The Good Sports: Crisis Center
Howdy, everyone. Just got back a short while ago from the pre-exhibition press conference, featuring Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. The presser was held at the Essex House hotel on New York's Central Park South, not from from the Parker-Meridian hotel where Pete Sampras so often stayed during the U.S. Open, back in his heyday. What nostalgic feelings I had about that were dwarfed in comparison to the way I feel about tennis being back in the storied venue, Madison Square Garden.
For the record, I don't buy into all this Greatest sports venue on earth! hype; you'll find one thing in common among all those who parrot that line - they're New Yorkers. For them, it's inconceivable that something/anything (bagels? theater? mob influence?) can be greater than in its Manhattan incarnation, which is, ironically, an extremely provincial and silly conceit. I like the Garden fine, but it's a big and fairly generic indoor sports venue done up in a woefully bland color scheme that I'd call "corporate", insofar as the word denotes ease of maintenance and an eagerness to please everyone rather than concern for character or aesthetics.
Nevertheless - the Garden is the Garden, as fine a venue in this era of Big Commercial Sport as anywhere. And let's face it, hype and perception are as important as reality in these discussions, so tonight's exo is indeed a major coup for the game. The bottom line is that the last event held at MSG the 1996 "Nike Cup." In that one, a collection of all-stars (and Nike clients, including Jim Courier, Sampras and Andre Agassi) played a mini-tournament using just tiebreakers and some sort of simplified scoring that made World Team Tennis seem like Davis Cup (best-of-five, no fifth-set tiebreaker).
Tonight, though, will be different. This is one hot ticket, and thats because we have a rare and intriguing match-up that will give us about as good a sense of how two titans of (barely) overlapping generations might have stacked up against each other if they were contemporaries. Forget that this is an exhibition. Just think how rarely players of comparable skills and achievements have been able to flex their muscles and egos and go head-to-head in a such a potentially telling way. And that's for one simple reason: Sampras is just 36, among the things that he can do as well (or almost as well) as ever is serve, which also happens to be the thing he always did best - it was the stroke upon which he built his reputation.
Federer is a decade and four days younger (he was born on Aug. 8th, Sampras on the 12th). True, that's an entire generation in tennis terms, but the bottom line is the difference between 26 and 36 is a lot smaller than between 16 and 26, or 36 and 46. We're just lucky, if Sampras is not, that the first player to challenge his claim as the greatest-ever came along so quickly.
So this really is a unique moment in history, and I sensed that at the press conference. One thing that amazed me was the degree of credibility everyone present seemed to accord this event. Nobody expressed the kind of skepticism or outright cynicism that such extraveganzas often incite, or hammered away at the So how real is it? theme. It was as if it doesn't matter: what you have here was two great champions who clearly feel the utmost respect - and a good deal of personal warmth - toward each other. And they've agreed to go out and let a few rip.
I have the utmost respect for Roger Federer and the way he has gone about doing this. I can name a dozen top guys who either would never have agreed to play a match of this kind (so you tell me what the up-side is for The Mighty Fed) - perhaps including Roger's opponent tonight. For at one point in the presser, Sampras very honestly expressed his feelings about the issue: "I have to give Roger a lot of credit. He doesn't have to do these exhibitions. Back in my day, if Mac (John McEnroe) had asked me to do something like this (at a comparable stage in our careers) I'm not sure I would have done it."
Make no mistake about it, one of the main reasons - perhaps the main reason - this event is happening is because TMF is not just an open-minded and secure champion, he's also a good sport. Somehow, a lot gets lost in translation when that phrase is used. "Good sport" may be a description that has less gravity and fewer implications that "open-minded" or "secure", but in some ways it's a more critical and rare quality in an individual like Federer.
TMF lives daily with pressing demands and expectations (just look at the reaction to the bumps he's hit lately on his champion's trail), yet he's willing to expose himself just because. . . it would be fun. Interesting. Memorable for him, as well as presumably, everyone else. Think of great tennis players and ask yourself: what have they done outside the playing field that, first and foremost, shows them to be good sports? Not worthy champions, not responsible individuals, not even kind or decent or responsive people, but something that is in some ways smaller, but also sweeter and often less subject to praise or payback - good sports.
My main interest in this match is how the men will react emotionally when they play on such a great stage, before a packed house, if the match happens to be close. At what point does A friendly little hit with my pal, Pete Sampras, or A chance to roll out my big second serve, one last time, against Roger become: All right, dude, I'm stepping on the gas - outta my way!
Would it be unseemly for either or both men to get caught up in the moment and go flat out to win in a way that isn't usually a part of the exhibition gestalt? I asked them about this. This is what Roger said:
"Seoul (the first of the three exhibitions the men played in Asia last fall) was different. Pete didn't want to be embarrassed and he didn't know where his game was. For me it was easy, I could afford to lose a little more easily than now. Actually, I'm a little more nervous this time around, what with being in this arena, in this city. But sure, it's fine to get carried away in an exo, and if the match goes that way I'm sure we might go a little crazy, try some of those crazy shots you can do in an exhibition. . . My worry is that Pete will get a chance to hit those jump overheads."
At that point, Sampras interrupted, "That would be nice. Let me hit at least one of those, okay?"
But Sampras quickly turned serious and admitted that he does feel nervous. He described that the surface in Macao, where Sampras beat Federer, was "like ice. . . almost unfit for tennis" - which was code for It was tailor-made for what I do best, serve!. . .
The surface tonight will be significantly slower, giving both men the chance to use off of their tools and weapons. Sampras was prudent and not exactly filled with hubris as he discussed his game:
"I can still serve pretty well, I serve and volley okay, but I don't move as well as I once did and I'm not as sharp because I only play sporadically. So my consistency and confidence are not quite right. Now, I toss the ball up and I'm not sure what will happen. I know what I want to happen, I know what I hope will happen, but I'm not sure what will happen. What I hope for, mostly, is that I can hold a few times, kind of get into the match. If I can do that, I'll be okay. . ."
Later Sampras would turn to Federer, and joke: "I just want to ask you, Roger, if I can just hold two times. . ."
In Sampras's eyes, Federer's has the best mind in tennis, and his greatest weapon is his forehand. He he also likes TMF's serve and his versatility, but above all else it's the way Federer moves that separates him from the pack. "Roger is the best mover in the game, and I saw that the first (and only) time we played (in their only meeting, Federer beat Sampras in a great five-setter in 2001)."
For his part, Federer paid tribute to the quality of Sampras's second serve, saying, "Pete changed the game with the way he would go for his huge second serve, instead of just kicking the ball into play. Many of the guys today go for their second serve in a similar way, and they just didn't used to do that."
Of course, given Federer's recent history (he revealed last Saturday that he was suffering from mononucleosis, and lost before the final in the only two tournaments he's played, The Australian Open and Dubai), it isn't as if consistency and confidence are at career high levels for him, either. But he says he's much better now - that biggest hit he took from mono was in the days before the Australian Open. "What's missing now is the matches," he said. "Otherwise, I feel fit and fine."
Sampras, of course, has heard those The King is Dead rumors along with everyone else. So it was hardly surprising when he came to his pal Roger's aid. "Roger is the guy with the bullseye on his chest now, he's the guy who's the target. When push comes to shove, if I were a betting man - and I don't be on tennis, honest! - I'd say that in the big, big events, this will be the last man standing, this is the guy who will be holding the trophy."
He turned and looked at TMF and added, "They (the media) need a story, Roger, and this is their story."