Sampras eases past Agassi

It was like looking through a time-warp Monday night in New York. Madison Square Garden opened its hallowed gates for an evening of classic tennis between some of the greatest players to ever pick-up a racquet.

Andre Agassi

The BNP Paribas Showdown tried to re-ignite legendary rivalries between Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe as well as Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. With 37 Grand Slams between the four players there is no doubting their past accomplishments. Yet while on paper the idea seemed intriguing, in real life it did not quite translate as planned. The evening did however prove that tennis still has a place at MSG and that the people of New York would love to watch the sport live more than once a year.

Lendl and McEnroe kicked things off at 7pm as the arena was still filling up. Unfortunately the match was nothing close to any of their gripping encounters from the 1980s that included 20 ATP World Tour finals. After years of hitting golf, rather than tennis balls, Lendl clearly lacked the necessary match practice to keep up with McEnroe and found himself in a 0-4 hole pretty quickly.

The lack of competitiveness had a distinct hand in keeping the crowd subdued as they collectively wondered if we’d see anything that relatively resembled what one might expect from two men who hold 15 Grand Slam titles between them. It’s one thing to watch a dull match when there is at least something on the line, but in an exhibition it becomes just plain painful pretty quickly.

Just when it appeared that Lendl might be picking his game up slightly, McEnroe retired leading 6-3 with an ankle injury he had sustained while warming up two hours prior to the event. The fact that an injured Johnny Mac was able to still dominate his opponent spoke volumes to the disparity that existed between the two on this night.

Almost as disappointing as the lack of competition between these two old rivals was the complete absence of any of McEnroe’s typical bad-boy antics. No cursing the umpire or an unsuspecting spectator. No thrown racquet or disputed line-calls. McEnroe’s silence was even more surprising than that of the crowd but I guess it’s hard to blow a gasket when you’re leading so comfortably.

The main tilt between Agassi and Sampras got underway around 9pm and just from watching the warm-up you could tell that this would be a much more skillful match. Aside from the fact that these two American legends are roughly twelve years younger than their opening act, they have both been playing competitive exhibition matches of late.

Agassi played twice against retired head-case Marat Safin in Taiwan in January, while Sampras played two weeks ago against current pro Gael Monfils in San Jose. The two were clearly trying to arrive in New York prepared yet not for what some media had anticipated as a grudge match after last year’s embarrassment in the “Hit for Haiti” fundraiser.

For those of you who missed that one, here’s a reminder of the bad blood that surfaced between these two usually classy guys. Things start playfully at the 1:32 mark of the clip when Sampras shows off his sense of humor by imitating Agassi’s pigeon-toed walk. I have to admit that at the time I thought it was refreshing to see Pete show us his lighter side. Unfortunately Agassi responded by taking things to another level by making reference to Pete being a bad tipper. This statement was all the more hurtful since it was written in Agassi’s autobiography which had already caused tension between the two. Sampras proceeded to aim a serve directly at Agassi and the mood for the rest of the evening was one of tense confusion as the crowd struggled to figure out if the two were seriously airing out their differences or not.

This time around fortunately the two stuck to playing tennis and did their best to rekindle memories from their glory days. For Sampras, he aptly proved he still has his greatest weapon of all – his serve. Agassi admitted after the match that while other parts of Pistol Pete’s game might not be as vicious as they once were, the one device that always frustrated him still packed a punch. Agassi too showed us glimpses into the past with some torrid forehand returns that from time to time left Sampras flat-footed.

Mostly though, this was a night where Sampras was the sharper of the two. He moved well for a 39 year-old and often found his way to the net where he still could put away the majority of his volleys. His footwork seemed solid and he displayed a real desire to compete. Agassi did too, but more often than he would have liked saw his shots fall short of their intended targets. Sampras would prevail 6-3, 7-5.

While it was not the three set nail-bitter that fans were hoping for, it still brought us back to the greatest American tennis rivalry of the past twenty years. One more time Agassi and Sampras managed to divide a crowd’s allegiances almost evenly down the middle. Chants of “Come on Andre!” and “Let’s Go Pete” were being traded back and forth in the stands just as frequently as the two players traded their groundstrokes down on the court.

For the players, it was clear that their bodies would no longer perform the same reflexes and reactions that they once did so routinely. That’s bound to happen when you’ve been away from the game for eight years like Sampras and five for Agassi and only find the time for a few exhibitions a year. The most difficult thing for some fans to watch in friendly matches like this one isn’t that the players are no longer what they used to be, but rather that there is really nothing on the line for two great former champions to play for.

Despite the lament for something more meaningful to validate this tennis showdown, Agassi was able to find one word to explain why we were all here today: nostalgia. During changeovers the jumbo-tron played clips of their greatest Grand Slam matches against each other. Not only did these highlights enthral the crowd as they reflected on the past but Agassi and Sampras as well. My favorite image of the night was of the two sitting in their chairs with Sampras leading 5-4 in the second set and both simultaneously straining their necks to watch a montage of their 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinal match on the jumbo-tron. Even within a match that was not yet finished, nostalgia for what they once had together made them pause and reflect. The fact that they shared that moment with 17,000 tennis fans tonight in New York is meaning enough for me.