By Patrick McEnroe and Peter Bodo
Patrick McEnroe’s account of his 25 years in and around pro tennis makes a fascinating read. After Andre Agassi’s book, Open, any tennis celebrity’s book is likely to fall short in the sensationalism department. And while Hardcourt Confidential isn’t totally Hardcourt Deferential, it is clear that there are a lot of toes McEnroe avoids stepping on.
What McEnroe provides is a number of interesting stories about the inner workings of the game from the locker room to the board room. But anytime he starts to get into anything sensitive, he and co-author, veteran tennis journalist Peter Bodo, back off.
This is especially a concern for Patrick McEnroe because of his multiple roles in the game … a former pro, Davis Cup captain, broadcaster, director of player development for the USTA and member of one of the game’s leading families. McEnroe has been able to juggle most of these roles for a long time. In fact, he’s the second longest serving Davis Cup Captain, nine years with one win. In baseball or football, that might have the owners looking for a new coach, but so far, the USTA is sticking with him. Anyway, critics of McEnroe should be reminded that there are some jobs in the game he hasn't done. He has never been a umpire or had court maintenance responsibilities.
So, as McEnroe and Bodo worked their way through the taping sessions that Bodo then organized into this book, it feels like they wanted to tell a good story, but often stepped back from revealing too much. Because as McEnroe says at one point, the personalities in the game are like a small circus troupe. The cities may change, but you always have the same small group of people putting on the show.
The average reader can only guess at the tensions and politics that exist just below the surface of what McEnroe chooses to reveal in Hardcourt Confidential.
For example, why devote three pages to U.S. prodigy Donald Young? Probably because the USTA got a lot of heat for the way it handled him. Further on in the book, McEnroe says that Young isn’t likely to fulfill his promise and even supplies a dollar amount for what the USTA invested in him. It’s a safe bet there’s a lot of politics here, but we don’t get the whole story.
There are plenty of great, big picture stories in the book. McEnroe makes the point that Australian tennis great Roy Emerson’s tally of Grand Slams is a bit padded because half of them came at home in years when few top players made the trip Down Under.
McEnroe does a good job of chronicling the changes in the way the game is played, the impact of polyester strings and the spread of the European or Spanish philosophy of tennis. This is must-read material for the casual to semi-serious tennis player or fan.
The book bogs down in sections, like where McEnroe tells the story of how he found himself in the position of interviewing Venus and Serena Williams when they won the womens’ doubles at last year’s U.S. Open. This was two days after Serena’s notorious outburst and default. He describes his decision after some soul searching to ask Serena directly about the incident.
Well, the cynical might say he’s praising himself too much for doing what any reporter, even a conflicted one, had to do. The Williams Sisters blew him off, but at least he tried. But if he was so worried about challenging two potential Fed Cup players, one wonders how he would have handled the aftermath of a situation in which a potential Davis Cupper threatened to shove a ball down a linesperson’s throat.
In any case, there is one exception to McEnroe’s “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” style of storytelling and it’s a surprising one.
James Blake takes a beating even as McEnroe tries to keep the gloves on.
“James Blake is a sensitive guy, very self-protective and resistant to change.”
“James’ reluctance to change things up or try something new gradually became a running joke on our team (Davis Cup).
“I learned quickly that James needed to be handled with kid gloves, and tried to remember it in every subsequent tie.”
“How does a top 10 player register a first serve percentage of under 50 percent in ideal indoor conditions? I wondered.”
As McEnroe says it’s a clubby world at the top of the game. Elsewhere in his book, McEnroe says regarding a Davis Cup tie in Carson, Calif., that Darren Cahill, Agassi’s coach at the time, was not much fun to have around. It’s easy to picture these two former players, who also rotate through the broadcast booth, laughing about McEnroe’s dig. It’s harder to imagine James Blake shaking off McEnroe’s comments.
Hardcourt Confidential does a good job of portraying some of the inner workings of the game. Hardcore tennis fans may wish McEnroe had been more revealing, but his book still offers a interesting glimpse into life on the tour. Anyway, if you want fireworks, you can always turn to Patrick’s older brother, John.
Acing Depression: A Tennis Champion’s Toughest Match
By Cliff Richey with Hilaire Richey Kallendorf
This memoir of former tennis star Cliff Richey’s struggle with depression gives the reader a glimpse of the mental health issues that dogged its co-author. After struggling for years with depression, Richey and his daughter, Hilaire, have written a book that chronicles his struggle to overcome this illness.
Richey, along with his sister, Nancy, were among the top players in the world in the period from the 1960s through the mid-1970s. Richey himself was the top-ranked American male player in 1970. Although he never won a Grand Slam, he can claim wins over nearly all of the great players of that era, such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Stan Smith and Jimmy Connors.
But from 1973-1978, his last years on the tour, Richey describes his life on the road as a constant and depressing series of preparing to play tournaments, playing them and then repeating the process. By the time he quit the pro tour in January of 1979, he knew there was something wrong, but his illness went undiagnosed until 1996.
These were dark years for Richey and his family. He had won enough money during his playing career so that the family was stable economically, but Richey found himself unable to function as a father and as a husband.
He describes crying jags, being unable to drive a car, and finally, a period in which he taped black, plastic garbage bags over the windows of the family house.
The book traces his upbringing in the midst of what he calls Richey Inc., which was composed of his parents, especially his father, a teaching pro at various clubs as he was growing up, and his sister who was also successfully groomed to be a champion.
Richey says that the boot camp approach to tennis and life, always emphasized by his dad, helped hide the early signs of the depression, whose symptoms began to appear when he was 26. He was unable to enjoy his success on the pro circuit even though he traveled the world first-class, played Davis Cup and was consistently in the world top 10.
Richey filled his post-tennis life up with golf and there are a lot of passages about how his ability to throw himself into a new game gave him something of a counterweight against the increasingly severe symptoms of his illness.
Upon finally getting his diagnosis in 1996, and even then, it was kind of accidental in that it was delivered by his dermatologist, Richey was given a new tool to help him in the fight against his illness. Although he tried others, he settled on the antidepressant Zoloft as the best drug to help him regulate his mood swings. It took him a long time to settle upon the right dosage, but when he did, he found he was able to live a nearly normal life. Instead of being the bitter, angry tennis player, he was when he was younger, he used his newfound health and golf game to become a regular at charity golf events and corporate outings.
It’s inspirational to see Richey overcome his demons because he struggled with them for many years.
One oversight in the book is that as it traces Cliff Richey’s decline, which took place mostly after his playing days were over, we don’t hear what his sister has gone on to do. She was the top American woman player in 1964, 1965, 1968 and 1969.
The writing in the book consists mostly of an endless string of simple, declarative sentences and, as such, can get tiring. There are parentheses that don’t close, suggesting a lack of careful editing.
Acing Depression is also the only book about tennis you are likely to read in which racquets are “strang.”
These oversights aside, Richey and his daughter have combined to produce a book that is a testament to one man’s struggle against mental illness. It is also a compelling portrait of an era in which the game was changing into today’s Open era. Richey started his career winning money under the table and by the time he retired amateurs and pros were competing together. Despite everything Richey accomplished in tennis, his biggest triumph is the way he has been able, with the help of medication, to live a normal lie despite his mental illness.