Transcript: 2024 Australian Open Media Conference Call with ESPN Commentators John McEnroe and Mary Joe Fernandez


Transcript: 2024 Australian Open Media Conference Call with ESPN Commentators John McEnroe and Mary Joe Fernandez

Moderator: Thank you very much, Mary Joe and John, for joining us today to preview the Australian Open 2024 kickoff of the 2024 season. As you know, this is our longest programming relationship at ESPN. This is the 40th annual time we’ll be presenting the Australian Open. We’re very excited about that.

We have first ball to last ball and absolutely everything on ESPN+. A couple new things in 2024. It’s now a 15-day tournament which means it starts in the U.S. on Saturday the 13th. We will have it on 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+, and midnight ET on ESPN 2. We’ll also be airing the local prime time matches at 3 a.m. ET on ESPN, ESPN-2, ESPN+, ESPN Deportes. We have every match available for live stream.

As you know, Naomi is back. Rafa is out, unfortunately. Another person looking to mount a comeback at Melbourne Park is Angelique Kerber. Djokovic is seeking his 25th major singles title.

John and Mary Joe, we’ll take our first question.

Q: Have you guys heard anything on Novak’s wrist injury? Do you think that will be a hindrance for him? As far as Rafa, what do you make of his career situation right now? Do you think he can try to mount a comeback for the French Open?

MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: Novak, I haven’t heard anything. I did see he’s on the practice schedule for today in Australia, which is a good sign. Last year, remember he went in with an injury and he somehow played some of his best tennis towards the end of the event.

He knows how to manage himself, deal with some injuries here and there. We’ll see. I think the next few days will be telling on how much he practices.

For Rafa, big bummer that he’s not going to be in Melbourne. I was really excited to have him back. I watched some of his matches last week and thought he looked very good for not having played in one year. He was striking the ball really well.

The injuries are tough. The game has become so physical that I think the goal will be the French and the Olympics for Rafa. I think tennis-wise he’s optimistic because his level was quite high right away. It’s a matter now of managing the body and seeing if he can be healthy.

If he’s healthy, then he’s definitely going to be a contender.

JOHN McENROE: I think that pretty much sizes it up. We don’t know is the answer. I don’t know, at least, either one of those.

Novak has been injured allegedly the last couple years and won the event handily. As Mary Joe pointed out, let’s just say he knows how to manage it. So we’ll see. Obviously he’s won it 10 times. Who would have thought that could have happened. Then again you look at Rafa who won the French 14 times.

I’m not even remotely comparing myself to Rafa, but in my mind the few times I played Australia was to sort of get ready for the rest of the year. The timing was tough to seemingly to be able to put all the chips on the table early on.

Players have now accepted that the Australian Open has gotten closer in importance with Wimbledon and the U.S. When I was playing, the top guys didn’t even play. It’s come a long way.

I think Rafa was hoping, “hopefully I’ll be ready for the French, see if my body holds up there.” If it doesn’t, I think you’ll see him not play anymore. We’re all obviously hopeful he can because Rafa has been amazing for the game. We’d like to see him as long as we can.

Q: What will you be looking for as Naomi Osaka returns to Grand Slam action? Is it unreasonable to think she could be a factor in Melbourne after the time away? A more broad question, why do you think there are so many more mothers competing on tour than there used to be? Is it because of anything the sport or tour has done to make it easier for them? Are things different now than they were, say, when you played, Mary Joe?

MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: That’s a great question.

In regards to Naomi, I always say you never underestimate a champion. She’s won the Australian Open a couple times. I watched her play last week, as well. I thought she was striking the ball very well after a long time away. Actually thought she was moving pretty well.

A lot is going to depend on the draw, who she comes up against early. If she can find a way to get through the first few rounds, she always becomes a threat. She has major weapons with her serves and groundstrokes.

You look at the top four with Iga, Sabalenka, Rybakina and Coco, tough to get through those I think at the moment. I thought it was very promising what we saw last week from Naomi.

I was thinking about what you just said about moms coming back now. When I retired, I never even thought it was a possibility after having a child to come back. I think having players like Azarenka and Serena and Kim Clijsters set the example and show that you can do it and come back at a very high level, Kim won majors, Serena came close, I think that’s been powerful.

I’m excited to see Kerber back. Svitolina is playing the best tennis of her career. That’s been one. Wozniacki played great at the US Open. We’ll see. Kerber got a win at the United Cup at the end. I think that’s going to help her a lot.

I know Azarenka pushed hard not to lose her ranking, maternity leave. That’s made it easier for moms to come back as well. I think the examples of Serena, Clijsters and Azarenka set the tone.

JOHN McENROE: I would add that Osaka, because of all the talk about mental health, getting away from the game, you can’t help but take a look at her when you see her. Obviously in our sport or any sport pretty much, you need to be fit. That goes without saying.

Then you have to take a close look at where her head’s at as far as going out and competing. This sport, you win and you lose. She’s got to be able to accept that and be able to handle that and enjoy the process that it takes to even get out on a court and compete for a major. I hope she can.

Obviously because there’s been so much talk with her in particular, it’s going to be inevitable that people are going to look even more carefully.

My favorite player growing up on the women’s tour, I loved Chrissie obviously, we miss her, but Evonne Goolagong was my favorite. She had a kid and won a major.

Another incredible person that Mary Joe mentioned was Kim Clijsters who came back and played better than before and won more. I think when you look at that, then what Mary Joe mentioned about the rankings, it allowed players, some of the young ladies that wanted to have a kid, to be able to get away and not feel like they had to start over, which is a tough thing to do if you’re trying to win majors.

It’s good to see that there’s been some changes that have taken place that allowed these young ladies to hopefully have their cake and eat it, too.

Q: John, with this year’s Australian Open becoming a 15-day event, what are your thoughts and opinions on the continued growth of the tournament? How competitive will this year be in 2024 compared to last year’s Open?

JOHN McENROE: First of all, it’s a money grab as far as I’m concerned. They just found another way to make some money. I don’t agree with it. I’m a commentator. No one’s particularly concerned about my feelings.

The players, if they accept it and they’re getting something from it, like some money for their pensions or retirement for some players that don’t have insurance, I would say that’s a good thing that they have added an extra day.

I don’t think that has happened, just like it didn’t happen at the French Open. I completely disagree with it. That’s probably me being selfish that I have to be away from home an extra day or two.

As far as 2024, particularly on the women’s, I believe there’s some players coming back. Mary Joe mentioned most of them, but Kerber and Osaka, two obvious ones, Raducanu, that haven’t been around. That sort of adds an element of excitement to the women’s side.

For the men, it’s a little bit of a bummer because Rafa is not playing obviously. You still got these youngsters that are trying to step up. Carlos hasn’t been there for a couple years. Me personally, just to see my old buddy Boris, to come out the other side hopefully and be with Rune who is looking to take that next step, to me that is interesting.

I like Sinner a lot. I like Ben Shelton a lot. I think the American males, it’s a pretty interesting event actually, especially dare I say if Novak isn’t 100%

Q: Both tours are making kind of drastic changes this year. The ATP is doing this profit sharing. They have this one vision. The WTA is requiring their players to play more and more and more. I’m wondering, are we heading in the right direction or are we just creating more problems for these players?

JOHN McENROE: Obviously I don’t think there should ever be a tour where they need to ask the players to play more. I never agreed with that in the first place. I don’t know if that’s where it’s headed. I’m hearing there’s other possibilities in the mix that would change that.

Obviously the slams, they want to make themselves even more important, so they’re going to try to come up with something that helps themselves. I can’t blame them for that.

As far as the profit-sharing, I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to with the tour. But I will tell you as far as profit sharing, if you want to get a tour that everyone can get behind, there should be profit sharing with the majors. I mean, I’ve only been saying that for 45 years, with the players who get a much lower percentage of the revenue than in any other sport.

I don’t disagree with the idea of a profit sharing experience with the players, and I’m not exactly sure who you’re referring to in what you’re saying, but that is where I believe we’ll see the sport get to a better place. Until that happens, it’s going to be factions all over the place.

I’ve been saying this for the same amount of time, how about a commissioner of tennis? How is that for an idea, someone that can actually oversee this and make decisions based on what’s best for the sport, not what’s best for the Australian Open? Oh, okay, let’s have an extra day of the event. Great. We can make more money.

Is that better for the players? I don’t know about that.

We could go on and on and discuss this for hours.

MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: Yeah, I agree with a lot of what John said. The majors, that’s where I think the big change has to come for the players to participate more with the revenues. Some of these Masters 1000s have gone to 10, 12 days. I think that’s tough on the players.

I’ve always been a big believer that the best product is when you do have the men and the women together. If we had a commissioner of tennis, they could be overseeing both the women and men, bringing them as much as possible, the product’s great.

I don’t know enough about the ATP Tour and what they’re doing to really discuss that. I agree with John: it’s never a good idea if you force players to have to play more. Players should be able to dictate their schedule as much as possible and create something that’s right for them.

Q: Where do you all come down on players who choose to not play at all before these tournaments, as a couple of big names are sort of showing up and playing in this event? Novak obviously did it before Wimbledon, has done it a lot before Wimbledon. Turns out all right for him. I’m curious about the adjustment to going very far away, what you have to get used to, or maybe it’s no big deal because it’s a hard court and you figure it out?

MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: I think it’s tricky. I think it’s tricky when players don’t play anything before major events, especially Wimbledon because it’s such a unique surface.

This year for Australia, Alcaraz and Sinner, I think Medvedev on the men’s side, haven’t played anything. They did have a busy off-season. We’ll see how that plays out. There’s so much depth in the game, you have to be careful with the draws. You can get a tough draw right away, you haven’t played the matches to start the season…

The top players have so much confidence in themselves. Serena used to play sometimes without playing. And Steffi. They find a way to work their way into the tournament and do well. I always think it’s tricky.

I did see I believe that Alcaraz is playing a couple of XOs on-site with de Minaur and one with Ruud. They’re looking to get some exhibition matches this week to get some repetition, but it’s not the same as playing a tournament.

JOHN McENROE: I will only add that it depends on the player. You hear Rafa talk, he likes to get matches. There’s other players where it doesn’t matter one iota whether they play or not. As a matter of fact, they’d be better off not playing. Considering what Mary Joe just mentioned, that Sinner played till late November, early December with the Davis Cup. We’ve been through that routine before with the scheduling.

Alcaraz sure as hell could have used the break. Medvedev played more matches than anyone on tour. So to think that he has to play Adelaide is a joke. I mean, c’mon.

On top of that, God bless them, play some matches at Melbourne where they get paid a bunch of money on the court they’re playing on. Perfect for them. They get there a week, two weeks. It depends on the person again how early you want to get there to adjust – that’s all – to the heat. If you’ve come from the cold in Europe, obviously you need to adjust. Most of them are probably already in places. Roger used to go to Dubai or something before Australia. I hear other players do something similar, or they get there early.

It doesn’t matter at all to me one bit what happens, like, the lead-up before.

Q: John, you’ve talked about Saudi Arabia possibly infusing money into tennis in the past. You said you’re opposed to it. There’s a report that the Saudis are looking to buy the Miami Open and the Madrid Open. What are your thoughts on Saudi Arabia getting involved in tennis that way? Could there be a breakaway LIV type tour like there was in golf?

JOHN McENROE: It wouldn’t shock me. Let’s put it this way: money talks. “Oh, no, I wouldn’t do that. How much was I offered? On second thought maybe I will do that.”

Personally, I disagree with it completely, with the golf and the tennis. The ladies are going to play the WTA Finals there? Are you kidding me? Because they treat women so well? That part is to me laughable.

At the same time, which is also laughable, is the people that can criticize tennis players or golfers for doing something that virtually every business and the government do, which is deal with Saudi Arabia.

This idea that tennis players have to set the moral standard, or golfers for that matter, when they’re all making the money, it’s a total joke as far as I’m concerned. We’ll see what happens.

I’d be surprised if the Saudis don’t buy those tournaments actually. Not that they will. I’ll be surprised if they don’t have them. Billie Jean endorsed it. Billie Jean King endorsed this? I have so much respect for Billie Jean that I have to actually think about it. Maybe I’m the idiot.

MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: I remember seeing that about Billie Jean. She basically said she’s willing to learn, she’s willing to explore what it entails, what the opportunities are.

I feel like I’m on the same page with John, but I also see the other side of it. We will see. Time will tell. I hear the same rumors that they’re trying to buy a lot of events.

Q: Who do you see sneaking through to challenge the big champions that you haven’t mentioned in terms of any players? Who do you see sneaking through to challenge the big names?

JOHN McENROE: Well, maybe I’ll talk about the men and Mary Joe can talk about the women.

I don’t see anyone sneaking through, to be honest. I see a handful of guys, eight guys, that could win it. Obviously Novak being by far, if he’s healthy, the guy that would be the big favorite.

If I had to pick one guy that could potentially sneak through, if you want to call it that, and I’m really happy that I see this late in his career, that he has the potential to do something that he’s never even come close to doing, I would pick Grigor Dimitrov. The guy looks as good as the top five or six guys. I would consider that completely sneaking through, even though he’s like 12 or 14 in the world.

Then the obvious: Medvedev, Sinner, Alcaraz, Djokovic, Rune, Zverev. Tsitsipas has been in the finals there a couple times. Those guys. Then Ben Shelton I believe is going to win majors.

Sebastian Korda, would you call it sneaking through? Maybe he’d be sneaking through. I don’t know if physically he’s ready to make that move yet. He’s got an unusual problem: he needs to put on weight, get stronger. Normally you are always like, I have to get really fit.

Still I’d be surprised not to see the top guys do it.

MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: I would be surprised as well on the women’s side if one of the top four doesn’t come away with the title.

I don’t think you can call it sneaking through, but I’m waiting for Jessica Pegula to have a breakthrough and get past the quarterfinals and win one. I think she’s got the game for it. She’s beaten all the top players.

Is the surface going to be the right speed for her? She likes it when it’s a bit quicker. She’s the one player I think can make a big move.

Ons Jabeur has been in the finals a few times of Grand Slams. Can she be healthy? She has a unique game with her variety. Can she disrupt those top players? Yes.

The one player I’m waiting for her to do good at majors as well is Sakkari. She’s got such a good game. She’s such a good athlete. She’s lost in the first round of the last three majors. It’s mental for her. Can she get over that and start threatening these top players?

Q: Since you were both great doubles player, it’s an Olympic year, Alcaraz and Nadal may be playing together, which doubles combinations would be excited to see in the Olympics? We saw some mixed doubles that pretty cool at United Cup. Also, it’s going to be 35th anniversary of you getting defaulted from the Australian Open next year, John.

JOHN McENROE: It’s the 34th, isn’t it?

  1. Next year will be the 35th.

JOHN McENROE: Talk about it next year then (laughter).

Q: Do you look at it as one that maybe got away? You had Noah the next round and you never lost to him. You were set up there to go deep.

JOHN McENROE: Are you trying to rub salt in the wounds?

Q: Until Djokovic got kicked out of the US Open, that was the most famous.

JOHN McENROE: I did like my draw, though I had to play Edberg in the semis. That obviously wouldn’t have been a gimme.

I should have known the rules had changed. I will admit that. I screwed up. The rules changed right before the tournament. That did cost me because I did have a good-looking draw there.

I don’t want to say thank you for bringing that up (smiling).

What was the other part of the question?

Q: On the doubles, since you had doubles success, thinks an Olympic year, talk about doubles more than we normally would.

JOHN McENROE: Doubles? Would be incredible to see Nadal play with Alcaraz. I’d love to see that. I’d love to see Tiafoe play with Shelton. They played with me in the Laver Cup. They both have so much personality that those would definitely be my top two picks, for sure.

I don’t even know if the Olympics is like a 16 or 32 draw. I haven’t thought about it a whole lot, to be honest, because I don’t think it’s on the forefront of the sport, who is going to play the doubles or mixed at the Olympics?

MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: I do think we’re going to see more of the players as it gets closer play some tournaments together, for sure. Those teams would obviously be exciting, the ones John mentioned.

I think Wozniacki has been talking about playing with Rune. The Americans have a lot of options. I think Coco and Jess would be big favorites to win the gold, but then you have great doubles players like Taylor Townsend in the mix.

It’s going to be exciting. It’s always fun. Doubles, we wish we saw more of the top players playing more consistently.

Q: Djokovic is so great at playing when the crowd is against him, like when he beat Federer at Wimbledon, in Turin he played Sinner. John. Had great success in Davis Cup playing in adverse situations. Why is he so good from that? Who is great at playing against the crowd?

JOHN McENROE: That’s a great question.

He’s the greatest that I’ve ever seen, by far, when the crowd is against him. I had some times where that took place certainly, many times. It felt like never to the extent of Novak. I didn’t handle it nearly as well.

For a while, you get inspired. Eventually it wears a little thin and old. You’re like, How come I can’t get some love in a way? When I got some love, that was when my game went down. I wasn’t good enough to win, unfortunately.

Novak has been able to find that perfect sort of sweet spot where he’s able to use that as fuel, and in his 30s gotten better. I wish I knew. I wish I had known when I played. I wish I know even in a way now because I would try to impart that to anyone that would listen.

That is the greatest quality he’s got without a doubt. Connors was great at it also. He’s probably the best I played. A lot of times the crowd loved him. He could do anything. When he had the crowd against him, he’d somehow turn it around in his favor. He was the best at manipulating a crowd. Novak is the best by far of having the crowd against him and turning it around.

MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: It’s pretty remarkable. He almost sometimes looks to get them riled up on purpose to get his mojo going.

I don’t know. I saw that interview he did with Jon Wertheim on 60 Minutes. I think John asked him about being so mentally tough being a gift. He said it’s not a gift, he works very hard on it. When it matters, can he turn it on despite the crowd not being on his side. It’s definitely I think a gift that he can do that because that’s not easy.

Q: Your thoughts on players concerned about, complaining about, switching from tournament to tournament, week to week, the tennis balls used, some speculating that injuries are increased because of that? Do you think there’s some legitimacy to those concerns that injuries are being caused by those switches? Is that any different from when the two of you were playing?

MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: I think it’s very legitimate. I think there should be a universal ball. Players playing one week leading up to a major with one ball, they switch the next week, switch back the third week. Some balls are heavier, some lighter. It affects their shoulders, their wrists. I don’t think there’s enough money in the sponsorship of the balls that it makes sense.

I feel like there should be one ball for the whole Australian summer, which they might have this year. On the clay, you go to the grass, back on the hard courts… There should be a consistent ball because I do believe it contributes to a lot of the injuries we’re seeing.

JOHN McENROE: I’m going to have to respectfully disagree on that one. I think the whole thing is just that players are always wound up before. Oh, my God, the ball is too heavy, it’s terrible. I can’t play, my shoulder is falling off. I mean, c’mon.

It’s something that you get worked up about to blow off some steam. Then suddenly in the semis, it’s the greatest ball ever once you made it that far. Slazenger balls were too heavy at Wimbledon. The Wilsons are too…

Weigh them. I’d like to see what the difference in weight is in balls that these top-notch players can’t, God forbid, go down one pound maybe in their tension or go up one pound.

How about the strings? Do you think the strings are maybe tougher on the players than the balls, these synthetic strings that come off the racquet? How about the racquets? How about the courts? How about the traveling? How about the body holding up playing too many events?

I would rank those all above the balls personally.

Q: Any advances in technology or equipment that you think can influence player performance in this year’s season?

JOHN McENROE: Make it better? At this point that’s a tough one to answer honestly. I have a tennis academy. I think it starts teaching kids at a young age the skills. You look at Alcaraz. Everyone should try to figure out what he did as a kid ’cause the guy is skilled at everything. He’s incredible at net as well as the baseline. He’s one of the best movers in the history of the sport. Clone that and teach that.

Even at my academy where I would take pride in wanting to teach kids the volley, because I think I was a pretty decent volleyer, no one listens to me. They sit and stay back. They’re like, Who is that old guy? They don’t volley anymore.

It’s got to be sort of a start from the very beginning, then eventually you’ll get to the stage where hopefully it will bring out the best in our sport ’cause I think it is a great sport.

I hear as much about pickleball as I hear about tennis. We got to keep marketing ourselves better. We got to do a better job. We have to follow in the footsteps of American football, basketball, soccer even, what you call football in Europe. I mean, we’ve drifted way behind those. We got a lot of work to do, in my opinion.

MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: I’m not sure we have new technologies going into this season. Like John said before, the strings have been a big part of advancements, the thickness, how they grab the ball, the spin they’re producing these days. It’s so different than when we played.

Like John said, I mean, the key is early on get great technique, try to get great instructors. You watch Alcaraz, someone like Djokovic and Swiatek, how flexible they are, the way they move. Not just play tennis, play other sports. Become a more all-rounded athlete I think is the key for the next generations to keep getting better.

Thank you, everybody. Tune us in, Saturday the 13th, 7 p.m. ET ESPN+, midnight ESPN-2. Thank you all for the time. Looking forward to a great event. Have a nice day.


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