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Steve Flink: Extraordinary Exhibitions

11/12/2007 1:27:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Almost across the board, for as long as I have been out in the field of tennis reporting, I have tried as a rule to avoid watching exhibitions. Too often, the players go through the motions during these forums, providing mild entertainment to the public, but seldom if ever exploring the boundaries of their capabilities. Furthermore, in many cases, there is a tacit agreement between the players to split the first two sets and then play the third and final set out fair and square. Seasoned observers recognize that the reality of what occurs on the court  between big name competitors seldom lives up to the hype surrounding exhibitions.

Be that as it may, the three exhibition series contested last week by Roger Federer and Pete Sampras was clearly an exception to the rule. After a respectable but not top of the line opening match in Seoul, Korea on November 20 which Federer won with relative ease 6-4, 6-3, the last two encounters were a joy to observe. The tennis delivered by both men in their second and third skirmishes was even more remarkable than they could have promised. Federer and Sampras performed magnificently on November 22 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the Swiss prevailed 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5). And then they concluded their proceedings on November 24 in Macau, China, with Sampras unexpectedly recording a stirring 7-6 (8), 6-4 victory.
In Seoul, Sampras came out of the blocks more swiftly than Federer, taking a 4-2, 15-30 first set lead. When Sampras served at 4-3 in that opening set, he had two game points. On the second, he stayed back behind his first serve, ran around his backhand, and went for one of his trademark forehand winners down the line, or inside-in as some would say. He narrowly missed.

Thereafter, Federer was in command. From his deficit in the opening set, he surged to 4-1 in the second set, winning eight out of nine games to seize complete control of the match. His dazzling forehand was the master stroke, and he did a terrific job of getting so many returns back into play. Sampras, however, was not in sync, losing three out of four service games at one stage. He surprisingly missed a bunch of relatively easy backhand volleys from close range, some of them sitters by his normal standards. The good news was that he was getting in tight behind his first and second serves, positioning himself very well as he approached the net. The bad news was that he was not cashing in on his openings. Sampras served an impressive ten aces in nine service games but his first serve percentage was below 50% in the opening set.

On to Malaysia, where the atmosphere appeared to be considerably more festive, where the players took it all to another level, where Sampras found his bearings and raised his game immeasurably from where it had been only a few days earlier. Neither player lost serve in this absorbing contest. Both competitors were in very good form as a grateful, animated audience was enthralled by what they witnessed on Thanksgiving. On a very quick indoor court, both men served with uncanny accuracy, variation, and deception. This time around, Sampras put on a stellar demonstration in the forecourt, volleying stupendously. His backhand volley was masterful. Federer, meanwhile, was backing up his delivery with a barrage of meticulously struck ground strokes, and he ventured to the net often enough to keep Sampras honest.

The outcome here was settled largely in the first set tie-break. With Federer serving at 4-5, Sampras got the look he wanted at a second serve. Federer sent a kicker to the American's backhand, and Sampras tried to take it early and go down the line with topspin. The serve was too good, and Sampras drove the return wide. At 6-6, after Sampras had already saved a set point, he got the first serve in deep to the backhand. Federer rolled his return low, but Sampras made a good pick up on the forehand half volley, playing it aggressively crosscourt, keeping the ball low and deep. Federer responded with perhaps his shot of the match, flicking a forehand passing down the line at a high trajectory for an astonishing winner, tantalizingly out of the American's reach. It was a startling shot only he could have made. One point later, it was set to Federer.

In the second set, Federer fought off a break point in the opening game, held from 0-30 in the fifth game, and then seemed on the verge of victory when Sampras served at 3-4, 15-40. An ace sliced wide in the deuce court and a huge, unanswerable first serve to the backhand enabled Sampras to escape on those break points. Inevitably, they moved on to another tie-break, with Federer counter-attacking beautifully on his way to 6-3, triple match point. An obdurate Sampras saved two match points, erasing the second with a scintillating backhand volley winner past Federer as both men challenged each other at the net. But Federer got the job done on the next point.

And so Federer had toppled Sampras for the second straight time with his triumph in Malaysia, but not before the American had planted the seeds for a possible surprise in China. In the Malaysian clash, Sampras had connected with 70% of his first serves, and he was thus controlling his service games with utter conviction, as was the mighty Federer. The statistics tell the story of how sedulously both men took care of their service games: Sampras won 60 of 79 service points while Federer secured 61 of 79. Their methodologies contrasted as Federer only occasionally played serve-and-volley while Sampras followed his serve in on all but six points in the entire match.

In any case, the two prideful competitors finished their business admirably in China on an even faster indoor court. As was the case during the first two matches, I was watching on Tennis Channel but could feel the electricity in that arena across the airwaves. Federer and Sampras seemed to feed off the exhilaration, producing another first rate piece of business. On this occasion, Sampras made his intentions entirely clear from the outset. He was going to give this confrontation everything he had, and then let the chips fall where they may. Federer displayed the same kind of attitude. They had enjoyed a number of light moments in their first two exhibitions, smiling and gently ribbing each other between points, then recovering their intensity without much trouble. Sampras seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, and Federer welcomed the comic relief provided by his opponent.

But now, in China, after more of the same joviality was exhibited by both players in the first set, the intensity level was elevated on both sides of the net because each player seemed to sense this just might be the night for Sampras. He came out blazing from the outset, releasing seven aces across his first three service games. Federer was equal to that task. At 5-6 in that first set, Federer connected with consecutive first serve aces, and then threw in two second serve aces, holding at love without Sampras making contact with a single ball. But Sampras raised the stakes in the tie-break, drawing a big roar from the crowd when he cracked a flat forehand crosscourt return winner for 2-1. Sampras served at 5-3 but was forced into a half volley error by a superb, dipping backhand pass from Federer.

The players looked dead serious as they fought on through that nerve wracking sequence. Sampras saved a set point at 5-6 with a thunderbolt, an unstoppable serve to the backhand. Federer answered by saving a set point himself at 6-7 with a service winner to the forehand. Sampras saved a second set point at 7-8 with another blockbuster first serve that Federer could not handle, and then the American closed out the set two points later with a winning forehand return off a second serve, going behind Federer into his adversary's vacant forehand corner.

Federer clearly wanted to turn the match his way in the second set, and nearly did. He saved a break point on his way to 2-1 with a clutch ace and then had Sampras down 0-30 in the following game. On the next point, Sampras unleashed a second serve ace down the "T" and went on to hold. With Sampras serving at 3-4, Federer turned on the magic, making a bid for a critical break. At 40-15, Sampras punched his forehand first volley with sidespin, deep to the Federer backhand. Federer somehow rolled his half-volleyed pass sharply crosscourt at an unimaginable angle for a clean winner. At 40-30, Sampras stayed back on a second serve, and Federer took advantage, running around his backhand for a sparkling forehand return winner.

Sampras stood at 3-4, deuce, with the set and perhaps the match hanging precariously in the balance. What was his response? Calmly and characteristically, he found the "T" with another ace, and then won a spectacular exchange with a forceful smash. He was back to 4-4. And then he pounced in the ensuing game as Federer, serving at 15-30 and perhaps a shade apprehensive, netted a routine inside-out forehand with a wide open court at his disposal. Now at double break point, Sampras nailed a devastating flat forehand crosscourt, got the short ball, and then moved forward for an inside-out winner into a wide open space.

Serving for the match at 5-4, Sampras was much like his prime time self, missing only one first serve, hitting his 14th and final ace for 30-0, holding commandingly at love. As was the case in Malaysia, Sampras and Federer were exemplary in giving nothing away on serve; Sampras was victorious on 52 of 68 service points while Federer made good on 49 of 68. It had to be an enormously gratifying moment for Sampras--- who stuck to his guns again and served-and-volleyed on all but seven points, connecting with 72% of his first serves---- as he got on the board in his last exhibition of this series and finally stopped Federer. But he was fittingly understated when it was over, greeting a smiling Federer at the net with complete respect. It takes an all-time great to fully understand another player of the same ilk, and even if it was only an exhibition, Sampras was not going to rub it in. There was no gloating. Not a chance. His graciousness in victory was even more impressive than his dignity in defeat. Federer was no less of a sportsman.

It was all over for the 36-year-old Sampras and the 26-year-old Federer, two estimable men who own 26 majors between them. They will play another exhibition at New York's Madison Square Garden in March. But, as I reflect upon what transpired in Asia and look forward to their New York reunion, I must reiterate that the tennis Federer and Sampras played in Malaysia and China was awfully inspiring.

Sampras improved dramatically from where he started in Seoul, and had every reason to be proud of how far he took his game. Not losing his serve in his last two meetings with Federer, not serving even a single double fault in those two encounters, reminding everyone how majestic he used to be and how great he still can be, was no mean feat. To be sure, he had more incentive to play well in this series than Federer, who was coming off a long, draining 2007 campaign and had finished his official business with a triumph in Shanghai at the Tennis Masters Cup. Federer acquitted himself as honorably as Sampras did, having fun, competing as hard as he could, advertising his decency and professionalism every step of the way.

The view here is that Federer fully expected to sweep the series, even if he knew Sampras was getting better with every match. Perhaps he slightly let his guard down for the last exhibition, but perhaps not. The bottom line is that Sampras was giving away a lot of years, but he had plainly trained diligently to get ready for Federer. His task was a whole lot tougher because he left the men's game five years ago. He was asking a great deal of himself to step on the court against today's dominant player. And yet, he rewarded himself with a highly commendable win at the end.

Don't get me wrong. Exhibitions don't get placed in the record books. The players are well aware of that. Sampras told the media after his win not to "get carried away", because he understood the circumstances and wanted to put it in perspective. But, as I said at the outset, there was something extraordinary about these particular collisions that made them more appealing and compelling. Their entertaining exhibitions will only ignite the arguments on both sides of the aisle about how Federer and Sampras would have fared against each other if both had been simultaneously in their primes. This past week serves to remind us that they could have been a part of the greatest men's rivalry in the history of men's tennis, although I maintain that Sampras would have at least slightly held the upper hand. Be that as it may, since they only met once during their respective pro careers, it was apparently as much a treat for them to confront each other across the net as it was for us to watch them perform.

I will be there in Madison Square Garden for their New York moment. I would not miss it for the world.

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