He calls them “my girls” and “my guys”… Thirty years after the end of his career, the legend at the seven Grand Slam tournaments has turned into a super-coach. Shocked by the delirious cost of tennis schools, he chose to pass on his desire to win to young talents from underprivileged backgrounds. Many sponsors, including the French bank BNP Paribas, followed him in the adventure. Meeting with the champ.
You stopped your career thirty years ago. And yet you are still recognized in New York restaurants. What relationship do you have with fame?
John McEnroe. Somehow it always flatters my ego to be in people’s minds, to not have been forgotten. I owe it a lot to my activities as a tennis commentator on American TV where I still officiate on NBC, CBS or ESPN. That said, none of the kids in my academy had heard of me before they joined us. For the younger generations, I am a dinosaur.
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You exaggerate. Slim, slender, you look in great shape. What is the secret of this longevity?
I have a good metabolism (laughs). In fact, until recently I played quite a bit on old glory circuits like the Champions Tour or the Senior Tour. We had to stay in shape. And then, I didn’t just go there for the fun and the show but also to offer the best show by being ready and sharp. And if possible win. It’s always better to win than to lose, right?
Why this idea of an academy?
I wanted to give back to New York and tennis what they gave me. A kind of inheritance. I had the chance to start in a privileged place, in Port Washington, not far from here with an exceptional Australian coach, Harry Hopman. I try, like him, to be in my turn a leader and a mentor for the new generations, to nourish him with my experience and my philosophy of tennis. You know: I was a ballboy in New York at the US Open. I have won the tournament four times, the last of which was in 1984. If one of my guys or girls from the Bronx, Manhattan or Queens won Flushing Meadows, it would give tennis a boost. And on a personal level, it would come full circle.
What do you bring to the children?
My energy, my ability to get into their heads and help them perform better. I want them to understand that tennis is a game of strategy. Like chess. You have to think, be one step ahead, get inside the opponent’s head, anticipate his moves and his tactical changes.
Yet tennis is no longer a very democratic sport in the United States?
It’s two to three times more expensive than when I was a child. I would even say more: it has become overpriced. From 13-14 years old, to have the right coaches and hope to shine at the national level, you need a minimum budget of $50,000 per year. We can allow young people to afford this dream thanks to the partnership we have with the BNP by supporting the most promising talents. But this concerns only a small elite.
Before, athletes didn’t have a say in the face of artists, and stylists, they systematically lost. Today, brute force prevails over the beautiful game
What would you like to do to improve the situation?
I hope to build partnerships with schools. Tennis is losing ground here at the school level to football, your football, “soccer”. It’s easier and more profitable to put twenty kids on a football field than on tennis courts. That’s a shame. For education, tennis is a great sport. You can learn a lot about yourself and about life. It helps build a personality. It teaches how to win and lose, to be focused and to make decisions.
In the 80s, the peak of your career, this sport enjoyed a strong notoriety, what happened?
I was lucky enough to live in a pioneering era. Tennis was in vogue. We were constantly under the fire of the media. There with Nadal, Federer and Djokovic we have three of the greatest names of all time and we talk less about tennis in the United States. Why ? Because they are European. Among the men, we Americans are, a bit like you the French, in need of a superstar. It will soon be twenty years since an American has won a Grand Slam (Editor’s note: Andy Roddick in 2003)
How do you judge the evolution of the game
Tennis has become stereotyped. Technology, I’m thinking especially of snowshoes, and the new rules have loaded the dice. Before, athletes didn’t have a say in the face of artists and stylists. They always lost. Today, brute force prevails over the beautiful game. There are too many behemoths sending missiles from the forehand or serve on the circuit. Tennis must reinvent itself in terms of marketing to become exciting again
I love paris. My wife too. I only have great memories there except my lost final in 1984
Would you be tempted by a new coaching experience after Raonic in 2016?
Sure. I had a lot of fun coaching Canadian Milos Raonic and taking him to the Wimbledon final in 2016. I would still like to coach but not full time. Let’s say 10 weeks a year. There are plenty of players who would suit me like the other Canadian, Denis Shapovalov, left-handed, like me, explosive like me: a real wild thoroughbred. I also like the Australian Kyrgios or the Italian Sinner. What I would love is to slip into their brains and make them better competitors. I know I can do it.
What do you expect from Roland Garros 2022?
I love paris. My wife too. I only have great memories there apart from my lost final in 1984. Your federation did a great job. The tournament has really improved. This year, on the tennis side, I don’t have any particular expectations or excitement. I am of course curious to see the Greek Tsitsipas, the Spanish phenomenon Alcaraz. I also like seeing tough veterans like Wavrinka and watching how they are going to perform. From Americans, like the French, I don’t expect much.
Are you going to play Porte d’Auteuil?
I have to participate in the tournament of legends with Tommy Haas, 43 years old. I had knee problems and caught, like everyone else, the Covid. I hope to be able to participate. I have always adored the Parisian public.
You have above your desk a photo of Boris Becker who has just been imprisoned in London for tax evasion. Do you think of him?
Yes. It’s terrible what happened to him. I promised myself to go see him in London when I go to commentate Wimbledon this summer. I will do it. I will go to see him in prison and show him my friendship.