Has there ever been a tennis player more analyzed than John McEnroe? The psyche and the temper, ready to combust at the flick of a linesman’s hand. In San Jose recently for the Champions Showdown, a part of the PowerShares Series Tour, McEnroe said, “It’s gotten to the point where it’s supposed to be part of the show for me to lose my temper. People are upset if I don’t. People in the stands will yell ‘you cannot be serious’ without me even having to say it.”

Wed to McEnroe’s temper is his inspired tennis, a captivating command of the court that goes hand-in-hand with the notion of him as a tortured genius, an artist at once brilliant, demonic, delivered to us from the heavens. Small wonder that when actor Tom Hulce prepared to play the role of Mozart he studied McEnroe’s on-court comportment.

But for a moment, ponder the ways a recreational player can become a better tennis player by watching McEnroe. No, not from his temper. “Still can’t get a call from you,” he yelled at chair umpire Jay Snyder during a PowerShares match.  Instead, take another view: McEnroe as one of the sharpest tennis minds in history, a man able to blend offense and defense into an incredibly high-percentage form of attacking tennis – and a style recreational players can apply to themselves. Consider three simple principles of the McEnroe game:


1-Pay Attention
It starts with McEnroe’s eyes. He brings a focus to the court – surely something we can control too. McEnroe’s feet and body are always well-balanced – an ability to station himself properly that he’s honed even more in recent years through yoga, stretching and other forms of body work. To be sure, the gods gave McEnroe some of these gifts, but with proper care and attention it’s possible to mimic his mix of alertness and relaxation – akin to a gentle cat, primed to spring into action.

2-Movement Is Everything
By paying such attention to the entire court, McEnroe is able to apply one of legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s most fundamental ideas: be quick but don’t hurry. Tennis is a game of small movements. Matches are won and lost not by the shots we can’t reach but by the ones in our grasp – a mere 3-4 yards away. Much is made of the soccer McEnroe played in his youth, but in short order tennis consumed him. And it shows in his ability to anticipate efficiently, constantly get himself in the right place to strike the ball and subtly smother his opponents.

3-What’s Pace Got To Do With It?
Attacking tennis is not necessarily synonymous with hitting the ball hard. Few have been better than McEnroe at calibrating offense and defense mid-point. For all McEnroe’s feistiness, watch how he rarely fights the ball by trying to do more with it than he should. Instead, McEnroe takes what the ball gives him, at absorbing pace and redirecting it in places where he can’t get hurt – a constant acceptance and probe, gently seeking to create an opportunity for offense. While much is made of the connection between McEnroe and the inspiration he drew from another lefty genius, Rod Laver, less is known of what he gained from Tony Palafox, a former pro who was a Wimbledon doubles champion – who’d earned a win over Laver in the Aussie’s ’62 Grand Slam year.

At a time when the likes of Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe were playing a form of attacking tennis based heavily on raw firepower, Palafox helped McEnroe see the game in more subtle shades. Originally from Mexico, he’d played extensively on clay and learned to blend spin and pace in a manner that thoroughly captivated the young McEnroe. In large part, the ability to strike big and soft was similar to the style played by another cat-like attacker, Pancho Gonzalez.

But even on the attack, McEnroe is not so much trying to hit a winner so much as apply a drip-drip-drip form of pressure. By paying attention, by arriving to the ball early and attaining sharp court position, by constantly keeping his opponent slightly off-balance, McEnroe is slowly slipping a noose over the other guy’s neck – and in time, the point will resolve of its own volition, whether by drawing an error or an easy placement. Placement, depth, angle, playing the percentages – these are the cornerstones of McEnroe in command of a point.

Note, for example, how rarely a McEnroe winner is hit particularly hard (the major exception is his overhead, which he practices devoutly – another lesson we can apply). Recreational players can learn much from McEnroe’s emphasis on placement over power – provided they have the courage to lust less for the narrow lure of pace and instead accept a broader awareness of the broadest possible spectrum. As Ashe said about McEnroe, “slice here, nick there, cut over here. Pretty soon you’ve got blood all over you, even though the wounds aren’t that deep. Soon after that you’ve bled to death.”


Written by Joel Drucker.