NEW YORK (AP) John McEnroe showed his softer side while searching for the next Serena Williams or James Blake during tryouts for his tennis academy.
He offered tips and demonstrated footwork to youngsters ages 6-12 in Harlem at Frederick Johnson Park, named for a former tennis player and coach.
“Use those young legs to get yourself into position for a forehand or a backhand,” McEnroe said this week at the courts. “Give it your best. We’re looking for some young, eager kids to give some scholarships.”
McEnroe recently got flak for his flip remark about Williams, saying the tennis star would rank “like 700” on the men’s tour. The 58-year-old author of the new memoir “But Seriously” was upbeat, despite needing an introduction as a former No. 1 player from Queens.
Since 2012, the Johnny Mac Tennis Project and SPORTIME Randalls Island have given more than 200 academy scholarships to youth who live in the city. About 40 kids were on scholarships among the 600 at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy during the 2016-17 school year.
The tennis lessons from September through May provide a pathway to junior tennis, college scholarships and the rare pro career. It’s the first time his academy has gone to Harlem, instead of having kids come to the academy for tryouts.
“There’s been very few players in the past 30 years that have made it out of New York, and that just seems wrong,” said McEnroe, a ball boy at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills before winning 17 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.
McEnroe trained in nearby Port Washington under the legendary Harry Hopman. Zach David and Reggie Satterfield are longtime tennis instructors at the Harlem park, which offers an eight-week summer program through Columbia University and the city parks department.
Khallid Bey said son Joshua is excelling.
“They learn the game, socialize and have fun,” the elder Bey said. “He’s doing well in school. Tennis gives them discipline.”
McEnroe’s tennis academy opened in 2010 in Manhattan. Two academy members, Noah Ruben and Jamie Loeb, recently turned pro after short stints at Wake Forrest and North Carolina, respectively.
The academy also works with schools in East Harlem and South Bronx, offering transportation and free tennis programs during the day.
McEnroe will host an annual fundraiser for the program with brother Patrick, who works at the academy, and Chris Evert, Mats Wilander and Pat Cash on Saturday in the Hamptons.
“We have a lot of success stories, people whose lives are changed and get college scholarships,” McEnroe said. “Obviously, the icing on the cake is if you get a Serena Williams – when does she come along, once every 50 years?”
Some other opinions from McEnroe, who will be commentating for ESPN when the U.S. Open starts on Monday.
Veterans Roger Federer (Australian Open, Wimbledon winner) and Rafa Nadal (French Open winner) are vying for the final major of the season.
“What Roger’s done, everyone is astounded and amazed, including myself,” McEnroe said. “So you’d have to say that he’s certainly going in the big favorite. Nadal is the other guy.”
With several top 10 men injured, there are “opportunities for people that haven’t stepped up in the past.”
He considers 26-year-old Grigor Dmitrov of Bulgaria, who won last Sunday in Cincinnati, “primed to make a run.” He calls 20-year-old Alexander Zverev of Germany, who recently beat Federer and Novak Djokovic, a future No. 1 player.
Maria Sharapova got a wild-card entry into the U.S. Open main draw despite a ranking of No. 147 as a result of a 15-month doping ban that ended in April. She tested positive for a newly banned heart drug at the 2016 Australian Open. The French Open chose not to give her a wild card and she skipped Wimbledon because of a thigh injury.
“Her suspension … was a lot harsher than almost any other suspension that I’ve been aware of in any other sports,” he said. “If (NFL players) get caught red-handed taking steroids, they’re suspended for four games the first time.”
McEnroe says the 2006 U.S. Open champion is one to watch.
“She’s someone who knows how to win,” he said. “I don’t know where she is fitness-wise and emotionally. She’s been through a lot, and obviously, a lot of it was self-imposed. But on a given day, she could beat anyone out there. No question.”
ON CHILD CARE
Serena Williams is due to give birth soon, and Victoria Azarenka isn’t at the U.S. Open because she’s in a custody battle with the father of her 8-month-old son.
Both are former No. 1 players, joining the growing list of mothers or coaches who have children on the WTA tour. The men’s pro tour, however, offers child care while the women’s tour does not.
“That would seem ironic since there’s some moms out there,” he said. “But they didn’t have anything when I had kids. So at least they’re going in the right direction. That should be a no-brainer.”
Asked where he’d rank on the women’s tour, McEnroe laughed.
“I refuse to answer that on the grounds that it may incriminate me.”