Pete Sampras the Big Winner on Tennis Hate Night in America

I was just glad that neither Pete Sampras nor Andre Agassi cracked a serve at the other guy’s head. That’s what happened when they faced each other last year at Indian Wells. They took a charity event to help thousands of suffering people in Haiti and used it to bicker over their petty little feud.

They both could have used a spanking that night.

So my expectations were a little low for Monday night, when they played each other at Madison Square Garden. Instead, both behaved well, both came off well. But particularly, Sampras did. He won the match. He won the night.

“We played pretty well,’’ he said, “for some old guys.’’

Wait a minute. Did Sampras say something colorful? He was relaxed and comfortable all night in beating Agassi 6-3, 7-5. He was in shape and playing well. But also, he was interacting with the crowd. Who knew he had a personality?

He might have even asked David Duchovny in the stands where to serve.

Tennis has gotten used to the friendly, polite rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It does seem grown up, but admit it: Something is missing.

The tension and hard feelings made the night Monday. Usually, you watch these exhibitions and see one player carrying the other one, even throwing a set to keep it close.

Not Monday night. These guys were trying to clobber each other. It was real tennis, as well as these guys can play now. And that was true not just in the Agassi-Sampras match, but also in the John McEnroe-Ivan Lendl pro-set before it.

It was Tennis Hate Night in America.

McEnroe was trying to skunk Lendl 8-0, and he would have if he hadn’t rolled his ankle in warmups. Instead, McEnroe led 6-3 and had to quit.

If I said that Lendl moves like an old man now, that would be insulting to old men. Lendl developed a big gut since stopping tennis to play golf, and becomes example number 1,250,012 that golf is not a sport.

Anyway, how funny that Lendl was a part owner of the event, and the posters showed Lendl in his 20s and McEnroe in his 40s. Lendl said that was because McEnroe gets better looking as he gets older. Sure, sure.

But the night was Sampras’. He usually comes across as a guy who just doesn’t know what to do with himself. And when he does do something, other than play tennis, it is awkward.

Meanwhile, Agassi is all show, and a great show. That’s how he has trumped Sampras, and all his major titles, all these years. And whatever you think of Agassi, he has put time and energy into the Agassi school in Vegas, helping disadvantaged kids. What is Sampras doing?

He doesn’t come off as one of those sad cases of a retired superstar athlete who is miserable because no one is cheering anymore. Sampras just looks like a guy content to hang out for the final 40, 50 years of his life.

On Monday, he walked around the back of the court talking to people in the front few rows. At one point, he turned and told Agassi that those people thought he should serve up the middle. So he did.

On a fairly important point, Sampras corrected a call that had gone his way, giving Agassi the point. And when it was over, he referred to Agassi over the p.a. as “a friend and rival.’’

Friends? But they don’t have to be, either. Just grown ups.

Their display at Indian Wells last year was the most uncomfortable moment on a tennis court that I’ve ever been to. Even worse than Serena Williams’ f-bombs and threats at the U.S. Open line judge.

In March, it was Agassi and Nadal against Sampras and Federer. Tennis was showing it had a heart, helping earthquake victims during a tournament.

The players wore microphones as they played and Sampras, Federer and Nadal weren’t saying anything. Agassi figured it was on him to entertain, and he was right. He started in on a running commentary of one-liners.

Sampras, still angry that Agassi had called him a bad-tipper in his book, took it personally. He got defensive, and made a joke about Agassi’s walk/waddle. Agassi then got upset and rubbed right on the sort spot, impersonating Sampras by pulling out his pockets to show show he doesn’t have cash to leave a tip.

So Sampras served one at Agassi’s head, but not until after he said this: “There we go. I’m a bad tipper. I’m sorry Barack Obama.’’

Huh? What did that even mean?

See? Sampras’ statements are just so awkward, and they don’t get any better in controlled interviews.

Meanwhile, Agassi talks like a poet. Before Monday’s match, someone asked him about why he and Sampras don’t get along.

“Our relationship is strictly plutonic, I assure you. . .’’ he joked. “(A)s much as I’ve been around him and as much as we’ve spent weekends together – specifically on Sundays with a blimp in the sky – I really never knew him.

“We were just two different people, played the game two different ways and certainly went about our business in two different styles. I think that was a distance that was never really bridged between us.’’

On Monday, though, Sampras was the fluid one for once, a transformation like in the King’s Speech.

It’s not that Agassi did anything wrong Monday night, but Sampras was so good that he didn’t give Agassi enough space to mess around.

All in all, Tennis Hate Night in America was a beautiful thing (not counting Lendl’s footwork).

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

3 responses to “Pete Sampras the Big Winner on Tennis Hate Night in America

  • Kyle Hoegh

    Nice article. I like a little hatred in a rivalry. Certainly it is different from player to player, but I wonder if hatred for the opponent raises, lowers, or has no significant effect on performance on average. For instance I wonder if the fact that Agassi and Sampras genuinely didn’t like each other had a significant effect on how well they played against each other. Conversely, I wonder if the fact that Nadal-Federer seem to like each other has a significant effect on how well they play against each other. On the other hand, maybe Federer and Nadal really don’t like each other and are just better at hiding it?

  • natasha

    Another nice article that articulates very well what I thought of Monday’s Tennis Showdown too. In a word: Zzz!

    Sampras is not only an awkward soul but he’s also petty. He wouldn’t even allow Agassi to win one set just to keep the match interesting for the crowd.

    Sampras may have all the titles but Agassi still has the fans’ hearts. Sorry, Pete.

    As for Lendl, why did he even bother to agree to do this thing? Does he really need the money?

  • arthurlevine

    A year or two ago, Lendl looked a whole lot worse than that. He has dropped the gut down a notch or two.

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