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John, Patrick McEnroe Preview US Open & New Armstrong Stadium, Discuss “Big Four Reunion,” Murray’s Hip, Whose Draw is Good or Bad

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  • ESPN’s Exclusive, First Ball to Last Ball Live Coverage Begins Monday, Aug. 27

 

ESPN tennis analysts John and Patrick McEnroe spoke with media today, previewing the US Open.  ESPN’s exclusive coverage – from first ball to last ball – begins Monday, Aug. 27.  See here for more details.  Here is the transcript.

Q- John and Patrick, Andy Murray, he’s going to make his return to Grand Slam action next week after missing much of the past year following surgery. He only has a few tournaments under his belt, but the quarterfinals in Washington. Earlier today without even being asked what his chances were, he said after coming to New York for the last decade or so, he said he doesn’t feel winning this event is a realistic goal for him this year. Is that a thought he should be saying out loud or one that he should allow to enter his mind as a competitor and US Open champion? Is he entering with the right mindset?

JOHN McENROE: Well, let me give you a shot at that. I happened to see him the other day. He more or less said the same thing to me, that it’s been a process, been tougher coming back. It’s taking longer. I think he said that to anyone that’s asked him. In some way deflection takes away some of the pressure that he feels. You know that over in Great Britain there’s high expectations every time he steps on the court no matter how much time he’s missed. I think it’s understandable that he’s want to minimize the pressure. It’s somewhat realistic. But I have to add that I’ve seen some players who have sort of made similar type of comments and gone on to win Grand Slams, being able to slide in the backdoor a little bit, not being the focus of attention.  Perhaps he’s being truthful, but maybe if he can get some confidence and starts to become more aware of what he’s capable of. Obviously best-of-five is a lot different than best-of-three. That may help him to make at least a good run.

PATRICK McENROE: I would say I think that’s what we want. Isn’t that what we want to hear from athletes, that they’re being honest? I’ve heard Nadal say that at different times. Remember Mats Wilander once said he didn’t think he could win the Open, then he won it.  I think Andy has always spoken his mind. He’s been at the forefront of a lot of issues in tennis, particularly for women’s rights as well. I applaud him for all of that. I applaud him for being honest. I happen to agree with him. I think realistically he can’t win this tournament and let’s hope he can use it to keep working his way back and get back to where he has a chance.  I think he’s being honest in saying it’s unrealistic to think that he can win this right now.

Q. When you look at the field and you see Serena and Murray, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer all in the Grand Slam, I think it’s the first time since early 2017, does it make you appreciate all those years so much more when maybe people took it for granted they’re all going to play and keep going forever?
JOHN McENROE: I think it gives you an appreciation of how resilient they’ve been and how good they’ve been, that they’ve been in the mix for so long and they’re still winning most of the majors.  What particularly Roger did coming back and winning three of the next five is to me the greatest achievement in the last 40 years. Serena having a baby, that’s like a whole new ballgame for her, to figure out how to sort of keep herself motivated while starting a family. She got to the finals of Wimbledon.  Obviously in tennis the interest relies on rivalries as well as the big names. It goes without saying it’s nice to see all the top players playing again at the US Open, with a lot at stake for the end-of-the-year top gun in the men and women.

PATRICK McENROE: I would add Venus Williams to that list, as well. Here she is in her late 30s still playing at a pretty high level. It does make you appreciate having them all back, that we missed them in the last couple years, at least having all of them there. Djokovic sort of finding his way back at Wimbledon, now certainly one of the favorites to win this.

On the flipside of that is who’s going to step up, who of the younger generation. We keep saying that and asking that question year after year after year, more so on the men’s side obviously than on the women’s side. That question continues to hang out there in the balance.

Q. I want to ask your sense of the new Louis Armstrong, one of the key new features, hundreds of millions have been poured into remaking this venue. Playing on the court, knowing it from so many years, what would you say the new landscape of the Open will feel like both in person, for the players, and the crowds, as well as the TV audience?
JOHN McENROE: I’m anticipating some excitement because I think it’s a beautiful stadium. At least from what I’ve heard, the air-conditioning is a bit loud. I don’t know if that will be an issue, we’ll have to wait and see when the tournament starts.

In terms of the way it looks, it’s awesome. In terms of the comfort level for players, it’s much better. In terms of the USTA and the TV, having two stadiums that you know you can count on to sort of have continuing tennis, it’s going to be something that is going to make I believe everyone around the sport feel a whole lot better about things.

It looks great. Obviously it cost a lot of money, but I believe the US Open brings more money from what I understand, that couple week period, to the city than the money they receive from the Yankees, Mets, Rangers and Knicks combined. It’s obviously a big two weeks for New York, for tennis. Goes without saying. But even for the city, the excitement level is ramped up. I think it will be even more so. I think people are going to love it.

PATRICK McENROE: Obviously to play there was amazing. I think it’s going to be an incredible stadium. I think the way they did, it still feels somewhat intimate for a 14,000-seat stadium. That’s hard to do.

Overall, I think the USTA got the balance pretty good in looking at the overall plan. Obviously they had to put the roof over Ashe because of pressure, let’s be honest, for financial reasons from the sponsors, from the fans, from television. But I also think what they did in redoing the grounds is I think they also made it better for the fans, for the regular fans. Obviously the ticket prices go up, the prices for the corporate boxes go way up with both new stadiums.

Give credit to the USTA because I think they realized they had to do that to bring in more revenue, obviously to support what they do, but I think by opening up the grounds, building the new Grandstand, separating the courts more to individual courts, they made more space for the fans. I think it’s a nicer setting now for the person that buys a grounds pass to come into the tournament.

I think they found a balance pretty good in that respect where they obviously have another roof, as John said, it helps in a big way with knowing that especially the semis and the finals matches are going to get played on time or relatively on time for the fans there, for the sponsors and for television.

Q. From what you’ve seen of Andy Murray recently, do you believe that he has a chance of going far at all?
JOHN McENROE: Well, your question is something that’s virtually impossible to answer. The best answer I could give you is that depending on how close he is to being Andy Murray, of course he has a chance against anybody. But mentally and physically in terms of how back is he in terms of his fitness and tennis. Is his hip bothering him? I didn’t have enough time to sit and drill him on these questions, nor do I think he would answer them to me if we did have the time. He may not even know the answer to this.

You’re talking about a guy that’s a slam-dunk first ballot Hall of Famer who has been there and done that. To think he couldn’t go out and do some damage or make some inroads I think would be a mistake. To be able to go seven matches and to win those, that’s the part where I think the body and the mind are not used to that. The recovery would be more difficult. The cards have to play out perfectly for him, I believe, in terms of scheduling, in terms of his rest and recovery so he’d be able to really make a run at it, go at least reasonably deep in the tournament.

Q. Phil and Tiger are playing each other for $9 million in that match. Would that work in tennis or is there a way to make that work? Would you play each other for $9 million?
PATRICK McENROE: Sign me up. Sign me up.

JOHN McENROE: We’re headed to the court right now.

I don’t know if that will work. Sort of I’m surprised there’s going to be a Pay-Per-View between Phil and Tiger when they’re clearly sort of not at their peak of power. But God bless them, if they can go out and spark that interest. Obviously in golf you’re not out there playing against directly the other person. The shots you make don’t directly influence, maybe they do mentally a little bit what the other guy does. But that’s why match play in golf is interesting to see, when they are playing one-on-one, hole-by-hole.

It would be interesting. To me they’d have to make it somewhat different in tennis I would think because that’s what we do all the time, is we play against each other. Unless you did something, I don’t think you could really make that work.

Q. John, going back to what you said about Andy before, we know the physical difficulties to come back from a hip injury, but mentally how difficult is it for such a great champion to come back and start again, say what he said, and for players in general?
JOHN McENROE: Well, I think the last thing that any athlete in any sport, in tennis when you’re out there by yourself, you want to at least feel like you’re going out to a large extent on your own terms. You don’t want it to be that you can’t continue your career because of injury or that you weren’t able to play as long as you wanted to because of that.

Then there’s the frustration. He’s been out a full year. That’s a long time to miss. I think that Roger did something remarkable even taking six months and being able to come back and win in Australia. That’s incredibly difficult to do. I think you see even with Novak for a while, Stan Wawrinka, how difficult. That’s just a couple guys. That’s how difficult it is to be able to bounce back and be the player that you were before, and hope to be in the future.

There’s a lot of emotions and frustration. Mentally it takes its toll. Then physically, not knowing if a move is going to cause something that’s going to reinjure a part of your body that’s so essential to movement, what made Murray great in the first place.

My hip started bothering me, I never had a surgery like Andy, but that was part of the reason I took the time off, among other things, when I took the six months off. I’m another guy who came back and I was never the same player that I was before.

It’s a somewhat sobering and frightening thought, but you also start to realize, Hey, I love the sport. You want to be back in the mix. From that standpoint, I’m sure he’s excited. Knowing him, I don’t know him well, but I know him well enough to know that he’s done and will continue to do everything he can to get back to as close to what he was as possible.

Then he’ll be out there in some big matches. He’ll be able to appreciate all the effort he’s put in to get back.

PATRICK McENROE: I’ll just finish up by saying I think we saw from Andy in his emotions after that long match he played in Washington, that he won, he just broke down in tears after the match, how much it means to him. I think he’s a guy that, as John said, he’s one of the hardest workers to ever play. More than the other top guys, I think he relies even more on his defense than those guys. Movement to him is absolutely essential for him to play the style of game he needs to play to compete.

It’s great to see him back. I think he can get back to that level, but obviously a hip for a tennis player is very difficult. I had injuries to my shoulder. Obviously I wasn’t near the level of an Andy Murray, but when you do come back, whatever level you’re at, you feel like you’re 80% of what you were, you’re playing against the best players in the world, that can be really difficult.

For Murray, who is at such a high level, to know he’s going out there against players that two, three years ago he would have beaten comfortably, now he’s struggling, that’s difficult. As John said, I think we’ve heard him say as well, that he appreciates tennis maybe more than ever. Let’s hope he can come back 100% and give himself another chance to stay at the top, to be at the top again.

Q. You were never the same player after your hip problem, John?
JOHN McENROE: No, unfortunately I wasn’t. I did a lot of different things. I felt like that time off would refresh me. I had my first child during that period of time. The plan, I’ve got to be honest, was to come back and be a better player. I thought there was another gear I could find, and I didn’t find it. It was tremendously disappointing and frustrating.

I never felt like I moved as well as I did the first seven or eight years of my career. That’s hard for that not to be in your head. Andy has had surgery. He’s extremely dedicated. I think teams in general, the players, are more aware of what maybe needs to be done, what can be done. There’s a lot of fresh data out there to help players sort of recover. Hopefully he’ll be able to get back to at least close to 100%.

Q. You never had surgery?
JOHN McENROE: I never did have surgery. I never did. Maybe his injury is more serious than mine. I had sort of a partially torn labrum, constant pain, but not to the point where I couldn’t do things to play. He had a surgery. Obviously you can see from being a year off how long it’s taken him to even start on the trail back.

DAVE NAGLE: Whose draw do you like and who got stuck with a tough one?

JOHN McENROE: I think looking at the draw, you see, for example, Roger and Novak in the same quarter. That would lead me to believe off the top of my head that when you look at Rafa’s draw, his draw is promising. Then it opens the door for some of these other guys, if they’re going to step up, the guys that we haven’t necessarily heard from maybe enough, they have this opportunity to do something big at a major where there’s a lot at stake. We have to wait and see.

To me, it would be hard-pressed for me to pick someone besides one of those three guys. But having Novak and Roger in one quarter, that means that guys presumably would have to beat two of these guys, unless they’re in that same section. You would think that opens the door for someone somewhere along the line where someone like Zverev. I’m trying to look where del Potro is in all of this, where he stands. Is he in Rafa’s quarter?

PATRICK McENROE: He’s in Rafa’s half because he’s a top four seed.

JOHN McENROE: That leads me to believe there’s someone out there like that player. I’m looking here. When you’re talking about winning this event, it’s going to have to be something, not be one of those guys, it’s going to be something surprising where two or three of these guys lose early enough where it’s going to open the door for someone. At the moment that seems fairly unlikely to happen.

PATRICK McENROE: Obviously Roger got a tough draw overall, in addition to having to play Novak in the quarters. It’s not that easy for him necessarily to get there. Tsitsipas is another guy to keep an eye on. He had a big tournament in Canada, the youngster from Greece.

A lot of people are saying Djokovic is the favorite. I actually still think Nadal is the favorite, and he’s my pick to win it. I think he played well in Canada. He’s fresh coming in. I think he was smart to miss Cincinnati. Certainly one of the matches of the year was the semifinal loss in Wimbledon to Novak. But I think a hard court is a better surface for Rafa. Obviously Djokovic is awesome on hard court, too. The fact that they played so close at Wimbledon where I think Djokovic is definitely a better grass court player than Rafa, and I think Rafa is going to be incredibly motivated to win it because he sees that he can run down Roger in overall majors, not to mention the fact he wants to keep Djokovic at bay. Those three guys are the clear favorites.

But I think Roger has looked a little bit shaky in Cincinnati, although a shaky Roger still made to it final. He’s got to try to catch fire. If he can catch fire in week number two, that’s when he becomes super dangerous.

But John and I were lucky enough to play on the Armstrong court, and we both thought even though we don’t really hit the ball that hard, it’s pretty darn slow. If it’s slow on Arthur Ashe Stadium, as well, which is what I’m hearing, I think that hurts Federer more than the other two guys.

Q. It is the first tournament since Wimbledon in 2017 that all four of the big four are back competing in various states of healthiness. Especially here in New York where spectacle is a big part of it, how special is it to have that reunion here?
JOHN McENROE: If you think about the fact that Federer won Australia, and he’s our greatest player ever, Nadal won the French, he’s our second greatest, Djokovic won Wimbledon, who is one of our top four or five greatest ever, and Murray is a first ballot Hall of Famer, even Wawrinka has won three. If you look at those four, especially so far there seems to be a bit of a vacuum about who is going to step up, the unknown. You’re talking about a historic time in our sport for the past 10 years.

Certainly the excitement level should be high knowing how few times in the future you’re going to see a situation where the top three guys are all expected to get — because two play in the quarters, you’re only going to have two, but deep runs in the tournament. Murray obviously is working his way back.

This is the situation where the No. 1 ranking is going to be at stake. It’s got a lot of ramifications for where the fallout is in the future for those guys. If Rafa were to win this, he’d be closer to Roger. If Djokovic were to win, he’d be closer to Rafa. If Roger would win it at 37, he would set a new standard, add to his record of slams. This is a pretty exciting tournament for us.

PATRICK McENROE: I think it’s a special time because we definitely got spoiled, now we have a chance to get spoiled again. Let’s hope Murray can get back in the mix. We did discuss it earlier on the call. We both agree that he’s not really back at a level where he can compete to try to win the title. But obviously the other three guys, you could make the case for any of the three of them that they can win this. Realistically you couldn’t make a case for anybody else. Maybe del Potro or Cilic. Those guys have won here before. But it’s hard to make that case outside of top three that someone legitimately has a shot to win this whole thing.

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