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Assessing the State of US Men's Tennis; Talking with John Isner; Catching Up with John McEnroe

Aired February 21, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET


PAT CASH, HOST: We are in America for a Red, White, Blue edition of Open Court, there's plenty of stars on the flag but where are they in men's tennis?

(voice-over): Coming up on the show, America's number one player John Isner packs one of the most lethal weapons in the game. See what's like to face the toughest serve on tour. Plus Ryan Harrison, he is the fastest rising star in American men's tennis. And yes, we're serious, umpires beware, Johnny Mac is back.

(on camera): Welcome to San Francisco were the California sun beats down the golden gate bridge but this show is about the clouds that loom over America men's tennis.

(voice-over): The clouds have been gathering over US tennis for some time, now the heavens have truly opened, for the first time in the modern era, there is no single American grand slam men's champion still playing. It was once so very different, the stars and strides passed one grand slam champion to the next, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi. Agassi to Jim Courier, Courier to Pete Sampras and let's not forgetting Jimmy Connors, Michael Chang and Andy Roddick, the last American man to win a slam. They were the poster boys for American sports, inspiring kids coast to coast to pick up their rackets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think obviously here in America we are looking for that next champion, Roddick is now gone and we haven't won any slam since ten years since Pete quit and I mean other than Roddick won and so obviously there is some concern here.

CASH: During my travels with open court I've spent some time with some of the greats in American tennis. I was curious to find out what they thought about the lack of champions after their era.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we need an American presence, we need an American guy to say like that's our guy and they will look up to him, like say Andre was or I was and it seems like Kobe Bryant, Lebron James or baseball, football, Tom Brady, like there are the major stars in our country and it seem like tennis is sort of died down a little bit and I just think the American media, fans expect when will the winners tries to be number one, it's pretty hard to do and I'm not sure if it's going to happen any time soon, unfortunately.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think our best athletes get spread out across 10 or 12 different sports where in Serbia with the success of Novak and their girls on tour, and their guy players, too, it's become THE sport there, in the States I feel like it's bundled into football and baseball and basketball and there are so many different options so I feel like it might have watered down the talent pool for a given sport.

UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Michael Chang thinks changes could be made at the junior level.

MICHAEL CHANG: I think the one thing that I would want to do is to get them competing against each other first, I think that the American players, American Juniors I don't think are competing against each other enough and I think for various -- a certain element of pressure when you go out and you compete against players that you don't like to compete against or that you don't want to loss to because that pressure drains you letter on.

CASH: I found Jim Courier to be the most optimistic about the future of American tennis.

JIM COURIER: Well I think this is the first time in a long time that we don't have a current male player that's an American that's won a grand slam so I think first time in the open era since we've had that. But John Isner is right on the course, if he can get things right in off the court organized structure he has a kind of game that could win a major, I mean he's got very disruptive out there. Sam Querrey had a good comeback season, well let's not make any mistake about it, it's very competitive, very tough and America has no ownership of the top ranking, it's a free for all, it's a democracy, anyone can get -- it's a meritocracy.

CASH: As Jim Courier mentioned, there is one man many believe has got what it takes to win a grand slam, John Isner has beaten Roger Federer on clay and Novak Djokovic on hard court, he's built his came around his phenomenal serve and I jumped at the chance to try and return it.

Hello, thanks for joining me John. I think I can handle your serve, I've got a height advantage over you.

ISNER: I think he can too.

Hey, I hate to you look small Cashy.

CASH: When I'm just like this is to get someone that has never played tennis before but (inaudible), so a little nervous there.

You are number one in America, did you ever think that was going to happen as a kid growing up?

JOHN ISNER: I actually never did, I -- growing up in north Carolina I was playing tennis, I didn't take it too seriously, professional tennis was not a goal of mine, my goal when I was growing up was to get a college scholarship, that was my only goal, and from my success in juniors I was able to get a college scholarship and even when I was in college I didn't have much aspirations so everything I've done up to this point is a big bonus for me because I didn't expect it of myself.

CASH: John's great asset is his height, he's got great technique going, but then the height gives him the opportunity to get angles that normal players don't get.

And did you ever think about playing basketball?

ISNER: I did, I mean I was having some success, I think if someone would have told me at 14 years old that I was going to be 6 ft 10" I may have stuck with basketball.

CASH: I understand you are close to your family, your mother was ill at one stage she -- had something.

ISNER: She was, it was my fresh year in college, happened end of 2003, she was diagnosed of colon cancer which was very scary for her obviously and for our family, something that we've never had to deal with, it almost took her life but fortunately for us since she was in North Carolina, the best -- in my opinion the best cancer hospitals in the world and everybody that had to do with that community there really saved her life.

CASH: I thought that was a pretty good return as well. Captain Courier as you call him, he's been a big rap on you as you would be, he thinks you can go all the way and win a grand slam, what grand slam perhaps do you think it's your best chance?

ISNER: My best chance it probably Wimbledon and grass is a surface that I haven't excelled on too much, it's a service I haven't played a lot. I was actually going to say I hadn't played much on it but one match up for three days but actually number of matches played on grass as I haven't played too many. But I know the way I can play or the way I can serve, grass probably suits me the best.

CASH: Where are we in tennis in the US?

ISNER: Well I think in the `70s, `80s and `90s, I think American tennis fans were a bit spoiled, I think you also got to look at the era that our guys are playing in right now, you are playing against Roger every grand slam, playing against Rafa, Djokivic, Murray, I mean 10 years it is a long time but I don't think American tennis is as bad as people portray it to be. I just think as I said we are a bit spoiled in the past.

CASH: My arms have shrunk.

When I first of you from my son who played against your team in college and you graduated, what did you graduate in?

ISNER: Communications.

CASH: Communications is it something you want to do at any stage or you are only focused on tennis.

ISNER: As of right now my main focus is tennis, I want to do this as long as I possibly can, as long as my body allows me to. But after that I really haven't put much thought into it, I may do something like what you are doing, Pat, so I enjoy doing stuff like this.

CASH: Don't you go taking my job.

Ryan Harrison is one of the most promising players on the ATP circuit, the young American has been moving his way through the rankings and as Mark McKay reports he's not stopping till he gets to the top.


MARK MCKAY: Tennis scouts first noticed Ryan Harrison five years ago, he became the youngest player in 20 years to win a professional match. Now the Louisiana native is moving his way up the rankings and trying for a new round of first.

RYAN HARRISON: There is definitely a competitive edge there when you want to try to be the best and you want to be the one that's considered and going to be the next got to win a grand slam or whatever you want to call it I mean, there is definitely a sense of pride and lead the way.

MCKAY: He started playing tennis at the age of two with his father, Harrison leaned on his family for support but looked to the greats of American tennis for inspiration.

HARRISON: I watched a lot of Sampras growing up as a kid, I loved the way he played aggressively and his -- Agassi, Sampras rivalry was obviously really huge.

MCKAY: Harrison has made more than a million dollars in price money and he's ranked within the top 60, he calls Austin, Texas home and hits with retired star Andy Roddick. Both competed in the 2012 Olympics in London.

HARRISON: He's been extremely friendly to me and I leave close to him when I'm in Austin and he's invited me over to July 4, parties and things like that, it's obviously been really good as someone like that that has been so success and I love kind of -- take you in like that.

MCKAY: Harrison knows that baseball, basketball and football dominates the sports scene in the United States, for tennis to move up in popularity there needs to be someone to cheer for.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He knows that the American are proud at the majors -- the 10 year gap and Ryan I think has been answering those question almost from the time he came on tour, but I think Ryan is pretty accustomed to feeling the expectations that we have in this country for our young talent and he carries that with him all the time.

MCKAY: After a promising first round win at the Australian open Harrison faced Novak Djokovic and lost in straight sets, the young American still managed to take away some inspiration from the one sided match.

HARRISON: You kind of sit there and disappointed to loss but at the same time you are like you know, this is kind of what I dreamed of growing up and this is why I always competed and always fought for and now I'm getting to do it and hopefully I can be the guy that's winning very soon.


CASH: Still to come on Open Court, a career development program that has Andre Agassi as (inaudible) calling the shots.


CASH: Welcome back to Open Court. Andre Agassi travelled to Melbourne for the first time since retirement to present a trophy to the men's winner at the Australian open, it's a long life from Nevada where he shares his home with his wife Steffi Graf, Patrick Snell traveled to Los Vegas to get a rear glimpse of the program that's bringing the all star couple back on court.


PATRICK SNELL: Las Vegas, where the aces come on the card rather than off a racket. But the bright lights and dessert backdrop, if not the roulette wheel, have attracted A list tennis royalty. Andre Agassi has returned to his Nevada roots to raise his family with Steffi Graf, the power couple have 30 grand slam between them, Steffi has the edge with 22 all her own. Agassi and Graf have signed on to be the god parents of the Adidas player development program.

STEFFI GRAF: It is very unique and the players tend to come to Las Vegas a few times a year usually trying to get ready for some of the bigger tournaments, trying to get in shape. I think my role -- there's been kind of a mentor, somebody that gives a little advice and talks about experience that I've had and hopefully help them on their journey on the road.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm still impressed with every practice, she's very intense and she is still kept this great shape and pretty much have the same level of playing and power and everything, so I was impressed as well.

SNELL: The program encourages rising stars on tour to travel to Las Vegas for some elite coaching and fitness training.

ANDRE AGASSI: I spend a lot of time talking to these athletes and giving them insight as to how I dealt with my obstacles and what I wished I knew as I started this journey those lessons came with sweat and blood and tears and you know and if I can share just a little bit of that they can learn in 10 minutes from me what took me 10 years.

SNELL: One place where Andre learned a lot about life was inside this gym on Agassi court. This is where a long time friend and fitness coach Gil Reyes helped transform the tennis world wild child into an Olympic gold medalist and world number one.

GIL REYES: Are you ready to strike, here we go.

SNELL: This is a player development program fitness coach.

REYES: Now you bring more, now you bring more. Every machine was built specifically for tennis, specifically for Andre Agassi so it's very tennis specific. Some of the machines have perhaps a more universal characteristics that others nonetheless they were put together for the sport of tennis and that makes it if not unique it certainly makes it pretty cool.

SNELL: Two coaches with grand slam credentials complete this elite coaching team.

UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Martina Hingis and Dinara Safina, Anna Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki, I can go on and on Andy Murray, Jurgen Melzer, Paradorn Scrichapan.

SNELL: Darren Cahill coached Agassi and two time grand slam champion Lleyton Hewit.

DARREN CAHILL: You take on Andre at 32 years of age he's already one of the greatest players of all time and has already achieved pretty much anything a tennis player can achieve, to spend five years with him inside the top ten for five years and recover that number one ranking at 33 and half years of age that was an experience, you can't even sum up in words what that experience was.

SNELL: For these players it's clear that the trip to Las Vegas is a gamble worth taken.


CASH: Still to come on open court. He is in his 50's and he still complaining over line court -- You cannot be serious! -- Johnny Mac, after the break.


CASH: On this episode of Open Court, we've been talking about the search for the next generation of US stars. American men dominated the game in the 80's and 90's, with Connors, Sampras, Agassi, Chang, Courier and if you think I've forgotten certain somebody, don't worry, you can't talk American tennis without mentioning John McEnroe.

John McEnroe's approach to the game hasn't changed one bit - same lefty serve, same approach to the nets and the same attitude. Also McEnroe competed in the power share series a competitive tennis circuit featuring some of the world's legendary tennis icon like Michael Chang and Mats Wilander, and Jim Courrier.

MICHAEL CHANG: I think people remember the old days and it was a great time for me and it was sort of a golden era for American tennis, Connors and myself and then Sampras, Agassi, Courier.

CASH: McEnroe's delighted fans from New York City to Las Vegas. A dozen gigs in a dozen cities across the Unites States. The brains behind the operations is (inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: About 30 minutes away from the first ball so let's go inside and see what we have, follow me.


UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: I still can't read his serve all these years later.

You know John's game is an endurance because it's not predicated on power, it's death by a thousand cuts and he's a marvel, doing what he does is something special.

CASH: What happens to John McEnroe when he puts a racket in his hands?

JOHN McENROE: You know, I was lucky for whatever reason, when I was 8 and a half my parents moved to a part of Queens where there was a club nearby, we joined and if you believe in someone up above I think I was meant to play tennis so I was extremely well thought and there was a bit of hopefully magic in the hands and the feel of the racket.

CASH: Do you think you changed when you walked on a tennis court?

McENROE: Well I think that despite what you may see here I'm not as inseminating physically as maybe roughly on the dull so you have to try to get an edge of different way, and one person who I looked at who saw did an unbelievable job that was Jimmy Connors, I mean the guy wanted it more he was hungry, he tried harder and he had this intensity, he looked like he hated your guts before he stepped on the court, so I had to somewhat get inside someone's head and get myself so worked up and they'd feel like they are up against it.

CASH: Do you ever look back at your old tapes and wince?

McENROE: No, I don't look back at them, I hear about it a lot, I hear they are on Youtube now so I'm sort of -- I've got a second win with the kids, they are like "man you were crazy" but in a way if you look at them I don't think it was always compared to some of the crazy goings right now, I mean yes, I was getting into it but I mean no more so to me than a lot of other spots and a lot of other situations. I think it was because it was tennis, it was different.

CASH: We've had a great run for American tennis since your day, what do you think has happened, why aren't any more obvious champions coming through?

McENROE: Well, how long is this interview? There is a lot of reasons, I think the best athletes in other countries are playing tennis sooner than they are here, we've got to grab some kids that are playing American football or basketball for example, we've got to make it more accessible and affordable and it's the old story where we've talk about for 35 years and the hungriness factor and (inaudible) I mean some of the guys that have come out of tough situations seem to want it more.

CASH: Do you think tennis players these days are too nice?

McENROE: They seem to be a little too nice. But I didn't get along with most of the players I played against, but the one guy I did get along with was my greatest rival, so it can be done. Nadal, Federer, obviously have great respect for each other. I think Djokovic gets under those two guys' skin a bit and they didn't want to admit it and I think that's in a way healthy. I think fans react to that more, if they can sense there is something extra there other than just two great tennis players.

CASH: Don't be surprised if you see him questioning a call or approaching another umpire this year on Power Share tour, still part of the game Johnny McEnroe fell in love with all those years ago in Queens.

Thank for joining us for this edition of Open Court. Log on to our website, for in depth features on John McEnroe and John Isner. Next month we travel to Mexico and catch up with Rafael Nadal's much anticipated return to the game, until then bye from San Francisco.