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John McEnroe and Larry Summers: Birds of a Feather?

The former tennis star and ex–U.S. Treasury secretary both show off-color commentary combined with world-class skill in their respective fields.

For several years, I discussed with literary agent Albert LaFarge the idea of writing a book about tennis legend John McEnroe. When it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, I approached him with the idea of writing a book about former Treasury secretary Larry Summers. At that point, he broached the possibility of writing about both of them at once. He might be onto something.

In Hard Courts, his 1991 book about the pro tennis tour, John Feinstein begins by describing the contrasting preparations of rivals McEnroe and Ivan Lendl for a flight to Australia ahead of the Australian Open. Lendl had everything perfectly organized, from when he would take his sleeping pill to his helicopter transport once he arrived. McEnroe, by contrast, was a mess, barely making the flight and unaware it had a stopover before Australia.

Someone who knows both Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and Summers told me they have a similar split in their approach to flying. Yellen leaves nothing to chance, arriving at the airport hours early and waiting at the gate, whereas Summers cuts it as close as possible and has missed flights altogether.

I think there are similarities between Summers and McEnroe beyond their travel habits. There’s a certain ingenuity to both of them. McEnroe showed creative genius during his playing days and continues to demonstrate analytical prowess in his career as a tennis broadcaster for ESPN (he will be entertaining U.S. Open fans the next two weeks). Summers has exhibited analytical acumen as an economist and a policymaker and a fair amount of creativity himself.

On the flip side, both men have been guilty of some intemperate behavior, though of wholly different magnitudes. McEnroe’s on-court tirades, which continued through his 40s on the senior tour, make Summers, who has been known for a brusque comment or two, look like a choir boy in comparison.

As for McEnroe’s playing genius, experts agree he may have been the most creative player in history. “He invented shots,” gushed Rod Laver, who won calendar-year Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969 and whom many view as the most creative player before McEnroe.

The late Gene Scott, an accomplished tennis player 21 years older than McEnroe, once told me that playing with a teenage McEnroe, he realized the prodigy already saw angles on the court that he would never fathom. Pete Sampras, winner of 14 major tournaments, marveled at how McEnroe seemed to float across the court with his otherworldly movement.

When it comes to TV commentary, McEnroe rewrote the manual for tennis analysts with his work since retiring from the main tour in 1992. The quality of his insight, combined with his honesty and sense of humor, earned him accolades from many, including those who were repelled by his antics as a player. Once, when commentating from the top rows of massive Arthur Ashe Stadium, the venue where the U.S. Open takes place in Queens, New York, McEnroe announced that a player just broke a string on his racquet. How did McEnroe know? He heard it.

Summers shares McEnroe’s power of analysis. Although he’s quite creative, the Harvard president emeritus doesn’t rise to McEnroe’s level in terms of the innovation. “Larry’s a brilliant economist,” says Princeton University economist Alan Krueger, who served in the Obama administration with Summers. But “he is better known for developing clever new evidence to support or defeat an existing theory than for inventing new theories.”

For the past three years, Summers has been arguing for analysis based on the thesis of secular stagnation, originated by Harvard economist Alvin Hansen in the 1930s. Summers uses the theory to argue that the economy may face years of subpar growth, as investment demand is insufficient to absorb personal and corporate savings, even with interest rates so low as to risk financial bubbles. Many economists agree with Summers. “No one was talking about that, and Larry made it a topic,” says Harvard economist Jeffrey Frankel, a long-time colleague of Summers’.

Summers’ expertise ranges from international economic policy to labor issues. “His ability to cover academic and policy issues is wide enough that you might use the word ‘genius,’” Frankel says.

In terms of creativity, Summers quarterbacked the Clinton administration’s participation in a bailout of Mexico in 1995, after an economic crisis there sparked concern about the impact on the rest of the world. When Congress balked at participating in the bailout, Summers and his colleagues figured out an alternative. The money came from the Treasury Department’s Exchange Stabilization Fund, allowing the administration to bypass Congress.

Like many other gifted people, McEnroe and Summers have sometimes misbehaved. But they’re in two different universes on this score. McEnroe’s boorishness, often directed at umpires and other players, at times knew no boundaries, with profane insults common. Summers was accused of bullying the faculty at Harvard. And he has made several politically incorrect comments, such as questioning whether women have as much innate scientific ability as men.

“Larry’s slips of the tongue come more out of an interest in ideas,” Krueger says. “He explores ideas by argument and is willing to change his mind.” By contrast, when McEnroe challenged a line call, there was no convincing him he could be wrong.

Cornell University historian Walter LaFeber puts Summers’ behavior in an interesting context that I think applies to McEnroe as well. Summers’ form of self-indulgence, he says, is common among gifted achievers born in the 1950s and 1960s.

Of course, there are fundamental differences between the two men. McEnroe is an athlete-slash-entertainer, whereas Summers is an academic-slash-policymaker. By definition, that’s a huge gulf. But certain qualities they share in common, and genius combined with unbridled repartee is among them.

Dan Weil is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to his regular contributions for Institutional Investor, his work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Tennis magazine.

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