There can be no doubt that by any measure, John McEnroe was one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Three Wimbledon Championships, four U.S. Open trophies to go with 77 single titles, 77 doubles titles, in a career that spanned an entertaining 12 years. It is easy to see why McEnroe is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
As the tennis world has its eyes on Paris and the French Open, McEnroe has a few fond memories of the dark red clay on the courts of Stade de Roland Garros. As brilliant a career as McEnroe had he was never able to win a French Open title. He spoke to me by phone from Paris where he is preparing for his job as a television analyst for the Tennis Channel. We talked about the 2013 French Open and the red clay at Stade de Roland Garros.
JW: What makes playing on clay so challenging for some of the world’s best players?
McEnroe:” Well, I think the most difficult aspect is the footing, the inability to make that quick first step that you’re able to do on a surface where you can stop and start on a dime. You can’t do that on clay, players must master the slide and for some that is not easy. Especially for an aggressive player like myself, it became difficult to defend well struck passing shots. The red clay for me altered my style of play so drastically it took me out of what I did best – serve and rush the net. That’s why you see less players moving forward on clay.”
To be honest, you see less players moving forward, period. So in a way the game has become more homogenized in the sense that the courts play more similarly than they ever have. “
JW: I know that you like Rafael Nadal as the favorite. But who could up-set him?
McEnroe:” Right now “Rafa seems to be playing his best of tennis of the whole year, which is sort of frightening for the other players.
Unless something happens that’s unforeseen, it would be pretty hard pressed to make an argument for anyone other than Novak Djokovicto beat him. Maybe someone like David Ferrer could win but the conditions would have to be extremely heavy so his ball wouldn’t have the type of jump it normally does.
JW: What about Roger Federer?
McEnroe:” Roger is working harder than ever, I’m sure, physically to maintain the type of fitness level he needs to be able to go the distance at least against guys that he’s better than. It’s difficult for him at his age to go past Djokovic and Nadal to win on a clay court. I think his best bet for a major this year would be Wimbledon. I would be amazed if he would be able to beat both those guys at the French.”