This is all me thinking. I don’t even know, okay? But I just have a feeling from what I’m hearing when she does talk and do press conferences, does her exhibitions and this. Do I think she can be top 10? Absolutely. It’s so close, like I said before, the top 20, 30, it’s so close at the top, there’s no big gap in the top 20 or 30. Could she get back to the top five? I don’t see why not. Absolutely. She’s one of the mentally toughest, along with Serena, probably the mentally toughest player out there, plays every point like it’s match point. Again, she might have a different approach. She might go out there, she might have been working on her fitness even more so with this time off. She might be having a little more variety in her game. I think life for Maria Sharapova is looking really good on the court and off the court.
I think the players are going to be fine. I think it depends on her. If she’s going to come back with an open mind and friendlier, I think the players will definitely welcome her back.
Q. Chrissie, Pat just spoke with his wisdom on having more equal prize money distribution. It’s a new year, but if you could step back and choose one rule or one tradition that you might want to tweak or introduce a new rule or one change, what would that be?
EVERT: Wow, put me on the spot here. Because I’m a TV girl now, I think more access to the players. I still don’t think it’s a bad idea to interview a player after a first set or after a second set. I think that’s very doable. I think it’s progressive thinking. We’re really kind of in the Dark Ages when it comes to getting the players out there, just having a little more buzz about the players. I think on TV I’d like to see more coaches being interviewed. I would like that to be mandatory. I think having a player after a set, that would be really good.
I think we need to improve ratings in every aspect, sort of get more of an audience to appreciate the game and feel like they’re involved in it, see a personality on the court. I think just the viewership, that would really help. I guess putting my hat on for TV, having that more interesting for the viewer.
Q. If you could go out and get a selfie with anyone in the world not in your family, who would that be?
McENROE: First of all, I’m offended that you didn’t let me answer the first question.
Q. You go, guy.
EVERT: That’s because you kind of did answer it about the prize money.
McENROE: I have another one. I would take the selfie with Chris Evert. That’s what I’m going to do on the plane to Australia tomorrow. I’m going to tweet it out.
Let me answer the other one, because it’s a quick answer. I think it’s relatively easy to do. It’s already a rule that’s in place. Can we please start to actually pay attention to the time and to the clock. That comes to when we start the match. That comes to after we warm up for the match. We don’t take bathroom breaks. We don’t sit on our chair for two minutes because we’re some great player who can just do whatever they want. We don’t take bathroom breaks every time we lose a set.
Let’s come up with clear-cut rules, which are already fairly clear, and let’s actually start to penalize players for not abiding by the rules. You can take one bathroom break a match, whatever it is, I think it’s two. When we say ‘time,’ we play, you don’t take a bathroom break. When we say the match starts at 7 p.m., it’s actually going to start at 7 p.m., not 7:13, which is basically what happens because the officials don’t have the gonads to tell the top players what to do.
Q. What about Nadal’s objection?
McENROE: I’m not talking about in between points, the shot clock. I’m talking about a simple thing. When we come to the locker room to get you, we tell you we’re going to come five minutes before television comes on, you’re going to walk out and be on the court then and you’ll warm up. If you don’t, guess what, it’s Love-15, then it’s Love-30. People will start paying attention. Unless we just don’t think it matters, we can let the players continue to do whatever they want to do. But I happen to think it matters.
Q. Chris, selfie with someone, excluding Patrick?
EVERT: Probably Madonna because I’ve never met her. She’s fearless and totally the opposite of me.
Q. Some of the rallies in the final between Novak and Andy in Qatar were superhuman. How far do you think they both are ahead of the rest of the pack? Who can realistically stop 2017 being a year defined by their rivalry?
McENROE: Realistically, I think you’re on to it. I think these two guys are a couple of steps beyond everybody else. That being said, I do think there were signs last year that players were starting to make inroads, like Thiem coming up. He probably still has another year or two to go. Zverev, the younger guys. I don’t know if it’s going to come from the older group like Berdych and Tsonga, Nishikori.
McENROE: Raonic has made some big steps. He’s a guy that could do it. I’m happy with what I’ve seen from Dimitrov, because I like to watch him play. He could be a big threat this year. I do think at the end of the day, those two guys, because of their movement, their defense, their mental skills, are pretty solidly ahead of the pack. But things can change quickly in tennis. We saw it change between those two the second half of the year. It’s possible that it could change. I still think that Rafa is going to be a serious threat.
EVERT: I think when I look at Andy and I look at Novak, to me they are the fittest players on the tour, and they’re going to peak when it’s 5-all in the fifth set. When I say that I mean peak physically and mentally. The mental toughness between those two is a level better than anyone else. As Patrick said, no one has better defense and offense, having that combination. No other player covers the court as well, no other player is mentally as tough. They keep pushing each other. It’s like when Martina and I were playing. They’re pushing each other. Novak is working out, training even harder knowing that he’s No. 2, knowing that Murray is training harder. I think it could pan out to be really a wonderful rivalry. But the exciting thing is, there is Thiem, Kyrgios, Zverev, other exciting players waiting in the wings who I think could upset one of them, but maybe isn’t ready to win four big matches like these two are.
Q. Paint a bit of a picture of how you and Martina pushed each other along. That was a long-term thing. We know Andy and Novak have been playing each other since they were 11. Can you give us a bit of a flavor of how that works when two players are the best of the field.
EVERT: It was interesting because it was almost a little easier with Martina and I because we had contrasting styles. I got to work on my volley. I got to work on coming in. I got to work on my physical strength. She already had that. She had to work on the mental side of the game, her groundstrokes, because I already had that. There were more gaps in our games, kind of more weaknesses in our games that we could work on. With them, they’re so similar in style. Their athleticism, the way they move, they can counter-punch really well. Their defense as well as their offense. They’re so similar. I guess they just have to continue just to be physically cardiovascularly strong, who is going to be the hungrier, the more eager when they play a match. Do you understand what I’m saying? There were more gaps with Martina and I that we could work on. With them, they’re so similar, it’s hard to know what they’re going to work on. They just have to keep doing what they’re doing. At the end of the day when they play a match, it might come down to really who is hungrier.