Acute Angles of Mack the Knife
Most people who saw John McEnroe in his prime knew they were witnessing a rare form of tennis artistry, but his art was difficult to describe. His strokes weren’t textbook, they were his own. They didn't resemble strokes a coach would intentionally develop from scratch, but his athleticism with great quickness and speed, combined with exceptionally soft hands made it all work. After crashing through to the top of the sport in the late 70s, he continued winning. Fans realized John McEnroe wasn't a flash-in-the-pan, he was for real. His brilliance was real. His attitude was real—he's from NY. His athletic gifts and tenacity were real too! His unique style became a symbol of his greatness and fans embraced him.
McEnroe played an old-school serve and volley style of tennis but the way he executed it seemed fresh and new. With his incredible quickness, talent, and athleticism, combined with innate aggressiveness and a raw disdain for losing, he elevated an old style to a new level. He was a natural attacker, determined to get to the net at every opportunity. He was rushing the net behind most serves, and rushing the net on any ball left short in the court by his opponent. The essence of his strategy was to keep an opponent under constant pressure. Over and over through the course of a match McEnroe did just that, pressing forward, forcing his opponent to hit the ball past him again and again.
Serve and volley tennis isn’t a great showcase for groundstroke production, but McEnroe had a great ground game too. He proved time and again he could go toe to toe with Borg or Connors in a baseline rally, though rallying from the baseline didn’t fit his personality. Often, when he did spend time on the baseline, it was more of a novel amusement and an opportunity to show his opponent, and fans, that he could trade groundstrokes with them if he wanted to. But McEnroe is naturally aggressive and his offensive game style provided a perfect showcase for his innate quickness and seemingly supernatural ability to anticipate his opponent's next shot. His aggressive style was a showcase for athleticism, and that’s where McEnroe shone.
McEnroe became so proficient and masterful with his serve and volley style, he came to be called Mack the Knife. There's serve and volley tennis and there's Mack the Knife tennis. The moniker was adapted from an old Bobby Darin song in which a shark with "pearly whites" is a metaphor for a jackknife-wielding old man named MacHeath, who, apparently had a penchant for slashing people to death. It certainly described McEnroe's ability to “hurt” his opponents, but more importantly it described the slashing nature of his net attack and the way he navigated the geometry of the court with acute angles. His "angle of attack" was much, well, sharper than any other player's.
The sequence above shows McEnroe executing his serve and volley against Ivan Lendl in the 1984 US Open semi-finals. In the first frame McEnroe serves to the deuce court from his customary wide position on the baseline. The second frame shows his signature move forward to his first volley position. In one lightning quick move, McEnroe is already well inside the service line and fully exploded into the shot. He’s almost on top of the net, and it’s this incredible forward position that allows him to angle the first volley through the side of the court—an acute aggressive angle that rarely receives a reply. He’s essentially hitting a closing volley on the first shot. For a typical serve and volley player, this would be a two shot sequence, with the first volley being a set up shot for a closing volley. It's this sharp, acute angle that gives his game teeth.
In this serve and volley sequence from a 1982 match against Connors at Wimbledon, McEnroe again gets well inside the service line for his first volley, giving him a good look at the ball above the line of the net. It’s a green light on this shot, allowing him to hit an acute angle through the side of the court to end the point with a decisive one-two punch. This was a common sight of McEnroe at Wimbledon. His game seemed to be tailor made for grass. His quickness and agility were rewarded and his ability to keep the ball low paid huge dividends. It always seemed as though his opponents were hitting the ball up to him, right into his volley wheelhouse. Over and over, opponents were relegated to scraping the McEnroe slice backhands up off the grass, only to see him moving in and crashing down upon the ball with a grunt and a loud thump of contact to finish the point.
For McEnroe, even the return of serve, which historically is a defensive-minded shot, provided opportunities to attack. In the sequence above from a 1981 encounter with Connors at the US Open, McEnroe is attacking a Connors second serve. McEnroe is positioned wide toward the alley awaiting delivery of the ball. With his body turned slightly toward the middle of the court, it seems as if he’s baiting Jimmy to hit his serve down the middle at the T. Connors does, and McEnroe is ready. Not only does McEnroe lunge across nearly an entire half of the court to get his racquet on the ball, but he is so quick he manages to get forward leverage on the ball as well. Though on the full stretch, he manages enough forward momentum with his body and racquet to get off a solid drive approach shot up the line and take the offensive. Connors fields the return to his left and hits a cross-court backhand pass but McEnroe is already on top of the net to cut it off. In two quick slashes forward, McEnroe has taken complete control of the court and is punching his first volley sharply through the sideline and well out of reach.
In the net rushing game of an attacking player, an aggressive move toward the net typically begins with an approach shot. It’s a specific kind of shot that, if hit well, with authority and conviction, can make the first volley at the net much easier to hit. McEnroe is shown in the sequence above in the midst of a rally with Bjorn Borg in the US Open Final of 1981. Borg uncharacteristically hits a forehand short to McEnroe's backhand side. In the first frame, McEnroe has moved up inside the baseline to hit a backhand slice down the line. By the time Borg hits his backhand reply in frame two, McEnroe is already inside the service line poised to pounce. Borg is positioned behind the baseline when he makes contact with the ball, indicating the great depth of McEnroe's approach, a further advantage for the attacker. It gives McEnroe even more time to get close to the net and make contact before the ball drops low. The third frame shows McEnroe lunging, both feet in the air (note the shadow), on an acute angle forward for a head-on collision with Borg's passing shot. McEnroe gets major leverage on this first, closing volley. It's a big one-two punch that renders Borg helpless to defend, as McEnroe's ball cuts sharply through the sideline for a winner. The transition from within a rally was even more concise and effective for McEnroe because he could begin his approach from closer to the net. It would often result in him crashing down upon the first and only volley he would have to hit.
The commentary above is not a scientific analysis—it's my take on McEnroe's game from my perspective as a coach of many years and a life-long player and McEnroe fan. Reviewing the sequences above provided a good excuse for me to re-live some great past matches and witness the greatness of McEnroe once again. His unique game and talent were a joy to watch. He wore his heart on his sleeve, which made it easy to engage with him and feel what he was going through. Add to that his unpredictable and volatile temperament, and fans knew that each and every outing was likely to be highly entertaining. I got to watch him play when I was a kid learning to play tennis and know watching McEnroe play inspired my life-long love for the game. Thanks, John.