The world's top tennis player on how he learned to play the game, who his heroes areand whether he could beat the Williams sisters.
How did you learn to play tennis?
By tagging along with my older brother John. He was a big reason I became interested in the sport, and he was one of my first coaches. He was always traveling to tournaments, and I would go with him. He was a great junior player, and he went on to help coach the University of Georgia to a national championship a few years back. Now he lives in San Antonio and runs a tennis academy.
You recently moved back to Austin, where you spent your early years. Why?
Mainly to be closer to my brothers. My oldest brother, Lawrence, who also lives in San Antonio, has a couple of young children, and I want to be able to see them whenever I can. Also, Austin is a very cool, laid-back type of town. It’s a place I can sort of escape to. Life on the road can overwhelm you sometimes. I can come back to Austin to unwind.
What’s it like to be so young and to have your sport take up every waking minute of your life? Do you ever think, “I’d rather be doing the kinds of things other twenty-one-year-olds are doing”?
I can’t take for granted the life that tennis has allowed me to live. Truth is, I think there are loads of kids my age who’d love to switch places with me, so I’ve got nothing to complain about. Of course, you always wonder what it’s like to hit a home run in a playoff game or something like that, but I have no regrets.
You’re the best tennis player in the world at a young age. Do you ever worry about succumbing to Tracy Austin Syndrome—you know, this is as good as it’s going to get, and it’s all downhill from here?
My family won’t let that happen. We try to stay as loose as possible. My coach, Brad Gilbert, does a lot of crazy stuff to keep it interesting. Even though he’s terrified of heights, he jumped out of an airplane before the U.S. Open last year to lighten things up. He doesn’t want me to just sit in my hotel room and watch matches. He wants me to go out and live so that it doesn’t become too much. Anyway, if I worry about ten years from now, I’ll never get through the next match.
Who were your tennis heroes growing up?
Any kid my age looked up to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Throw in Jim Courier, Todd Martin, and Michael Chang, and it’s probably the best generation of any sport from any country. It was kind of weird to play Pete the first time, and the fact that I won was even more unreal. He got me back at the U.S. Open in 2002.
Tell me about John McEnroe. What’s he like in person? Now that you’re in the position he was in a generation ago, can you understand why he might have gotten a little bent out of shape every once in a while?
Mac’s a fun guy to be around. I’m not sure his outbursts were the product of anything so much as the pressure he put on himself to be great. I can tell you that when I blow up on the court, it has nothing to do with what other people expect of me.
Okay, I can’t resist: What’s the deal with the Williams sisters? How good are they, really? And could you beat them?
They’ve done incredible things for tennis, and when they’re healthy, there aren’t that many players who can touch them. As for competing with the men, it really is a different game, and I don’t think it’s a fair comparison. Serena was the one who said it would be like Layla Ali squaring off against Evander Holyfield. I’m not sure I need to add anything to that.