Here's the difference between Monica Seles and John McEnroe, two nonstarters in this year's U.S. Open: McEnroe has at least raised a racket of late. He did it with his remark, made two weeks ago on the eve of the event, that women are worse suited than men to comment on men's tennis. McEnroe may be in some vague limbo between playing the tour and full-time retirement, but as he joined USA Network for its coverage of the Open, which he has won four times, his legendary mouth continued to be as active as ever. Colleagues in the broadcast trade promptly responded by accusing him of everything from male chauvinism ("That sounds like he wants women barefoot and pregnant," said Robin Roberts of ESPN) to shallow thinking ("That's like saying Stephen Crane shouldn't have written The Red Badge of Courage because he didn't fight in the Civil War," said NBC's Bud Collins).
McEnroe being McEnroe, he stands by his statements. "I think Mary [Carillo of CBS and ESPN] does a great job," he says. "She knows more about tennis than 99 percent of the people out there. But if you don't have the experience, how can you know? I have three children. I was there for the birth of each of them, and being there helped me understand what it must have been like. At the same time, can I say honestly how that felt? No way. It's just sports. And here people are acting like I'm David Duke."
McEnroe the analyst wears a blazer with an air of protest, like the private-school teenager he once was. His hair, graying and in retreat, isn't standard broadcast issue, either. Some TV critics grumbled last spring when he failed to turn up in strict GQ form for NBC's coverage of the French Open. Instead of taking a shirt off a hanger, he grabbed one from his bag, as tennis players are wont to do. (Better a wrinkled shirt than a stuffed one, of which the sport has quite enough already.)
McEnroe and USA partner Ted Robinson have settled into an easy counterpoint, with Robinson's professional voice setting off Mac's rambles and Long Island intonations. From the booth McEnroe can uncoil a trenchant verbal winner. Last week he picked up Fabrice Santoro's chronic foot-faulting when no linesmen did. He ripped into the glazed-doughnut diet—"[Junk food] sounds good, it looks good in the commercial, but it's not gonna work"—of first-round loser Andre Agassi. And even before officials had to postpone Boris Becker's opening match because of rain, McEnroe had pointed out that forcing Becker to play seven best-of-five-set matches in 11 days to win the tournament would be, more or less, the pits of the world.
He still works out regularly and plays exhibitions—"keeping my options open," as he puts it—but won't return to the tour unless he feels he can win a Grand Slam event. "Once you've set certain standards for yourself, it's not enough to just pick up a paycheck or have your ego boosted for a while," McEnroe says. Then he quotes Connie Hawkins: "The older I get, the better I used to be."
In wardrobe one afternoon last week, moments before going on the air, McEnroe reached into his gym bag and raised from it a checkbook. Then he scratched out a donation from his John McEnroe Foundation for one of many worthy petitioners—in this case a scholarship fund for underprivileged children in East Palo Alto, Calif. "There are 20 other things to worry about besides who commentates," he said before rushing off to the booth.
For years they paid him for his tennis and docked him for his mouth. Now the mouth is earning its keep.
The four-time Open champ still courts controversy with his mouth, only now it's as a broadcaster.