Power Surge: Blake, Roddick join Agassi, Courier, and legends in PowerShares Series

Friday, October 25, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Years before their rivalry that simmered on the back courts of the Bollettieri Academy burned to a full boil in the 1991 French Open final, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier shared an inspiration in ice.

As Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were busy battling for Grand Slam supremacy, the prodigies were avidly rooting for the man known as Ice Borg.

"My tennis hero was really Bjorn Borg, the guy that first sort of got me excited about the sport," Courier said. "I wasn't allowed to cheer for McEnroe or Connors because of their behavior. I probably would have cheered for them, but my parents instructed me firmly that Bjorn needed to be my idol and my hero."

While parental guidance played a part in Courier's rooting interest; Agassi's affinity was rooted in Borg's placid disposition and booming ground game.

"I always rooted very hard for Bjorn as well," Agassi said. "He was easy to like, easy to root for. I tried to imitate a little bit of everybody's game. I did that with Bjorn. I did that with John. I did that with Jimmy...I didn't like Mac and Connors because of certain behavioral things. As I got older, I learned to like Mac."

Arch-rivals Connors and McEnroe reunite along with Borg devotees Agassi and Courier in the 2014 PowerShares Series, which receives a power boost courtesy of "senior" circuit rookies—and former U.S. Davis Cup teammates—Andy Roddick and James Blake.

The PowerShares Series launches its 2014 season on February 5 in Kansas City and will hit cities including Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, and Portland before concluding on March 21 in Surprise, Arizona. Hall of Famers Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, Michael Chang, and Mats Wilander, along with veterans Todd Martin and Mark Philippoussis, are also scheduled to compete.

Tennis is touted as a sport for a lifetime, and the inter-generational competition shapes up as one for the ages, with players ranging from 31 years old (Roddick) to 61 (Connors). If the prospect of the combative Connors facing his former charge evokes thoughts of Stan Smith challenging Stan Wawrinka, Courier, whose InsideOut Sports & Entertainment company produces the tour, says the four-man field in each of the 12 tour stops will feature age-appropriate matches.

"We're not going to certainly put Andy Roddick against his former coach, Jimmy Connors, because that certainly isn't going to be that competitive," Courier told the media in a conference call to promote the tour. "Not that Jimmy isn't a great player and champion, but obviously the age is significant when you put James or Andy, who are fairly fresh off the tour, into that environment. You'll see a very competitive night of tennis no matter where you are on our tour."

The format re-imagines the one-night stands of the Jack Kramer-led, barnstorming pro tours, as each event will feature two one-set semifinal matches, followed by a one-set championship match. Fans can also pay to play in clinics with the pros. (Having been aced by Patrick Rafter on the first serve he struck and blitzed by a searing Sampras forehand pass during a pro-am tiebreaker at Madison Square Garden earlier this year, I can report it was both an exhilarating and extremely humbling experience). Tickets start at $25 and all ticket and VIP information is available at PowerSharesSeries.com.

The PowerShares Series revives rivalries: Agassi and Blake collaborated on a classic 2005 U.S. Open quarterfinal, with the elder American scoring an electrifying, 7-6 (6) in-the-fifth victory that ended after 1 a.m. But the pair actually hooked up days before that encounter, as Agassi provided Blake with a scouting report on then-teenage Rafael Nadal, who defeated Agassi in Montreal weeks before the Open began. Putting Agassi's advice to good use, Blake beat Nadal in the 2005 Flushing Meadows major, has practiced with him in the years since, and said the Spaniard's game has evolved massively since their first meeting.

"My first impression of [Nadal] then was he was a clay-courter playing on hard courts. He was playing with a lot of topspin, hitting the ball heavy, but not attacking the ball, not moving forward at all," Blake recalls. "He sort of counted on his defense and his movement to win a lot of matches. He did it exceptionally well, obviously.

"I also remember specifically, I had never even hit with him before I played him, the first couple balls in warm-up, he hit the ball so heavy, I actually thought I was in trouble from the start. Once the match started, he was hitting the ball shorter and playing with a lot of margin and not being as aggressive. As I've seen him now and practiced with him much more recently, that guy is gone. He's so much more effective with being aggressive, with taking his game and imposing it on me, like I said, being more effective with his serve. He's still one of the best movers, moves so well side to side."

Nadal continues to move up the list of all-time Grand Slam champions, prompting swirling speculation in the mythical GOAT game. While Agassi asserts it's impossible to accurately compare generations due to advancements in string and racquet technology, the resulting spin that has changed the dimensions of the game, and the homogenization of surfaces, he firmly believes Nadal and Federer stand alone among iconic champions, and suggests that Rafa already has a strong case for GOAT status.

"I think these two guys are in a class of their own," Agassi said of Federer and Nadal. "I do think without Rafa winning one more major, you could make the argument that he's the best of all time. He does have a winning record over Fed, although a lot of those wins come on clay. He has beaten Federer on other occasions on other surfaces as well. You can also make the argument this guy doesn't have a losing record against anybody in the Top 30 in the world, and once [Nikolay] Davydenko is gone, you can probably move that number to the Top 80 in the world. It's an amazing time in men's tennis to be looking at two guys in the same generation that have a legitimate claim to that [GOAT] title."

Courier contends that any assessment of the GOAT can only come after current contenders have concluded their careers.

"I'm not sure you can convincingly say that one guy is the greatest right now. I certainly wouldn't want to omit somebody like Rod Laver who did so much and missed so many opportunities because he turned professional," Courier said. "I just hope that in 10 years' time we're able to look back and see what Rafa and Novak and the current guys did in the rearview, put it in proper perspective. Lastly, with Federer, I would not be surprised whatsoever if he were to win another major. I think anybody that counts him out right now does it at their own peril."

The analytical Agassi, who like Nadal won every Grand Slam title and the Olympic gold medal in singles, believes this is the game's golden age.

"Djokovic is one win away from entering not necessarily this all-time conversation, but certainly accomplishing a win at every Slam," Agassi said. "So now you got three guys potentially in one generation who have done something that only five guys have done over five decades. I think it's a golden age in our sport for sure. I think we're better off for it. I hope everybody appreciates what it is we're watching."

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