American has a blueprint for change
DO NOT ask John McEnroe whether he can be serious. He has heard that one before and, despite him no longer being the angriest man in tennis, a fire still rages within the world No1-turned-media pundit.
He is serious all right, and his attention is trained furiously on conjuring ideas to amplifying the profile of the game he loves, from catering for reduced attention spans to championing the Davis Cup.
The three-time Wimbledon champion, now 56, sounds almost melancholy when contrasting the status he enjoyed in the 1970s and ‘80s with that of tennis today, despite the current crop setting the bar higher.
“I think that we’re at a point where it’s pretty clear that we have a great game but we need to do more – make some rule changes, whatever that is – to try to bring our sport to another level again,” he told City A.M.
“I’m biased, but it was a heyday, a great time, especially in America – I can’t speak for all the countries – just this buzz. And yet we have the greatest players ever, arguably, and a better level ever but we don’t seem to have the same level of interest.”
Perhaps fittingly for a New Yorker who has been embraced so warmly by Brits, McEnroe takes inspiration from football when asked what specific changes tennis should make to increase its appeal.
“If you go to a World Cup they play 90 minutes and then two 15 minutes and then a shootout. And there’s 11 guys and three substitutes. And they’re saying that takes too long,” he adds.
“So if we’re playing four or five hours just two people... Because it seems like the attention span generally of the average human being is far less than it used to be.”
The solution? “I haven’t figured out what that is exactly. Maybe it’s a tie break at 3-3 in the fifth set, or you could do something differently. But at Wimbledon, for example, you don’t even have a tie break in the fifth set. Why in the world wouldn’t you have that? How is it that after four or five hours, if you get to 6-6 in the fifth, isn’t that enough?”
McEnroe is also keen to tap into the tribalism of football and, as the face of a new promotion from French bank BNP Paribas, which seeks to unearth the game’s most fervent followers, is doing just that.
Fans are invited to submit clips showcasing their devotion, with McEnroe – depicted as a drill sergeant in the We Are Tennis campaign – picking the best to cheer on Britain and France at next month’s Davis Cup tie.
“Whenever you have a one-on-one sport, I think you need to feel something more or understand more about the person that’s out there,” he says.
“If Manchester United play Chelsea the fans from Manchester and London – it’s like a natural thing. But we don’t have that. We maybe do at Wimbledon if Andy Murray plays or at Roland Garros if a French guy plays. But generally if you don’t have that you have to figure out a way to get that to happen. That’s a big thing.”
Britain’s recently revived fortunes in the Davis Cup have breathed fresh life into the competition on these shores. An appetising home quarter-final on the lawns of Queen’s Club against a strong French team has only generated further excitement, though McEnroe believes it needs more nurturing on a global level – and has more ideas to revamp a tournament that he won with the United States five times.
“Davis Cup is something that to me is quite obviously on life support. That was a very important part of my upbringing and of my success as a player, so it means a lot to me,” he says.
“I was asking for change in 1978 and they haven’t changed anything. Whether it’s a World Cup-style format [played over a month set aside at the end of the year] or every other year like Ryder Cup, those would be two obvious ones I’d go to, whether you give the previous winner a bye or only have their first match in July. At the very least we have to do something like that, at the bare minimum.”
To apply to join the We Are Tennis Fan Academy and win a place at the Great Britain vs France Davis Cup by BNP Paribas quarter-final on 17-19 July, go to http://fans.wearetennis.com/en