In September of 1990, I discovered two things that would slowly, over the next 17-plus years, evolve into two great passions: the game of tennis and the game of tennis as played by Pete Sampras. I sat mesmerized almost every night watching that year's U.S. Open on television in awe of so many things: night tennis, the flight paths into LaGuardia that brought the jets in right over the tennis center, five-setters, how cool it looked to be sitting in those stands kicked back with beers in hand and, of course, how Pete Sampras looked like no other athlete I'd ever seen.
In that Open, he dominated everyone he faced. He was quiet about it. He was subtle about it. He was fluid about it. And he let his playing do his talking; watching Pete in 1990, it seemed a McEnroe-like outburst would be, and indeed proved to be throughout his storied career, an impossibility. And, of course, that certainly seemed even more surreal as Pete served McEnroe into oblivion during the semi-finals.
That serve. It is quite possibly the most fluid, athletically correct motion I have yet witnessed in sport. It was then, and continues to be now, utterly hypnotic. Watching that Open gave me an appreciation for Sampras that will stick with me as long as I live. He was not merely a great athlete, but his approach and demeanor are things I always try to remind myself of in all aspects of life, not just when I'm in jams of my own on the tennis court. Most importantly, the appreciation for what Pete did that year introduced me to the greater game of tennis itself, a pastime that has taught me a lot about playing to one's strengths and the importance of identifying and overcoming one's weaknesses. Those two weeks are seared into my memory like a cattle brand.
For the last four years my friend Isaac and I have been traveling to the U.S. Open every September to take in a few nights of tennis. Now we are the guys in the stands drinking beers with our feet propped up on the seats in some remote corner of Louis Armstrong stadium at 2 a.m. watching a top seed duke it out with a qualifier in a heated five-setter. It gets no better, especially once you throw in a couple of $8 hot dogs that, if you hang around late enough, you'll be eating for free. Normally, we make a special effort to attend matches with a high "heckle quotient", most notably those played buy our arch-nemesis Lleyton Hewitt. Other times, we try to give back to those that are truly great but often unnoticed by the casual fan — Fabrice "The Magician" Santoro, for example. Either way, it has become an institution.
My one disappointment surrounding this annual pilgrimage has always been that I got into it too late. I never got to see Pete play in person, and, given his formal retirement in 2003, I was pretty sure that unfortunate reality wasn't going to change. So, imagine my surprise when the opportunity came up to get tickets to the March 10 exhibition match at Madison Square Garden between Pete and Roger Federer, the current world #1 and Pete's much deserved heir apparent. I hesitated about as long as Charlie Sheen did when he shot Tom Berenger at the end of Platoon. I immediately made plans for a winter trek with Isaac to New York City to take in this most unique of opportunities. I have never gone out of my way for tickets to a sporting event. I have, of course, established a set of "what if" scenarios, but never thought I would be lucky enough to put one of them into action.
Come 8 p.m. on March 10, Isaac and I were stepping off the E train at Penn Station, making our ascent toward the one and only Madison Square Garden. There were scalpers everywhere and it became immediately obvious to us that an enormous crowd had indeed turned out for this; I knew it had been sold out, but that's always such a relative term. It wasn't until we got into the arena and headed to our seats, beers in hand, that the magnitude of not only the crowd but the event itself really hit me. There were tons of celebrities there: Donald Trump, Tiger Woods (who was within eye shot of where we sat), and Luke Wilson to name a few… it felt like a rock concert. A Led Zeppelin concert at that.
Tennis has always been a sport above the normal hype and Super Bowl-like extravaganza that plagues so many other sports, with the notable exception of, of course, Mr. Bobby Riggs. So to my surprise, the event began with the famed "Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back, followed with a smoke machine and pyrotechnics. Among these distractions emerged first Federer, then Sampras. I've never seen so many camera flashes at one time, especially as the players warmed up. Of course, since this was an exhibition match, you could photograph at will the entire night.
The disparity between watching tennis on television versus watching in person is like night and day. It always amazes me. Everything looks so effortless, especially when you're watching two players who account for roughly 40% of all major championship victories dating back to 1990. Federer ended up outlasting Pete in three sets. In fact, Pete blew what looked like an insurmountable lead in the third set. Nevertheless, given the age gap, it was actually very predictable. Pete served extremely well, played aggressively by coming into the net often, throwing Federer off while Federer answered with his normal flawless, if uninspired, precision and insane court coverage. And youth prevailed.
I've read so many things about this match, most of it good but some suggesting that Roger wasn't putting out and that Pete only looked as good as he did because his opponent was half-assing. While partial to Sampras, I would find it very hard to believe that athletes of this caliber would be able to ever phone it in, exhibition or no exhibition. Even at the low level at which I play, people are out there to compete. To suggest that these two greats were fronting a charade of competitive tennis is an insult to either's legacy. From my vantage point, the winners were sincere and the errors, while sometimes played off in jest, were legitimate. I've seen too much tennis to think otherwise.
What we witnessed was three glorious sets culminating in finally getting to say, "C'mon Pete!" in unison with a New York crowd while swilling $7 Budweisers and eating foot-long hot dogs. Like the image of those two weeks in September of 1990, this night will be burned in my memory forever. Even in an advanced age for professional tennis, Pete delivered. I sincerely thank him. I have my tickets booked for Wimbledon 2008.