John McEnroe's TV Racket
Why does the press so adore Mac in the broadcast booth?
To liven up their coverage of the U.S. Open, CBS and USA Network have once again employed the services of John McEnroe, whose presence in the broadcast booth is, according to many tennis aficionados, ample reason to tune in. "Unparalleled," raves Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim. "The Tim McCarver of tennis, the undisputed master of his craft," says the New York Times Magazine. After hearing McEnroe call a match for the BBC, Rob Hughes of the Sunday Times gushed, "He can see and relate to aspects of a top player's performance before even the competitor himself is aware of it. He can articulate the nuances of Centre Court and put it into a few words quicker than any co-commentator can detect it."
Personally, I've never known McEnroe to be anything other than an insufferable blowhard on television. But with so many declaring his color commentary to be a feast for the ears, I decided to spend an hour hanging on his every word. When this year's Wimbledon men's final between Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter, which McEnroe covered for NBC, went into a fifth set, I jotted down every sentence that came off McEnroe's tongue. What gems did he serve up during that riveting fifth set, an occasion tailor-made for some on-air poetry?
"Both players have not given anything."
"He's got to juice it up now; it's all or nothing this game."
"Goran is continuing to hit a lot of excellent groundstrokes."
"He's got the game back on track now."
"He's had to work a lot harder this game than he wanted to."
"You knew that was going to drop in; you could just sense it."
"This crowd is playing such a positive part in this match; it's just energizing these two."
Checking your sneakers for grass stains? Feeling the heat from that Ivanisevic forehand? And while spitting out one banality after another, McEnroe repeatedly missed opportunities to shed insight on the action below. For instance, at 5-5 in the decisive set, Rafter's first serve, rock solid to that point, suddenly went AWOL. But only after the problem became painfully obvious—Rafter faulted on four consecutive first serves—did McEnroe finally chime in, "He's missing first serves; not a good thing." But he made no effort to diagnose the problem nor did he think to explain its significance: Rafter's sudden show of vulnerability buoyed Ivanisevic at just about the point when the Croat might have been expected to crack.