As John McEnroe tossed his wooden racket high in the air to celebrate his first Grand Slam singles title at the 1979 U.S. Open, a fan tried to grab it off the court -- only to be elbowed aside by McEnroe’s younger brother.
More than three decades later, Mark McEnroe is still looking out for his sibling. Mark, the middle McEnroe brother, traded two decades as a Wall Street lawyer and venture capitalist to run John’s New York-based tennis academy.
Mark has always defended John and the youngest brother, Patrick, who followed John into professional tennis, said James Malhame, a family friend who grew up a few blocks from the McEnroe boys in the New York borough of Queens.
“Mark was just never jealous and was fiercely protective of his brothers,” Malhame, a former tennis pro and Wall Street bond dealer, said in a telephone interview. “He was the glue for those other guys, defusing the rivalry between the two of them.”
Mark McEnroe, 50, is general manager of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy. It’s his first job in tennis, a sport in which both of his brothers were Grand Slam champions.
He remembers sweeping onto the court at the National Tennis Center to get John’s Wilson Pro Staff racket after the three-set victory against Vitas Gerulaitis.
“I was heading out onto the court and saw a guy leap out of the stands behind the court and go and try to grab the racket,” Mark said in an interview. “I got there as well and we both wrestled over it for a bit before I yanked it away from him, shooed away a cop and went over and gave it to John.”
Malhame, 61, who worked for 23 years as a bond broker, said the incident helps explain why Mark came back to tennis.
“His allegiance to his family and his brothers is strong,” Malhame said. “He’s working with his brother, John, so in a sense he’s still protecting him.”
Mark played in junior tournaments and for Stanford University. He then headed to the Fordham University School of Law.
In 2001 Mark, who is three years younger than John and four years older than Patrick, co-founded Cedar Street Group LLC, a Larchmont, New York-based firm that he said invested about $25 million in early stage technology companies.
He took over legal representation for John from their father in 2009. When John asked if he would run the academy on Randall’s Island in 2010, the father of three teenagers couldn’t resist.
“It’s a little different than shuffling papers and reading contracts all day,” McEnroe said as kids served and volleyed at the Sportime club that hosts the academy.
The academy, which is adding two sites in the New York suburbs, follows John’s philosophy that more practice is not necessarily better.
The top student is 16-year-old Noah Rubin from Rockville Centre, New York, who lost in the first round of the juniors at the U.S. Open this week. He is ranked 16th by the International Tennis Federation, up from about No. 1,200 in October 2011.
“The effort that you put into the short amount of time you have is better than an OK five-hour practice,” Rubin said in an interview at the academy. “I’d rather have a 2 1/2-hour practice that’s more intensive.”
John and Patrick McEnroe, both former captains of the U.S. Davis Cup team and now network tennis commentators, have different ideas on how to groom the next great American player.
Patrick, the U.S. Tennis Association’s general manager for player development, focuses on giving youngsters with potential the chance at year-round training in tennis-focused programs. John calls for kids to live at home and make tennis part of a relatively normal childhood, saying they risk burning out if the focus on the sport is too intense.
John, 53, won seven Grand Slam singles titles and was ranked No. 1 in the world for 170 weeks. Patrick, 46, won a Grand Slam title in doubles at the 1989 French Open and reached a career-high of No. 28 in singles.
Both of his brothers said they are happy to have another McEnroe be part of the discussion about the future of U.S. tennis.
“Mark has been the big man in the middle for many years and I’m happy he’s in the game,” Patrick said last month in an ESPN conference call.
“It’s nice to have someone you trust who also loves the sport,” John added on the conference call. “Being the middle brother, he can bridge the gap of Patrick and me on any issues that I think in the long run is going to help all of us.”
Mark said he’s happy to let John’s name be the big draw and to take a back seat to his brothers as they all try to bring the buzz back to American tennis.
“John really shines when he’s out in front of people and Patrick has become an excellent public speaker,” he said. “Me, not so much, so I’m happy doing what I’m doing.”