Pete Sampras and Todd Martin crashed Super Bowl week early with an exhibition match in downtown Indianapolis. The Match for a Cure event, held while country star Dierks Bentley and pyrotechnics raged outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse as Super Bowl festivities kicked off, became the first tennis match every played in the Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers NBA franchise.
Sampras defeated Martin, 7-5, 6-4, before 3,200 fans. A few hours earlier, he held a press conference with local and national media in which he spoke, just five hours after its finish, about the Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. (Djokovic beat Nadal after nearly six hours of scintillating tennis.)
Perhaps Sampras' best quote was his shortest. Asked if the Big Four's reign in pro tennis was good for the sport, Pistol Pete pulled the trigger: "Not in America."
Here are Sampras's roving thoughts on the top stars, America's hopes, his current racquet, and more:
+ About Djokovic: "His progress has been slow, but he's figured it out. Mentally, to be able to come back and win that fifth set [of the 2012 Australian Open final], incredible."
+ On Djokovic's 2012 aspirations after a banner 2011: "He very well could do it again. These guys played 10 hours over the weekend. They do it the right way."
+ About Mardy Fish: "Mardy got himself in shape, got more serious, more professional. We play a lot of golf in LA. He seems a bit content at times. He can do some good things."
+ Pertaining to Andy Roddick: "Roddick certainly had his moment. We need an American presence at the top."
+ About Todd Martin: "He's a class guy. He did it the right way. Reached the semifinals of Wimbledon, and more. He came close to winning that one major, or twice."
Asked about his own serving prowess, Sampras ... got funny! "People still want to see me serve 130 mph. I don't do that anymore." But with the technology of his new axe, he said, he actually can get his serve "into the 130s." So I pressed him on what his present racquet of choice is, and he said this: "A black one. That's all I can say—it's secret sauce." True enough: Sampras' stick against Martin was painted black with no logos visible.
Sampras hit some punishing serves and blistering forehands against Martin on this night. Martin carried himself quite well, though; I was impressed with his own play. At times they were two hucksters yukking it up, but the tennis spoke for itself. Pete Sampras has still got it. And that was always his way, in any case—speak softly and wield a big stick.
The funniest part of this exo? On one changeover, the PA system pumped "Sweet Caroline" into the arena, and as they trotted back out to resume play, Martin said, "C'mon, Pete, say it—'Sweet Caroline...'" Sampras' rejoinder, with a patented shrug: "It's your generation." (The salt-and-pepper-domed Martin is, at 41, all of a year older than his friendly foe.)
"Hopefully next weekend is almost as much fun for you as tonight," Martin said in addressing the crowd once the match was over. "Go Giants."
He got his wish.
+ + +
The Match for a Cure tour was conceived by former pro Bill Przybysz, who took on Martin ahead of the main event. Przybysz was diagnosed with a form of leukemia in 1996. He went through a bone marrow transplant, knowing that he might never play tennis again, and was remarkably agile. His first "Miracle Match" pitted him against John McEnroe in 1999. In speaking post-match to the crowd, Martin noted that his own father succumbed to leukemia. In truth, he got choked up about it, and Sampras took over the mic from there.
The rest of the Match for a Cure tour dates here:
+ Amelia Island, Fla.
+ Little Rock
It is beyond inspiring to see tennis players'—or any human's—resilience, both on and off the court. Well done to these three.
—Jonathan Scott (Follow me on Twitter @jonscott9)