McEnroe, Courier and Sampras

Power Shares Champions Shootout.  Great event.     Let me repeat – great event.

The format is brief, two one set semifinal singles followed by a one set final between the two semi winners.  In this case Mac played Courier, Sampras played Blake – and then in the final the younger man beat the oldest man – that is James Blake had either more game or younger legs or both.

As regards my press pass, over the years I have been in the press room in Indian Wells, Flushing Meadows, and the SAP Open in San Jose.  But somehow, perhaps because they are retired and under far less pressure, the guys were much more open and engaged than in those other venues.  The interviews were long and thoughtful, and it even seemed like Pete and Mac were enjoying themselves  (which in my experience has been rare).

Jim Courier was right on the mark with two excellent observations.  First when asked about one of the best coaching tips he had ever received, he credited Jose Higueras with the following (which was one of the identical elements in my coursework on “The Art of Winnng.”

And following the unfortunate Davis Cup tie in San Diego where we lost to Britain, Courier also had this to say about the state of the global game and the fortunes of American tennis.

You probably know my fascination with the serve, with the commonalities between Pancho Gonzalez and Pete Sampras, and even the interview I published with one of his childhood coaches.  See my podcast on Pete’s snap

I am always wondering how much of a difference coaches can or do make, and asked Pete about his experience and his own feel for the serve.

Pay special attention to his comments about the coaches picking the direction of the serve after he had tossed the ball.  Wow.

Now to the tennis, and in particular the semifinal match between John McEnroe and Jim Courier.

Their games, even their techniques are a study in contrast.  Where Courier is strong and muscular (his nickname for this event was “the Rock”), McEnroe whips the racquet and ball without seeming effort.  No where is this more apparent than on their service motions

Pete had a bit of a sore shoulder and provided little resistance to James Blake, but equally 8 years does make a difference, Blake is 34 and Pete 42.  But the real match to my eye was Courier (43 year old legs) against McEnroe (at 55 perhaps the best player at his age in the history of tennis).

The match showcased two entirely different styles of tennis.  The big forehand vs the all court player.  The banger against the artist.  But let me digress.  Ivan Lendl may have been the first player to truly dominate with the big modern forehand.  In their rivalry, Mac remarked that he could rarely get his return of Ivan’s serve away from the deadly accurate forehand.  But in many matches Lendl was comfortable keeping his backhand slice in play, waiting for the forehand but not always running around the backhand to hit the forehand stroke.  In the next wave of players from Florida, Courier Agassi and others took this game to a new level, running around the backhand to punish opponents with forehand winners from all parts of the court.

But, and this is the key, those who run around their backhand are often giving up valuable real estate, and perhaps as one’s legs age, this tactic may be less useful.

Mac and Jim were on serve through 6 games, Mac dinking, slicing, finessing and more, and Jim stroking many forehand winners, and varying on his backhand wing with one handed underspin (rarely effective) and bold two fisted drives.  At 3 all Courier surged ahead in the game, and held a break point.  At this juncture McEnroe’s vile behavior (yes I said that) emerged, ranting, stalling, childish pique.  Courier waited for the match to resume, and in the wink of an eye Mac held serve, broke Jim, and served out the set at love.

As regards McEnroe, Courier tweeted the following, “He’s the greatest 55 year old tennis player who has ever graced the earth” Jim Courier on John McEnroe to KUTV in Salt Lake City last week.

And Randy Becker, a good friend who has played with some of these guys had this to say about Mac’s game, “I feel the champions on the tour have a tough time playing Mac because he always covers the highest probable shot. Mac appears to fully understand the 78×27 rectangle,, especially his 50%. He gives up the lowest % shot, and often I have watched champions appear to change their shot selection based on where Mac is and what’s most open as a target.

Finally, Courier was asked about playing Mac, about the challenge Mac creates with his variety, his court positioning, and his net rushing skills.  Jim said the game has changed so much with the players more and more on the baseline playing power topspin tennis, that it is unlikely that anyone again will play a version of the McEnroe style.

I for one, hope Jim is wrong on this score. What do you think?


  • Ron

    Reply Reply April 5, 2014

    Interesting…especially about the different techniques on the service.

  • James Selak

    Reply Reply March 19, 2014

    Many Thanks, some very insightful points mentioned. I would unfortunately agree with Jim Courier

    regarding todays present game, however, with that said I TRUELY HOPE THATS NOT THE FINAL


  • kenny bling

    Reply Reply March 12, 2014

    You mentioned below that you lost to Tanner in 3 sets…good effort.
    Perhaps you needed a better partner.
    You had another partner a few years ago where it seemed you never lost.
    K Bling

  • Bill Dunn

    Reply Reply March 8, 2014

    Jim, It’s Bill Dunn here.. it’s been awhile… but I continue to appreciate all your efforts and sage advice.

    This series of interviews was just excellent. Currier is so thoughtful. All these guys still have my great respect and it’s so good to hear them specak off the cuff in a more relaxed atmosphere. Thanks for making this happen. I think they all feel comfortable with you and it shows.

    I was surprised that James Blake fared so well… though I always liked him, I’ve always considered him a big hitter but not a very analytical one… usually making too many errors and generally going for too much and not caring about the resultant errors. Younger quicker legs seems to have been the key for him however. I’ve always enjoyed watching the “smart game” over the “big power hitter” game, finesse over brute force on the ball.

    Keep up the great work Jim!!

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 8, 2014

      Bill – thanks for the note, I felt the same about Blake when he was on tour – but his is perhaps 10 years younger than Courier and 20 years younger than Mac – and that is just too high a hurdle

  • Mitchell

    Reply Reply March 8, 2014

    Thanks for your response to my question. As a player born in 1961 I remember fondly playing with the PDP and following Tanner. Living in Somerset County, NJ I was disappointed to read of his problems later in life.
    Always a Pete fan and was amused and taken aback by his response. Regardless it was informative and truly appreciated.
    Melt Snow Melt!
    : )

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 8, 2014

      Mitch – I played an exhibition doubles against Roscoe in 1987 – his serve though still big was not the weapon it had been in previous years – and sadly my partner and I lost in three sets

  • vic borgogno

    Reply Reply March 8, 2014

    Jim, I tend to think the next level of players will have volleying skills that will tend to separate them from the ground stokers of today. It seems it might be just the edge a top player needs to rise above. vic

  • Alex

    Reply Reply March 8, 2014

    A super athlete will surface one day and show every one how to play net & volley.
    A particular player like Federer could be in this category as he does not much
    time in his legs. He can never match (e.g.) players like Nadal’s legs and variety
    But a volley player has so many options that is surprising many why they don’t
    seem to see/know except one or two (options).
    And a player like Nadal could learn (26) to play net/volley as he has all the shots.
    He believes he can outlast anyone until recently when Wawrinka showed him
    the limitations of his game. But Nadal showed how to play Wawrinka when he
    took the third set of the finals. He has the stroke to play aggressive to finish
    points early. But he seems unsure or whatever, he does not attempt to develop
    the game necessary. Even Djokovic is of the same shallow daring.
    From the 3rd round on, in grand slams, a close 5 set match leaves you as
    an underdog for the next match.
    That makes room for the next super player who will develop into the next Mac
    and Pete.

  • Mitchell

    Reply Reply March 7, 2014

    Hi Jim,

    Very informative. Really enjoyed the complete post.
    Quick question: Pete Sampras at 0:15 makes quite a face when you mention Roscoe Tanner, please what was that all about?

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 7, 2014

      Mitchell – this may have been my mistake – I meant to suggest that Tanner had nearly as exceptional serve as Pete – and I had heard that Roscoe came to the game with that serve – but somehow I did not convey it correctly – and did not mean in any way that Roscoe’s was equal to Pete’s – but that said I do not think I posed the question correctly – I was trying to find out the contributions from his coaches – having interviewed Pete Fisher and spoken on the phone with Del Little

  • Reed Johnston

    Reply Reply March 7, 2014

    I miss the days of McEnroe, Nastase and Miloslav Mecir. They could hit every kind of shot and looked almost effortless in doing so. It was so much more entertaining than the “crush the ball at every opportunity” style played by so many players today. I actually stopped watching tennis for about 10 years, because it had gotten so boring to me. I like watching Dogopolov (spelling?), Monfils and the one handed backhand gang (Gasquet, Youzney, Warwinka to name a few), because I learned tennis in the 60’s, and the one handed backhand was the only one taught then. Plus, there’s nothing quite as impressive to me than a one handed backhand struck with power and precision.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 7, 2014

      Reed – thanks for the note – it may be that the racquet and string technology combined with the far better trained athletes has taken tennis to its current state – but when you mention the Big Cat – can you imagine if you combined Mecir off the ground and around the court with a Milos Raonic serve – it would be lights out – for Miroslav did not serve well and Milos makes the ground game look unfortunately difficult

  • Larry

    Reply Reply March 6, 2014

    I remember seeing an instructional video made in the 80’s by Lendl and McEnroe, have no idea who got the 2 of them together and the contrast was just so amazing I still remember it. It appeared that Lendl would hit the ball and it would fly/bounce off his racquet, while McEnroe’s racquet would come into contact with the ball and he would carry it on his racquet placing it where he wanted. It hardly looked like he hit the ball, his shoulder and arm would effortlessly guide the ball to wherever he wanted. Unfortunately we will never see his likes again, Nastase, Santana, Orantes were there to contrast Smith and other hard hitters. Now we just have hard hitters who sometimes hit slice backhands just to break up the rallies and wait for the right ball to let loose.
    They should never have let them change from the wood racquet, it has destroyed the subtlety and beauty of the game.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 7, 2014

      Larry – that amazing video was done by John Yandell and presented an amazing study in contrasts – as to the players you mentioned it is great to recall Orantes, Santana, Nastase and so many more with feel, touch, ingenuity and so much more

  • hlk

    Reply Reply March 6, 2014

    Jim — An exceptional post, high quality commentary, skillfully selected and assembled to create a solid story line. One of the most beneficial tennis commentaries I have ever experienced. Thanks for sharing your good work. –hlk

  • Sam

    Reply Reply March 6, 2014

    >Jim said the game has changed so much with the players more and more on the baseline playing >power topspin tennis, that it is unlikely that anyone again will play a version of the McEnroe style.
    >I for one, hope Jim is wrong on this score. What do you think?

    I think there is a small opening for some sort of all court game to resurface. The reason for this is the Fedberg effect. I think it’s going to change the game back to the future…

    Why? because I think everyone has simply forgotten how to deal with a net rusher that it will become a factor again…. Then from some sort for serve&volley variation… the field if again open for a style “à la Mac”…

    it’s a small opening…. but it’s there, I think it all rests on Fedberg’s shoulders….

  • Bill

    Reply Reply March 6, 2014

    Jim, I’ve heard percentage tennis discussed over and over but always in generalities. I would love to see a specific case study done. In this case, what specifically, what shots did McEnroe employ to blunt Courier’s superior power. What aspects of Courier’s game did he exploit and with what shots? I know the generalities – hit crosscourt, hit deep, approach down the line (still true? you see less and less of that these days). I would love to see a ‘recipe book’. Guy has a weak two handed backhand? Hit him low slices. Guy doesn’t handle power well? Hit hard and deep? (easier said than done). I need specifics as to what McEnroe does …

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 6, 2014

      Bill – stay tuned, I am working on a Tennis IQ test which is an attempt to discuss shot selection and court positioning – but truly percentage tennis requires a player to be comfortable in all areas of the court and with the understanding that the game is more about not losing (meaning making fewer errors) than it is about winning (and trying to hit winners) and on that score Mac was and is superlative – example many of the players have average or poor underspin backhands (including Novak) so they would not be able to exploit two handers who are uncomfortable coming forward – to play this way a player truly needs all the shots

  • Rodger Schuester

    Reply Reply March 6, 2014

    Thanks for this post, nice stuff.

  • Ron R

    Reply Reply March 6, 2014

    I think we will see players with McEnroe’s style, with one difference. They will also have the more modern strokes/grips to have the options for more power and spin and to handle the speed of opponents shots. I would like to hear from Mac to know why he didn’t develop more kinetically powerful strokes (using more energy from the kinetic chain). He did it with his serve. Why not groundstrokes? He certainly must’ve been presented with the opportunity to make some changes. Combine that with everything else he does and the only downside might be “too many choices”. Off-hand Nishikori, Robredo, and Davydenko come to mind as models for someone of McEnroe’s stature and athletic ability. It may be that Mac has made some of these changes, especially with his backhand.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply March 6, 2014

      Ron – remember when he dominated there was little need to make changes – but the continental grip does not create the same force as other grips – and often those other grips cause one to sacrifice court position – I dont see Mac ever imagining the need to change and the only thing that might have done it was Lendl’s game once Ivan got on top – but change comes hard to any and truly all of us

  • Bernard Mckey

    Reply Reply March 6, 2014

    Dear Jim,

    Your videos are excellent especially on the serve 8 videos re-Balance-Rythem-Toss Kick -Up down -up down-my serve has cam on alot-I also learning Chip and Charge.


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