The Day I Hit with Tennis Legend John McEnroe

After 35 years of dreaming about this moment, there I stood, directly across the net from none other than tennis legend John McEnroe. My palms were sweaty, my adrenaline pumped and my stomach churned. For a moment I thought the ham sandwich I had earlier would be reappearing all over the court.

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After all, some guys of my generation daydreamed of marrying actress Bo Derek or forming a famous rock band. Not me. As a high school tennis coach and passionate club player during McEnroe’s glory days, I often thought about what it must be like to be on the same court with someone of his renowned stature. What does the highest level of excellence feel like in person? I had witnessed his artistry on the court from the nosebleed section at the US Open, but now I was about to find out up close and personal.

All sorts of questions swirled through my head only a few hours earlier as I made the two-hour drive to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy at SPORTIME Randall’s Island.  I wondered, “Would I even be able to rally with him?” I knew the ball would come off his racket with much more force and spin than it did from my group of friends at my local tennis club. Obviously, none of them had won 77 singles titles including seven Grand Slams, nor were ranked No. 1 in the world four straight years.

Granted, this wasn’t going to be an actual match. I knew that would be cruel and unusual punishment. No, this would simply be two guys hitting balls back and forth with one being light years above the other in terms of talent. Regardless, I approached the academy with one goal in mind: Don’t make a complete fool out of myself.

Nestled on an island in the middle of the New York City boroughs, the academy is a grandiose complex that boasts 20 courts. McEnroe, who was raised in Queens, participated in a variety of activities on the island as a kid.

It’s one thing to have a famous name attached to a facility. It’s quite another when that famous name actually puts his heart and soul into making that facility one of the best of its kind.

People who bring their kids to the academy, such as David Barrett, producer of TV’s hit show “Bluebloods,” rave about the facility. “The pros here are the best in the business,” Barrett said. “Their love of the game, along with John McEnroe’s presence, is quite infectious and makes you excited for the sport. Also, the diversity of the kids here makes this such a nice and inviting place.”

Diversity is the major theme here. The Johnny Mac Tennis Project changes young lives by removing the racial, economic and social barriers to success through tennis. A nonprofit, the project introduces tennis to under-resourced area children, particularly those living in East Harlem and the South Bronx, two communities adjacent to the facility. Although the academy would love to produce a Wimbledon champion, the overall goal is to give kids some hope of rising from a bleak situation.

“In many respects tennis still has a country club stigma attached to it and we are trying to make it more accessible for everyone,” McEnroe explained. “We’re focusing on people who can’t afford to play, and it can sometimes be an uphill battle. It’s important because kids can change because of sports. It gives them an opportunity to blow off steam, but there are many young kids who are not given the same opportunity as others. Let’s make things fair for everyone.”

To date the project has reached almost 6,000 students through community projects and has awarded $6.5 million in scholarships and community programs.

“New York is an expensive place to be, thus the need to fundraise on a continual basis,” he stated. People who are interested in making a donation to the nonprofit can find information at this website. 

At age 61, McEnroe hasn’t lost his competitive spirit and his peak physical condition allows him to go head to head with other former champions on the senior circuit who are a decade or two younger. He worked with a physical trainer for 15 years, but now mainly relies on his personal workout routine six days a week that consists of being on the court three or four days, using weights and chords, jumping rope or mountain biking whenever possible. “I’ll also walk about five miles while playing golf,” he said. “I enjoy having a routine and like to feel that I’ve accomplished something every day.”

Standing 5’11” and weighing 165 pounds, he’s a perpetual ball of motion while holding a conversation off the court. His overactive metabolism allows his to eat pretty much what he desires while still maintaining his slim, wiry physique.

Jay Karl, McEnroe’s affable right-hand man at the academy and purveyor of guest services, set aside a court for us and the moment of truth had arrived. Honestly, it was surreal looking across the net at McEnroe, but once the rallies began I got lost in the moment and muscle memory took over. His crisp, penetrating shots were hit with pinpoint accuracy, but thankfully he directed most in my vicinity. When he wanted to end the rally, he effortlessly pulled me off the court with heavy topspin and came to the net for one of his trademark volleys. Because he takes the ball so early, his shots were much harder to anticipate than anything I had experienced playing at the club level for 40 years.

Our session lasted 25 minutes, undoubtedly the most memorable time I’ll ever spend on a tennis court. Afterwards he graciously remarked, “You get a lot of balls back.”  Surely he was being kind, but I beamed with pride nonetheless.

Playing with McEnroe was indeed a special and rare opportunity that’s afforded to few people, and to say my dream came true would be a gross understatement. I now can only wonder if by chance any of my old friends ended up marrying Bo Derek.

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