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Steve Flink: Clash of the Titans

3/3/2008 3:54:00 PM

by Steve Flink

There they were, arguably the two best players of all time, performing in what many believe is the greatest sporting arena of them all at Madison Square Garden. There they were, Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, a Swiss maestro and an American legend, celebrating their prodigious talent on a fabled New York stage, playing in front of a capacity crowd of 19,690. There were these two admirable sportsmen, at different places in their lives, yet sharing the same level of desire to put on a good show as they clashed for the first time in the United States.

I was there to witness it all, and make no mistake about it: these two towering champions gave us an exhibition match that will linger with clarity in our minds for some time to come. Sampras did everything but win The NetJets Showdown. Federer struck back majestically from 2-5 down in the final set-and 3-5 behind in the third set tie-break--- to record a suspenseful 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6) triumph. Both men played the match in the right spirit, competing with intensity and humor, recognizing that this was about much more than victory or defeat, success or failure. They realized that their primary responsibility was to provide first class tennis and high quality entertainment, and both competitors succeeded on both counts very well.

As Sampras said, "This was a great night for tennis. I'm disappointed that I did not come up with the win. I felt pretty good when I was serving for the match but Roger came up with some great returns and passing shots so all credit to him. Roger is a great sport to do these exhibitions." For his part, Federer said, "I don't think who won or lost was the issue tonight. The winner was tennis because we were back in the Garden in front of a sell-out crowd which was fantastic, and the match was a thriller."

Let's look at how the battle unfolded. The players walked out on court from behind clouds of smoke reminiscent of Broadway shows, and then fireworks exploded above them as they moved into the arena. High tension and considerable drama was in the air, and both players felt it at the outset. As Sampras would say later, "I felt my heart pounding out of my chest." It showed. In his opening service game, the 36-year-old American connected with only one of ten first serves, and squandered a 40-15 lead. Federer got the immediate break for 1-0 by making consistently effective, dipping second serve returns.

Federer made that service break count. He faced only one break point in that set--- erasing it emphatically with an unanswerable first serve down the T to the Sampras forehand at 3-2. The 26-year-old Swiss broke the American again in the ninth game. Federer was keeping Sampras at bay, controlling the tempo with his deep and penetrating ground strokes, refusing to give the American enough opportunities to attack his second serve. In that opening set, while Sampras made good on only 52% of his first deliveries, Federer found his mark with 72%. He also won 86% of his second serve points, backing it up skillfully. But Sampras had not yet found his range and his lingering apprehension was apparent as he missed some routine volleys and did not get enough bite or depth on his backhand approach when he chipped and charged.

While Federer continued to mix up his serve judiciously in the second set--- firing 8 aces, raising his first serve success rate to 79%, dictating from the baseline whenever possible--- Sampras turned up the volume of his game and shook free from his nerves. Federer aced his way out of a break point in the opening game of that second set. Both men were holding convincingly throughout the set, and not a single service break occurred. But Sampras was serving from behind, facing tougher pressure. When he served to save the match at 4-5, he trailed 15-30, drifting two points away from a straight set loss. Federer had just unleashed a spectacular backhand passing shot winner crosscourt. The match was inescapably on the line for Sampras, but he responded magnificently.

On that crucial point, Sampras aced Federer out wide in the advantage court for 30-30, then moved to 40-30. Federer provoked an errant forehand volley from Sampras, and it was deuce. Once more, Federer stood two points away from triumph, but the American stepped up to the moment, cracking an ace down the T. He held on gamely for 5-5. Two games later, Sampras was again serving to save the match, and this time he held commandingly at love. In the tie-break, Sampras led 5-2 but Federer produced consecutive aces to close the gap to 5-4.

The pressure was back on Sampras, but he was firmly up to the task at hand. He delivered a scorching service winner to the backhand for 6-4, and then closed out that sequence 7-4 with a perfectly executed, three quarter speed slice serve wide to the forehand in the deuce court that Federer could not handle. It was one set all. The stage was set for a pulsating final set.

In the opening game of that improbable final set, Sampras, perhaps temporarily spent by the effort he put forth late in the second, was broken. He missed all five first serves, and Federer got the break on a miss-hit backhand return that fell into the corner on break point. On the previous point, however, Federer made a stupendous running forehand passing shot down the line. Sampras had served-and-volleyed forcefully, punching his backhand volley low with good depth down the line. Somehow, Federer rolled the shot past the American for a clean winner. Federer held on for 2-0. He surely liked his chances at that juncture.

But a resilient Sampras was not willing to surrender. He held on for 1-2 from deuce, broke Federer at 15 in the following game, then held at love. Sampras played his best return game to break for 4-2. Two superb chip and charge combinations helped the American build a 0-40 lead. Federer released two aces to reach 30-40 but Sampras nailed a scorching topspin backhand down the line to force a forehand mistake from Federer to make it 4-2. He proceeded to hold at 15 for 5-2, thundering two aces down the T in that impressive game. Seemingly, Sampras, having collected five consecutive games, was going to win. Much of the crowd was on its feet, sensing victory for their man.

Federer had other notions. He lost only one point on serve in the next game. And yet, Sampras, probably the best server in the history of tennis, nearly impossible to stop when trying to close out contests, served for the match at 5-3. He swung his first serve wide with slice on the first point, but Federer was looking for it, lacing a terrific return down the line, forcing Sampras into a backhand volley error. Then Federer caught Sampras off guard with a well disguised backhand crosscourt pass. Sampras lunged but could not make the volley.

It was 0-30, but Sampras got back to 30-30, two points away from the win. He missed his first serve, and Federer reached break point with a dipping backhand return eliciting a netted forehand half volley from Sampras. Sampras sliced an ace down the T for deuce, once more two points from the triumph. He missed another first serve, and Federer beat him with a backhand down the line passing shot which slightly clipped the net chord. Down break point again, Sampras directed a first serve deep to the backhand, but Federer was ready. He rolled an astounding backhand return winner down the line for a winner, raising a clinched fist in celebration. Thoroughly against the odds, Federer had broken back.

Still, Federer had to serve to save the match a second time at 4-5. With a flourish, he held at love, coming through with four straight aces. From a precarious corner at 2-5, he had captured three games in a row. But Sampras was not about to acquiesce. He regrouped swiftly, holding at 15 for 6-5, closing out that game with yet another booming service winner down the T in the deuce court. With Federer serving at 5-6, Sampras had yet another opening, reaching 15-30 with his finest backhand passing shot of the entire night, a sharply angled topspin crosscourt shot struck immaculately. Federer was not rattled, not in the least. He produced an ace, and then followed with two more unanswerable first serves to hold for 6-6.

The drama was not over. In the tie-break, Sampras, who was briefly out of breath in the middle of that sequence as Federer grinned at him sympathetically from across the net, was serving with a 5-3 lead, two tantalizing points away from victory. He went for his trademark first serve down the middle in the deuce court but Federer was on to it. He drilled an exquisite backhand return winner, then connected with two first serves to the backhand that Sampras could not get back into play. That brought Federer to match point, but, at 5-6, Sampras came up with a service winner to the forehand. At 6-6, Sampras should have put away a relatively high volley but he did not, and Federer, so brilliant all match long with his backhand pass, came up with another in the clutch, whipping it down the line for a winner and a second match point.

Federer attacked, and Sampras ripped a backhand pass out of reach, but the shot was narrowly wide. The 134 minute battle was over. Sampras had won 109 points and Federer 108, but that was not good enough to win. Federer had 19 aces while Sampras released 13. Federer made good on 73% of his first serves while Sampras hit the mark with only 58%. Both men made only 20 unforced errors in three sets, an accurate reflection of the high standard of play. In the final analysis, Federer's comeback was the stuff of inspiration, a credit to his absolute coolness under fire, an affirmation of his greatness. Conversely, Sampras did not close the deal when the opportunities were so abundant; seven times he stood two points from a big win, but he never made it to match point. Uncharacteristically, he did not serve out the match, although he gave nothing away in that game. "For a split second," Sampras said after the match, "I thought I had it." Perhaps he was just a shade overanxious in the crunch.

When these two icons faced each other three times last November in Asia, Federer had won the first match in Seoul, Korea almost routinely 6-4, 6-3. In their next clash in Malaysia, Federer won in two tie-breaks. And then Sampras was a 7-6 (8), 6-4 victor in China. In those latter two contests, Federer lost his serve only once and Sampras was not broken at all. But the conditions in Asia were much faster. The court in Madison Square Garden, while still quick, was entirely fair to both players. The surface was fast enough for Sampras to serve-and-volley all but a hand full of times in the match, including second serves. And yet, it was not so fast that Federer could not counter-attack beautifully.

To be sure, it was tough on both players to be relegated to a 45 minute practice session that afternoon, making it difficult to get acclimated. But they handled the assignment remarkably well. They gave the fans an awful lot to shout about, with Sampras attacking relentlessly, coming in no fewer than 97 times, winning 56 of those points. That meant he was successful 58% of the time when he approached the net. Had he been slightly sharper on the volley his percentage would have improved to at least the mid-60s, but then again Federer passed with uncanny accuracy. Federer himself came up only 22 times in the match, winning 15 of those points. And yet, he was so good from the back of the court that, in the end, his reluctance to approach the net did not hurt him.

Almost across the board, the evening was a triumph for the sport. If the two superstars have a return engagement at the Garden, my hope is that two fundamental changes will take place. The promoters should invest in the Hawkeye Instant Replay system, which would only raise the level of excitement among the fans. Secondly, enthusiasm need not be manufactured. The fans know how to react to the chain of events in a match on their own. Too many times, they looked at the video scoreboard above the court and saw a flashing, "Let's go Pete," or "Let's go Roger", which I believe aggravated many observers. The players stirred the audience simply by giving it their all; the fans did not need to be coaxed into offering support for the players.

In the end, the fans witnessed one of the great tennis moments in the history of Madison Square Garden. On December 26, 1947, Jack Kramer made his pro debut against bobby Riggs on the night of a driving snow storm, with Riggs victorious in four sets. In 1968, at an invitational event for men and women, the two leading Americans--- Billie Jean King and Nancy Richey--- faced each other in the semifinals. They had not played for the better part of four years. King led 6-4, 5-1 but the tenacious Richey swept 12 games in a row for a startling victory, saving a match point in the process. Forty years after that historic match, King was part of the pre-match ceremony for Federer-Sampras.

In any event, John McEnroe was present for this encounter, calling the match for Tennis Channel. He was part of a gripping battle with Arthur Ashe in the final of The Masters in January of 1979, saving two match points to win. Ivan Lendl, an eight-time Grand Slam tournament champion and five time victor at the Garden in The Masters, was a promoter for the Sampras-Federer exhibition. He lost to Boris Becker in a sparkling five set 1988 Masters final. Jimmy Connors two dynamic 1978 meetings with Guillermo Vilas (Vilas won 7-5 in the final set), and Bjorn Borg (Connors was victorious 6-4 in the final set of that championship match) rank right up there on the great Garden list. And surely the five set final between Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini in 1990 must be included.

But the Federer-Sampras March 10, 2008 meeting has clearly earned a special place of honor on the list. Because the match was so compelling and unpredictable, because they are who they are, Sampras and Federer have given tennis an immeasurable boost at Madison Square Garden. Their heroics will lead to a revival of some kind for tennis in that famous building. It had been too long since tennis had been played in this arena. The Masters left New York after a popular run from 1978-89. The women stopped competing on that stage at the WTA Tour Championships in 2000. Sampras had played a Nike exhibition in 1996 with McEnroe, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi in his only previous appearance, while Federer had never played there. The time was right to bring tennis back to the Garden, and both players made the most of it.

"I hope we can do it again," said a gracious Federer when it was over. "That would be absolutely fantastic."

I could not agree more.

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