Legends look back, ahead in PowerShares Series launch

by: Richard Pagliaro | July 18, 2012

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NEW YORK—Broadway celebrates revivals, and the famous thoroughfare served as an apt setting for Grand Slam champions to announce the launch of a reconfigured senior circuit in the United States.

Twenty years ago, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras formed the famed American "Dream Team" that captured the 1992 Davis Cup and inspired devotees—including a scrawny 10-year-old named Andy Roddick, who watched the final from the cheap seats—to hit the court. Three-fourths of that loaded squad—Agassi, Courier and McEnroe—reconvened at the NASDAQ building today to announce the seven-week PowerShares Series.

Formerly known as the Champions Series, the newly-named senior circuit launches its season on Oct. 13 in Surprise, AZ and will hit major markets including Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Agassi's hometown of Las Vegas before the 12-city tour concludes on Nov. 30 in Anaheim, CA. Grand Slam champions Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Michael Chang, Patrick Rafter and Mats Wilander will also compete for a prize pool of $1 million.

The format, which re-imagines the one-night stands of the Jack Kramer-led, barnstorming pro tours staged at rock concert-sized venues, is designed to maximize value for the audience—each stop showcases four players competing in two, one-set semifinals, followed by a one-set final. Fans can also pay to play clinics with the pros, enabling the former champions whose ages range from 39 (Rafter) to 59 (Connors) to meet the physical demands of nightly competition.

"It's a great evening of entertainment, but I also think the requirement, physically, is achievable for us at this stage of our lives," Agassi told TENNIS.com. "What's that country song: 'I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was.' That's kind of what we like to believe when we're out there: To have the luxury picking and choosing where we're gonna play allows us to recover. Getting ready to play is motivating for us because we have something we want to accomplish and it fits into the balance of our lives."

Agassi attained equilibrium in producing some of his best tennis after age 30, including a memorable run to the 2005 U.S. Open final, where he lost to Roger Federer. The man who mastered the career Grand Slam said he believes both Wimbledon champions Federer and Serena Williams will win more majors into their 30s.

"I think Federer has a lot more tennis in him," Agassi said. "He looked as comfortable as I've ever seen him on a tennis court in England. Maybe he needs one or two things to fall [his way] for him to knock down a few more at this stage of his career, but he certainly is as capable of it as anyone I've ever seen. And I think when Serena's in full flight it's hard to think of anyone who can match up to what she brings to the table."

The PowerShares Series features three of the Open era's most dynamic returners in Agassi, Connors, and Chang. Agassi, anointed by McEnroe as the game's best returner following his 1992 Wimbledon semifinal destruction of the New Yorker, said Novak Djokovic's elastic ability to both attack and defend off the return makes the second-ranked Serbian the best returner tennis has seen.

"When Lleyton Hewitt came along I remember thinking, 'How does Hewitt's return game compare?' Because Hewitt has so much lateral coverage and he puts so many balls back in play," Agassi said. "The same with Federer—he gets so many balls back in play. Well, if you can take the best of me, the best of Hewitt, and the best of Federer and then you stick it in one guy, that's Djokovic. Because the truth is Djokovic can stay right up on the baseline and hurt you with the return if he chooses to, or he can stand back and defend if he needs to.

"See, Hewitt really didn't have the ability to hurt you off the first serve. He could hurt you occasionally off the second serve. I had the ability to always hurt you, but I got aced a lot because I took educated chances. Djokovic has the ability to do both and his pocket is bigger than mine and the ball above his shoulder—he handles that better than I did."

The support McEnroe received from Agassi while coping with the pain of his first marriage falling apart remains a vital memory of the 1992 Dream Team.

"Andre sort of helped me through that time because that was right around the time when I got separated from my ex-wife [Tatum O'Neal]. I actually stayed at Andre's house the week before that tie," McEnroe told TENNIS.com. "I didn't think I was going to be able to get through it emotionally. It was difficult. Being with the guys on the team made me feel like there was light at the end of the tunnel."

Courier recalls a tightly-wound McEnroe nearly going off the rails before the first ball was even struck in the crucial doubles match that paired the veteran with Sampras against Switzerland's Jakob Hlasek and Marc Rosset, who won the French Open doubles title months earlier.

"John got a warning in the coin toss before the doubles match he was so amped up. It was like nothing you'd ever seen, he was out of his mind excited in anticipation," Courier told TENNIS.com. "There was this incredible moment in the locker room. At that time in Davis Cup after the third set you'd take a 10-minute break. So we all go into the locker room as a team and Pete, as you know, is a little bit shyer than John, and John is just right in Pete's face screaming at him, nose-to-nose, firing him up. I wish we had video of that."

Repeatedly raging "Let's kick some ass!" a manic McEnroe and Sampras rallied from a two-set deficit to prevail in five sets, setting the stage for Courier's Cup clinching singles win the next day.

Sporting a red, white and blue New York Rangers t-shirt, McEnroe, who saw Led Zeppelin play Madison Square Garden as a kid and remains a New York Knicks season ticket-holder, already sounds fired-up for his November return to MSG along with fellow former No. 1's Agassi, Sampras, and Rafter.
"I think it's significant for our sport to have a presence in New York beyond the U.S. Open," McEnroe said. "I've always wanted a major that was indoors; it was always my idea to have it some place like the Garden ... Obviously, I go tournament-by tournament now—who knows what's gonna happen at my age?—but it will be awesome to be back at the Garden and it will be unbelievable exposure for tennis."

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