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McEnroe on Agassi: ‘He takes pride in seeing people go down in agony’


Scott Harrison/Retna/

The Tennis Champions Series with Jim Courier, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras at the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011.

Rival tennis legends Andre Agassi and John McEnroe don’t know yet if they’ll face each other in another legendary battle when the PowerShares Series Tour hits Mandalay Bay this month.

But they’ll both be fully loaded and ready for the Nov. 17 showdown, and the sports history they’ve written in the past will likely be updated again in thrilling matches.

Mac is ready to get inside Agassi’s head again but knows Andre could hurt his body with those Mach 2-speed serves. Once teammates on the U.S. Davis Cup championship squad, they became competitors, too. Now comes the reunion.

I’ll chat with our hometown hero Andre this week when he’s had a chance to read through my interview with his rival. Mac, who brought so much fantastic play, entertainment and notoriety to the sport, helped turn it into the star attraction it is today.

I’ve known Mac in New York since he first appeared on “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” in the mid 1980s. I spoke with him as he was picking up the pieces from last week’s Hurricane Sandy nightmare:

Tennis Champions Series With Agassi, Sampras, Courier and McEnroe

The Tennis Champions Series with Jim Courier, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras at the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011. Launch slideshow »

“It’s a little hectic in New York right now, but hopefully we will get back to normal in the next couple of days. But it was a bit of a freaky thing. My apartment, luckily, was not that adversely affected. There was scaffolding around part of my apartment, so there was some real worry, obviously, when the crane went down.

“It was a bit scary, but we got through it. There were a lot of trees down. I have a home out on Long Island that got some pretty good tree damage. None of my kids or anyone else there was hurt, so that’s good.”

John went on to tell me about the upcoming tennis championships, which also feature Jim Courier and Michael Chang. The $1 million prize pool will be shared by the Top Three finishers at the end of the 7-week tour of 12 U.S. cities.

John McEnroe: Las Vegas is a one-night-only format. You are getting some great past champions -- the likes of Andre and myself. Pete Sampras is playing some, Patrick Rafter also. You have to have some pretty serious credentials to be invited to play. The format is basically a one-set format, so if it’s Andre in Vegas, we play one set.

“Then the winners play an eight-game pro set of the two matches. Hopefully, you’ll see some fun as opposed to strict competition, although that is an important element of it because there is big money at stake.

“There is also the fact that we have pride. I don’t think that anyone wants to lose. Hopefully, there will be some accessibility that perhaps you don’t see at some of the other major events. It’s the seniors/champions/legends tour, whatever you want to call it. People have been trying different variations, and this year is sort of the one night in each city format, play a couple of cities each week, and hopefully people respond to it.”

Here’s a YouTube video of their Wimbledon semifinals showdown in 1992:

McEnroe vs Agassi

Robin Leach: Is it definite yet that you’ll play against Andre since he’s such a local hero here?

J.M.: That would be nice. I am not the one who makes the decision about who plays who. Andre is going to definitely be as prepared for any match that he’s playing as the one in Vegas because clearly, to me at least, that is going to mean the most to him. Maybe the one in New York is going to be important as well because he has a lot of history at the U.S. Open and the Garden, but I’m sure he is going to make an extra effort to try and win in Vegas and New York. Even though Andre is incredibly tough for me to play against, it would be fun to play and see what I have, if I can get in his head a little bit.

R.L.: When was the last time you two great rivals played?

J.M.: We actually played a charity match this summer. We’ve played a few times over the years. He hits the ball at Mach-2, Mach-3 speeds, and it’s hard for my body. It’s getting a little bit slower, to deal with it, but he takes pride in seeing people go down in agony. It’s going to be a tall order, but if I can get through that part and keep the ball coming back and get him on the run, then maybe I have the edge.

R.L.: How much does one lose the eye of the tiger and the edge of ferociousness as the years tick on?

J.M.: I think perspective changes things, and obviously the desire and intensity is not going to be quite the same, but I think you’ll see that all of us are always going to have that competitive juice for sure. Everyone that plays out there realized that as soon as they started playing this champions tour again; it is a hell of a lot better to win than lose. While you want to put on a good show, you certainly don’t want to lose.

Click to enlarge photo

The Tennis Champions Series with Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and John McEnroe at the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV on Oct. 15, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

John McEnroe waves to the crowd during the Las Vegas stop of the 2011 Champions Series Tennis tournament Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011.

Once you get out there playing, certainly the juices get flowing, and it starts getting a little edgier. You are talking 70 to 80 percent probably because you have to put a lot of effort even to go out there and hopefully play at a high level now. So there is certainly pride involved, but no one is going to sit here and try to pretend like we are out there trying to play a Wimbledon or a U.S. Open final.

R.L.: Are the champions of today faster, harder, tougher than you champions of yesteryear?

J.M.: Well, certainly not tougher and meaner. What seems to be happening at almost all sports, athletically it seems to be going to another level. They are taller, generally, so their range is greater and because the rackets probably have at least 30 percent more power, the ball is struck harder than ever. But there also are things that we didn’t have access to, whether it was knowledge about what to eat, how to train, what to do after a match, recovery. All these factors that weren’t as prevalent as they are now weren’t in the game then.

We always like to think of what we would do against these top players. I certainly look at [Roger] Federer and [Rafael] Nadal as two of the four greatest players that ever lived. I would still throw Sampras in that group and Rod Laver, back in the ’60s to ’70s was my idol; I think he would be the other guy. Agassi is not far behind.

Generally speaking, you are seeing better and better athletes coming into the sport, so if you had to ask me why U.S. players aren’t as prevalent at the top, or dominant as they used to be, it would be that those athletes are playing other sports, whether it is football or basketball, before they are getting into tennis. And it is still not affordable enough, so clearly we need to try to do some things to get better athletes out there.

Mac is still remembered for his outbursts on the court. Here’s a YouTube collection of the most memorable:

John McEnroe

R.L.: Are you “Mellow Mac” today, or are you still “Mouthy Mac”?

J.M.: You still have that bombastic voice! You are not a different person than you were back then. There is a mellowness, but people like it, so I get paid extra for that stuff now.

Andre: The ball is in your court! Gentlemen, we’ll see you a week from Saturday serving some amazing aces.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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