What more can be said about John McEnroe? Over the course of more than three and a half decades in the public eye, he's run the gamut from enfant terrible to elder statesman. Author. Painter. Fledgling musician. Talk show host. Game show host. Arguably the most popular tennis commentator of all-time. The man's name is immortalized in a House of Pain rap lyric, for crying out loud. Love him or hate him, Johnny Mac is a bona fide New York icon who long ago transcended the particulars of his Hall of Fame playing career. The opportunity to watch him ply his classic serve and volley trade in person is roughly the equivalent of watching The Who play "Baba O'Riley" live.
Said opportunity was one many Capital Region fans took, as the SEFCU Arena was nearly filled to capacity for the New York Sportimes' final Albany appearance of 2013. The paying spectators weren't alone in their excitement. One of the court attendants had the access pass hung around his neck autographed by McEnroe. Maria Elena Camerin of the visiting Orange County Breakers even stopped McEnroe early in his pre-match warmup to pose alongside her for a photo (snapped by her doubles partner Coco Vandeweghe). Fellow Breaker Steve Johnson also exchanged some friendly words with McEnroe, but was all business once the match got underway.
First set: men's singles -- Jesse Witten vs. Steve Johnson
Easing his way back into World TeamTennis in his season debut, McEnroe opted to sit out the singles. That would bode well for Orange County, who are well represented in this event by Steve Johnson. The two-time NCAA singles champion is something of a WTT rarity: a man currently ranked in the ATP Top 100 who has made himself available for a full season of Team Tennis. Johnson got off to a terrific start here, breaking Jesse Witten at love in the opening game of the match.
Game 2 went to deuce -- a single, winner-take-all "deciding point" in WTT's no-ad scoring. Johnson won it by handcuffing Witten with a clutch second serve. Witten held serve to get on board, then came up with some sizzling passing shots to put Johnson in serious trouble in Game 4. Once again, the 26-year-old was calm under pressure, brushing away four consecutive break points to hold for 3-1.
There would be a few noteworthy moments in the latter half of the set. McEnroe, from his vantage point on the New York bench, shook his head over a baseline non-call. Music inadvertantly came on in the middle of one rally, forcing a let to be played. But the tennis itself was pretty straighforward, as Johnson settled into a real groove on his serve and comfortably closed out a 5-3 victory.
OVERALL SCORE: BREAKERS 5, SPORTIMES 3
After the set, a young boy from Schenectady -- named Michael Chang, if you can believe it -- was ushered onto the court to "interview" John McEnroe. Keeping a sheepish distance, the boy asked McEnroe "Why do you like tennis?"; "Do you play any other sports?"; and "What's your favorite TV show?" Amidst dutifully replying to all of the above, McEnroe turned the tables. "I have a question for you. Do you know who I am?" As the crowd's laughter died down, the nonplussed child replied with a simple, "Yeah." All told, it was nearly as thrilling and intense as the 5-set match McEnroe played against that other Michael Chang at the 1991 US Open.
Second set: mixed doubles -- Peschke/McEnroe vs. Camerin/Huey
How would John McEnroe and Kveta Peschke -- winners of 71 and 25 doubles titles, respectively -- gel as a team? Get this: Treat Huey of the Breakers came up with three aces in the opening game of mixed doubles and STILL couldn't hold serve! On deciding point, McEnroe placed a picture perfect dipping return at Huey's feet to secure the break. Game 2 saw more classic McEnroe, rushing the net behind each of his serves. Maria Elena Camerin did manage to beat him once with a lovely cross-court return. "Your eyes were open, right?" McEnroe asked the Italian, who smiled broadly while nodding in the affirmative. "That's well done," he acknowledged, before closing out an otherwise spotless hold for 2-0.
Peschke was the star of Game 3, coming up with a winning volley and a winning return on the road to a 15-40 lead. She then clinched the second break of the set, ripping a return that clipped the racquet of a late-reacting Huey. The Sportimes continued to put on a mixed doubles clinic in Game 4, McEnroe spryly popping up from an I-formation crouch a couple times in Peschke's easy hold for 4-0. Camerin and Huey would manage to salvage one set point in the following game, but couldn't avoid the whitewash. On set point number 2, McEnroe struck a curling backhand pass that opened up the court for Peschke. She put away an easy forehand volley, banking the 5-0 win after a mere 14 minutes of play.
OVERALL SCORE: SPORTIMES 8, BREAKERS 5
He may be 54 years old, with hair that's markedly transitioning from gray to white, but John McEnroe can still show opponents half his age a thing or two on the doubles court. "The first set was great,” he would say after the match. "Kveta is a great doubles player to play with. It was fun.” He'd hope for more fun as he teamed with longtime Sportimes teammate Robert Kendrick in his second and final event of the evening.
Third set: men's doubles -- Kendrick/McEnroe vs. Huey/Johnson
The opening game of men's doubles opened with the first real flash of John McEnroe's legendary temper. After Steve Johnson knifed away a backhand volley on deciding point to break his serve, McEnroe threw his racquet. (To further that Who analogy I made earlier, witnessing this in person is akin to seeing Pete Townsend smash his guitar.) McEnroe may be the greatest doubles player in the history of tennis -- as he was identified in the pre-match introductions -- but the Breakers were paying him no deference now. Midway through Treat Huey's love hold for a 2-0 lead, Johnson buzzed McEnroe's tower with a smash. Johnson did raise his hand in apology (for what was a perfectly legal, common play in doubles), but McEnroe never acknowledged it, keeping his back turned.
Johnson kept up his bold heroics in Game 3, whipping a winning pass to set up break point, then finishing the job by lofting a beautiful topspin lob over McEnroe's outstretched racquet. Already down a double break, McEnroe and Robert Kendrick were in danger of being blitzed as badly as the Breakers had been in the mixed. But they found new life in Game 4, coming from behind to force a deciding point. Following his serve into the net, Johnson bricked a low forehand volley, let out an anguished scream, and kicked the ball. The Sportimes were back in the set at 1-3 and back in the overall lead at 9 games to 8.
McEnroe carried the momentum further, smacking back-to-back aces to open Game 5. "Come on, Johnny!" enthused one Sportimes supporter. "Only my mom calls me Johnny," McEnroe corrected him. After a service winner wrapped up the love hold for 2-3, a different fan cried out, "Way to go, Mr. McEnroe!" John approved of that, grinning as he gave the thumbs up.
The Sportimes had a real chance to get back on serve, jumping out to at 15-40 lead against Huey in Game 6. The first break point was on McEnroe's racquet as he lined up a fairly routine backhand volley...and pushed it long. McEnroe stood with his hands on his hips, head down in disbelief. They still had a chance two points later, opting to have Kendrick (who'd been seeing the ball well in the last few games) take the return on deciding point. However, "Kendo" promptly drilled a return into the net, ending the game in Orange County's favor.
Things went from bad to worse for Kendrick in Game 7, as he double faulted twice en route to another deciding point -- this one a set point for Orange County. A very good rally ensued and turned into a mano-a-mano battle between Johnson and McEnroe. The veteran scrambled well, but the man 28 years his junior ultimately prevailed, spanking a winning forehand volley to take the set by a humbling count of 5-2.
OVERALL SCORE: SPORTIMES 10, BREAKERS 10
After the match, John McEnroe was still haunted by his pivotal miscue on break point in Game 6. "I missed that one volley. That screwed everything up," he said. "It was an absolute gimme. I believe I don't even need to be awake when I make that shot. I probably would make it in my sleep. That would have made it 3-all. I feel bad." Steve Johnson also deserves some credit, but when I asked about his play, McEnroe spoke in general terms. "Steve, I've seen him for a while. He's coming along. He's in the Top 100 now. He stepped up a bit, but I've seen it comin'. He's doing well."
Fourth set: women's singles -- Anna-Lena Groenefeld vs. Coco Vandeweghe
Here's one matchup in which the uniforms worn in World TeamTennis come in handy. Were they not sporting their team colors, you might not have been able to tell one tall, broad-shouldered, baseline-residing, big-forehand-hitting blonde from the other. Coco Vandeweghe (Orange County's tall blonde) is suffering through a miserable season on the WTA Tour. Her ranking has fallen nearly 180 spots in the past year, putting her in danger of missing the cut-off just to enter qualifying at the US Open. But she would likely get a wild card in that case -- maybe even one for the main draw -- since the USTA has always believed in her high ceiling talent. And to her credit, the 21-year-old seems to have found her game on the Team Tennis circuit. Vandeweghe started the night ranked second in the entire league in women's singles.
Coco (the niece of former NBA star Kiki Vandeweghe) had a memorable tiff with fiery Russian teenager Yulia Putintseva earlier this year. "You are a terrible player, only serve. I win all the rallies," Putintseva allegedly said after beating Vandeweghe in Brussels. That kind of is the scouting report on Vandeweghe...but what a serve it is! She thumped a pair of aces in her opening service game on Thursday night, then came up with another in closing out a hold for 2-2. Anna-Lena Groenefeld, who'd pushed counterpunchers Victoria Duval and Jill Craybas around the court in her previous home matches, was clearly in against an opponent who could fight fire with fire.
Vandeweghe drove a forehand winner into the corner for a 0-30 lead in Game 5, raising the ire of John McEnroe, who thought the ball was out. McEnroe got up from his seat on the New York bench, approached the umpire, and bellowed, "You have no idea where it was!" Undaunted, Vandeweghe picked up right where she left off, smacking a winning return to go up 0-40. Two points later, Groenefeld steered a backhand long to surrender the set's first break. Vandeweghe now led 3-2; her team led in the overall tally 13-12.
Negative body language has bedeviled Vandeweghe for much of her young career, but for this night she played with a smile plastered on her face. The positive attitude correlated with some very impressive tennis as she blasted her way through a dominant hold for 4-2 and charged to a 15-40 lead in Game 7. Groenefeld saved the first set point with a good overhead smash, but Vandeweghe kept right on smiling. Groenefeld followed with a forehand error on the very next point, putting the finishing touch on a crowd-deflating 5-2 loss. Coco Vandeweghe, meanwhile, exchanged a serious of exuberant high fives with her Orange County teammates. If she can keep producing the brand of consistent, aggressive tennis she played in this set, she'll be a real factor in the future of American tennis...no matter what Yulia Putintseva thinks.
OVERALL SCORE: BREAKERS 15, SPORTIMES 12
Fifth set: women's doubles -- Groenefeld/Peschke vs. Camerin/Vandeweghe
If the New York Sportimes had to claw out of a 3-game hole in the final event of the night, Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke were the players they wanted on court to do it. They were unbeaten as a pair to this point in the WTT season, winning all 7 of their sets by a combined total of 35 games to 18. However, the Orange County Breakers were riding a wave (pun intended) of serious momentum after Coco Vandeweghe's blistering performance in singles. After a Groenefeld double fault and a terrific Camerin return, the Sportimes were already in a 15-30 hole to open the set. It would go downhill from there. Way, way downhill.
A rally on the fourth point came to a very abrupt end. "Touch play!" the umpire interjected, indicating that Peschke's volley was an illegal double hit. It didn't look like one from where I was sitting, nor did it look that way to anyone on the Sportimes. Their bench practically erupted, with coach Claude Okin and (naturally) John McEnroe joining Peschke in a heated exchange with the umpire. McEnroe carried his tirade on the longest, excoriating the umpire for allegedly having a personal bias against him and taking it out on his teammates. The umpire didn't take kindly to that: he assessed McEnroe a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct. As the team's second code violation, it came with an automatic point penalty. The questionable call had turned 15-30 into 15-40. The point penalty turned 15-40 into game: a pivotal early break for Camerin and Vandeweghe.
Even as the women got play back underway, McEnroe was still ranting at the umpire. "You screwed up!" he screamed, finally ending his outburst with a Mamet-esque stanza of "You suck! You suck!" If nothing else, this did serve to get the crowd involved. They let out one of the loudest ovations of the night when New York won the opening point of Game 2. Vandweghe quieted them down in a hurry, however, taking the next four points to hold for 2-0.
Peschke had her moments (closing out Game 3 with an overhead; tagging Vandeweghe with a volley in Game 4), but most of the on-court action kept going the way of the Breakers. Groenefeld's wretched evening hit its nadir in Game 5, which she opened and closed with double faults. Already up 4-1, Vandeweghe rocketed yet another ace to get to 40-15 and match point. Maria Elena Camerin responded by pantomiming an "I'm not worthy" bow to her partner, the night's unofficial MVP.
All good things, including the Groenefeld/Peschke winning streak, must come to an end. Anna-Lena dumped a lackluster volley into the net on match point, ending the 5-1 misadventure.
FINAL SCORE: BREAKERS 20, SPORTIMES 13
All in all, a pretty horrendous collapse by the New York Sportimes. Fine tennis from Steve Johnson and Coco Vandeweghe lit the fuse, but an escalating series of disputes with the umpire caused the final explosion that blew away what was left of the home team's chances. After the match, I asked John McEnroe if it's fair to say this wasn't the best officiating he'd ever seen. "I think that's fair to say, yeah, but I don't see a lot of good officiating," he replied with a devilish grin. "This topped even the normal. I feel bad for the girls, because it's like a personal -- it has nothing to do with them. I feel like it's just something to do with me and it's too bad that it has to be that way. I'd prefer if the guy was gonna do it, just do it to me instead of the whole team."
Summarizing the match as a whole, McEnroe said, "We started bad, then we got on a roll, then we blew it. We could have come back, but it all just derailed. That's part of why it's fun -- it's unpredictable. It's too bad this other stuff got in the way. We lost 5-2, 5-1 the last couple sets, so you can't necessarily blame the whole thing on that, but it's the same old story." While McEnroe has joked that he gets paid to engage in umpire-baiting shtick on the seniors tour, his frustration tonight appeared genuine. Was it? "I believe it is," McEnroe confirmed, rubbing his chin. "It's frustrating, but it's nothing new. Thank God I'm not having to deal it with too often. Other people do a much better job of handling it than I do."