Hoffman's Houston
a shout-out to john and ken

Ken Hoffman relives his painful showdown with tennis legend John McEnroe

Ken Hoffman relives his painful showdown with tennis icon John McEnroe

John McEnroe yelling
McEnroe's upcoming Houston appearance should be a real scream. Photo by Getty Images

Tennis legends John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Andy Roddick, and James Blake are coming to Houston for a one-night tournament, October 4, at Rice University's Tudor Fieldhouse. The Champions Cup will feature semifinal matches starting at 7 pm. with the winners facing off for the title. Tickets are $35 for adults and $10 for kids under 10.

Fans also can buy VIP packages that include backstage passes, the players' party, and opportunities to "play with the pros" earlier that day. 

Here's some advice. If you pay to play a doubles match with the legends, ask for John McEnroe as your partner. For two reasons:

No. 1: McEnroe may be the greatest doubles player of all time. They used to say, the greatest doubles team is John McEnroe and anyone else. He was part of 79 champion doubles teams, including nine grand slams.

No. 2: More important, you definitely don't want to play against him.

I learned No. 2 the hard way. True story:

Several years ago, River Oaks Country Club hosted an exhibition tennis match. Originally it was going to John McEnroe vs. Xavier Malisse of Belgium.

The tournament director and I cooked up an idea. I would be a linesman and call a "foot fault" on McEnroe's first serve. He would pretend to go ballistic on me, scream his trademark, "You cannot be serious," call me the "pits of the world," and demand that I be removed. Security would escort me to the parking lot and off I'd go. Then McEnroe and Malisse would play a real match.

It didn't happen that way. Malisse didn't show up at River Oaks and the tournament flew in U.S. pro Mardy Fish as a replacement. Also, I heard that somebody in McEnroe's camp killed the foot fault routine.

Instead ... the tournament director told me, "Look, McEnroe and Fish are going to play a match, then we're going to have a fun doubles match, you and Fish against McEnroe and the club champion."

Huh? Sure, I'll do it.

I love John McEnroe. He's one of my favorite players ever, seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, Davis Cup warrior, and the voice and face of U.S. tennis.  I think he's the best TV analyst of any sport. I respect him as a person for the way he's conducted his life. Plus, he was hilarious as a guest on Larry David's show, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

A few days before the match, I did a phone interview with McEnroe to drum up ticket sales. McEnroe couldn't have been more gracious and accommodating. He said he was driving one of his children to school (or something, I forget) and "take your time."

I told him, "I have your autobiography (You Cannot Be Serious). I hope I get to meet you and have you autograph it."

Things turned weird the night of the match. First, Fish beat McEnroe in a pretty tense match. McEnroe, true to his reputation, took the match dead seriously and played his guts out. He's not exactly what you'd call a "good loser," at least not during the losing. 

Now we're going to play doubles. As I was waiting in the players' lounge, an official with the event told me, "We're going to have you wear a microphone. We want you to go after McEnroe, rile him up, make him angry — the crowd will love it."

I told him, there is absolute zero chance I will do that. I should have said, "You cannot be serious!" John McEnroe is one of the reasons I stay up all night watching tennis tournaments from around the world.

Before the match, I introduced myself to McEnroe and said, "Please don't embarrass me too much tonight," you know, like we're friends.

McEnroe said, "Not now, I'm in a real bad mood." (You know, like we're not friends.) And they wanted me to provoke him? He was pre-provoked.

The match began, and I forget exactly how it happened, but I made a good shot, probably a mis-hit, and won a point. Fish and I had a little conference and he told me to "play [close to] the net" when he served.

But I don't want to play the net! Do you see who's on the other side of that net?

Play the net.

That memorable McEnroe mash
A couple of points later, McEnroe fired a forehand right at me. I'll put this in perspective. I play a match with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett each week. The judge is pretty good, he used to be a pro instructor at the Golfcrest Country Club.

Judge Emmett has never hit a forehand at me like the rocket McEnroe blasted. I swear, I didn't see it coming. The ball hit me in my right pocket, where I was carrying the microphone transmitter. A few inches to the left, and they would have carted me off the court screaming like a mezzo-soprano. 

It was the first and only time I've ever been emotionally shaken and scared on a tennis court. I asked Fish, "What the hell was that?" He said, "Ignore it, that's just him." So much for playing the net.

When the match was over (I don't remember who won), I approached McEnroe.

I asked him, "Are you aware that I'm a newspaper writer, not a professional tennis player?"

He said, "Look, I'm very competitive."

That was "sorry" enough for me. I gave him a copy of his book and he autographed it for me. Just like nothing happened.

Except for the coolest thing that ever happened to me on a tennis court. 

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The Champions Cup kicks off at 7 pm on October 4 at Rice University's Tudor Fieldhouse, 6100 S. Main St. Visit the official site for tickets and VIP package information.