John McEnroe dubs him the “scary robot” in his book and admits they had few pleasantries to exchange at the height of their rivalry.
Speaking at the official Australian Open draw on Friday, age had indeed mellowed the outspoken American though as he tipped former rival Ivan Lendl to help provide the mental edge needed to land Andy Murray a breakthrough grand slam title.
“I hate to give credit where credit may be due but I think Andy Murray taking on Ivan Lendl as a coach may really work out. It pains me to say that,” McEnroe joked.
“I think that’s a very interesting decision and could possibly be a good one. I know all too well losing to Ivan in the French (Open final) where he won his first major.”
For McEnroe that 1984 loss at Roland Garros would prove to be his toughest, having led two sets to love and riding a 42-match winning streak. He would never win the French Open.
“He (Lendl) was 24, Murray’s 24,” McEnroe said.
“He had lost his first four (grand slam finals), Murray’s lost his last three so he brings a lot of credibility to the table. I think he’s going to be able to help Murray manufacture better intensity on the court and use that energy more positively.
“He (Murray) is going to need to if he’s going to beat two of the three top guys to win a major.”
Of Murray’s chances at this year’s Australian Open, McEnroe said the Scot was the clear choice outside of the big three – Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.
“He’s made progress but he’s going to have to keep making progress,” McEnroe said.
“(Lendl) is going to get him to think in a way he hasn’t thought before. He knows what it takes to win and he’s a guy who’s always prepared. I’m sure he’s been thinking about it for quite a while. It’s going to be interested to see if it pans out.”
McEnroe’s astonishing 82-3 win-loss record from 1984 narrowly remained intact last year despite Novak Djokovic looking well on course to break it.
Injuries began to take their toll late in Djokovic’s season as he finished with a 70-6 record, but McEnroe rated the Serbian’s season better than his own from 17 years earlier.
“Rod Laver was my idol and he won two grand slams (all four majors in succession) so I don’t think anyone can be better than him, but what Novak did last year, he eclipsed the year I had for the greatest year in the history of open (era) tennis,” McEnroe said.
A winner of seven grand slam singles titles and as the player to have broken the dominance of Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors in the 1980s, McEnroe was quick to welcome Djokovic’s ascension to the elite three.
“I think it’s great for the game that Novak did that (broke Federer’s and Nadal’s stronghold at the top),” he said.
“He took his game to another level. Who could say they’re 10 and 1 against Federer and Nadal for the year? But it’s also that he’s done it with class, with some humour and he’s showed it with his personality.”
As is the case with many leading pundits, McEnroe is adamant Federer is not on the downward slide and while predicting Djokovic to retain his No.1 ranking at year’s end, he feels the Swiss great is on the cusp of returning to the grand slam winner’s dais.
“I do predict Federer will win another major,” he said. “I’d be surprised if he did not win one. He’s still playing incredible tennis. Anyone that saw him play Novak at the French and US Open knows how good he’s playing.”
As a precursor to the men’s singles decider on 29 January, McEnroe hinted Melbourne Park could again be a happy hunting ground for Federer.
“His best chance is here or Wimbledon,” he said.
“He loves to play, that’s the key and that is a great advantage to have at his age. He’s willing to do what it takes, he trains hard … He steps up, he’s injured less than any player that you see out there, it’s amazing.
“Appreciate it while you see it, because this guy’s a one-of-a-kind.”