Glitz, Mystery, and Two Nice Guys

by: Steve Tignor | March 11, 2008

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FedpeteSo, well, what was that all about?

Nostalgia, private air travel, Puerto Rican rum, fabled New York hair—Donald Trump’s and Anna Wintour’s, of course. Significant diamond rings, upturned collars, high heels, white wine, money trying hard to turn into excitement. Tennis immortality, severely bending second serves, the supremacy of youth, mutual respect, two nice guys who were never meant to be performers, a lot of guaranteed cash, a lot of service winners, a very good third set, the eternal need for Star Wars. A touchingly disappointed loser.

Above all, for myself and other connoisseurs of the Greatest of All Time debate, this was about the mystery of the exhibition. Just what do these matches mean; how real is the tennis; what, if anything can we take away from them? They’re infinitely more head-scratching than any tournament match, where you know exactly what the goal of every shot is. Sitting in the low-lying press section at the far end of a dark and quietly crowded Madison Square Garden, my reaction after watching the first three games Monday night was that Pete Sampras' win over Roger Federer in their last exo was clearly a gift. Federer looked far superior to Sampras at the Garden, much quicker and sharper. None of that should be surprising, but it was more obvious than it had been to me on TV. In the first game, Federer stepped around to casually hit a passing shot that landed 5 feet inside either baseline. Sampras was nowhere near it.

Part of this was Sampras’ obvious rust and nerves. He was pulling up on his returns and stoning a lot of makeable volleys. It was service winner or bust for him early; his slice approaches hung up, his topspin backhand was totally disjointed. I got the sense that Federer, who was taking about four seconds between serves, was working hard to keep his opponent in it.

Sampras loosened up a bit in the second, made a few returns, hit a few penetrating forehands, and spun in that famous slice serve on the line into the deuce court when he needed it. Still, I was more impressed with Federer’s ability to keep it close without being obvious about it. Sampras served at 4-5, 30-30 and came to net, where he gave Federer a clean look at a backhand pass up the line. Instead, Federer went for an impossible soft slice angle crosscourt. It floated, hung in the air, and caught the top of the tape—a masterpiece of the exhibition miss. To make it would have given Federer match point about an hour after the whole thing had begun. That was clearly too early, so he missed it creatively.

Then something funny happened. Federer lost control in the third set. Down 0-2, Sampras finally found a semblance of a groove. He had both serves working, his approaches were landing deeper, and he had figured out the footwork needed to volley again. Now, when Federer hit a testy low return, he was doing what it took to get in position for it (the last things to come back are always the quick reaction shots around the net). A couple forehand misses later and Federer had been broken, and then broken again. Serving at 4-2 and game point, Sampras carved a nice backhand volley short and wide; Federer scrambled to pick it up, but Sampras was waiting for the easy volley into the open court. When he walked to the sidelines, the old swagger was back.

It couldn’t last forever. Down 3-5, Federer made enough returns to sneak through a deuce game, and the race was on for the tiebreaker, which seemed destined to go to extra innings, as these things so often do (in the battle of the surfaces last year, Federer lost to Nadal 12-10 in a third-set tiebreaker). Two things about the breaker: (1) Like the rest of the match, it was all about the serve (seven of 14 points were won on aces or service winners); (2) on the last point, Sampras had time to run around and hit a forehand, but he chose the backhand and sent it wide.

Back to Sampras’ five-game run in the third: How “real” was it? I’ll turn to two of Federer’s comments from the presser afterward. When Pete Bodo asked him how hard it was to play a guy like Sampras, who doesn’t give you time to rally, Federer said that it was tough to get a rhythm (“riddim”) against him, which means that when Sampras starts to put together a few shots, it’s even harder to raise your game and find that rhythm on the spot. But when Richard Dietsch of Sports Illustrated asked Federer to assess the quality of play, he said that he and Sampras had, more than anything, “wanted to play a good match.”

I would say both of these comments were truthful and telling: They had worked together to put on a show more than a match, which meant something more entertaining than 6-4, 6-3 (or 6-2, 6-0), but that Federer had had to work for real to dig himself out of a 2-5 hole he didn’t anticipate. I was impressed by both guys: Sampras for finding some semblance of his old mojo within 2 hours, and Federer for his mastery of the tricky, ambiguous game of “exo-ball.” It’s an art unto itself, and a mystery that I’m frankly tired of trying to analyze. Bring back real tennis!

Before we leave the world of spectacle, though, one more word about these players. Neither are natural hams, but at the same time neither bothered to hide their feelings last night. Both admitted multiple times to being nervous. Federer smiled easily, even as he was throwing up a service toss at a critical stage in the third set. When it was finally over, Sampras stood to be interviewed with deflation and disappointment etched on his face. He had gotten a taste of the old excitement, and he thought for a second he was going to win. The look in his eyes when he didn’t was the realest thing I saw all night.

The press conference afterward was a zoo. Hundreds of booze-swlling NetJets clients formed a massive, buzzing, semicircle around the players and reporters. Four tennis legends—Lendl, Emerson, Trabert, Smith—were trotted out, pointlessly, to begin. When they left, Pete and Roger appeared, each looking surprisingly young and casual, like two college kids in jeans and sneakers (Sampras looks younger off-court for some reason). They walked across the stage, past the four chairs. I expected them to take the first and third seats, with at least one in between (these are jocks, after all; they save the close contact for the court). But they both went down to the end and sat right next to each other. The two best players in history looked like brothers there, hunched forward and smiling modestly in front of all these drunken non-fans of their sport.

This was the secret to tennis immortality, apparently. Underneath the night’s spectacle and show, the sport’s very best players remain normal guys—gentlemen, as they used to say in the game's amatuer days. That’s probably not going to get tennis back to the Garden anytime soon, but it's a fact worth celebrating nonetheless.

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