ESPN’s John McEnroe, Pam Shriver Preview the US Open
- Topics: Can Djokovic Complete the Grand Slam?, What is the State of Serena Williams?, What are Naomi Osaka’s Chances?, and Reflecting on the Era of “The Big Three”
- ESPN’s First Ball to Last Ball Live Coverage of Main Draw Begins Monday, August 30
- Exclusive Coverage of Qualifying Continues this Week on ESPNEWS, ESPN+
ESPN tennis analysts John McEnroe and Pam Shriver spoke with media today, previewing the US Open and discussing issues in the sport. ESPN will present its usual exhaustive and exclusive coverage – from first ball to last ball totaling more than 130 hours on TV plus all matches from all courts across ESPN+ and ESPN3. Here is the transcript.
Q- I’ll ask about the elephant in the room: Djokovic. What did you make of what you saw,at least heard happened in Tokyo? How do you anticipate he will be when he arrives in New York without having played much?
JOHN McENROE: I anticipate that he’s going to win the tournament, that’s what I anticipate. I felt before Wimbledon started that he was going to win the Grand Slam. I felt like he was going to lose at the Olympics. The two-out-of-three format, just excessive travel, no fans, et cetera, I think contributed. I think the heat is the big thing.
To me it’s going to be him against the field. I pick him right now. The heat could be an issue for any player, any top player, any player for that matter. That could be a deciding factor if he were to lose to someone, if he got stuck in a situation where he was playing in really hot conditions like it’s going to be tomorrow, if he was playing during the day. Otherwise I think he’s going to do it.
Obviously can make things more interesting and exciting at this tournament, see if he can pull off something that’s not been done since Laver in ’69. Exciting.
PAM SHRIVER: As John says, about the history of the game, when you think about on the men’s side, ’69, Steffi Graf in ’88. That was a golden Grand Slam, but her gold medal was after the US Open, so after she clinched the calendar year.
I think Novak returns to probably the US Open a year after the most embarrassing situation he’s had. I’m sure he’s even more determined.
I will recall what happened to Serena Williams, six years ago when she was going for the calendar year Grand Slam and Vinci played Pennetta to win it. Vinci played a magical match.
I will just sort of say these things are hard to do for a reason, but if anyone can do it, obviously Novak has been the guy the last, what, five, eight years in the majors more so even than Rafa and Roger.
Q- Pam, condolences on your mother. But you were just speaking about Serena. Obviously since she’s come back we’ve all been talking about her tying the record with the 24th Grand Slam singles title. Could you assess your thoughts on how she’s been playing, her chances here. And John, if you would, we were talking about Djokovic and how dominant he is, but what does the absence of Federer and Nadal mean for some of the younger men pushing through?
PAM SHRIVER: It was a week ago today that she died. She loved the sport of tennis, helped me get into it and supported me in a wonderful way.
As far as Serena goes, I was thinking a lot about Serena actually as I entered this call because even with things on my family front being very distracting from following tennis in recent weeks, I was, like, Where is Serena? Where are posts of her practicing and training? Where is Patrick Mouratoglou’s posts? I can remember leading into majors in recent years, there were some tells on social media from her close team. Jenkins, her hitting partner. I find the silence a little bit disconcerting following what happened at Wimbledon. It’s been quiet, really quiet.
Maybe the camp has decided to be very quiet and it’s going to be a game-time, last-minute decision. Unless anyone else has inside info, it’s very quiet and I’m concerned that she’s physically not prepared to play the US Open, which is a tournament that emotionally has taken its toll. Through the years she’s had some great highs and some of the most difficult lows that she’s faced on the tennis court.
I’m afraid we might be missing another one of the giants of the game for this US Open, but we’ll see.
JOHN McENROE: As far as Djokovic goes, obviously with Roger and Rafa not being here at the event, it’s going to put even more attention on him and his quest for the slam. That’s not going to make it any easier.
Obviously it does open the doors for the Zverevs, Medvedevs, Tsitsipases of the world. Thiem isn’t even here. He won it last year. It’s strange times still.
Hopefully it’s going to have tons of fans. I mean, everyone’s got their fingers crossed. It’s going to be better obviously for everyone if it does, including Novak, who I think was negatively affected by that in Tokyo. But I still think he’s going to do it.
It’s easier said than done, like Pam said. There’s a reason it hasn’t been done in 50 something years. It’s tough. It’s really tough. We’ll see how he handles it. He handles it about as well as anyone I’ve ever seen in the last five, 10 years of his career. I think he’s ready for the moment.
Q- What do you think about when what Zverev brought up in his match against Tsitsipas, about taking the breaks after sets that you’ve lost, but you don’t ever take them after sets that you’ve won?
JOHN McENROE: I think that’s a pretty obvious answer. I don’t know anything about this, but guys stretch the rules to the limit. In this case it’s sort of changing the momentum, doing something that’s within the rules, to take the bathroom break. Oh, I’ve got to change clothes.
Ironically I get what you’re saying. Amazingly I’ve seen some guys, Nadal is one, there’s a few guys that do it actually when they win sets. For a guy as superstitious as Rafa, it’s surprising because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This is becoming an epidemic, no question. It’s frustrating because it seems like at times it goes on for, like, 10 minutes. It should take a minute or two. So I don’t know.
Something has to be done about it. I think it’s frustrating a lot of players. But it’s almost become part of the game. It’s like the injury timeout. This is the new wrinkle, the bathroom break.
I saw Medvedev at Wimbledon. He came on court the next day, was two sets to one, 3-4, I think he was serving, and he lost two games. He went to the bathroom again. You’re like, Didn’t you just get on the court five, 10 minutes ago? Maybe he didn’t get it quite all out before he played. He ended up losing that one.
It’s definitely an issue that should be addressed. Like an injury timeout, that’s a whole other issue. That’s the same problem. Sometimes it’s legitimate. A lot of times it isn’t. We’ll see what the powers that be do moving forward.
PAM SHRIVER: I think when you talk about the powers that be, I think it is a time to look at a number of rules, comprehensively, not just one or two.
Obviously the bathroom break, medical timeout. I mean, I actually would like to see the sport examine a ball toss, when you miss tosses, have a certain limit per set. The coaching rule, when you think we’re, what, three years past the Serena Williams situation in the Osaka final in the US Open, still nothing at the majors, even though the rule is broken every single major match that I’ve watched courtside for ESPN.
I think the sport needs to look at some data on what happens after these toilet breaks, how long they are, the medical timeouts. Come up with some really good well-thought-out study and make some changes.
Look, most other sports have timeouts. Maybe that’s what needs to happen, is you’re allowed a certain amount of timeouts for a certain amount of time and that’s it. I just think we’re all really sick and tired of people bending the rules and finding loopholes and taking advantage of the rules as they’re written now.
Q- Pam, I add my condolences, and thank you and John for being available. My question is for you both in your twin perspectives as former players, broadcaster, it’s about rivalries. How significant do you think compelling rivalries have been in building the audience for tennis, particularly in the U.S.? With the inevitability of Nadal and Federer, ultimately Djokovic, fading away, where do you see the next compelling rivalries potentially coming from on the men’s side, if you have thoughts on the women’s, as well?
JOHN McENROE: Well, obviously it’s going to be a tall order to surpass what we’ve witnessed on the men’s side the past 10, 15 years. In fact, it seems almost impossible that this has happened, that they’ve actually lifted each other’s games as significantly as they have, and become to me the three greatest players that ever lived on the men’s side. It’s absolutely astounding what they’ve pulled off, the amount of times they played.
I think back to my matches with Bjorn, it felt like there was such a great explosion in tennis. I look back, we only played 14 times. I think Nadal and Djokovic played 58 times now. Chrissie and Martina played 80 times. In some ways it’s like, Wow, I wish I would have played more against that guy.
I think it’s absolutely critical to our game, a one-on-one game, where you don’t have a team to root for obviously if you live in a certain city. It just gives the fan more of a rooting interest.
I certainly hope this huge void, this crater that’s going to take place, that’s starting to take place obviously because we know Roger is 40, Rafa we don’t know about, Novak seems to be able to do this for a couple years. But who is going to step into that and will they provide that type of excitement? Could Tsitsipas-Medvedev or some of the guys I mentioned, the two Canadians, develop a rivalry if they’re able to step up their games? What American is going to step forward on the men’s side and really challenge and win majors?
I think it’s more wide open now and unpredictable than it’s been in 30 to 40 years, since before I was playing actually. I don’t see how you could say, Okay, Tsitsipas is going to win eight majors. I don’t see anyone that I’m able to confidently predict.
It would be difficult to confidently predict who those rivalries will be, but I hope they’re there because we need them.
PAM SHRIVER: I think we really need to just pause and celebrate 20, 20, 20. To think these three players have managed on the men’s side to reach a number prior to Federer reaching it have never been reached even close. Even though it’s disappointing they’re all three not in this US Open, it’s really a time to celebrate.
I think we do reflect back to other rivalries. I took a backseat in ’78 when I started to play, that was the year Martina won her first major at Wimbledon in ’78. I think that’s really what brought Evert and Navratilova’s rivalry to the fore. That became unbelievable. As John mentioned, 80 matches, and they were almost 50/50. They both retired at 18 majors.
John and Bjorn while not as long a rivalry was so, so special because of the matches they played in majors and major finals. That’s really what puts the rivalry to an exceptional level.
I think on the women’s side, I think about rivalries that are developing. The women’s game has really been devoid of them for some time now. I look at Osaka and Coco Gauff, I wonder, they’ve played three times, 2-1 Osaka. If they both stay healthy, stay in the game, Gauff continues to progress, that could be a rivalry where I could see them playing late in majors time and time again. I think it’s too hard to say.
I look on the men’s side. I look at what happened with Tsitsipas and Zverev. One of the things you love with rivalries is when they have sparky, difficult moments of conflict. If they play in the US Open, what happened in Cincinnati, I think we’re all going to be a little more interested. Is this one of the new rivalries developing?
The next couple of years will tell.
Q- A question about Serena. Obviously we all know better than to count her out at any point in her career. You have been in the position of looking toward the end of your competitive career. What advice would you give to Serena right now in this moment, of course recognizing she is a pretty significant question mark at Flushing?
PAM SHRIVER: I actually think what she’s doing right now, her team, she’s sort of laying low. I’m assuming since she hasn’t withdrawn, here it is the Tuesday before, she’s still hopeful to be able to play.
Unfortunately time is really running out. But when you think since she came back from maternity leave she did get to four major finals, unfortunately was never in one of them really, didn’t win a set in any of those four. She certainly had opportunities.
My feeling is the depth of women’s tennis over seven matches under the conditions of the US Open on a hard court at this stage for Serena is not possible. I would love for her to prove me wrong. I just don’t have enough evidence that she’s going to be able to stay healthy in order to do what needs to be done, to win seven matches and be the last one standing, like she did for 23 times of her historic career.
JOHN McENROE: I couldn’t possibly begin to give her advice. She’s done way more than I ever did. I don’t know, as Pam alluded to, where she’s at mentally or physically for that matter.
She’s playing a lot longer than I played on the tour. She’s almost 40 years old. I noticed at least with myself that the older I got in a way I felt more pressure and felt like my days were numbered. It ended up, like, hurting me as opposed to that experience you can use to your advantage.
It seems that that wasn’t an issue until maybe Serena came back from having her child, maybe sensing she wasn’t going to have a lot of opportunities. Even though she’s had four, she wasn’t able to play to the level that she normally plays at. Why that was, that’s difficult to say.
Hopefully she goes out on her terms. Either way she’s the greatest female player in my book that has ever played, one of the greatest athletes, period, that’s ever played. I don’t think she’s got to worry about whether she wins another one. I’m sure that she would love to be able to do that, if possible.
Q- Who do you think is the biggest threat to Djokovic in this tournament?
JOHN McENROE: I would say the biggest threat, first of all, the biggest threat to Djokovic in my book is the conditions, like the heat. He’s a human being. I think that could affect him more than his opponent.
Other than that, I mean, you’re looking at the new wave coming in. We thought maybe Medvedev was going to be able to do a number finally at Australia, where Novak pretty much gave him a lesson there.
Shapovalov was playing great in the semis of Wimbledon, but at the big moments couldn’t cash in. That seems to be the trend. Thiem almost got him at Australia last year. Couldn’t do it. Now he’s not even playing. It takes a huge, huge effort to do that.
It’s difficult to say who of those guys, whether it’s Zverev, Tsitsipas, Medvedev, those are the obvious ones that come to mind for me, who would be in best position to do that. I couldn’t predict. I would say it would be one of those three players, if it was.
I don’t think at this stage, a guy like Isner, who no one wants to play, or Opelka, the guys that can take the racquet out of your hand, over a best-of-five, that’s a much taller order to beat Novak than it would be at, say, a Cincinnati type event where you’re playing two-out-of-three.
The other part is just the pressure, if that gets to him. Lord knows what everyone has been going through the past year and a half, all this talk about mental health. What happened last year at the Open for him when he was defaulted, all that is going to play somewhat of a factor. The fact he didn’t win a medal at the Olympics, will that matter? I think it will, but we just don’t know the answer to that.
PAM SHRIVER: I actually like the fact that Novak has taken the time after Tokyo, after the year he’s had, to get his mindset right for what’s going to be the most pressure-packed tournament he’s ever played. I think he’s the one that’s most likely to derail himself.
But the players that Johnny mentioned are at this age, Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas, if Berrettini is healthy, they’re starting to really mature and get that bit of belief that in the biggest moments in the majors they can do it. Tsitsipas must have learned a lot from being up two sets to love in the finals of Roland Garros. Zverev last year losing to Thiem. I mean, I feel like if they get in that big match again, they’re going to play just a little bit better.
In the meantime, I always love to see what turns out for tennis history. Winning the calendar-year Grand Slam is as big as it gets.
Q- You mentioned Osaka and Coco potentially as a rivalry, an elite rivalry, that could form down the road. After seeing Western & Southern, what happened there, the last few months, how would you assess from what you’ve seen from Osaka at this point coming into this tournament?
PAM SHRIVER: It’s a great question. When you think about Osaka 12 months ago, what she did during Cincinnati and New York, then the US Open, she put herself into a conversation about social justice. As an introvert and someone so shy, she was willing to really be a leader. I so admired that.
Obviously her play on a hard court, winning the four majors that she’s won since 2018, finals US Open, where she handled a situation that was as crazy a situation ever in a final, she handled it beautifully. She’s certainly going to be one to look out for.
These last few months obviously have been extremely difficult. John alluded to sort of the effects of the year and a half, the pandemic, kind of the bandwidth that each individual athlete has to deal with adversity, it really varies.
Barty seems to be doing great. She took most of the first of the year off. Osaka obviously has been having some struggles that she’s come forward with. It’s a little unpredictable. But she’s going back to a place where she’s won it twice. Usually when you have those kind of special memories, you can play some pretty good tennis.
I expect her to play well. But I do have more questions going into this US Open than I would have had the last few months been smoother for Naomi.
Q- Based on what you know of Roger, what you gleaned from his announcement, do you think he’s the type of champion that he would be okay if hehas to walk away, if he physically cannot play, or do you think he needs more of a formal farewell to play another Wimbledon, Basel? On the American hopes at the Open, is there anyone, Coco Gauff, Sebastian Korda, Tiafoe? Who can do some second-week damage among the Americans?
JOHN McENROE: I’ll start with the guys.
I envision when I played, guys that you don’t want to play. That’s what I look at, a guy like Opelka. I think mentally he’s made some real progress, competing a lot more consistently. To me, he’d be the most dangerous one.
Obviously Korda has a huge upside as well. I think he’ll be a top-10 player. Whether he’s going to take it to that level where he’s winning majors, I hope the breakthrough comes sooner rather than later for our sport clearly. That’s a big, big issue. A lot of us are trying to change that course because we’ve had such difficulties on the men’s side. We’re being dominated by Europeans.
Tiafoe to me, he’s a great kid. He’s got capabilities on any given day to beat almost anybody. Consistency has been a big issue, mentally and physically. He just goes out one day, you’re like, Wow, look at this guy. Beat Tsitsipas at Wimbledon. I think he won another round but laid an egg against Khachanov. It’s like, Where was he? That’s been frustrating to watch because you’d like to see him obviously for a variety of reasons do well.
What was the first part of your question?
Q- About Roger. Do you think he’s okay, at peace with himself, or does he want to do one more formal farewell?
JOHN McENROE: I wish I knew Roger well enough to answer that. I think either way, to me one of the reasons he’s so great is that he sort of loves everything about tennis: the traveling, the press conferences. There’s nothing that he didn’t like about it.
To me, I don’t think he’d want to go out where he never played again. He could walk around any tennis stadium in the world as much as he’d like, he would get a standing ovation I would assume. I don’t know if he formally needs to go out and play Basel one more time so he gets that round of applause. I think that’s going to come either way. That’s totally up to him.
I just don’t want to see him out there where he’s — I experienced it myself, I know how frustrating it is. He’s way better than I ever was. You don’t want to see Roger Federer, if he’s 30 or 40 in the world.
It’s tough watching Murray at the moment. I admire his tenacity. I feel for him, wanting to play so bad, go out on his terms, seemingly how difficult that is for him. I hope he can get over the hump and be healthy. He’s 100 in the world right now. That’s not where Andy Murray should be.
Sometimes you got to battle through some serious adversity, like he’s had to. I hope he comes out the other side.
Roger has been more fortunate. It caught up to him. But he’s 40. I mean, 40 in tennis, even now, is like 65 in another job. Either way he’s going to be able to hold his head high.
PAM SHRIVER: I really feel for Roger that three-out-of-five format, given all that he’s been through at his age, is going to be a huge mountain to climb to get back to.
Listening to what he said in his announcement, hearing some things that Mary Joe Fernandez shared on some recent ESPN production calls, so many unknowns, so we don’t know.
What I would love to see the sport of tennis do, again coming together, Tennis United, all of different groups, talk to Tony and Roger and really come up with a plan to utilize his amazing connections with crowds worldwide, generations. He’s a beloved athlete. Come up with a plan of how he can help build the sport of tennis both grassroots and the professional game in years to come, find a really meaningful role for him in this sport of tennis.
He does, as John mentioned, love the sport. I’ve never seen a champion so comfortable at the top, just love every aspect, whether it’s the media… Even times where he’s played doubles, Olympic Games, where he won with Wawrinka, could there be a farewell moment that involved doubles that’s nowhere near as physically taxing as three-out-of-five sets. We’ll see. I feel blessed that he’s done what he’s done in the sport and I’ve been able to watch so much of it.
Quickly on the Americans. On the men’s side, it’s obviously been since Roddick in ’03. None of us would ever, ever have imagined we’d be sitting here 18 years later, not even a U.S. male through to another final. When you think about going into 2003, all the decades of success of American men, which John was a huge part of, we had a couple of months there we didn’t have a U.S. man in the top 30 in the world for the first time ever. These are things that if you had said this to me 20 years ago, I would have said, I’m sorry, not a chance.
Who’s going to step up? To me we’re still not doing things right on the men’s side to develop the best players. But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.
The women are totally different. Obviously the sport of tennis globally, it’s still predominantly the most lucrative sport for female athletes. We get better athletes on the American side especially. You go down the list, it’s pretty impressive.
We got to figure out a few things on the men’s side. I look forward to seeing Korda develop and to see what Opelka can do with his maturing game.
Q- Pam, I wanted to know your thoughts on athletes talking about mental health, bringing awareness to the topic. John, what does Naomi Osaka have to do in order to win a tournament?
JOHN McENROE: Well, she’s won four majors, so she knows how to win the big ones. I believe that will happen again in the future.
However, my concern is, even though I think she showed a lot of courage in a lot of ways to bring to the forefront mental health, my feeling is unfortunately that’s only going to exacerbate, make worse the attention that’s going to be put on her. They’re going to look at her even more carefully, whether it’s the press, fans, everyone around the sport. That’s going to make it, I think, more difficult, not easier. That’s the part that I’m worried about.
While she meant well, hopefully she will help a lot of people in the process, obviously including herself, because she is a very shy, introverted person, at least from what I’ve seen, that she’s going to be able to handle this as she gets a little bit older and matures.
She’s the type of player we need around the sport another 10 years, that should win a bunch of more majors hopefully, if she’s in the right head space.
PAM SHRIVER: Again, leading the way, Osaka. Not that athletes and mental health haven’t been discussed, whether it’s Michael Phelps, other athletes that have struggled way before the pandemic.
I think it’s a time on the tour where you’re noticing a lot of players actually discuss, whether it was Iga Swiatek when she won Roland Garros, the role that her mental health doctor, doctor or provider. Barty has greatly benefited both when she left the sport to play cricket and in recent times. Halep, Darren Cahill basically said, I’m done, after Miami that time. She got some help.
Jo Konta has been very open about it. Krejcikova, everything she’s been able to accomplish, she credits a lot to some mental health training, whether it’s visualization or just plain old therapy.
I think in the modern day, it’s kind of like where top players were 20 years ago with bringing their own physical therapist or physio or trainer into the team. I think this is becoming the new, most essential part. Not that they have to be on-site, but to have a person on your team that can really help your mindset.
I think Novak actually has been another one, obviously, that’s benefited from working on the mindset. It’s really crucial.
Q- Concerning Osaka, we’ve talked about her a good bit here, but I’m curious, would you put her down as a favorite? She’s the defending champion, world No. 2. At the sametime she hasn’t had much court time. She played a lot of matches ahead of the US Open last year. Hasn’t been as much on the court before being eliminated from tournaments early this time around. Is she someone that benefits from getting in a flow, playing a lot of matches? Do you feel as a player she needs that going into this tournament, it will work against her not having that?
PAM SHRIVER: Osaka, like many players, seems to feel more comfortable the more matches you play. Someone like Serena, sometimes she won some of her majors having hardly played leading into the major.
That is a concern, but we know how quickly a major, you can play your way into better form, into better confidence. Again, going back to the place where she had her first major win, she played so well last year under great pressure on and off the court, even with no fans. She’s second favorite to Barty. I agree with that.
I think there’s certainly a lot of question marks based on the last few months, and as you mentioned, not quite enough matches to feel confident.
Q- John, do you have any thoughts on that?
JOHN McENROE: It’s really difficult to say. I think she’s the best hard court player in the world. Obviously all this stuff that’s been going on can’t possibly sort of benefit her. Your question is can she overcome it, is she in the mindset to overcome it mentally and physically having not played that much, basically stepped away from the French and Wimbledon, then all that accompanied her being in Japan, lighting the caldron, et cetera, then losing.
She needs to win a close one. She was double match point down against Muguruza at the Australian, pulled that out. Then she got on a roll. I think if she’s going to do well, it’s going to have to be one of those situations. She didn’t have it when the going got tough in Cincinnati. She looked like she was competing hard, but she just wasn’t able to dig in the way you normally would see her.
Perhaps you could sort of take a lesson from that. The next time it happens, play a little bit differently. If she gets through one of those matches, I think she could win it. I also think there’s probably 10 other girls that could win it also.
Q- About the Canadian players, what do you think of Felix Auger-Aliassime’s progression over the past couple years and what can he accomplish at this year’s US Open?
JOHN McENROE: I think Felix is moving around nicely, at a good clip, maybe not as great a clip as we would have perhaps thought is possible based on his overall ability. That may end up being a good thing in the long run. He’s not getting overwhelmed with too much too soon.
The key is how you learn from your losses, how do you bounce back. I think he’s got the tools to win multiple majors. I do believe he’s going to win majors. I think he’s going to be a truly great player.
He’s still got some things he needs to work on. I don’t know him well, I’ve only spoken to him a handful of times. He seems for a young kid to be extremely professional, almost to the point it’s like where — I don’t know him off the court — be able to let go, too. It seems like he lives and breathes it. Sometimes that could put more pressure on him.
Denis is also a tremendous talent who had a real chance to win Wimbledon actually if he had gotten that first set. He had chances in the first couple sets in that match. Of course, he’s playing Novak, so… Who is to say Novak wouldn’t have come back and won in four sets.
I’d say he’s like a wild stallion that’s been let out of the gate and you need to sort of rein him in a little bit to bring him some more consistency so that players don’t play him waiting for him to beat himself. He seems to be doing better with that.
Obviously the last couple weeks he’s lost his first match both times. That’s sort of like an eye opener. He probably came out of Wimbledon going, I’m going to knock them down, win Toronto, get to the finals of Cincinnati. All of a sudden he finds himself he hasn’t won a match. He’s got to sort of reevaluate.
Obviously the key when you’re young is to learn from losses and stuff. It’s easier said than done. But he’s another guy I believe that could definitely win majors. They’re not quite at this level where the other guys are that we’ve been talking about. He’s right below that, both of them.
Q- Pam, with Leylah Fernandez, who is still a young player, what do you think of her first years on the tour? What do you make of her game?
PAM SHRIVER: First off, just overall when you think about our neighbors to the north, Canada, you guys have done an incredible job given your weather, ability to play outdoors not that much. You’ve really produced some amazing players when you think about Bouchard in 2014, Milos getting to the finals of Wimbledon in ’16. You’re mentioning the players that are a little bit established now like Felix, Denis Shapovalov, what Andreescu did a couple years ago at the US Open.
As far as Fernandez goes, I think her progression has been really good this year. I think being a lefty is always a help. I must say on ESPN, I’ve not yet called a full match of hers. I don’t know her game as well as I would like. I would like to get to know her game better during this US Open.
What I read and what I see about her development is tremendous. I think it really helps to be from a country, we’ve seen this before, whether it was Sweden back in the ’80s, whether it was Serbia, Spain, you really do gain great strength by having compatriots that are also leading the way. I think that’s really good in this case for Fernandez.
That’s one of the things that’s been lacking on the U.S. men’s side, you need somebody to really raise the bar. That’s happened in Canada in recent years both on the men’s and women’s side.
Q- This has been alluded to already. I’m wondering without Federer and Nadal in this tournament, maybe never again in the US Open as far as we know, could you take a step back and reflect on what’s been most impressive about Djokovic, Federer and Nadal these last 15 or 20 years, maybe what’s been the secret ingredient to keep this thing going so long.
JOHN McENROE: I will say it will be a very, very difficult question to answer. That is something that we’ll be pondering for years to come, how they each were able to push each others to this stratospheric level, make each other better players, go at it at the level that they did.
Ironically all three of them at this unheard of number, 20 each, it almost feels like you want them to all end at the same number, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think Novak is going to win two or four more, perhaps deservedly be considered the overall greatest player that ever lived.
I think Roger set such a great tone, he’s the most beautiful player I ever watched. That inspires people to want to do things on a tennis court that perhaps you would think unthinkable, including the two guys we’re talking about.
You got Nadal. I look to Connors. I was always like, I’ve never seen a guy try harder where every point was the last point you’re ever going to play. Nadal seems to do that at a level that’s even surpasses Connors, which seems almost impossible. That’s got to inspire people.
Obviously Djokovic, if you think of the history and the circumstances he grew up in, having to leave his country, just getting inspiration from that ultimately, being able to push these guys to levels they probably didn’t think they’d get to. I can’t imagine even Novak thought he would be truly this incredible a player is what it boils down to, have the opportunity to do something…
He’s actually already held four in a row; he just didn’t win them all in the same year. Now he’s got a chance to do this.
I’m absolutely amazed at his ability to improve, not only technically on a court, but also just as a human being, he’s able to find sort of some sense of peace while you’re out there competing at the highest level. I think it will be lessons that people will be looking at for the next 10, 20 years.
PAM SHRIVER: I’ve been trying to think since it got to 20, 20, 20, what other sport has had their three greatest players all playing at the same time. I mean, it’s really so unusual. Maybe it’s never happened before in any other sport. Where will it go from here?
I think Johnny is right, all signs point that Novak is going to take the lead and maintain it.
What I find interesting always in rivalries is the contrasts. Each of them have their own incredible set of outstanding skills. John alluded to the grace, just the beautiful style of Roger Federer, who got such a quick jump-start to his tally, the early years of Roger, kind of before Novak and Rafa started to mature into major champions, he really took a big lead.
What Rafa has brought to the table is (indiscernible), winning 13 of his majors on clay. Yet his attitude on the court, his grace under pressure.
Then Novak has brought another incredible thing, which is a little bit what I noticed with Martina Navratilova, is that he looks at every possible little thing that could tinker with any part of his game that could help him. I’m not saying that the others don’t, but he seems to look a little more at some unusual things to gain just that little bit of an edge. The flexibility, nobody has ever been as flexible that I know. Geez, Olympic gymnasts were having him pose at the Olympics.
I think Novak has been really setting a great trend on the mindset training. Fascinating times.
Q- Pam, you alluded to the coaching issue. What is your sense of how much of a difference a coach makes at this level? In some sports, you have baseball managers say maybe they make a 5% difference in the lineup card. Is it much more impactful in tennis, and why?
PAM SHRIVER: That’s a great question.
I think the one-on-one nature of tennis makes the coach more impactful in many ways. Also the tools that are available to coaches now, the data, all the different algorithms. I don’t know what to call them. You can buy subscriptions to the best in the business that chart patterns of each and every player.
It’s not only are you a coach of the technique and the strategy, but how do you take the data that you receive, say, about how you’re going to beat Ash Barty, then cull that to your player, give it to your player in a way you know they’re going to receive it best.
You’re part psychologist, you’re part obviously tennis technique, strategies for each and every match, using technology, getting the right equipment for your player with racquet and strings.
I think it makes a huge difference. You can see it, like with Barty and her comfort level with Tyz, Craig Tyzzer. All the great players. Marian Vijda, what he’s offered to Novak, obviously now along with Ivanisevic.
The coach means a huge amount in all sports, but I would say it is especially true in a one-on-one sport. That’s why I think they want to coach from the sidelines and they want to get some input in during competition. It’s hard to stop.
Never mind, I won’t go there again (smiling).
Q- It may be too unwieldily a question, as I think many are. The Canada/U.S. experience, the differences. Pam, you alluded to being stunned at the dearth of Americans. You both identified successful Canadians here. My question is, do you see the difference in success and lack of success in these two countries as Canada’s random blessings of super-committed athletes at this moment or is it something systemic in their development of players that the U.S. could learn from?
JOHN McENROE: I’ll give that a shot briefly.
The short answer is I don’t know the answer to it. The longer answer would be that absolutely it should be looked at to see what it was that allowed guys like Denis and Felix and Bianca to develop and be able to become tremendous players. In Bianca’s place a Grand Slam champion.
To me, I think you have to almost look at it individually, like where Shapovalov came from, where Felix’s family came from. That hunger that they may feel. Bianca, as well. That is a part of success that you can’t underestimate.
Certainly the U.S. has poured a lot of money into coaching and looking to try to do things the right way, starting with, Oh, we’re going to have everyone at the USTA, then we’re going to keep their younger coaches, have them involved. Then it’s better if they don’t all go to Bollettieri’s. Maybe it’s better to have an academy like mine, where people can live somewhat a normal life. All these things have been tried, will continue to be tried.
Ultimately in the game, because it’s quicker obviously, athletic ability. You look at Denis, all three of them, but Denis and Felix I know of more, they’re tremendous athletes. We need to find out ways, encourage the kids growing up…
One of the goals I’ve had as long as I’ve been doing this, try to get that cool factor in a way, to get the kids that are playing basketball or football. Basketball has become way cooler than it was. I’ve always loved basketball, but it’s really become a worldwide phenomenon. Football is bigger than ever.
We need to find ways to market ourselves better so that we attract more kids and give kids obviously more opportunity. Let’s face it, it’s an expensive game.
PAM SHRIVER: I really think the USTA, we need to look at best practices all over the world. Certainly understand what Canada has done to develop, given their population, given the assets their country has, the players that they have been able to develop in the last seven, eight years. Italy right now on the men’s side. Getting data together about whether it’s the amount of lower-level pro tournament opportunities…
One of the things that’s changed so much from when John and I played professionally in this country is the opportunities to play at home professional tournaments. It’s way less than it ever has been.
I think it’s complicated on the men’s side. I think we don’t get the best athletes, like John said. In fact, I’ve been saying to Martin Blackman from the second he took over player development, we have to have a plan to recruit and make tennis appealing to the best athletes. If you don’t have the best athletes, you’re not going to get to the top of tennis.
You think about the athletic skills of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. The U.S. men do not add up athletically. I mean a combination of all aspects: physical, mental, emotional. I’m not just talking about the speed of the racquet head or the serve speed, whatever. I’m talking about the whole enchilada.
There’s things missing on the men’s side. I’m not inside like I maybe was when I was on the board of the USTA 20 years ago. It hasn’t gotten any better. It’s been disappointing.