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September 9, 2013 09:55 PM
McEnroe_broadcaster_(2)I’ve never met John McEnroe, but I suspect I’d like him if I did. He seems the sort with whom I would enjoy having a beer. He laughs a good deal and doesn’t mind poking fun at himself. Oh, and he was a pretty fair tennis player, as I recall.

It’s McEnroe’s endless, empty chatter on the airwaves that drives me crazy.

This conclusion comes after two weeks of watching the U.S. Open and hearing Mac yak and yak for ESPN, ESPN2 and CBS. Bottom line: John McEnroe adds little to a tennis broadcast.   

Yes, McEnroe has seven Grand Slam singles titles and nine in doubles. Yes, he knows the game and has institutional memory of players dating to the 1960s. All that is well and good, especially when he speaks of, say, Bjorn Borg’s Herculean concentration on the court.

But much too often McEnroe speaks in clichés or in the obvious, and it’s terribly tiresome. Johnny Mac has never met a banal expression that he doesn’t like to use. And use them he does, over and over and over.

He’ll repeatedly say, for example, when someone is behind in a match, "His back is to the wall." Or, when a player makes a desperate attempt to climb back into a match, "It’s too little too late."

He covets "The cat’s out of the bag," "They’re going toe to toe," "He pulled a rabbit out a hat."  "She fought tooth and nail," "They both gave 110 percent."  

Endearing? No, encumbering.

When a player is clearly struggling, Mac will tell us, in case we stepped away to answer a telemarketer’s call, "He’s got to step it up." Oh, really? Gee, I guess I missed all that.

McEnroe has put his personal stamp on that beaten-to-death chestnut, "There’s nothing left in the tank." It’s as if we somehow overlooked this player’s leg-weary plodding and exhausted slumping during changeovers.       

"That is putting it mildly," is a favorite Mac-ism. So is "No doubt about it." Or, as if to impart variety, he will offer, "No question about it."  He draws frequently upon "That’s a tall order," or its twin, "That’s not easy by any means."

Blah, blah, blah.

My brother Tom, who is a tennis fan, asks why I don’t turn off the sound and just watch.  I’ve tried that, but listening—like sleeping—has become a habit I cannot break. "I’m comfortable with McEnroe," Tom told me on the phone as this year’s Open wound down. "He’s like an old shoe."  Well, old shoes, I reminded him, eventually find their way to the worn-out pile.

Using clichés and the same too-familiar responses instead of sharing with us exactly why a player is tired or why he can’t hit a backhand down the line does not help a broadcast.

Vacant and hackneyed phrases are the fast food of the English language. They’re not good for you in the long run. And McEnroe’s long run needs to end.

When McEnroe is accompanied in the booth by, say, Mike Tirico or Chris Fowler, it’s downright embarrassing. Tirico and Fowler are skilled, multi-sports broadcasters. Though neither played tennis as far as I know, they understand the nuances of the game and come prepared with cogent stats and fact-based knowledge. As the two get better each year, good ol’ Mac gets lazier.

Unlike Tirico or Fowler, McEnroe is seldom prepared; he prefers to wing it in the booth. It’s as if the dog ate his homework.

Tennis today needs broadcasters who can analyze and not recite the plain-to-see. Darren Cahill is superb at this. He knows the game. OK, he didn’t win a Grand Slam and his highest ranking as a pro was 22. But he coached Hewitt and Agassi and has developed himself into a very good explainer.  Like many Aussies, he’s low-key, but he can lift high a telecast.  He always knows why someone is doing something on a court, and he tells us. McEnroe will say, "He isn’t getting his first serve in." Cahill will point out that the server is dropping his elbow.    

Chris Evert has worked hard to become a voice of intelligence. In her early days she was so bad she actually disappeared from the air for a period. But she has come back and now astutely dissects someone’s game and a match.  Patrick McEnroe is also excellent at thoughtful commentary, and never does he resort to the washed-out patter of his older brother.

This year ESPN introduced someone named LZ Granderson to be part of one of those so-called expert lineups that NFL fans adore. I am referring to a long table behind which sit former football players and coaches who crack insults, spout opinions and yuk it up on game day. Granderson brought zero to the tennis table. His chief role appeared to be a token black man who grinned and nodded in approval when anyone said anything.   

Save for the reliable Serena Williams and the surprising newcomer Alison Riske, American men and women at the U.S. Open once again greatly disappointed. John McEnroe runs a burgeoning tennis academy in New York City. I wish he would put down the microphone and spend all his extra time at his academy, growing good, young players. By doing so, he might truly make an impact. That’s something he isn’t doing on TV.