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McEnroe’s Charity Work Begins Off Court

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WASHINGTON POST

There was something contradictory in the words John McEnroe was using.

He was on the phone the other day talking about giving money to charity, which he does in abundance each year, “a minimum of $200,000 to $250,000,” he said.

He was chastising his sport, his peers and even himself for not doing enough to help causes like 2000-LOVE, a tennis exhibition he will play this coming Tuesday night at 7 at Capital Centre here to benefit a hunger project.

“I think it’s terrible,” he said. “I don’t think tennis has done anything at all. We’re an individual sport where we’re always looking over our shoulder at who’s coming along behind us, where we’re looking for the latest edge, where we compete and train hard. So the work we should be doing a lot more of is left by the wayside. This is not PR. This is about a duty. We become so spoiled, so caught up in our own world, that we are not able to see the overall picture.”

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There have been times when McEnroe has been accused of being caught up in his own world, of not being able to see the overall picture. Times like the most recent Australian Open, when he was kicked out of the tournament for swearing at an official and abusing his racket. Times like the moment he stepped off the plane from Australia in Los Angeles and swore at a photographer. Times like when he called an umpire the “pits of the world,” and the world heard it.

“That’s the sports aspect,” he retorted. “If I yell at an umpire, that’s competition on the court. That has nothing to do with what’s going on in the outside world.”

That brushed aside, McEnroe was back on a subject of much more interest to him. He has agreed to fly to Washington from his home in Malibu (all his expenses are paid, his time will be donated free), to participate in the tennis exhibition with Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi and Tim Mayotte.

Money made at the event goes to The Hunger Project, an international non-profit strategic and educational organization that does not give food to the hungry, but attempts to plan for an end to world hunger, officials said. A small percentage of the profit goes to D.C. Hunger Action, a non-profit information and advocacy group. Officials hope to raise $300,000 with a full house. So far, about 6,000 tickets have been sold in the 15,000-seat arena.

McEnroe is coming because Harold Solomon, the former tennis pro who now is active in The Hunger Project, called and asked him to be there.

“Every time I call John McEnroe on the phone, he has yet to turn me down,” said Solomon, who organized a series of smaller exhibitions for this cause over the last 10-12 years.

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The exhibition is being put together by Jonathan Clark, a 37-year-old local tennis pro who quit his job to do this. Owner Abe Pollin donated use of Capital Centre, except for some minor expenses like paying the clean-up crew, he said.

“We’re doing something we almost never do,” Pollin said.

The last time Capital Centre was opened free of charge was for the Holocaust Revival several years ago, he said.

On Wednesday, Agassi, Lendl and McEnroe will go to the White House to play tennis with President Bush. Bush and his wife are honorary chairpersons for 2000-LOVE, so named because the goal is to end hunger by the end of this century.

“These three are among the best players in the world, but they’ll be playing on my court,” Bush wrote in a letter to organizers last month.

“It’s pretty exciting to have the president know about the sport you play in,” McEnroe said. “I met Reagan and he was not too involved in sports. But George seems to be a sportsman.”

McEnroe, 31, who hasn’t played competitively in more than a month because of a groin pull, said he has to make himself “mentally and physically eager” to play the game again.

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“I’ve gotten stale,” he said. “It’s not that enjoyable to me anymore. I want to stop and smell the roses. I’ll play the big tournaments, but I have a family and I’m one of the older players now. I will just play a select amount of tournaments. Life’s too short.”

But McEnroe said he very much enjoys pitching in to help at events such as this.

“I made an awful lot more money than I ever thought I would make,” he said. “I’d gladly take less money on a personal level. In sports, we are grossly overpaid. I feel bad about the money I make when I see homeless people on the street. ... I always advocate that teachers, firemen, policemen should be paid much more than they are. I do send money to the firemen’s fund. When I see something about people being hungry in Africa, I like to call up and make a donation.”

McEnroe makes millions in endorsements each year, much more than the $946,023 he won playing tennis in 1989.

“I don’t keep exact track of what I donate, but I’ve told my father and my accountants it should be a minimum of $200,000 to $250,000 a year to charity,” he said. “That’s my goal.”

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