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SPORTS WEEKEND | TV-RADIO / MIKE PENNER

Nowadays, McEnroe Is Great for Tennis

May 28, 1999|MIKE PENNER

The problem with men's tennis today, John McEnroe was saying from Roland Garros, is that no one seems interested in or capable of grabbing the sport--or even the current French Open--by the throat.

"Someone's got to be able to step up and say, 'I can win this,' " McEnroe said during USA Network's opening-day coverage of the French Open on Monday. "I saw [Yevgeny] Kafelnikov in the locker room and said, 'Last time I looked, you're No. 1 in the world.' And he said, 'Unfortunately.' "

McEnroe laughed incredulously.

"Why would someone be saying that?" he said in disbelief. "We're going to have to analyze that for a while."

The problem with men's tennis today is that there is only one John McEnroe--and he now shows up at Grand Slam tournaments equipped only with a headset and microphone. Fifteen years past his peak as a player, McEnroe the television analyst is everything present-day men's tennis is not: inspired, unafraid, provocative, self-assured, unpredictable.

Fun to watch.

In fact, McEnroe may be the only reason to watch men's tennis at this dire point in its evolution. Four days into the 1999 French Open, the men's field has already lost its No. 1 seed (Kafelnikov) and Pete Sampras, with Andre Agassi gasping for the oxygen mask, the tournament about to succumb to a faceless sea of Spanish and South American baseliners.

Yet USA's coverage of the French Open has been a delight, a must-see from this perspective, because of McEnroe's incessant bobbing and weaving with partner Bill Macatee, gamely trying to flog some life into a dying horse.

Some highlights so far:

* Macatee, setting the stage for Agassi's first-round match with Franco Squillari of Argentina: "Squillari reached the quarterfinals at the Italian Open as a 'lucky loser.' Upset [Carlos] Moya in the round of 16. Also had a win this year over Yevgeny Kafelnikov."

McEnroe: "Which, after the Australian Open, isn't saying a whole lot."

* Macatee, on Marcelo Rios' first opponent, unheralded Axel Pretzsch of Germany: "Axel Pretzsch has some limited experience . . ."

McEnroe: "Who?"

Macatee: "He's played in actually one tour-level match his entire career. That was last year against Greg Rusedski. He lost 6-2, 6-2, in the first round. But he has been playing well on the Challenger circuit."

McEnroe: "So, in essence, what you're saying is that he's had a pretty good triple-A baseball year, and now he's being thrown to the wolves here."

* McEnroe, after the broadcast cut away from the Rios-Pretzsch match: "We apologize to all you Axel Pretzsch fans."

* McEnroe, after Agassi netted an easy put-away volley: "That's why Andre's losing his hair, I think. You miss shots like that, they come off in a hurry."

* Macatee, watching Agassi struggle against Squillari: "Compare the Agassi we're watching today to Agassi in his prime."

McEnroe: "On clay, you're talking 50%. He's nowhere near. On other surfaces, certainly, he's more capable. But this is not even the same person."

* McEnroe, as he saw the names Korda and Martin pop up on the screen, indicating a four-set victory for Petr Korda: "That's not Todd Martin, by the way. That's Alberto Martin. One of 57 Spaniards in the draw."

* McEnroe, agonizing over Sampras' first-round flailing against Juan Antonio Marin: "I'm frustrated just watching him. And I haven't played here for six years."

* McEnroe, on a rather tentative approach to the net by Agassi: "That was the old serve-volley-hope-he- misses-the-return-because- I'm-sure-as-heck-not- ready-for-the-volley!"

Inadvertently, USA might have happened upon a way to save men's tennis from itself when transmission problems left the telecast without a picture. Suddenly, there was no more dreary, numbing, uninspired tennis on the screen--only a Roland Garros logo and McEnroe's voice.

"We'll have to pretend it's radio, Bill," McEnroe quickly announced. "OK, here's my radio call: Backhand Agassi! Backhand Squillari! Agassi again! Squillari with the brick!"

A few more minutes passed.

"It's all French camera work," McEnroe assured his audience. "Nothing to do with USA!"

Eventually, the picture was restored--unfortunately, to borrow a phrase from Kafelnikov. Still, an intriguing precedent had been set, something the ATP and the TV people might want to run up the flagpole ASAP.

No men's tennis on the television, only McEnroe.

Sounds like a sure-fire ratings booster.

BIG MAC INFLUENCE

From McEnroe to Mary Carrillo to Chris Evert to Cliff Drysdale, the talent in the tennis broadcast booth is a match for that in any other sport. As a group, tennis analysts--circa 1999 anyway--tend to be more frank, more opinionated and simply more interesting than the coach-and-player sycophants now cluttering most basketball and football telecasts.

USA colleagues Tracy Austin and Barry MacKay credit McEnroe for lifting the level of tennis commentary across the board.

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