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McEnroe brothers go head-to-head in fight to revive American tennis

By Chris Murphy and Greg Duke, CNN
  • John McEnroe has launched his tennis academy in New York
  • McEnroe's philosophy on breeding young tennis stars differs from brother Patrick
  • Patrick is head of the United States Tennis Association's elite player development program
  • Recent rankings show a slump in American tennis in both the men's and women's game

(CNN) -- As his successful but often spiky career can testify, John McEnroe has never been one for convention.

The seven-time major winner has been an omnipresent force in American and world tennis since he burst onto the scene in 1977 by making the semifinal at Wimbledon as an 18-year-old amateur.

Now McEnroe has launched his own tennis academy in New York, aiming to give back to the city that harnessed his love for the game, and he's outlined a philosophy to reinvigorate U.S. tennis that is directly at odds with his brother.

Patrick McEnroe is head of the United States Tennis Association's scheme to develop elite players and very much a pupil of the school that says budding young stars should live and breathe the game.

John, however, thinks tennis overload can do more harm than good. He thinks it is vital for a child's development as a player to continue to live at home and enjoy other sports, like any other regular kid.

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The brothers, who have had a fractious relationship for a number of years, are keen to stress they are both working towards the same goal and will take pride and pleasure in any players who make the grade -- no matter which system they emerge from.

Any success they do have can't come quick enough.

Video: The McEnroe's tennis academy
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When Andy Roddick recently slipped to No.12 in the world it signaled the first time since rankings began in 1973 that the U.S. didn't have a representative in the men's top ten.

In the women's game Bethanie Mattek-Sands is currently the third highest female ranked player, at 61 in the world, behind the high-flying Williams sisters.

McEnroe told CNN's Open Court show: "I don't know exactly what my brother Patrick thinks of my academy. Hopefully he is open to anything that is successful so we have to prove ourselves.

"Most people are under the impression that to be a success you have to send the kids away, give up everything else, and focus solely on tennis from a very early age. Patrick, to some extent, believes in that as well, so it's my job to show it can be done another way.

"Mine would follow a different philosophy where, god forbid, you would have a bit of a life, and continue to play some other sports for a while, because I know that playing basketball and soccer benefited me.

"I know that if I'd have been sent away to a place, away from my family, when I was young I wouldn't have succeeded. I'd just like to provide an alternative option. Hopefully we can co-exist and help each other as we have the same goal."

McEnroe quotes the example of John Isner -- currently making his mark on the men's game -- and that fact he went to college before launching his assault on tennis as proof that his strategy can work.

His own schooling in the game followed a similar pattern, and he bristles at the thought of kids moving house and home to learn the game somewhere like Nick Bollettieri's famous Florida academy that spawned the likes of Andre Agassi and Monica Seles.

"When I was a kid it helped me greatly to be part of an academy with such players as Vitus Gerulaitis and Peter Fleming," McEnroe told CNN. "We all grew up together and helped each other out. But since my brother Patrick came through the ranks 25 years ago there has been nobody from New York.

I know that if I'd been sent to a place away from my family when I was young I wouldn't have succeeded
--John McEnroe

"We play the U.S. Open here and it just seemed total sense to start an academy here, to start a buzz and hopefully get some good players coming out of this area.

"There are a lot of tennis places around that parents can send their kids to. They can go to a Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida, where they are schooled and live and breath tennis.

"I think parents will give my academy a look. They know I have credibility and passion, and I plan to be here on a regular basis. I have also employed some top people to work with me which will help.

"I'd like to see some great players come out of here but it will be a long process. The kids that are coming are from mainly upper class, wealthy environments but it remains to be seen if they will have the hunger to succeed in tennis."

Patrick, who will soon quit as the United States' Davis Cup captain after ten years in the job to concentrate on his role with the USTA, welcomed his brother's academy.

He told CNN: "The fact that John is getting involved as well is great. We need former champions helping the kids develop and hopefully his program and our program will work together.

"John's criticism of the USTA doesn't worry me -- it is part of who he is and some of his criticism is well-founded. He has been critical for a long time and we have made significant changes to our methods recently. I took over the running of this program two years ago and feel we are heading in the right direction.

"John will be able to put a lot of his energy into doing what he wants to do in his academy. Once his program is successfully up and running we will take a look at it and see if we can work together to help as many kids as we can.

"John realizes he has taken on a massive task that will take years. He will have to use the resources he has in the right way and find enough kids that are really passionate about making it in the sport."

Patrick insists he welcomes the competition but insists his own program at the USTA will bear fruit soon. "I'm not pleased with the results of our development program," he added.

"I'm pleased with the program that we have put in place and I'm pleased with the work being done but its going to take a few years to see that work come to fruition.

"We have put a system in place that we think is right and changed our coaching philosophy but ultimately it is a 10-year plan to see if our methods will work."

Both are keen to stress there is no quick fix but if the brothers' rivalry helps to produce a string of talented players in the future, nobody in American tennis will be complaining.