Team World’s captain and vice-captain ought to know what makes each other tick. They have after all been working together for 51 years.
John and Patrick McEnroe are the first and third sons of Kay and John McEnroe Sr. Their first son John – who was known among the American tennis media as ‘Junior’ in his playing days – was born in 1959, and Patrick was born in 1966. The surname is Irish, John Sr having been the son of Irish immigrants to New York.
Any big-brother-on-little-brother aggression was largely absent, because John Jr’s sibling rivalry in the early years of his life was with Mark McEnroe, the middle of the three brothers who hung up his racquets when he embarked on a law degree and has made his career in business. Mark has helped support the entrepreneurial side of some of John McEnroe’s tennis initiatives, but you won’t see him too near a pro-level tennis court these days.
In an interview for the New York Times in 1991 when Patrick was emerging as a singles player, John Sr said: “When we brought Mark home from the hospital, John was about four and he didn’t like it at all. But when Patrick came home, John was about seven, and he was thrilled. Patrick was the kind of kid you don’t ever remember having to yell at because he really never did anything to get anybody mad. Everybody always loved Patrick.”
If that sounds sweet and cute, there was one problem for Patrick – he was John’s brother. Who could ever hope to emulate the heights of both tennis brilliance and, ahem, debating prowess with umpires that his illustrious elder brother had?
The upshot was that Patrick carved his own niche. He freely admitted he was never going to be the best player in the world, but he could make a good living as a doubles player, and he also used his experiences of life in the slipstream of his brother’s high-profile achievements and antics to create his own reputation as the courteous and accommodating McEnroe on the tennis circuit.
Patrick achieved considerable success. In 1989 he and Jim Grabb won the French Open men’s doubles title. Then in 1991, he threw his energies into his singles career, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open and achieving a career-high ranking of 28 in 1995 (his high in doubles was three in 1993). Compare that to John’s seven Grand Slam singles titles, a world No 1 singles ranking and five Davis Cup winner’s medals and it pales, but Patrick never set out to emulate John, only to do his best, and most tennis watchers will attest that he fulfilled his potential.
In one regard Patrick exceeded John. In 2000 John was named US Davis Cup captain, but crashed out after three ties. His failure to persuade Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras to turn out for an away semifinal against Spain led to the Americans losing 5-0, and John walked away from the competition he had graced so magnificently as a player.
Into his shoes stepped Patrick. He was captain for 10 years, a model of politeness, affability and discretion, who shepherded a promising team of Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan twins to the title in 2007. Many felt it was a job better suited to his personality than to John’s.
So here they are at the Laver Cup working in tandem. John still has the profile, the charisma and the brashness to tell the world exactly what he thinks – like saying he hopes the Laver Cup will succeed because he wants it to spur changes to the Davis Cup – while Patrick is the soothing influence behind the scenes.
There was once a much quoted adage: that behind every successful man stood a strong woman. That seems out of date today; but perhaps behind a successful high-profile captain is a vice-captain who ensures all is smooth behind the scenes. That is what the McEnroe brothers bring to Team World.