Wimbledon is just days away and the activity at the All England Club is frenetic: petunias are being dusted down and arranged in neat hanging baskets, vast pots of hydrangeas are being winched into position and there is a strong whiff of drying paint (dark green, naturally) in the air. And somewhere in the broadcast centre, John McEnroe is oiling his vocal chords for another two weeks of commentary.
Compared to today’s giants of the game, McEnroe is a slight figure. He stands just 5ft 11in and, even at his peak fighting weight, he could never make 12st. But when he sits down to talk, the presence is a large as ever – he has an opinion on everything and is as passionate about his sport at the age of 56 as he was when he was volleying his way to his first Wimbledon semi-final as an 18-year-old firebrand.
He would be the guy I would pick who could go all the way... he is close to making a big breakthroughJohn McEnroe
This being Britain and this being Wimbledon, the first opinion he is always asked to offer is on the chances of one A. Murray of Dunblane. Can Murray win Wimbledon again? Reassuringly, McEnroe has high hopes for the world No 3 and he is mightily impressed with the Scot’s improvement in the months since his lacklustre quarter-final loss to Grigor Dimitrov on Centre Court last summer.
“I think, overall, he is 10 to 15 per cent better and that is a significant amount at his level,” McEnroe said without missing a beat. “He is definitely feeling better about himself than he has for a while, but that’s looking from the outside in because I have only spoken to him a little bit.
“I think Andy’s chances are that he’s in the top four like at every major he plays. He has put himself back in the mix and it’s taken him a while, but he looks healthy and dangerous and he has got respect. He is a threat and, if Novak [Djokovic] has a bad day, he has positioned himself.
“To me, I would be surprised the way he has moved on from a year ago to a year and half ago that he won’t win a couple more [Slams].”
Ah, yes, Novak Djokovic. The Serb has lost just three matches all year, he has amassed five titles (the Australian Open and four Masters 1000 trophies) and he has made a habit of beating Murray of late. On the evidence of their results this year, Djokovic and Murray are clearly ahead of the chasing pack, but Djokovic is head and shoulders above Murray. He has beaten the Scot eight times since the Wimbledon final of 2013, most recently at the French Open.
In Paris, Murray played more aggressively and with more belief against his old rival than he had in months. He began that way in the Australian Open final back in January, too, but then Djokovic, who looked to be out on his feet, came back at him and ran away with the match. It seems that, whatever Murray does, Djokovic gets the better of him.
“It is so difficult at that level and it’s about will and hanging tough,” McEnroe said. “You see Novak and it looks like the ambulance is coming and then he breaks your serve – it’s tough not to let that get to you in a negative way. It’s easy to say that you know what’s coming, but you still have to deal with it.
“I always am a believer that Andy is doing almost everything he needs to do. His liability has been the second serve, which is not at the level of a couple of the other players, and I think his hands are good enough that he should use his skills at the net more often.
“He is starting to make that bigger impact off the return which is smart because he and Novak are the best. Because he has such sweet feel, I think he should be in there at the net more – he’s a big guy but he doesn’t do that very often. That is the only thing I would tell him.”
Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman, his two coaches, have been encouraging Murray to bring a more attacking style of play to his game and the results over the past three months have proved their point: three titles won and only one match lost. And for all that Djokovic has won 19 of their 27 meetings, Murray has the upper hand at Wimbledon. They have played only twice on grass – the Olympic semi-finals and the Wimbledon final – and Murray won both times without dropping a set. The Scot’s team know that Djokovic is beatable; now they have to find a way to do it again in the next couple of weeks.
“I credit him for sticking with Amélie when it was looking like a lot of people were questioning it,” McEnroe said. “I think it was very smart of him to give it some time and it seems there’s a comfort zone.
“Jonas is an extremely nice guy. He seems to be very serious. He was always very fit. He does some things well which may help Andy, like being aggressive off the return which he is doing more of anyway, volleying, positioning of where you are at the net. Those are important.”
McEnroe is clearly a great admirer of Djokovic, but for all that the Serb has been in scintillating form for the past 12 months, the BBC’s most verbose commentator is not expecting the world No 1 to run away with the title in SW19.
“Of course I would say he is the man to beat,” McEnroe said. “Looks like he’s above everyone, but I’m not so sure it’s as big as it appears because he’s a human being. The other guys are going to get hungrier. And these young kids are not going to have the fear factor. They are going to have respect because he’s going to show them who is boss. But he’s going to have to prove it.
“I like Novak a lot, I think he’s great for the game and I’d like to see him play at his maximum level for a couple of years. See if anyone could stick with him. If he’s that good, that great, I’d love to see him win the Grand Slam. That would be outstanding.”
Looking into the future, McEnroe is convinced that Nick Kyrgios will be the next big name in the game. The 20-year-old Australian split with his coach, Todd Larkham, yesterday after an injury and illness blighted his grass-court run (he played Stan Wawrinka in the first round at Queen’s and lost in 47 minutes). No matter, McEnroe is a fan.
“I think he would be the guy I would pick who could go all the way,” McEnroe said. “He is close to being ready to make a big breakthrough if I had to pick one guy. I wouldn’t pick him to win Wimbledon. But I would think, if there was some person other than the obvious guys, that would be the guy that I would pick.”
Kyrgios, though, is the name for the future; Djokovic and Murray are the men of the moment, of this year’s Wimbledon. And it all starts on Monday.
l Wimbledon 2015 is exclusively live on the BBC across TV, radio and online from Monday 29 June