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Steve Flink: A Great Night at the Garden

3/1/2011 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

NEW YORK—Madison Square Garden is indisputably the premier sporting arena in the world. Nearly everyone who is anyone has relished the opportunity to perform at this fabled building located in the heart of the world’s entertainment capitol. Having lived in and around this city for almost my entire life, I have spent my share of absorbing afternoons and evenings watching some of the finest athletes in the world performing on the most renowned stage of all, displaying their extraordinary talent in front of highly charged and appreciative audiences in a place like no other, inspiring fans with their soaring talents and almost unimaginable flair.

Last night, a crowd of 17,165 assembled at the Garden to watch a distinguished and glittering cast of all time greats playing their inimitable brand of tennis in a setting they clearly enjoyed immensely. As I sat in the press section and looked at the billboard at the opposite end of the court, I could only smile as I read the words: “Four Tennis Legends. Two Epic Rivalries. One Night Only.”  The legends were Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and the incorrigible New Yorker John McEnroe. The rivalries were Lendl-McEnroe and Agassi-Sampras. And the night was a reminder to us all of how majestically these champions once practiced their craft, how magnificent they once were, and how much they still have to offer. To be sure, there was some hype in that billing, but the fact remains that there was considerable truth to the way the program was portrayed.

The Opening Act was fittingly the Lendl-McEnroe showdown. Across their careers, they had collided no fewer than 36 times, with the industrious Lendl the victor on 21 of those occasions, including ten of the last eleven times they had met from 1985-92. New York aficionados well remembered the two towering figures in their heydays because they confronted each other so frequently in their city. Five times in their careers Lendl and McEnroe played at The Masters in Madison Square Garden. At the 1981-84 Masters events, they split four meetings, and Lendl won their fifth and last Garden encounter in 1989. At the U.S. Open, they waged five more battles, with Lendl prevailing in three of those contests. That was a total of ten New York appointments between two great players.

Their showdown last night could have been a nice appetizer for Sampras-Agassi, but that was not the case.  The 52-year-old McEnroe—a physical marvel for his age because of his boundless desire to compete and his disciplined training regimen—had the misfortune of injuring his ankle significantly when practicing with Sampras a few hours before his duel with Lendl. The supremely prideful left-hander refused to let the fans down by defaulting. He took the court and did his best to manufacture a victory despite the severity of his injury. It was apparent from the outset that he could not spring up off his legs on his serve, and only rarely did he even attempt to employ his customary serve-and-volley game.

McEnroe was forced to play his 8 Game Pro Set against Lendl just about entirely from the backcourt, despite the fact that his side to side movement was so limited. The problem was that moving forward with any regularity in his condition was virtually out of the question. And yet, Lendl was hard pressed to exploit the situation. While McEnroe has kept at his tennis assiduously ever since he left the official ATP in singles World Tour following the 1992 season, Lendl disappeared for the better part of 15 years after his retirement in 1994, which was brought about largely by a bad back. Only in the last year has he had the desire to come back and compete. While McEnroe has maintained a remarkably high standard of play all across the years to this day, Lendl lost too much time while he stayed away from tennis with the bad back. Frankly, for those of us who admired how much he reshaped the game with his unrivalled fitness routine, explosive baseline power and trademark inside-out, semi-western forehand in his heyday, seeing him now is simply no fun at all. He is a shadow of what he once was, and even a gimpy and compromised McEnroe was thoroughly outplaying Lendl last night.

In the opening game of their Pro Set, Lendl looked uncomfortable right off the bat, falling behind 0-30 with a forehand unforced error and a bungled bounce smash. He went down 15-40, got back to deuce, but lost the next point and then double faulted the game away. At 40-30 in the second game, McEnroe played one of his few serve-volley combinations, opening up the court with a classic slice serve wide to set up a backhand volley winner crosscourt. McEnroe was ahead 2-0, doing his best to bluff his way through despite his physical woes. With Lendl serving at 0-2, 30-40, McEnroe brilliantly constructed a point that he won with an outright winner off the forehand down the line. It seemed entirely possible that McEnroe would prevail in spite of his predicament.

Although he was unable to serve with any force or attack behind it, McEnroe was cagey off the ground and Lendl simply did not have the weapons to hurt him. McEnroe held for 4-0 at 15 as Lendl made consecutive unforced errors off the forehand that once was the best in tennis. In the fifth game, Lendl double faulted himself into a 0-30 hole, but he regrouped to collect three points in a row for a 40-30 lead. Lendl double faulted to make it deuce and McEnroe soon advanced to break point. Knowing his mobility was very restricted, McEnroe went for a topspin backhand winner down the line but netted that difficult shot. Lendl held on for 1-4, but McEnroe pressed on, serving an ace down the T for 30-0, holding at 30 for 5-1 with a backhand crosscourt winner. McEnroe had no alternative but to go for winners whenever possible.

Lendl held easily at 15 for 2-5, moving forward to put away a high forehand volley off a weak pass from McEnroe. Yet McEnroe—who was stretched out on the court at the changeovers looking for help from the trainer—held easily at 15 to forge a 6-2 lead. In the penultimate point of that game, he sent a slice serve wide to set up a forehand winner. Lendl managed to hold at love for 3-6, slicing a backhand down the line winner off a short ball that McEnroe could not or would not chase. And then McEnroe walked up and shook hands with Lendl, realizing he could not go on. He had not lost his serve and was within two games of a triumph, but the pain was too much for him. The fans understood and seemed to realize that he had given them everything he had before stopping.

Both Lendl and McEnroe handled the post-match interviews on court with aplomb. McEnroe took off his match shorts to reveal his “circa 1985” shorts from his prime days as his brother Patrick spoke with him on court. Lendl joked that they should return next year to play with short shorts and wood rackets. McEnroe kidded Lendl—who was one of the event’s promoters as well as a player—about why his picture on advertisements was when he was 45, while Lendl’s accompanying image was taken when he was 25. Lendl deadpanned that the reason for that disparity was because McEnroe is a better looking man now than when he was younger. The repartee was terrific. The crowd loved it, while once antagonistic rivals Lendl and McEnroe displayed admirable grace and humor. Lendl may have looked rusty and off key on the court, but he more than made up for that with his quick wit afterwards.

But now the laughter was essentially over, and it was time for the Main Event, time to watch the 39-year-old Sampras face the 40-year-old Agassi in a best of three sets encounter, time to celebrate a rivalry that carried the game across the nineties and beyond. And just as McEnroe and Lendl had a rich New York history between them, so did Sampras and Agassi. These two prodigious Americans clashed on 34 occasions, and four of those meetings were at the U.S. Open, battles that were spread out over every phase of their careers, matches that live on irrevocably in our minds and imaginations. Here they were at the 1990 U.S. Open, confronting each other in the final, with Sampras gaining a straight set win to establish himself as the youngest ever U.S. Open men’s champion at 19 years and 28 days old.

Five years later, they were the two best players in the world, and they clashed in the Open final again. This was one of those career defining moments for both men; Agassi had won four tournaments and 26 matches in a row and was residing at No. 1 in the world, but it was Sampras who stepped up and seized the moment to win in four sets. Agassi was a shattered, deflated individual for most of the next two years while Sampras went on to finish a record six years in a row (1993-98) as the game’s top ranked competitor. In 2001, they played their highest quality U.S. Open match ever against each other, as Sampras rallied for a 6-7 (7), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5) quarterfinal triumph. Neither man broke serve. Agassi made only 19 unforced errors but was still beaten. It was a gem. A year later, Sampras clipped Agassi in four sets to win his 14th and last major at the U.S. Open in the last official tennis match of his illustrious career.

So a good many fans were probably overwhelmed by emotions as Sampras and Agassi took the court for their Madison Square Garden showdown. Agassi walked out first to a rousing reception, waving warmly to the crowd, absorbing the cheers pouring down on him from every corner of the arena. Out came Sampras next, and he was greeted every bit as effusively. Agassi applauded his old rival genuinely. And then the two men walked to their respective baselines for the warm up, enjoying the festivities and realizing that they were there to conduct some serious business. Exhibitions are exhibitions, and Sampras especially has played a bundle of them since he returned to a more informal type of competition in 2006.

Yet this clash—much like Sampras’s 2008 Madison Square Garden duel with Roger Federer that the Swiss won in a final set tie-break—had a different type of feeling altogether. This was a battle of Heavyweight tennis champions well past their primes but still capable of producing scintillating tennis that captivated the New York fans. They are no longer what they once were, but they are still pretty damned good. Sampras’s serve remains a thing of beauty, as fluid a delivery as I have ever seen, a deadly yet elegant weapon that never seems to betray him when it matters. Agassi can still return brilliantly in spurts, and his ground game can still crackle. Give him time, and Agassi remains a masterful ball striker.

But time was something Sampras essentially took away from Agassi all through their enjoyable encounter. He always had his adversary guessing about the direction of his serve. He rolled backhand returns and came in behind them. He chipped-and-charged effectively, served-and-volleyed with much of his old might and authority, and covered the court with a lot more alacrity than Agassi. Agassi has lost considerable speed since he retired in 2006, while Sampras has lost a few steps but can still do some wondrous things when he is on the run.

Let’s get inside the match. Sampras held at 30 for 1-0, closing that game with a trademark ace down the T in the Ad Court. With Agassi serving in the second game, Sampras celebrated one of those golden moments that lit up the Garden. Agassi was down 15-30, and served to his rival’s backhand. Sampras chipped his return down the line near the sideline, allowing Agassi to release a first rate forehand crosscourt near the sideline. Sampras was on the dead run, and at full stretch he laced a running forehand winner down the line. As he followed through, his momentum carried him against the railing on the side of the court.

In making that spectacular shot, Sampras was no longer competing in 2011. That shot had taken him into a time warp, back into 1995, straight into the heart of his prime. He was in his mid-twenties again. Sampras had always been the master of the running forehand, but he was known for going crosscourt with that signature shot. This one was particularly astonishing because he had to be so accurate as he drove it magically down the line, safely inside the sideline for an astonishing winner. As he walked back onto the court to receive serve on the next point, Sampras had that look of invincibility on his face, that feeling of being in total control of his own destiny. It was double break point now, and a shaken Agassi missed a two-handed backhand long. Sampras had the immediate break for 2-0, and by virtue of that stupendous running forehand he would not look back for the rest of the set.

As he advanced to 3-0 by holding comfortably at 15, Sampras surprisingly stayed back on one second serve and two first serves, but the strategy worked on two of those points. Agassi realized that Sampras was going to mix it up more than usual, which only compounded his problems. At 0-3, Agassi connected with three first serves after trailing 15-30 and he found his range off the ground to hold serve and get his teeth into the contest. Yet Sampras was utterly composed and self assured. He opened the fifth game with an ace down the T, missed three first serves on his way to 30-30, then released another ace down the T. That particular serve was his foremost weapon of the match. Agassi could not read that one all evening, and the deception and accuracy of that delivery was astounding. Because Sampras was going to the slice serve wide in that deuce court with regularity as well, Agassi was ever confused about which way to lean.

In any event, Agassi was not giving up. In that fifth game, he got back to deuce with a dazzling forehand return winner, but Sampras quickly earned another game point, and aced Agassi with the flat serve wide in the Ad court. Sampras was in command, ahead 4-1, never in doubt. Agassi held for 2-4 at 15, closing that game with two aces and a service winner. Sampras pressed on commandingly, holding at 15 for 5-2, closing that game by staying back on a wide first serve that set up a forehand down the line winner. Agassi was playing well, however, and he held at 15 for 3-5, making Sampras bear the burden of a weak chip and charge off the backhand. Agassi drove a two-handed backhand pass with ease for a winner.

And so Sampras served for the set at 5-3. On his way to 40-15, he came up with an unstoppable service winner down the T, a terrific low forehand first volley down the line that Agassi could not answer, and a brilliant low backhand drop volley down the line off a low return. It was 40-15, double set point for Sampras. Yet he chose to stay back on a first serve again in the deuce court. He still managed to approach the net but Agassi nailed a backhand passing shot. At 40-30, Agassi’s low return was too much for Sampras, who hit a backhand half volley long. Agassi was back to deuce. He could smell the faint aroma of a possible service break.

But not for long. Sampras went down the T with another blockbuster first serve that Agassi could not return. Now at set point for the third time, Sampras made another solid first volley down the line, and Agassi drove a backhand passing shot long. With the set safely in hand, Sampras broke into a fist pump. At the start of the second set, Agassi held easily for 1-0 and stretched Sampras to deuce in the second game, but Sampras released four aces in that game. From deuce, he held on with a slice serve wide for an ace followed by a flat serve ace out wide in the Ad Court.

When Sampras broke a discordant Agassi in the third game to lead 2-1—taking that game when his opponent double faulted—it seemed likely that the favorite would glide to victory from there. But at 30-40 in the fourth game, Sampras played his first volley too cautiously. He had kicked his second serve to the backhand and opened up the court for the forehand volley. He did not stick it, nor did he angle it away. Agassi chased it down and rolled a forehand passing shot crosscourt winner. He had broken serve at last, and it gave him a surge of confidence. He put in four out of five first serves in the following game and held at 15. Sampras retaliated with a love service game of his own, connecting on all four first serves, sending out another ace down the T for 40-0, asserting his authority convincingly.

Agassi responded admirably to hold at 30 for 4-3, closing that game with a service winner down the T. Sampras knew that one false move from here on in could cost him the set. But he was unflustered and true to his belief in himself.  He held at 15 for 4-4, opening that game with a slice serve out wide for an ace. Agassi answered the bell, holding at 15.  At 40-15, he hit a flat first serve down the T that opened an avenue for a forehand winner down the line. Agassi was up 5-4 on serve, looking for a chance to seal the set.

That chance was unavailable. Sampras went down 0-15 in the tenth game as Agassi hurt him with a low backhand return. Now Agassi was three points away from a third set, but he came no closer. Sampras made an excellent backhand half volley pickup off a testing Agassi return, and Agassi drove a passing shot long. A deep and penetrating second serve that was unmanageable for Agassi made it 30-15. A first serve down the T that gave Agassi no play lifted Sampras to 40-15. An emphatic ace down the T gave Sampras the crucial hold at 15 for 5-5.

Sampras quickly set the tone in the next game, coming in behind his topspin backhand return on Agassi’s backhand, then punching a forehand volley winner into a wide open space. Agassi got back to 15-15 but Agassi’s ground game unraveled the rest of the game as Sampras picked away at him with an assortment of slices and topspin. Sampras got the break at 15 for 6-5, and then served for the match in the twelfth game. True to character, tearing pages out of his old playbook, Sampras closed it out at love. He commenced that game with an ace down the T, followed by a service winner to the backhand. A net cord winner off the backhand took Sampras to 40-0, and then he got in behind a heavy kicker to the backhand, pressuring Agassi into a return error. Sampras had won an entertaining and well played match 6-3, 7-5.  What made it even more appealing for the fans was following the reactions of both players during the changeovers as they looked at the footage of themselves on the jumbo screne from great matches they played against each other way back when.  

Considering the circumstances and situation—Madison Square Garden, near sellout crowd, facing Agassi—this may well have been the biggest win for Sampras in his post-retirement years of unofficial competition. The last thing he wanted was to lose to his old rival, against whom he had been 4-0 back in New York during their ATP World Tour days.  This was one of those occasions when Sampras wanted and almost needed to bring out some good stuff in a great and incomparable arena, and he had done just that. Sampras had bested Agassi in all of the important statistical categories, connecting with 63% of his first serves, winning 78% of those first serve points, taking 58% of his second serve points. Agassi’s first serve success rate was 61%, and he won 67% of those points, and only 48% of his second serve points.

A compelling evening had ended for four very accomplished men. The numbers spoke volumes about all four participants. Sampras won 14 majors during his storied career, Lendl and Agassi garnered 8 Grand Slam championships apiece, and McEnroe secured seven majors for a total of 37 Grand Slam tournament wins combined. The foursome won a combined total of 295 career ATP World Tour titles, with Lendl taking 94 titles, McEnroe 77, Sampras 64 and Agassi 60. They reached a total of 432 total finals, spent 827 weeks all told at No. 1 in the world, had 41 top ten seasons among them, and reigned as Year-End No. 1 ranked players  15 times in a span 19 years (from 1981-99). The combined career match record for the four superstars was 3578-933.

But last night at Madison Square Garden was about much more than numbers and prolific achievements. It was about four great tennis champions who shared an evening in the spotlight of New York, revisiting their pasts, reliving their past glories, reaping the rewards of who they are and what they remain. For John McEnroe, it was a shame that he could not attack with his customary gusto and show the fans his enduring greatness. Yet even on one leg he performed well. For Ivan Lendl, it was a rough night as he won only by accident. For Andre Agassi, it was largely a triumph just to be out there performing at a reasonably high level against his prodigious rival. And for Pete Sampras, it was a night to remind everyone that he is one of the most gifted athletes and most honorable sportsmen the game has yet known.

For all of us, it was a good evening to be at Madison Square Garden for the BNP Paribas Showdown.

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