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.