John McEnroe: ‘Attila the Hun’ of tennis

Editor’s Note: Open Court is CNN’s monthly tennis show. Click here for screening times and follow on Twitter @cnnopencourt

Story highlights

American tennis legend John McEnroe talks to CNN about his controversial career

He says Serena Williams is the greatest female player of all time

The 54-year-old bemoans the United States' long wait for a male grand slam champion

He explains why golf has overtaken tennis in popularity

He’s “Mac the Mouth” both on and off the court – one of the most controversial and iconic players in tennis history, and he’s still talking up a storm about the game he loves.

John McEnroe’s gift of the gab has helped him make the transition from one of sport’s fiercest competitors to sought-after television analyst and commentator.

But the competitive fires are still burning – the 54-year-old remains a popular figure on the legends circuit – and the winner of 17 grand slam singles and doubles titles did not hold back in a trademark “million words a minute” interview with CNN’s Open Court.

“You cannot be serious!” Oh yes he is…

On the United States’ long wait for another grand slam champion:

“Andy Roddick’s now gone and we haven’t won any slams in 10 years since Pete Sampras quit other than Roddick’s one, so obviously there’s some concern here. There’s a lot of work to do and I think people remember the old days a bit.

Read: McEnroe mission - Meeting a tennis legend

“It was a great time for me and it was sort of a golden era for American tennis – Jimmy Connors and myself and then Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier trying to run this tour – so there’s something that’s missing and hopefully we can fill that niche and maybe inspire some younger kids as well.”

On why Serena Williams is the best female player of all time:

“I’ve seen them all. What Billie Jean King has done for the game and the way she played was more like how I played, and Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert won a billion tournaments, Steffi Graf … but to me overall, when Serena’s on, she’s the best I’ve ever seen play, the whole package as far as what she can bring to the table.

“Hopefully for us, we’re wondering where the next American guy is – the next American woman, we’re still looking pretty sharp. Hopefully this will inspire some other people to get out there before she quits.”

On why Serena has it harder than most:

“Serena’s way better than I am (in terms of keeping her temper). There’s no comparison. I think she’s held herself and she’s needed to – obviously being a woman and, second, being looked at closer because she’s black, so I think she’s got a couple strikes against her before she even starts.

“Compared to the overall package that I think she’s gone through and what she’s experienced, I think she should be cut some slack. It doesn’t excuse the time she got foot-faulted (at the 2009 U.S. Open), I think she would tell you she deserved to get faulted, but for the most part I think she’s done an extremely good job. I mean, certainly compared to me (laughs).”

On playing with fellow tennis legends Agassi, Sampras, Connors, Courier, Michael Chang, Mats Wilander and Pat Rafter on the Power Shares circuit:

“It’s an opportunity for us to show that we still got it a little. Most sports you don’t have this chance. Most guys are too beat up physically – you see what’s happened in American Football, it’s sad in a way, so we have it lucky.

Read: Champions chat - Sampras talks tennis

“There’s a lot of physical wear and tear but if you keep it short like we try to do here – short and sweet, we’re not playing best of five sets, we’re not even playing best of three sets, we’re playing one set – so it gives old guys like myself a chance.”

On Tiger Woods and how golf has eclipsed tennis in U.S. popularity:

“I think tennis was bad for tennis more than he (Woods) was bad for tennis. Clearly there are a lot of elder statesman that it’s a lot easier for them to go on a golf course than the tennis court. I happened to be one of those guys who doesn’t play much golf.

“I know it’s an extremely difficult game but in terms of keeping your health and in terms of what tennis has got to offer, I think it’s a great sport, so I’m perplexed by the people who make that decision.

Read: Chang’s ‘underhand’ tactics

“Back in my day in the early to mid-’80s, that’s when they feel I nipped with (Arnold) Palmer and (Gary) Player who were incredible champions – we were getting double the ratings of golf. If you would have told me then that golf would out-rate tennis, I would have laughed at you.

“Now they look at me like I’m crazy, like remember when tennis did better in the ratings than golf. But there’s some marketing things we don’t do, we’re not reaching out to the fan the way golf or a lot of other sports do, so we’ve got our work cut out for us – but that doesn’t mean it can’t turn around.”

On why he was destined to play tennis:

“When I was eight 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.

“I was extremely well taught and there was a bit of magic hopefully in the hands, the feel of the racket – those days the wood racket, that suited me, the strategy, the feel, the subtlety of the game.

“And then there’s a bit of Jekyll and Hyde that comes out, maybe with the upbringing, maybe it’s something inexplicable, maybe with the times, but it somehow came together.”

On being the enfant terrible of tennis:

“People have personalities … seems like umpires did terrible jobs when I came out, so to me it was normal, you’re confronting people all the time, so I was surprised when I went to England and they thought I was Attila the Hun or something.

“I think despite what you may see here, I’m not as physically intimidating as a Rafael Nadal, so you have to try to get an edge in a different way. One person who I saw that did an unbelievable job at that was Connors.

“The guy wanted it more, he was hungry, he tried harder, and he had this intensity. He hated your guts before he stepped on the court so I had to try to get inside someone’s head and get myself so worked up so they’d feel they were up against it.

“So the best way I knew how was to give 110% and want it more than them, and walk on the court and every moment of the match feel like it was the end of the world, in a sense. So that worked for me in a lot of ways. There were times that it hurt me but for the most part it helped me.”

On being shy underneath the anger:

“Well it’s a bit of an act now, but to me it wasn’t an act then. I felt like it was something that just came out. Believe it or not I was a pretty shy youngster growing up. I guess the cat was out of the bag when they said, ‘Hey there’s umpires and you can question calls.’

“In juniors, we don’t have that. There are no umpires so it was a big change and all of the sudden it was a different situation. I saw guys I learned a lot from, like Connors and (Ilie) Nastase, I mean people were starting to rebel against the typical tennis players who were very polite and were wearing the long pants and who would act a certain way, and we wanted to be considered the way athletes in other sports were.

“On an American Football field or a soccer field, they’re not saying ‘Hello, how are you out there?’ ”

On why tennis needs strong rivalry:

“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 and Roger Federer have great respect for each other. I think Novak Djokovic gets under those two guys’ skin a little bit and maybe they don’t want to admit it and I think that’s in a way healthy.

“I think fans react to that more, if they sense there’s something extra there other than two great tennis players. It’s one thing if you live in London and you’re rooting for Chelsea or you’re in New York and you love the Giants or Jets and no matter who’s on the team you’re into it. It’s different in tennis, you’re sort of your own guy, so you have to reach out and grab a person in a different way.”

On being a YouTube star:

“I’ve gotten a second wind with the kids. They’re like, ‘Man you were crazy,’ but I don’t think it compares to some of the crazy things going on now in the sports world – off the field even more so than on. I mean, I’m sort of vanilla in a way.

“Yeah, I was getting into it but no more so to me than some of the other sports. I think because it was tennis, it was different.”

On his dream opponents:

“I wouldn’t have done well against Nadal on clay, that’s for sure, but I always dreamed of playing Bjorn Borg on clay – we never played at the French Open, probably for the best when I look back, and I bet Nadal would have been a similar nightmare.

“Sampras on grass would have been the ultimate test, and Federer – I have to play him, Boris Becker was one of the greats, I played Boris, but on grass we never actually played at Wimbledon.

“And clearly Djokovic now because I played Connors and I said this guy’s the greatest returner I’ve ever seen, and I played Agassi and said he’s even better than Connors, and now I see Djokovic can sort of play offense and defense off the return, so he would be unbelievably tough as well.

“Out of the four guys (in today’s rankings) Andy Murray probably plays close to the style I played. We actually did play very early in his career, some sort of big match in London with a big group of guys, winner take all sort of thing. The reason I brought it up is that I won – Andy may have been seven at the time (laughs).”

On why New York will never lose the U.S. Open:

“I don’t worry about that. I would be more worried about like the Australian Open if I was someone Down Under. They’ve done a good job trying to reach the level of the other three slams but you’ve got Paris, London, New York … that’s a pretty good start. Australia should be worried about China.

“You’re talking to the wrong guy ‘cause I live in New York, so New York is the greatest city in the world.”