John McEnroe: ‘Nadal and Saudi Arabia? There is a phrase: money talks’

The tennis legend talks to EL PAÍS about the potential of Spanish player Carlos Alcaraz, why Novak Djokovic deserves more recognition and why the sport is ‘opening a can of worms’

John McEnroe Nadal
John McEnroe, in an image provided by the Eurosport channel.
Alejandro Ciriza

Tennis legend John McEnroe has been one of the most critical voices about Saudi Arabia’s efforts to take over the sport. In an interview with EL PAÍS, the always outspoken sportsman — who is a commentator for Eurosport, the channel that has the exclusive rights to broadcast the Australian Open — also discussed the potential of Spanish player Carlos Alcaraz (who was defeated in the Melbourne quarterfinals against Alexander Zverev) and praised Novak Djokovic, arguing his talent will be better recognized in the future.

Question. In Spain, many people have criticized Rafael Nadal for accepting the offer to become Saudi Arabia’s tennis ambassador. Do you think he made a mistake? Could this move affect his public image off the courts? Did it surprise you?

Answer. I believe there is a phrase: money talks. Certainly not only with government and hedge funds and business people, it happens in sports too. It’s not for me to say what Rafa should do. He’s an incredible ambassador for our sport and tennis, so I don’t blame the people in Saudi Arabia for wanting him to become an ambassador. He’s an incredible person, so he decides what he wants to do.

Q. It seems that Saudi Arabia is set to host a Masters tennis tournament. Does that send a bad message to society?

A. You’re opening a can of worms. Maybe it’s not the avenue our sport wants to go down, but I’d be surprised if they don’t go down it.

Q. Alcaraz is open about his ambition, like Djokovic, whereas Nadal has a very different approach. Do you like Alcaraz’s attitude, or do you think it could hurt him?

A. Alcaraz is a hopeful sign for our sport, as he can do everything, and he’s very skilled at every part of his game. He’s got a bit of Rafa, Roger and Novak in him. Younger and older players will look at him and think they need to do more. He’s already blown past the likes of Tsitsipas and Zverev. The guy has won two Majors and he’s not even 21 years old yet. He proved that the U.S. Open wasn’t just a flash in the pan and that he can win on any surface. He’s electric on the court and plays with such positivity and aggressiveness, he’s an incredible athlete. But he does it all with a smile. It’s refreshing to see.

Q. If you had to play a match against him, what would be your tactic? How would you try to stop him? Have you ever seen such a powerful forehand?

A. We spoke about it with Mats [Wilander, former tennis No. 1] the other night, and Alcaraz’s forehand is probably the most dangerous shot in the game right now. The power he generates on it is just crazy. I think I’d try to target his backhand as much as possible cross court, but that’s like saying it’s a bad shot and his backhand is remarkable too. But he’s so much more than one shot. He’s one of the best volleyers I’ve ever seen, he likes to come forward to the net, his serve is great. He’s the complete package. It’s refreshing to see the variation and mix of things he tries on a court in an era where the most of the bigger guys are bringing pure power, huge serves and power from the back of the court.

Q. Where would you place Djokovic in the history of sport? Not just in tennis, but in all disciplines.

A. I would put him right up there in terms of the all-time great athletes. He is an incredible athlete, but mentally he is as tough as I’ve ever seen. You got to put [American football player] Tom Brady up there, who played into his 40s. That drive and will to win. That intensity that he has. There are very few athletes in history that has that kind of continual intensity. I absolutely believe he will be up there and you have to put him in the same bracket as Michael Jordan.

Q. What should he do to gain greater public recognition?

A. I’m amazed he’s doing as good as he is now. I just spent a little time with him, and he leaves no stone unturned in his quest to be a better player and person. He is really working and has done everything possible to be able to recover and bring out the best in himself. That type of discipline, maybe he didn’t have it as much when he was younger, but that’s an amazing thing to be able to do, especially when you’ve had so much success. He has a family and is away from them for an extended period of time. You have to accept that and compartmentalize it. It’s truly amazing what we’re witnessing. We should try to appreciate it while it’s still happening because when we look back, it will truly be astounding and people will realize the greatness he has achieved.

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