2009 was a golden year for the tennis book, giving us three fantastic reads: Jon Wertheim’s Fedal tribute, Strokes of Genius; Marshall Jon Fisher’s illuminating tennis history A Terrible Splendor; and Andre Agassi’s blockbuster autobiography, Open. I read and loved all three, gave them as gifts and yakked about them until my friends’ eyes glazed over.
Patrick McEnroe’s Hardcourt Confidential: Tales from Twenty Years in the Pro Tennis Trenches, written with Tennis Magazine’s Peter Bodo, is the latest addition to the genre. I’m not sure if it would exist without last year’s critical and popular successes paving the way. “Tennis is hot,” a literary agent recently told me, and I suspect that someone told Patrick McEnroe the same thing.
Hardcourt Confidential is a pleasant diversion, a sampler platter of mostly harmless gossip, inside tennis pontificating and McEnroe family lore. It sometimes feels awkward and unfocused, as if McEnroe couldn’t figure out just what kind of book he wanted to write. And like any buffet offering, there’s some filler. His references to Agassi’s own autobiography just remind us how much meatier the other book is. The random passages analyzing Pistol Pete’s game seem lifted straight out of another autobiography co-authored by Bodo: A Champion’s Mind by Pete Sampras. And when it comes to airing his family’s dirty laundry, McEnroe lives up to his childhood nickname, “Perfect Patrick,” divulging nothing that would exile him to the kiddie table at the next family Thanksgiving.
Much of the book’s charm is in its modesty. PMac knows he’s not a GOAT like Sampras, a pop culture legend like his brother or a showman like Agassi. His best run at a major was at the 1991 Australian Open, where he lost to Boris Becker in a four-set semifinal. McEnroe proudly reminds us of the press conference quip that later won him World Tennis magazine’s Quote of the Year: “Hey it was just like you guys all predicted in the semis: Becker, Edberg, Llendl and McEnroe.” His most famous match was a five-set loss to an aged Jimmy Connors in the first round of the 1991 US Open. “My only consolation, so many years later,” he writes. “Is that I had merely been the imprudent schmo who uncorked the bottle containing the genie.”
The best parts of the book – and yes, the juiciest – examine Patrick’s unique, and sometimes uncomfortable, place in the sport. As the brother of a legend, he once tried to launch his singles career by accepting the seemingly limitless supply of wild cards offered to him by savvy tournament directors looking to get in good with John. “It pains me to admit this,” Patrick writes, “but I believe I hold the ATP record for having been awarded the greatest number of wild cards in one year.” After losing in the first round of seven straight tournaments – a wild card entrant in all of them – he finally decided to give up the perks of being John McEnroe’s brother.
Through the years “John McEnroe’s brother” has legitimately made a name for himself as an ESPN commentator, United States Davis Cup captain and as General Manager of the U.S.T.A.’s Elite Player Development Program. It’s an impressive tennis career – and not without its own triumphs, disasters and heart break. Patrick writes passionately about leading Team USA – a post he was awarded after waiting out his brother’s own tumultuous term – and his stories about building and nurturing the team that would eventually win the 2007 Davis Cup reveal as much about his patience and discretion as they do about Andy Roddick’s temper and James Blake’s insecurities. Patrick’s bitter experience wrangling a petulant, egotistical Andre Agassi during Team USA’s doomed 2005 final vs. Croatia in Los Angeles is as illuminating and unflattering a look at the Zen Master’s personality as any passage of Open. McEnroe doesn’t shy away from painting Darren Cahill, Agassi’s then-coach and now his own colleague at ESPN, as an enabling groupie.
Patrick’s multiple roles continue to put him in sticky situations. As a USTA big wig, he was asked to present the 2009 US Open doubles trophy to Venus and a shamed Serena Williams, but as an ESPN journalist, he felt obligated to question Serena on her tirade against a lines judge. He writes that another ESPN colleague, Mary Joe Fernandez, wiggled out of the presenting gig for fear of angering the Williams sisters before the upcoming Fed Cup final vs. Italy. A couple months later, Serena asked to borrow one of the USTA’s top coaches to help her at the year ending championships in Doha, subsequently pulling out of Fed Cup while winning the title with the help of the coach. McEnroe promptly accused her (via an email to her agent) of taking advantage of the USTA’s good will.
Serena’s not the only American tennis player McEnroe thinks has entitlement issues. He lays out his ongoing battle with Donald Young’s parents, who he says remain wary and ungrateful despite what he claims is his program’s approximate half million dollar investment in the (once?) rising star. He rolls his eyes at the unnamed “Grand Slam legend“ who, after publicly professing his willingness to help develop future talent, responded to PMac’s modest job offer with the “terse” text message: “Add a zero.”
It’s these insights that make Hardcourt Confidential worth reading and show Patrick McEnroe, administrator, manager and people-pleaser, at his most heroic – and least “perfect”.
Or you could just read it to find out which one of his veteran ESPN boothmates was moved to tears while watching Roger Federer play in the 2003 Wimbledon final.
Hardcourt Confidential: Tales from Twenty Years from the Pro Tennis Trenches is available starting today at Amazon.com
(Note: I was given a complimentary review copy of the book, but was not compensated by the publisher in any other way for this review.)