I have always been a fan of these two. When Sampras was dominating mens tennis in the late nineties, I used to admire his serve and volley game and his low key demeanor on and off the court. I couldn’t understand those who criticized him as boring. When he bowed out in 2002 after a fairy tale ending to his career at the U.S. Open , I was happy to see him succeeded by Roger Federer. As Federer was to prove in the years to follow, his game was like that of Sampras, only better. The same serve and volley game but with superior court coverage and all round skills. Other reasons I liked them both was that that neither of them grunted with each shot or had a two handed backhand a’ la Jimmy Connors.
Yesterday, Federer and Sampras played a pulsating three set exhibition which Federer won in a third set tie breaker after being down 2-5 in the third set. Apparently, it was a wonderful match , thoroughly enjoyed by the sell out crowd at Madison Square Garden, almost 20,000 strong, who had paid upto $ 125 for the privilege.
I am puzzled , however, by the closeness of the match. Granted , Sampras was and is a fierce competitor but, at 36, he is ten years older than Federer and it’s been five years since he retired from competitive tennis. Federer, at 26, is considered by many as the all time best in mens tennis and , inspite of a recent bout of mono nucleosis, is still in his prime. How could he be pushed to the limit by an aging Sampras whose best years are well behind him ? It doesn’t seem possible.
Others seem to have had the same thought. David Waldstein , writing in the Newark Star Ledger opines that “ No one will ever know how hard Roger Federer was trying or how much his desire for a competitive match might have out weighed his hunger for victory…” Filip Bondy, writing in the N.Y. Daily News , muses that , “Because this was a flighty exhibition, it was a bit difficult to sort out exactly what had just happened for more than two hours. Did Federer really try hard in the second set, when it appeared he might put away Sampras too quickly for the satisfaction of a $125 per seat crowd? The No. 1 player in the world suddenly was not playing up to a Top 50 ranking. Did Sampras actually dominate the middle of the third set so easily with his pressing game, or was Federer’s mind elsewhere? “
Bondy continues “These are things we will never know, and probably shouldn’t worry about too much.” And perhaps that is the best way to think about the exhibition. Two great champions on the court together , the older one reaching back into the past to provide some vintage moments before succumbing to his younger, fitter successor.
Not being a subscriber to the Tennis Channel or to MSG Plus, I waas unable to watch the match. All that I know about it is what I read in the newspapers. If any of you reading this did watch the match, I’d like to know your opinion of it.