The real McEnroe approach to reviving U.S. tennis

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HBO/SI’s Jon Frankel, left, talks with John McEnroe during the “Real Sports” piece that aired Tuesday.

What’s real and what isn’t on HBO’s “Real Sports,” neither John nor Patrick McEnroe are even debating today. They’re just sure their approaches as to how to grow more U.S. tennis championships isn’t as different as the cable network show tried to make it out to be.

During a 14-minute segment in the latest episode of the HBO series that debuted Tuesday and is hosted by Bryant Gumbel , Sports Illustrated reporter Jon Frankel set out to shine a light on “a solution to what’s ailing American tennis” in the world Grand Slam scene, just as the U.S. Open is about to begin.

Frankel’s interviews with the McEnroe brothers were the foundation the discussion, and their common concerns about the cost of private lessons as well as how the sport may not be “sexy” enough when compared to football or basketball are key to the discussion. But then the focus goes more to how their opinions differ.

Patrick, for example, has been involved in the United State Tennis Association’s efforts to invest some $15 million into junior tennis academies.

“Now here’s where the brother’s efforts to reinvigorate American tennis get interesting,” says Frankel. “Because John, not surprisingly, thinks Patricks’ institutionalized USTA approach is wrong. . . . The McEnroes disagree on many ideas.”

During a conference call this morning with both Patrick and John McEnroe to promote ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. Open starting Aug. 29, the question about whether they really do disagree seemed to be a very moot point.

“Welcome to HBO ‘Real Sports,’” said Patrick, who said he watched it this morning. “That wasn’t the way they sold the piece to me. They made it about the state of U.S. tennis. (The opinions John and I) are only slightly different. And that’s pretty darn slight.”

Added John, who said he did not see the piece yet: “Sometimes what makes a more interesting piece isn’t where we end up but getting to where we’ve got. The bottom line is Patrick is a much better politician and he’s in an important position. Ultimately it will be a win-win for us as opposed to be appear we’re going in opposite directions.”

Frankel, who doesn’t interview the two together, goes back to each one later in the piece to see if he can get one to say his brother is doing things “wrong.”

Patrick allows that “in my experience, it’s pretty unlikely” that John’s idea of having kids do less regimented activity will produce the next great American players. But he also says there are many different way to go about finding them.

John says “we don’t talk about (their differences) as much as I’d like to,” but that he doesn’t bully Patrick about it.

Both Frankel and host Gumbel have a post-segment discussion about how there seems to be a “Catch 22″ aspect about how the U.S. game won’t get popular until it has an American champion, but we can’t get an American to win until it gets popular in the U.S. somehow.

“I did feel that was their message, not ours, that it’ll take a superstar to create a buzz, but how do we get there without a buzz,” said Patrick. “I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe John believes that.”

Added John: “I don’t think Patrick and I are as far off as people make it out to be. I simply believe there should be different options provided for people. … All those options should be out there.”

HBO spokesman Ray Stallone said the network had no comment.

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