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John McEnroe on tennis' golden era and best of all time

John McEnroe still competes against his contemporaries and ponders how they would fare in their heyday versus today’s best.
Published Nov. 9, 2012

TAMPA — John McEnroe rarely held back during his playing days, the colorful and combustible tennis legend's oncourt outbursts earning him the nickname "Superbrat."

But the sassy and brassy New Yorker backed it up as one of the game's best players of all time. At age 53, McEnroe remains a big part of the sport, whether it's promoting it to youth or providing insightful or irreverent commentary on television.

McEnroe also continues to compete. He joins Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Mats Wilander tonight at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in the Champion's Challenge, part of the 12-city PowerShares Series tour.

To preview the event, McEnroe chatted about his style of play and the state of the sport today:

You've been part of this tour for a while now; with your busy schedule, what keeps you playing?

It's sort of a no-brainer. It keeps me close to the game so I can get an appreciation for how tough it is while you're commentating. I'm not pretending it's the same, but at the same time you get a sense for what nerves can do to you. Also, just for me as a person, it just physically makes me feel better.

Most people identify you — other than being a great player — by those animated arguments with the umpires (not to mention the line, "You cannot be serious!"). Where did that come from?

I think that basically I grew up in an environment where being loud and noisy just seemed common. Growing up in New York City, I've said to people before, I take a cab from the airport, you'd be lucky if 10-15 people weren't calling you an a-hole on the way home. There's such an energy, it's incomparable to most places I've been to. In some ways, it's a culture thing. My parents are still together. They loved each other, but it's a loud dinner table. Let's just say that. It's almost like it was second nature. And then when I finally started having to have umpires, all of a sudden these calls were so bad, at least to me, why wouldn't you go up there and question it? The guys I was really watching at that time, the best guys were (Jimmy) Connors, that were questioning authority more. It didn't seem like an abnormal thing to do.

Who is the best men's player of all time?

If I had to pick one person, I'd pick Roger (Federer). Generally, I put (Rafael Nadal) as the greatest claycourt player, I put Roger all-around, I put Pete Sampras the greatest grasscourt player, and Rod Laver was my idol. Those would be the top four. But I think Roger is the best all-around. He's the most beautiful player I've ever seen. While he has a losing record against (Nadal), he's been so consistent, has DiMaggio-like records, incredible streaks like 22 semis in a row. … Roger, he can do everything, and makes it look easy. That's always the first step of a great player.

Are we in a "golden era" of men's tennis right now?

I believe so. I think in the last five, six years, when (Nadal) came along, they pushed each other to a lot higher level. (Novak) Djokovic started to storm through, and (Andy) Murray finally made the break — you're looking at a very special period. Then again, I wouldn't have expected someone to break Pete's records. I don't think Pete did either, that someone would come along as quick as Roger did and annihilate his records. You never know, but it seems like this is one of the golden periods we're seeing.

How would the current players have held up in your era?

They would have been terrible (joking). It's hard to compare, but (Bjorn) Borg was the Nadal of my time. He was a phenomenal athlete. I still think he's faster than Nadal, not stronger but faster. … (Ivan) Lendl would have fared very well, and I think the style I play would have unnerved a lot of those guys. They're so used to seeing the same thing all the time, they wouldn't have got the same old thing. I would have forced them out of their comfort zone. It would have been incredibly difficult against those guys, Federer and Nadal, those guys are incredible players. It would have been a tall order, all the top guys. But I would love to see how would they do, my best against their best.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

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