World Tennis Day – London
By Chris Power
(March 3, 2014) LONDON – Monday March 3rd brought us the Second Annual World Tennis Day, with marquee events in Hong Kong, London and New York. Designed to showcase and promote the sport of tennis from the grassroots to the very top of the professional game, this year, off the back of a successful inaugural event, The World Tennis Day got bigger still.
Whether by accident or design, this year’s the star-filled showdowns evoked the theme different eras. The Hong Kong gathering suggested the future, based as it is in a region where tennis is growing rapidly in popularity. Li Na from China headlined, a current Grand Slam champion who is leading the explosion in interest, but it seems inevitable that she will merely be the first in a line of legends from the region of Asia. She was joined by other stars of the Asia-Pacific region, Australia’s Sam Stosur and Lleyton Hewitt, as well as Tomas Berdych.
Meanwhile, the showdown in New York City showcased tennis in the present, with Novak Djokovic and Wimbledon Champion Andy Murray squaring off in Madison Square Garden, as well as the current doubles world number one team, the Bryan brothers, who faced off against the McEnroe brothers in a sibling setpiece.
London therefore reminded us of tennis’s past, with rivalries of the 80s and 90s brought back to life in the present day by four unique and iconic players – Pat Cash, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Cash and Lendl competed on numerous occasions throughout the 1980s, but perhaps most memorable was the 1987 Wimbledon final, won by Cash in 3 straight sets. However their overall H2H in their playing days was 5-3 in favour of Lendl, indicating the Czech usually found a way to neutralize the attacking style of Cash, at least away from the grass.
Perhaps more compelling still was the matchup between two Americans with diametrically opposing game styles and personalities, in the shape of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. These hall of famers *were* 90s tennis, though their mutual respect never risked developing into friendship, and their post-retirement relationship has been famously prickly, culminating in uncomfortable scenes at a charity tennis exhibition at Indian Wells a few years back. They competed in 34 pro matches against each other, with Sampras edging it 20-14, but dominating 4-1 in their Grand Slam finals. They tended to divide the fan base – the charismatic, extroverted yet more erratic Agassi tended to win over the crowds, but the disciplined, quiet winning machine that was Pete Sampras won over the purists with his classic serve-volley style, poker-faced demeanor and insatiable appetite for success.
In their pre-event news conference, the players were relaxed and joking, offering thoughts on playing pro tennis then vs now.
Sampras, on playing Agassi: “If I wasn’t on my game, if I wasn’t serving well, I felt like it was going to be a long day for me.”
Agassi: “He was the only guy I ever played where I felt like if I actually played my best tennis I actually still could lose.”
Pat Cash lamented the general slowing down of playing conditions in this era, feeling that hitting good groundstrokes and particularly good volleys, is just not rewarded anymore. Lendl felt that the strings as much as court speed were responsible for this change – the amount of spin a player is able to impart on a pass or return makes volleying such a dangerous proposition. Asked if he had any interest in joining the band of ‘celebrity coaches’, Agassi expounded on his current life being a barrier to the level of commitment required, but didn’t rule it out in the future – though his target would be a player not reaching full potential rather than a top player who already has all the tools he needs.
Ivan Lendl struggled to answer the question which player he most enjoyed beating, but eventually settled on Brad Gilbert, to the amusement of the other players on the panel.
With a few photo opportunities to round off the press conference, things wrapped up, setting the stage for a fascinating and entertaining evening.
Pat Cash and Ivan Lendl got proceedings underway with a super set match – first to 8 games. Both players showed off the sort of tennis that took them to the top of the game in their heyday. Cash fired down the big serves and followed up with some deft touches at the net, while Ivan Lendl demonstrated his back-court skills – finding sliced passing shots, delicate lobs, and some chipped backhands to make Cash’s life at the net very difficult.
The match was played in good humour, with plenty of banter between the two players and the near capacity crowd to keep it light. It was a nip-tuck affair until 6 games all, when Lendl threw in a poor service game, with a double fault and some unforced errors to hand Cash the crucial break. The Australian duly served it out, and remarked after the match how nice it was to play Lendl again. The Czech reciprocated, and revealed that his charge Andy Murray revealed after Acapulco that he’s feeling the best he has so far since the back surgery, eliciting a cheer from the audience.
After a demonstration of wheelchair tennis in the interlude between matches, with World #3 Gordon Reid showing off his impressive skills that look likely to see him to the top of the wheelchair game, it was time for the main event.
Agassi and Sampras were introduced to the crowd to a rapturous ovation, and quickly got down to business. Andre started much the brighter of the two, racing out to a 3-0 lead as Pete struggled with all aspects of his game. Soon enough, though, the booming Sampras serve, looking none the worse for wear for 12 years off the tour, was firing missiles, and Agassi was struggling to make much of an impression on the return. However, while Pete’s serve and forehand slowed many flashes of their former excellence, the backhand continually misfired throughout the match, and Andre, never slow to spot a weakness to exploit, began to target that wing with regularity, reaping dividends.
Agassi duly served out the first set 6-3, and was beginning to rasp winners off both wings with his trademark style, taking the ball early and thumping it flat over the net out of reach of his opponent. Pete would need to respond if he had any expectation of winning. He did raise his game in the second set – the serve held Agassi at bay throughout, but his return game continued to let him down, as Agassi dragged him into baseline exchanges that would end with a flashing winner from the Las Vegan, or a Sampras error.
The pattern of the second set resembled so many of their matches of old, as both held serve, and the crowd waited for one or the other to betray a moment of weakness. It took a tiebreak to separate the two, but once there, Agassi ran away with it, racing out to a 5-0 lead, hitting searing winners off both wings but particularly the stunning backhand, and taking the match 63 76(2) on a Sampras double fault.
Although the loser of the match, Sampras pronounced himself well satisfied with his efforts, and his enjoyment at being back on court in London was clear. For his part, Agassi seemed somewhat surprised at how well grooved his ground game proved to be, and thanked the fans for their support of the players, and the World Tennis Day initiative.
Posing with commemorative bottles of champagne, the two players took a lap of honour of the court, and handed the baton over to New York City for the last of the World Tennis Day showdowns.
For London’s part, the past came back to visit, and it was a welcome visit indeed. May there be many more.