March 10, 2009

The Ultimate Showdown

A year ago I had the extreme pleasure of watching the two greatest tennis players of all-time going at it in Madison Square Garden. It was a battle for tennis history, so the program read -- then-#1 Roger Federer versus the record holder for, well, everything, Pete Sampras.

At the time I thought Sampras's dominance would soon end -- Roger had only two more titles before he tied Pete for career Grand Slams and, at twenty-six, he still looked to be on top of his game. Pete had been a year older when he won Major No. 12, and it took four years more before he would sit staunchly atop the leaderboard with fourteen titles. It seemed clear that Federer was destined to tie Sampras by the end of the year, and to pass him before he turned thirty.

Pete and Roger had met only once in their professional careers -- they've played a handful of exhibition matches around the world in recent years -- at Wimbledon in 2001, where Sampras was vying for his eighth (yet another record-breaking) championship.

The match was full of the drama you'd now expect, knowing that these two men would eventually be the legends they are today. It was the round of sixteen -- Pete was ranked #6 at the time, Roger #15. After more than three and a half hours, five sets, two tiebreaks, and 370 total points, Federer was the one advancing to the quarterfinals, and on his road to becoming a star. Sadly, he lost in the next round to Tim Henman.

Last year's match at MSG was similarly exciting. Roger won the first set 6-3, but Pete came back in the second set tiebreak to level the contest. He was even up a break in the third, causing fans to hold out hope for the "upset", before Roger took home the crown.

What was most impressive, in my view as a devoted Sampras fan, was Pete's still-dominant serve -- at thirty-seven, he still was able to deliver the shot that earned him the nickname "Pistol Pete". And, more amusingly, he'd become something of a showman in his retirement -- never one for dramatics on court, he accepted both victory and defeat more graciously than opponents like Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and others. But in New York last year, he jokingly slammed his racquet to the ground as a forehand whizzed by him and picked a fight with the chair umpire when a call went in favor of Federer.

Always a fan favorite, Sampras was now an entertainer.

Over just the last year the landscape of tennis has changed a bit. Roger is still a real power, of course, but now Rafael Nadal is clearly the man to beat -- and I would love to watch the first match-up between those two powerhouses. Happily for me -- and Pete, certainly -- it looks like the current records may be in place for a little while longer than we originally thought. It's still just a matter of time before someone -- Roger, maybe soon, or even Rafa in a few years -- wins his fifteenth Slam and becomes the new king of tennis.

Until then, though, I will continue to cheer for my Pistol Pete.

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