NEW YORK—With the exception of the Paris Masters, which gave us a maiden Masters champion (David Ferrer) and ATP finalist (Jerzy Janowicz), it’s been an extremely predictable 2012 season in men’s tennis. Every tournament of significance has been won by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, or Andy Murray, and that’s likely to hold true next Tuesday, after the World Tour Finals conclude in London. Singular players have dominated recent seasons, but this year seems as top-heavy as ever, perhaps because the ruling class has distributed the tour’s wealth so equitably.
Whether that is a good thing is a debate for another time, but I can say one thing about it for sure: Monday night’s PowerShares Series event at Madison Square Garden was a pleasant diversion from the norm. It featured a Big Four of its own—Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Patrick Rafter, and John McEnroe—and each man, like their younger counterparts this season, showed some the substance that took them to the spotlight. Rafter’s net coverage, Sampras’ forehand, McEnroe’s doggedness, and Agassi’s baseline play were on display for a crowd that largely filled the lower bowl of MSG.
On the surface—a dull gray hard court that looked like clay, and played quite slow—a Sampras vs. Agassi final seemed in the offing. Andre can still hit the cover off the ball, as I witnessed courtside and Steve Tignor found out firsthand (stay tuned for video of that), while Pistol Pete’s serve is timeless and battle-tested at the Garden—he was more than respectable against Federer here in 2008. I considered them the favorites, despite Rafter winning the previous PowerShares Series event in Philadelphia and McEnroe, the 53-year-old New York-native, getting the loudest pop during his introduction.
The adulation appeared to inspire McEnroe, not that the ultra-intense veteran needed another reason to play his best. A year ago at MSG, he was forced to pull out of a match with Ivan Lendl (the same night Sampras and Agassi squared off in the main event), and you could tell it was a real disappointment for Johnny Mac. All that determination—along with some surprisingly swift court coverage—combined with an error-filled performance from Agassi earned McEnroe a 4-0 lead, and soon the set/match, 6-4. (When McEnroe failed to serve it out at 5-3, he looked positively disgusted.) He was joined in the final by Rafter, who took advantage of Sampras’ calf strain in a 6-3 win that wasn’t even that close. And so the title bout featured an Australian, a left-handed American, and two guys who serve-and-volley—I told you it was a diversion.
Rafter, who watched most of the McEnroe-Agassi match from the baseline seats with fans, prevailed 8-3 to win his second consecutive tournament, and drew plenty of cheers from the American crowd (a good tan can do that). But McEnroe and his unwavering connection to tennis might be the takeaway from the evening. During a player party before the matches, McEnroe was on stage and spoke about the current Big Four—I thought I was watching TV, as his ubiquitous commentary invariably touches upon the ATP’s top tier (and the fact that technology has changed the game). On the court, you know what you’re going to get from Mac—a “can-opener serve,” according to Pete Bodo, and a volley into the open court—but players are still helpless to stop it. And what would a McEnroe match be without an argument with a linesperson, a thrown racquet, and a “You cannot be serious!” shout from a patron?
For today’s pros and legends, the more things change, the more they stay the same.