NEW YORK – Only in tennis could this almost-humorous set of circumstances occur.
Well, it wasn't very humorous for ESPN tennis commentator and soon-to-be former USTA head of player development Patrick McEnroe. But it's a moment that perfectly illustrates how inbred the sport is.
In the late afternoon Wednesday, the New York Times broke the news that McEnroe, the man in charge of developing the U.S.'s next generation of champions, was to be relieved of his duties after the U.S. Open, after six years on the job.
The Times story indicated that, in light of the USTA's decision, McEnroe would step down, which would keep it all civilized for everyone involved. More clarity would come at a press conference.
Shortly before that news broke, McEnroe was on a U.S. Open practice court hitting with his brother John, as if nothing else were going on. More ironic, one of McEnroe's soon-to-be former coaches, USTA head of women's tennis Ola Malmquist, came by to speak to him during the practice session, and McEnroe asked Malmquist about a match involving one of the junior girls, Catherine Dolehide.
Here's what McEnroe looked like (both of them), during that hitting session.
If head of player development is a results-based job, the last two years of poor American results on the men's side – for the second straight U.S. Open, and only the second time in the 134-year history of the event, no American man reached the fourth round in singles – would make it easy to make a case. The women fared poorly this year as well, even though there are many more talented, rising players on the women's side from Sloane Stephens, to Madison Keys, to Jamie Hampton.
McEnroe was also criticized for his high salary, averaging about $1 million a year for the four years through 2012 for which records were available, the Times reported.
But here's where those incestuous tennis conflicts show up: the press conference, which was to include two USTA execs and McEnroe himself, was delayed and delayed – because McEnroe was on ESPN, doing television commentary about the crown jewel tournament of the organization that had been planning to fire him.
The only thing that would have completed the full circle of conflict would have been if an American player were playing in the match – say, for example, that this was all happening during the Serena Williams match scheduled next on Arthur Ashe Stadium. To push that theme even further, McEnroe could have been interviewed on-air about the developing situation in his day job by fellow ESPN analyst – and fellow USTA employee – Mary Joe Fernandez.
Fernandez, the U.S. Fed Cup captain, received the USTA's President's Award for meritorious serve and all-around good-person-ness Tuesday. Fernandez received the award from David Haggerty, who is the USTA President and chairman and was one of the bigwigs at the press conference later who confirmed the departure from the USTA of Fernandez's colleague – a colleague both at the USTA, and at ESPN.
Got all that straight? If not, not to worry.
To his credit, with all that going on behind the scenes, McEnroe sounded like his usual professional self on air during the dramatic Kei Nishikori-Stan Wawrinka match. He and brother John joined a panel discussion with Chris Evert after the match was over.
That's when ESPN gave their valued employee a pulpit for more than five minutes to give his version of events, and to allow brother John and fellow analyst Chris Evert to wax poetic on what a great job McEnroe had done in his "other" job.
"The news is that I will be stepping aside in my job as director of player development over the next few months," McEnroe said in response to a question from ESPN host Hannah Storm.
"YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!!!" interjected brother John.
It was the comedy of the absurd. The key boss responsible for the future of American tennis is stepping down/being pushed out, and his older brother/American tennis legend/former Davis Cup captain (briefly) is making jokes about it on a nationwide tennis broadcast.
This isn't even an indictment of anyone in particular; everyone involved is just doing their job(s) and pursuing whatever opportunities are put before them. It's more of a general commentary on the situation as a whole, so rife with conflicts of interest. With no commissioner to oversee the game, no one to really look at it and analyze the optics, that's unlikely to change.
McEnroe went on to say that with the USTA moving its headquarters to Orlando in "a couple of years" – a major complex is to be built there, at Lake Nona is scheduled to be finished in the fourth quarter of 2016 – he and his boss had been discussing the fact that the head of player development position needed to be based there. "We will be a lot more inclusive, welcoming more players and coaches. That wasn't going to happen for me; I wasn't going to make that move," McEnroe said.
That's when fellow analyst and brother John injected his two cents' worth:
"I want to congratulate you on your efforts as Davis Cup captain. I want to applaud you on your efforts with the USTA to get the young kids back into the mix. .. And I want to make the announcement that I won't be the next head of player development. Something tells me I wasn't at the top of the list," John McEnroe said.
Evert, whose academy in Boca Raton is an official headquarters for the USTA development program – another incestuous relationship there – also was able to congratulate McEnroe for his efforts.
"I am down in Boca. I see Patrick come in and out. There is no doubt that you are a true leader. It's been very evident," Evert said. "At the same time, this job, it's very demanding. It's a 24/7 job. If you're in this position you have to be on call the whole time. You're dealing with the parents and you're dealing with the coaches and the players, and the criticism."
"Look at American women's tennis. We're stronger than we've ever been, and the men are going to get stronger," Evert added, forgetting a few decades during which American women ruled at the top of the women's game. "You'll get to spend more time with your little girls."
Just a few minutes after that, the press conference began. But it all had pretty much been said.
While it was still going on, the USTA folks thoughtfully distributed a one-page summary of the USTA player development milestones, going back to 2006.
And about 45 minutes later, a Tweet.