Long before John McEnroe created magic and madness on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, he conjured shock and awe playing small ball on New York City’s famed lawn.
A four-year-old McEnroe was so skilled whacking whiffle balls pitched by his father on Central Park’s great lawn, impressed New Yorkers not only stopped to watch—some assumed he must be a midget or a circus performer because surely no normal child had such acute eye-hand coordination.
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“Absolutely true story,” the late John McEnroe, Sr., once told me at Tennis Week US Open party. “He was our first child, so we thought it was normal.
In his long, glorious and combustible career, John McEnroe has been everything from New York City paperboy delivering Newsday and the New York Times to tennis prodigy to Grand Slam champion to Davis Cup stalwart to one of the few players to hold the world No. 1 ranking in singles and doubles simultaneously. The Hall of Famer has been both raging competitor and respected commentator. McEnroe has been both revered and reviled, sometimes in the space of a single match, committing to a sport that’s both consumed and rewarded him.
Now, the 62-year-old New Yorker is invested in what he calls a vital mission: Developing a New York City tennis champion—and successful junior and college players—heading his Johnny Mac Tennis Project.
The Johnny Mac Tennis Project (JMTP), a non-profit founded by John McEnroe and others, strives to improve young lives by removing the racial, economic and social barriers to success through tennis. The program is run through the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall’s Island in New York City.
Tennis Now was among a group of New York-based media participating in a recent clinic with McEnroe and about 10 kids from the project to promote the JMTP sponsored scholarship program.
For the group of dedicated young boys and girls—the program director says the group is split 50-50 boys and girls with 50 percent coming from extremely low or low income families—the JMTP provides a pathway to success through competitive tennis, leading to college scholarships, careers in the industry, and, for a few the ultimate aim of a career playing pro tennis.
“Participating in sports transforms lives,” McEnroe said “And we’re committed to removing financial barriers that prevent so many kids from playing tennis.”
“I’m thrilled to be personally kicking off this program because these scholarships will help some very deserving kids pursue their dreams of playing tennis at a high level and will let donors see first hand how their contributions directly impact the recipients.”
To that end, McEnroe is putting his money where his mouth is donating the funds for the inaugural scholarship to officially launch the JMTP-sponsored scholarship program. A second unnamed donor stepped up to donate another player scholarship, JMTP staff said.
The hope is more individual and corporate sponsors will follow suit giving more talented kids the funding to pursue sectional, national and international tournament play. McEnroe, a long-time season ticket holder for New York Knicks and New York Ranger games and also a devoted New York Mets fan who appeared in this week’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Once Upon a Time in Queens on the 1986 champion Mets, aims to take a team approach to sponsors.
Scholarship sponsors empower kids in the program to receive year-round coaching, on and off-court training and fund travel for national and international tournaments. In return, sponsors become part of the support team receiving player updates and progress on their player so they can closely follow his or her career. Since 2012, the JMTP reports it has reached 6,212 students through community programs and awarded 424 scholarships.
Thirteen-year-old David Clarke, a five-star recruit from the Bronx, is the inaugural JMTP scholarship winner. The eighth grader shares a June 3rd birthday with his tennis role model, Rafa Nadal, is a smooth mover who owns some variety in his game: he can crack the ball off both wings, play heavier topspin and mixes in a one-handed slice backhand at times.
“My father played and I remember being really young walking by a store seeing a tennis racquet in the window and wanting to play,” Clarke said. “I love the sport. My goal is to play the US Open someday and be the best player I can be.
“It’s an honor to receive this scholarship and recognition from someone I truly admire. I look forward to continuing to work very hard, improving and making everyone here proud of me.”
Watch him hit for 15 minutes and you can understand why McEnroe is high on Clarke, who has trained at the JMTA since 2018. Clarke finished his final year of the Boys’ 12s ranked No. 3 in the nation.
“David was selected for this scholarship because we are impressed with his ambition and his undeniable potential,” McEnroe says. “I know what a game-changer tennis can be and our goal is to continue to support David’s dreams as he develops his game and benefits from the great sport of tennis on and off the court.
”With hard work maybe we'll be watching David play the US Open years from now."
Six of the 10 juniors who participated in the media clinic with us—Summer Chandler, Victoria Deng, Marco Rocca, Olivia Woskolej, Olivia Benton and Jesse Yang—hail from Queens, McEnroe’s home borough and home of the US Open. Players in the McEnroe Academy come from all over the New York area, including 13-year-old Geneva Austin (Mount Vernon), 10-year-old Joshua Dolinsky (Brooklyn) )and 17-year-old Morristown, New Jersey native Evan Wen, one of the most accomplished players in the program, who engaged in some highly entertaining rallies with McEnroe.
The juniors we spoke to at the Johnny Mac Project cited the standard superstar subjects as their tennis role models—Roger, Rafa, Novak, Venus, Serena—and some also cited Daniil Medvedev, Coco Gauff, Carlos Alcaraz and Emma Raducanu as favorites to watch.
Sometimes, stars drop into Randall’s Island inspiring kids in person.
On the day we visited the Johnny Mac Tennis Project, we spotted a familiar face—Nick Kyrgios, who plays on the McEnroe-captained Team World in Laver Cup—working out with a couple of people in the second floor gym that overlooks a bank of clay courts.
A staffer says earlier in the week a Matteo Berrettini visit to the club briefly prompted a pause in practice as all the kids wanted to watch the Wimbledon finalist work-out before hitting the court themselves. Pros who prefer to avoid the hustle-and-bustle of practicing on the US Open grounds often find their way to McEnroe’s Academy, which features the same hard-court surface as Flushing Meadows in addition to 10 clay courts.
A glass trophy case on the second floor features some of McEnroe’s most prized trophies, ranging from his Orange Bowl trophy to his US Open trophy, reminders of the journey from Douglaston, Queens to Randall’s Island. The man who grew up playing basketball and soccer in addition to tennis took an unconventional route to the history. Ask McEnroe about that and he’ll tell you he would have imploded if his parents shipped him off to a Florida tennis academy. The Hall of Famer believes what some see as a non-traditional path is actually the wisest way forward for many kids most comfortable living at home with their families, developing friendships and perhaps even playing team sports.
“I don’t think I would have made it if my parents sent me to a Bollettieri or some other academy in Florida,” McEnroe said. “I’m a big believer in going to school, developing friendships to nurture these young players so they can handle the pressures that can come from tennis as we seen now with mental health issues.
“I played other sports besides tennis growing up and that helped me. Some kids are home-schooled. The point is tennis is an individual sport and we’re trying to approach it individually in the program and do what’s best for each kid because every situation is different.”
Prior to launching his Academy on Randall’s Island, John McEnroe lobbied the USTA for years to open a John McEnroe Tennis Academy at the National Tennis Center, a location McEnroe once asserted was "wasted" when the USTA was not using it for elite player development in the past.
When Arlen Kantarian was USTA Chief Executive Professional Tennis, it was believed Kantarian backed the idea of a USTA-McEnroe Academy though some insiders said other execs within the USTA were wary of working with the sometime temperamental McEnroe, who served as U.S. Davis Cup captain for one year, 2000. Younger brother Patrick McEnroe succeeded John as 38th US Davis Cup captain.
Launching his academy on Randall’s Island 11 years ago, John McEnroe said then he envisioned JMTA "as good or better than the facility at the National Tennis Center."
"I notice (the USTA) say there are more kids playing at least which is a good sign. The USTA makes an obscene amount of money from one tournament," McEnroe said during a 2010 interview with Tennis Now about the academy. "They have an obscene $150 million portfolio. I’m not sure what they’re doing with that (money). For many years I talked about the USTA about doing this very type of thing at the National Tennis Center and naming it the John McEnroe Tennis Academy.
“I was unable to get through to them and I’m thankful I’ve been given this tremendous opportunity at Randall’s Island in a facility that’s as good or better than the facility at the National Tennis Center. Having said that the tens of millions of dollars that they make every single year it would be in the sport's best interest to welcome us with open arms and provide us the type of money they provide numerous other programs."
The JMTA has received institutional donations from BNP Paribas, which is Indian Wells’ title sponsor, and Nike, which named a building after McEnroe on its Oregon campus.
Still, pursuing tennis dreams in a northeast city like New York is an expensive proposition due to hefty cost of indoor court time and coaching.
Forty years ago, McEnroe made history as the last man to sweep US Open singles and doubles titles at the same tournament. Andy Roddick, who defeated Juan Carlos Ferrero in the 2003 US Open final, remains the last American man to lift a Grand Slam title.
Richard Williams, father and original coach of Venus and Serena Williams, once famously said of American player development: “You’ve got to go to the wrong side of the tracks. That’s where the athletes are. Many of the greatest American athletes came out of the hood.”
McEnroe points to three primary factors as stumbling blocks to developing the next American male Grand Slam champion: Some of the best European athletes opt to play tennis, top American athletes typically choose basketball, football or baseball over tennis, the exorbitant cost of player development has priced juniors from lower-income families out of the sport in America.
“New York is the greatest city in the world; imagine if the best tennis player in the world was from New York?” McEnroe said. “The sport is being hurt, the last 10 years, by the fact there really hasn’t been a top American player since Roddick. I haven’t seen a lot of top pros come out of our city in the last 30, 40 years. Wouldn’t it be great for New York and for tennis to change that?
“The dream is to bring the buzz back to American tennis, starting in New York City. Tennis is a great community sport, but we need to make it more accessible to those of every income level and in communities where tennis has not been accessible in the past.”
Watching McEnroe’s distinctive style predicated on his minimalist movement, court prescience and his still absurdly acute eye-hand coordination up against some of the more modern open-stance and western grip forehands of kids in his program, you sometimes wonder if that skill is transferable.
“Pace and power are such important assets in today’s tennis,” US Open finalist Todd Martin told us in a past interview. “Part of John’s genius is his ability to take pace off—he can use finesse and angle to put you in awkward positions and make you uncomfortable.”
So can McEnroe’s best assets—his eye-hand coordination, reflexes, anticipation and court sense—even be taught? Or are those skills innate?
“That’s a great question and I’m not sure I have a great answer,” McEnroe told us.
"Some if it is innate, there’s no question about it. Part of that’s movement, but also your mental strength, tennis IQ and ability to think about where you need to be and strategize about the next shot and all that flowing with your feet.
“Combining that with your head and getting your hands in position. So I think to some degree you can teach that stuff.”
In McEnroe's view, the JMTP is much more than teaching forehands and backhands and cutting off angles, its creator aims to inspire and instill life skills in his players.
“It’s not about getting a kid to No. 1 in the 12-and-unders,” McEnroe said. “It’s about giving these kids the opportunity and teaching them and nurturing them to really go after their dreams.
“The end game is to try to be a great pro or to get a college scholarship, to become a doctor or a lawyer—my father was a lawyer—or be successful in a career. I want these kids to peak as players at 25 and 30 not at 12 or 13. That’s the end game.”