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I Can't Go On, I Must Go On. . . 03/11/2008 - 4:37 PM


At 6-3, 3-2 in favor of Roger Federer last night, it looked like this exhibition match against the all-time Grand Slam singles champ, Pete Sampras had everything - everything but the tennis.

Of course, the way things are these days, that may not be a fatal flaw. Still, that sellout crowd of 19,690 (including a healthy representation of TennisWorld readers), the mystique of Madison Square Garden, the presence of John McEnroe in the commentary booth, Roy Emerson in the hospitality lounge, and Barry Diller and Tiger Woods (among others) in the courtside seats - all of that more or less suggested that a barnburner on the order of Jimmy Connors vs. Guillermo Vilas (1977 Masters round robin), or Ivan Lendl vs. Boris Becker (1988 Masters final) was required by the forces of celestial order, if not the fickle command of another attendee, Donald Trump.

But there was Pete Sampras, struggling mightily, lumbering - whoever thought anyone would write the word "lumbering" to describe Sampras! - toward the net, heart pounding in his chest (from anxiety, no less, rather than the more familiar predatory lust), flailing at some shots, swiping at others, looking very much like the "former" player that he is, suffering humiliation at the hands of a "current" player, and no ordinary one at that. Federer was lean as a bean (you've got admit, when he sticks his left leg out as he gets ready to serve, it is curved and thin in exactly the same way as a green bean). He was dressed all in black, albeit in short pants and a short-sleeved shirt, looking disconcertingly the way you imagine Johnny Cash would have on an excursion to the beach.

In short, it did not look good. It did not look good for tennis that this trumpeted exhibition might turn out to be a yawner for the ages, and it did not look good for the promoters that people were paying a hundred, five hundred, a thousand bucks per ticket to watch Federer beat up on Sampras. You know, that poor guy whose Grand Slam singles title record he's about to snatch away with the same fingers that so nimbly flick second serves sharply cross court.

In the early going, I was disappointed by what I perceived watching Federer vs. Sampras IV in person, instead of on television. Sampras looked inadequate. Even when he hit a solid overhead, I caught myself thinking, Take it easy, old-timer! And on one occasion, when Sampras was caught flat-footed and unable even to lunge for a passing shot, an un-thinkable occurred to me: Here was King Lear in Nike shorts, wandering around on the heath while thunderbolts in the form of Roger Federer serves and forehands lit the night sky all around him.

Poor Pete, I thought. Is it the fate of all aging champs to run out the string the same way, to find themselves plowing, vain and vainly, straight ahead into the jaw-shattering and nose-obliterating punches of a younger rival and successor? Aren't any of these guys smart enough to avoid that fate?

Well, once again, in due time I would hear the tennis gods tsk-tsking and ultimately chiding me: Oh, ye of little faith. . . Because I had forgotten that Sampras is a champion, and champions specialize in doing extraordinary things. Here's a tip: if the subsequent events made you rub your fists in your eyes and mutter, I don't believe what I'm seeing, this can't be. . . , it wasn't necessarily because something fishy was going on. For this is what the great ones do, old and young ones alike; this is what Jimmy Connors did in August of 1991, and this is what Pancho Gonzalez did, at age 41, at Wimbledon in 1969. This is what they have done for ages. They make you think, No, this can't be happening. . . They specialize in the improbable bordering on the amazing, and if you doubt the validity of what they're doing, you don't deserve to be watching them.

You all saw what happened: Slowly, almost glacially, Sampras pulled himself together. Realizing that his hopes of earlier in the day (when he said, "I'd just like to get a few games into the match to settle my nerves without giving  up too much ground") had been dashed, but good, he did what all great champions at one time or another have done, and what Roger Federer one day will surely do. He began a long, slow climb back, one point after another, following the imperative of A Beckett-esque interior monologue: I can't go on, I must go on, I can't go on, I will go on. It's a measure of how times have changed that this monologue now is seen as a testament to the futility of life, rather than the refrain to the battle hymn of some many people who achieve great things.

It certainly was the refrain in Sampras's mind as he embarked on a long and perhaps impossible journey back. But Sampras was well-equipped to make that trip. He had his history as a champion who knew full well that all is not lost until it is.  He also had his residual, remarkable, competitive drive; the ability to play every match as if it were his first match, that constant seeking of trial by fire, even though his spirit and heart have already been burned and seasoned into something tough as leather (come to think of it, perhaps that's exactly why the flame no longer hurts, or causes him to flinch).

And Sampras also had the equanimity of his opponent, Federer. This was, after all, an exhibition match, not a Wimbledon final. And while Federer didn't exactly throw him points, or otherwise condescend to him - with all the world watching, that would have been far worse than the seemingly inevitable 6-3, 6-4 Federer win! - he was also no more eager to see Sampras fall to the heath so early, clutching his eyes, than were the rest of us.

But there's this, too: regardless of how Federer measured and weighed things, and what his calculations implied about his kindness or talent, this was very close to a life-or-death struggle for Sampras. Federer in the Garden in an exo, or Andre Agassi in a U.S. Open final, what difference could it possibly make? What difference did it make, what Federer said, thought or did? You were Pete Sampras, and you were getting your butt kicked. You can't go on, you must go on.

Slowly, almost glacially, Sampras pulled himself together, clinging to the hands of time, dangling from them like a man in someone else's dream, pulling,  pulling, pulling himself back to former times. Federer stood by, sometimes with a wry smile on his face, sometimes with a bemused look that seemed to ask, Hmmm. . . this is kind of interesting, just what does the old-timer have in mind now?  What the old timer had in mind in mind was leg-whipping the youngster in his fashionably black gear, then maybe gouging out an eyeball or tearing off an ear.

As the games in that set went by, you could see Sampras finding something he seemed to have misplaced in the five years since he last played, and located it in that special, secret place where champions go when pushed far enough. You know, that place where suddenly you aren't really playing another guy (another Tilden or Gonzalez or Laver or Borg or Nadal) but communing with yourself - humming a tune while you pour the ingredients of your genius into the measuring cup (a pinch of serve, a dash of forehand pass, a beaker of Wilanders) to fix your inner beast a little something to eat.

With a little something in his stomach, Sampras burped and felt better. By the time he won the second set tiebreaker, his game had settled and jelled, and once again we saw signs of the Sampras of yore - the effortless way he served those aces and service winners, the purposeful tennis that eliminated the option of rallying. When you played vintage Sampras, you knew points were going to end - one way or another - within six or seven shots. As Federer said later, "It's a little different today, the way guys play.  A lot of guys just rally or hope for a mistake, or just try to be very aggressive from the baseline. But Pete, he forces it more."

Pistol_2 But there was another set to go: I can't go on, I must go on. Sampras fell behind, 0-2, then broke back. I can't go on, I must go on. He ran off a few games to build a 5-2 lead, but you'd be hard put to say he saw the light at the end of the tunnel; those who see that light win, period. Instead he went went on, even though he couldn't go on. He saw his lead vanish, and he went on. He made it to the tiebreaker, and he couldn't go on. But he did.

And suddenly, reaching the haven of the third-set tiebreaker, there he was - right back in the same landscape he inhabited in Hanover, Germany, that time with Boris Becker, in New York those times with Corretja, and Agassi. For a few delicious, prolonged moments, he was right back there in that amazing place after a long and exhausting slog, the match on his racket:

Tiebreaker, the umpire called, Mr. Sampras to serve.

How eerie, I thought, it reminds me of the movie, Cacoon, or one of those creepy commercials for Claratin in which some poor schmoe is wandering around under ultra-bright blue skies, on grass as dense and green as pavement, surrounded by bright yellow blossoms the size of Wilson No. 4s.

It couldn't last of course, and thank God for that. I hate those Claratin commericals.

Sampras played a solid tiebreaker, but Federer completed a comeback to win in a way that very neatly summed up the value and purpose of these exhibitions. I don't care who you were or are, or how you played or play, if you were down to Pete Sampras in his prime 5-2 in the third, on a fast, indoor surface, you were toast. 

But this was not Pete Sampras in his prime, just as this was not Roger Federer in full-on assassin mode, despite the Ninja get-up. That this was an exhibition that allowed for pleasant role playing, and a re-ordering of reality. But at some point reality tends to reassert itself, and the towering achievement of this exhibition was that it did not take place until the last possible moment. Therefore, nobody had to resort to outright cheating or point-throwing in order to make sure the crowd got what it had come to see.

When Federer cracked that backhand pass off a lousy Sampras volley to get his critical mini-break at 6-6 in the tiebreaker, I had the sense that justice - and a whole lot more - had been served.

I'll be back tomorrow, to tie up a few loose ends having to do with this fascinating episode.

BTW, the Tribe was well represented at the Garden, and at drinks before and after the event. I even bumped into a few readers in the street (Joella? Are you present?) who couldn't stay at Stout until Steve Tignor and I arrived, around midnight. Among those in attendance: GVgirl, Ruth, Sam, JB, NDK, DWiz, Ray Stonada, Ed McGrogan, Rolo Tomassi, Felix (Fleaman), Ptenisnet (with his lovely wife, Karen), Skip. . .Snoo Foo was sighted, but she bailed after the match.

It was great to see you all. I'd like it if those of you who attended the match write your impressions in the comments.

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Posted by 03/11/2008 at 04:39 PM

First, I thought Pete and Roger was very amusing. They should do some exhibitons reguarly in the Garden. Maybe even bring the Masters/ Season Ending Championships back.

Posted by 03/11/2008 at 04:41 PM

What time does the IW men's draw come out?

Posted by crazyone 03/11/2008 at 04:50 PM

Pete: What's your answer to the question on the website--Did this match tell you anything about Federer's form as an ATP player?

Posted by Pete 03/11/2008 at 04:52 PM

Well, I think this match said nothing about TMF's form as an ATP player, although the only thing that needs be said about that is "Number One" and make him mad at your peril!

Posted by Or 03/11/2008 at 04:52 PM

The IW draw should be out at any moment, it's taking them a while to update the chart.

Posted by Tom 03/11/2008 at 04:52 PM

As the 2nd set came to a close, both were in full "hit and giggle" mode. I had no doubt this was going to a 3rd set. Although Federer looked frustrated at times during the last set, I somehow suspected that he would pull it out in a tie-breaker. I, and two fellow TV viewers at home, wondered the same thing. Did they agree on just the outcome beforehand or the score as well?

Hopefully, Federer will play better in Indian Wells and leave the big purse at home.

Posted by MissTari 03/11/2008 at 04:56 PM

Thank you, Pete, for this terrific summation of last night. I agree with you wholeheartedly--I did feel that Roger backed off ever-so-slightly so as not to win in straight sets in under an hour and embarrass Pete (and Ivan and tennis and...), but I also felt that Pete found his will of a champion to persevere. You state it beautifully.

I wish my pictures did justice to the evening! Some day, I'll get a camera that really can capture my love of this game...

Posted by Moderator 03/11/2008 at 04:59 PM

This is an on-topic post. For now, discussion of the Indian Wells draw belongs in the Crisis Center below this thread, please.

Posted by zolarafa 03/11/2008 at 05:02 PM

I liked the match, because I wanted to watch Sampras and I thought it was great that USTA broadcasted it on their site.

But I was certain it would go to 3 sets and I was certain Fed would win. I knew people would not have likes a beat-up and a two-setter, because they paid whatever bucks to come and see it. Also, for Fed , it would have been hard to silence the critics if he lost to Sampras ( even in an exhibition) after two losses.

Now, I have a question. How much of an exo match is real and how much is staged? Do they really compete? Did Federer knowingly give up the second set, so that the match would go to three sets?

Posted by RedClaw 03/11/2008 at 05:04 PM

Oh my Lord, Pete. What an article... I just have to find a way to watch that match now.
Wow. I've actually got a few tears in my eyes - And yes, I get emotional easily, but nonetheless.. Wow.

Thanks, I think that's my favorite of anything you've written. Must've been an amazing night of tennis. Mr. Sampras to serve...

Posted by Yummy Prince Fed Rules 03/11/2008 at 05:11 PM

Someone will be very happy to see that Snoo Foo is alive and kicking.

Posted by Robin (Feedforward) 03/11/2008 at 05:17 PM

Pete, you inhabit a different reality than most of use can even imagine. Not all of it is real, but there is more than enough substance to force many of us to rewrite our own version of reality.

Yes, no one knows for sure just how hsrd Federer was trying, but you have captured what I thought but could not verbalize so well. First, Sampras was (and still is or can be at times) a formidible talent. He has a game that does not exist on the tour any more. His serve is one of the seven wonders of the world and having an exceptional athlete still show flashes of real game at age 36 is not far fetched as tennis history has shown.

The trouble with this kind of exhibition vs. those pro-celebrities affairs is that even a Federer cannot orchestrate the entire point sequence. Sampras was playing full out once he got past his anxiety and threw off some of the rust. So, there apparently was some flipping back and forth between full bore, guns in your face competition and hit and giggle.

I think Federer did hit a few key shots right back at Pete instead of taking the easy down the line pass. I also think that there was no faking how hard it was to return Pete's best serves which are only a fraction off his tour form and still harder than Roger's serves. And Pete's volley is still tough and he can unleash a winning forehand from anywhere even if not all the time.

My perspective was broadened having just watched the 2001 Wimbledon match for the first time. I was amazed at how well Federer played then, having all his shots and his backhand was often truly powerful and winning. As we all know, he served and volleyed nearly as well as Pete and actually beat him after some frustrating setbacks. He could have won in 3 sets if he had converted a couple of many break points in second set. You could say that he surprised Pete, but the match was highly competitive and entertaining. Roger looked pretty mature and strong. It was easy to see now that we were seeing the future. Yes, he has learned to win from the baseline, but otherwise, you could see all the talent and the arsenal.

So, given that, I cannot believe that an even better Federer could lose to a Sampras several years from his prime on any surface on the tour. I think he would have an easier time with Pete's serve on grass than on those fast hard courts.

On the other hand, I think Sampras with some toughening matches behind him (such as playing Queens) would be an opponent no one would want in his draw at Wimbledon. I doubt he could keep it up long enough to get to the finals or semis against Roger, but he could beat anyone who was just off enough to not hold serve all the time.

And I still think Pete and Roger could beat any doubles team around if they wanted to, but obviously neither really cares to do so. For this reason alone, I miss the old days when players almost always played both singles and doubles.

Posted by Robin (Feedforward) 03/11/2008 at 05:21 PM


Thank interminable introduction almost made me turn it off. Worse than heavy weight fights used to be and seemingly spawned by the SuperBowl hype.

If there is a next time, I propose you simply do the introductions, put the match in proper perspective. I would also vote for you being part of the broadcasting team. Having your thoughts sumaarize each set would help us all even if you lost some material for your articles.

Posted by Tom 03/11/2008 at 05:26 PM

Robin - I agree with you on the preliminaries before the match. Thank God for TiVo (I live on the west coast where the telecast started at 4:30). I don't think I would have made it to the match if I had to watch all of the salute to the Davis Cup of the interview of BJK that seems to be a prerequisite for all major matches played in the US. At

Posted by Tom 03/11/2008 at 05:32 PM

Robin - I agree with your thoughts on the preliminaries. Thank God I live on the West Coast and was able to TiVo it starting at 4:30. I don't think I would have made it to the match if I had to watch all of the salute to the Davis Cup or the obligatory interview of BJK that seems to be a requirement for all significant US matches. (And they wonder why tennis isn't more popular.) And I didn't need 500 shots of Sampras' wife or Tiger Woods. At least we got Ted Robinson and didn't have to suffer through the usual Tennis Channel "talent" like Jimmy Arias. While watching the Tennis Channel Open (a good job by a local guy Sam Querrey) I found many creative uses for the mute button.

This was a predetermined Exo, plain and simple.

Posted by Tom 03/11/2008 at 05:33 PM

Sorry for the double post, I hit enter by accident the first time.

Posted by Syd 03/11/2008 at 05:40 PM

I wondered too, how much was real and how much was got to give the crowd their money's worth. Pete definitely seemed quite winded at times. But then Rog looked very pale....whatever, it was a New York thing. They should have given the money to charity though. Now that would have been an event.

Posted by Jesse 03/11/2008 at 05:42 PM

Does anyone know why Pete was using his old racket? He was recently playing with one of the newer nCode rackets (actually the post previous to this one has a picture of him with it), while in the exo against Federer he seemed to go back to the original ProStaff. Was this just a paint job?

Posted by Pete 03/11/2008 at 05:48 PM

jesse - paint job. he's no using the newer frame. I think he may have some issues with Wilson. . .

Posted by jhurwi 03/11/2008 at 05:53 PM

Pete--glad to get your impressions of the match, especially since I was at the match and shared your view that the first two sets didn't display much actual tennis and were not very exciting. Sampras was definitely "lumbering" in the first set--I was reminded of watching Luciano Pavarotti during his embarrassing last couple of years at the Metropolitan Opera, in a Tosca in which he had to be propped up on stage.
Unfortunately I had to leave before the last set to catch my train back to Connecticut, so I missed all the good part. Since you had told us the action would begin at 7:30, I was perfectly happy to watch the 15-year-old boys hit the ball around until then, However I wasn't expecting it to be yet another hour before play actually started. If they do anything like this again, is there any way of convincing the promoters to keep the prelimaries down to a reasonable length?

Posted by 03/11/2008 at 06:10 PM

Give me your anaylisis's on the mens and womens draws,

Posted by Jenn 03/11/2008 at 06:12 PM

This was great, Pete. I'm sure it was really interesting for you in particular given your recent access and insight into Pete Sampras' psyche and current mindset. My favorite part of last night was not watching the tennis per se, but the fact that tennis had itself a major EVENT, filling up the Garden with a buzz going way beyond those of us who frequent websites like this and stay up in the middle of the night to watch early round matches on the other side of the globe. That was fantastic!

During the third set, I found myself doing what, for me, used to be the unthinkable: rooting for Pete Sampras! I am generally a "root for the underdog" type, and I never really warmed to Pete as a player, so I can't think of another match, except maybe Davis Cup, where I have rooted for him. But it was precisely because he looked so "lumbering" (your word) and slightly balding, and nervous, that was endearing.

Sorry the rest of us missed the fun of a TW meet up. Hope to see some of you in Indian Wells this weekend!

Posted by Jamaican Girl 03/11/2008 at 06:15 PM

Oh man!! Nalby is in Rafa's half that can't be too good, Rafa has yet to even take a set off Nalby. Hopefully Rafa will win this time IF they meet.

Posted by Jenn 03/11/2008 at 06:15 PM

Mods: where should we be discussing the IW draw?

Posted by Pete 03/11/2008 at 06:18 PM

Hey Jenn, sorry I'll miss you, as it turns out I don't get into PS airport until 8:30 Sun 16th night. Then I'm there the rest of the way. I'll probably roll to the BH after I get checked in and maybe pick up my credential. depends on who's around.

jhurwi - sorry about that time thing, they kept changing it. I was shock to see it changed from a 7:30 to 8:30 start meself!

Posted by Pete 03/11/2008 at 06:20 PM

It will be okay to discuss IW draw here if you can't hold back, but there will be a Watercooler tomorrow, so I suggest keeping your powder dry. Up to you. . .

Posted by Jenn 03/11/2008 at 06:21 PM

That's a bummer, Pete... I was hoping to finally meet you in person! Depending on who makes the finals, I am thinking that Beth and I may have to make an impromptu dash to the desert during the championship weekend.

Posted by crazyone 03/11/2008 at 06:24 PM

Jenn: we're discussing the IW draw on the other thread (crisis center).

Jamaican Girl: check the draw again. Nalbie is in Fed's half of the draw. But Nadal has enough tough customers to deal with anyway.

Posted by Jamaican Girl 03/11/2008 at 06:28 PM

crazyone thanks for the correction, not that I'm able to relax more, his draw seems to be pretty tough

Posted by Beckham 03/11/2008 at 06:33 PM

I agree with Jenn, when was the last time Tennis had an EVENT?? That was just great for tennis, they actually sold out MSG...

And Pete's ESPN article was spot on...

Posted by beth 03/11/2008 at 06:42 PM

Pete - I so misread your notice the other day
I thought you were going to be in IW as of last sunday
I am not leaving until Monday am - so maybe I will get a chance to see you Sunday evening somewhere

Back to the other thread

Posted by Christopher 03/11/2008 at 07:24 PM

I noticed the racket too. It sure looked like a painted over Pro-staff, though he still had the "W" stenciled on the strings, so perhaps he and Wilson are only having a brief lovers' spat.

I thought the match was a lot of fun. I could imagine paying money just to watch Sampras hit serves for an hour, frankly. The drama was well orchestrated. It required some suspension of disbelief, but not so much as to be painful. My one complaint is that the close score is going to result in all these calls for Pete to give it one last shot at Wimbledon (even Steve T. has made moves in this direction). That would be a huge and anti-climatic mistake. No matter how great Sampras's serve still is, he wouldn't make it past the first couple of rounds in a best-of-five format unless he spent about 6 months (bare minimum) doing VERY serious fitness training. And why would he want to do that at this stage in his life? Fortunately, Sampras himself clearly has no illusions on this front. He's got nothing left to prove and should enjoy many years of playing exhibitions and otherwise giving back to the game (though I doubt we'll ever see him in the booth on a regular basis as talking is still not his strong point).

And kudos, as many have noted, to Fed for doing this. Above and beyond the call of duty. Sure, he got paid, but he obviously didn't do it for the money.

Posted by Jenn 03/11/2008 at 07:41 PM

Obviously neither player did this for the money, but does anyone know how much they got? it would be interesting to know.

Posted by Christopher 03/11/2008 at 07:43 PM

I think Roger got 1M, Sampras slightly less.

Posted by Moderator 03/11/2008 at 07:52 PM

Folks, the Good Sports Crisis Center has a lot of good discussion about the IW draws. Trying to keep this one to reflections on Sampras - Federer.

Posted by ajv 03/11/2008 at 09:29 PM

I have no idea what match Pete saw last night. It certainly wasn't the match I saw.

The language of his post is the classic boxing movie story transplanted to MSG. The old, retired fighter, pummeled early in his long-expected rematch with the young warrior, through the sheer will of a champion, gets himself up off the canvas to redeem his pride and place in the ring, and again through will and heart surprises one and all by not only putting up a worthy fight but by almost pulling off the mighty upset, which, of course, is, rightfully, denied him by the equally worthy young champion (whose "equanimity" allows the old man to dare to dream, but alas only dream)as reality reasserts itself.

Nonsense. This was no classic match. There was no need for "reality to reassert itself". Reality was never in the picture, at least not any kind of reality that asks the question whether Pete Sampras can compete, today, with Roger Federer. Only a misty-eyed nostalgist, clear eyesight blighted by the romantic notion that the past trumps the present, could have miscontrued the level of play last night for that of a tennis match where the outcome could legitimately be thought to have meant something, anything.

I challenge anyone who has seen Roger Federer play an ATP tour match to watch the exhibition (I was there) and conclude that Roger was playing all out. Pete knows this, of course, but can't bring himself to accept because it denies the intent of the post: the lionization of the will of the old champion. An old champion intent, obssessed by the notion of making a statement against an opponent whose "equanimity" denies him a fair fight is just a fool.

I believe that an all-out commitment to winning is a pre-condition to a meaningful tennis match. Roger was loping through the court throughout the match. He was moving at 75% (I'm just throwing out a plausible percentage; it was nothing near 100%). He was hitting balls at his opponent at points throughout the match in order to prolong points and generate play for the crowd. He pounded his serve only at selective moments. He was on cruise control for the entire match. He had nothing invested in it other than the desire to put on a nice show.

Clearly Pete, as I have noted before, had a lot invested in this match, and clearly he harumphed and burped and fought his way through, playing the way he always has, only worse, as befits a retired, thick-waisted former player. He was redeemed, as he always has been, by the greatest serve the game has ever seen. Playing on a fast indoor surface (where did the idea come from that this would be a slower surface?) that aspect of his game will always allow him to hold his own. In this match, against an opponent who was not playing for real it almost got him the match. I thank the tennis gods, or Roger for waking up and not letting it happen, that this never happened. It is far better to have to read Pete's Rocky vs equanimity story, and have it end with an admission that youth and present greatness trumps age and past greatness than to have to read the alternative: the Rocky story where the old fighter pummels the passive,young one and show's he's still the man. That would have been intolerable.

Pete's post does have a few gems, however, that I just can't pass up:

(1) Pete's shock at seeing a "lumbering" Pete Sampras--Here I have to admit that Pete must have some secret notion of what the current condition of Pete Sampras is, again in some alternative universe. Pete, Sampras that is, was lumbering towards the end of his glorious career. Six years removed, and sharing a court with the epitome of anti-lumbering, you would think that only someone deeply estranged from reality would have expected anything but lumbering.

(2)How about that line about "champions specializing in doing extraordinary things"? I get a kick out of that notion being used in connection with this exo. Sampras came within a few points of beating an opponent who was not taking the match anywhere near as seriously as the old champion, on a court practically made for adding maximum impact to the champion's one weapon, his serve. How is that extraordinary? Or did Pete fail to see that the lumbering tennis that Sampras played early was strikingly similar to the lumbering tennis he played at the end, the difference being only that he served better, and his opponent was more bored after the first set, and more intent on keeping things interesting?

(3)Roger, as the old man stormed back had, according to Pete, a "wry" smile, or was it "bemused"? I was watching roger too, and that's not what I saw. I saw a great sport, secure in the knowledge that he is the present and nevertheless paying respect to the past, as good sports do. There was no confusion, desperation or anything of that sort in those eyes. He was having a good time, entertaining the crowd, humoring his childhood here, counting the dollars, and counting the minutes until his flight out.

(4) the notion of this match as a "life or death struggle" for Pete Sampras-- I suggest Pete devote a good portion of his bio of Pete Sampras to dissecting what internal demons drive the universally acclaimed greatest player of his time, and GOAT candidate to dust off his "life or death" instincts to use them against a young GOAT candidate who, by Pete's own admission, did something, allow him a series of exos, that Pete in his prime would not have allowed McEnroe. As plenty of folks noted last night (Mcenroe and Pete both) Roger had a lot to lose last night. How did Pete repay him? By throwing Roger's "equanimity" out the door and going out and trying to bludgeon him to death with the world's greatest serve, while Roger was fiddlin with his very expensive watch and fending off the lustful stares from Ms. Wintour. Nice guy. Great warrior indeed.

Posted by Ryan Baker 03/11/2008 at 09:35 PM

Thanks for the article Pete, but IMO it was so over the top I felt sick afterwards. All the metaphors, imagery, sickeningly sweet allusions - oy, its a tennis match! I dont want to sound insulting because I'm sure you're a better writer than I am, but that was one of my least favorite pieces of yours. If the tennis was THAT good, you dont need to over-compensate by over-writing.

Posted by Sher 03/11/2008 at 11:44 PM

I didn't see the same match either, but I understand what you're trying to do here, Pete. (Man, calling someone by their first name on so little acquaintance is so strange to me...but everyone else here does it!)

Posted by rexyche 03/11/2008 at 11:58 PM


Speaking of wondering if someone was at the match last night, I'd have to ask the same of you. I was there courtside. I can absolutely assure anyone didn't have a chance to catch the match on tv and who might be mislead by your foolish "commentary", that Federer was facing the serious possibility of losing the match. That grim expression on Fed's face for the last few games told it all. There was nothing fake about it.

Sure, Roger gave Pete some openings in the first and second sets - for the obvious reason that a guy who's almost 37 is not going to last in an all-out struggle against a pro player who trains daily. I disagree with Pete Bodo that the first set was a humiliation for Sampras. The guys were obvious in acknowledging Fed's respect and Pete's long odds in the match. They were smiling and jesting. But once the match had progressed to the point of deciding the match - it was victory to the best man! You'd have to be deaf and blind not to see how Sampras kept coming back into the match, going up against Fed, and Fed's realization that he might actually lose to a 36/37 year old guy (after all the recent loses, after hearing so much about his domination ending). It's insulting to those two to pretend that they are going to pansy around when for each the outcome was so important. Sampras wanted to win, period. Federer wanted to win, period. He was sweating and nervously fingering his hair, and he was extending himself to the fullest to return those Sampras serves. And in the end, he used his phenomenal talent to pull it out.

I give all due respect to Fed. But I don't do it by sitting on my rear and talking down a great champion like Sampras.

The match was great, and I hope we have more tennis at MSG!

Posted by skip1515 03/12/2008 at 12:12 AM

I was there. Various thoughts:

1. This was an exhibition. There's nothing wrong with that, and it doesn't preclude exciting tennis by definition. But it's not the same as a tournament match, regardless of the participants. No dedicated tournament player, of any level, plays their Thursday night round robin matches with the same intensity as they do their tournament, interclub or NTRP league matches.

Well, maybe Jimmy Connors. But no one else does.

With that said, both players wanted to win while at the same time wanting to play well and put on a good, entertaining and competitve-in-a-friendly-way match.

2. Anyone that believes this was scripted didn't pay attention when Sampras was serving at 5/3 in the third. With the exception of the ace at, I believe, 30 love, Federer didn't fail to get one serve back in play, and the backhand service return winner at break point was off one of Sampras' biggest serves of the night. No one could script that.

Okay, perhaps Federer guessed right about where the serve was going, but it was 125 if it was 12 mph, and as close to the service line as serves get. I might have guessed right if I was returning, too, but that's not the same as guessing right *and* making the return. Give credit where credit is due: that was a real serve and a real return.

3. Sampras' 2 or 3 flubbed returns that made him look a bit spastic made me think there was a seam in the court at the service lines, running across the court, creating some funny bounces. (Pete or Steve? True?) As evidence I offer Federer's return that looked equally hacker-ish in one of Sampras' early service games in the first set; Federer whiffed the return, when the serve was also right on the line. When's the last time you saw that?

4. I've been as big a proponent as anyone of the idea that s&v or otherwise volleying-centric tennis is still viable, but you cannot play dumpy-dumpy volleys today and get away with it. In the wood racquet era and shortly afterwards, before the potential of the new racquets was exploited, you could hit a pace-less ball 3 (or even 5) feet from the baseline and throw your reflexes into the pot at the net, daring someone to pass you with their Jack Kramer Autograph.

But not today. You can come in, but the ball has to have stick and be deep, or have serious slice and be short and/or angled. Hitting topspin approaches that bounce up into your opponent's wheelhouse isn't a good idea, either. Someone should have told Sampras, "No dumpy volleys," 'cause when he tried it, especially in the 1st and early in the 2nd set, Federer's passes made him look kind of sad.

5. Sampras owns the greatest serve the game has ever seen.

He could have used more of it last night, but when he found his rhythm what was demonstrated, yet again, is not only the absolute quality of the delivery, but it's much vaunted stealth quality; when he was at his peak everyone said it was impossible to read his serve, and that's still true when Sampras's serve is clicking, even for Federer.

6. Federer wasn't going at his 2nd serves. I'm not saying I could have gotten them back, but he wasn't forcing the issue, either. See #1 above, leaven with a bit of respect, mix, bake, and you know the outcome.

7. Both players, but mostly Federer, made shot selections that were other than what they'd choose in a real match. Normally they'd pick the shot that most directly solves the strategic puzzle they face at any one moment. In an exo they're tempted to choose the 2nd or 3rd choice, the cuter option, which may be more interesting but which spells unforced errors. Occasionally an exo features two players who both get to occupy that place known as The Zone, but in a fun, friendly way, and then there's shotmaking galore. That was not the case last night, although they both searched for that mental state, especially Federer.

8. The match was saved as a competitive treat for specators by Federer's desire to win.

There was no doubt that he did not want to lose. I don't believe this was an arranged, "Whoever wins the first loses the second, and we play the third." It was more that Federer was content to have fun, and found himself at a set all when Sampras raised his game in the 2nd faster than Federer could respond. He clearly tightened the screws when he was down 3/5 in the third. Was this a bad thing? No. Actually it helped create the only real drama of the night.

It was fun. Not the best fun match I've ever seen, but fun. I was glad I went.

Posted by ajv 03/12/2008 at 12:40 AM


As I noted in my post, I was at the match.

Now, to address some of your points:

If you read my post carefully you will realize that i agree with you that federer was facing the serious possibility of losing the match. Where we disagree is on the reason for his being in that position. My point, and nothing you have said changes my view, is that he came close to losing the match because (i) he was not playing as seriously as his opponent, i.e., he was not putting out the typical effort he would put out in a real match; (ii) his opponent was; and (iii) his opponent's serve, the greatest the game has seen, coupled with the fast indoor surface gave him the opportunity of winning,which happily for all concerned was barely averted due to Pete's flinching at the end.

I did not see a grim expression on roger's face at any time during the match. He was relaxed throughout the match. Roger's psychic investment in this match, as far as I could tell by his approach to it, was much less than Pete's.

Those ticks you mention, the playing with the hair etc. are things that roger does at all times during his matches, not just when he is "nervous". Check out some of his tapes. He plays with his hair when he's beating someone 6-0 as well as when he's losing.

I agree with you that Sampras desperately wanted to win. That is what I find tragic. I disagree that Roger was approaching the match with anywhere near the same intensity. That is what Pete, in the only part of his post that I agree with, means by roger playing with "equanimity", I think. That is why the match is meaningless, if folks want to use it as a measuring stick for comparing the two players today.

Posted by Quadruple Bagel 03/12/2008 at 12:55 AM

ajv ...


No, I don't think "desperately" is the right word, even if I wasn't there.

I think he was "eager" to win and "disappointed" that he didn't, but "desperately," as if his life kind of depended on it ... no.

People seem to forget this was an exhibition for Sampras, too. Sampras, even at 36, could have been in better shape and sharper, too, if he so desired. But really, there were no grand stakes for Sampras.

OK, if your point is this was an exo, why even dissect the Xs and Os? Doesn't this whole thing stop at that acknowledgement and you move on?

I still don't understand all the huffiness on the part of pro-Fed people.

It clear Pete is looking at this as great theater and that's what it was.


Posted by Ruth 03/12/2008 at 12:56 AM

As I mentioned on the other thread when I spoke more about the post-exo TW gathering, I watched the match on my laptop in my hotel in NYC. However, I have just watched the tape of the match at home, and my feelings about it have not changed. I saw two things that differentiated the exo from "regular" matches.

First, it was clear that neither player was going to indulge in any potentially injury-producing runs or dives just to get a ball or win a point. And, secondly, I noticed that both men played their second serves in a daring (and entertaining) manner instead of the usual "I'd better get this ball in this time" manner that we see in matches for points and ranking.

Barring that, I felt that Pete and Roger played every other shot or point to the best of their ability; I saw no holding back, no deliberate misses and the like. I think that Roger was genuinely concerned when he was down 2-5 in the third set, and I felt, at that point, that Pete might have been able to pull out a win over tiring post-mono Roger.

I also thought that the look of disappointment of Pete's face after his loss was as genuine and painful as it could be -- something that I wouldn't expect in an ""orchestrated" show for the public in which the ending was a foregone conclusion. I love both of those guys, but I don't believe that they possess the great acting skills required to portray either phony concern or phony sadness so well. They even have trouble doing convincing fist pumps because it's not in their nature. :)

So, I enjoyed the match, both as an entertaining performance -- as any good match is -- and as good competition albeit between two players at vastly different stages of their tennis playing lives.

Posted by Heidi 03/12/2008 at 01:20 AM

Great discussion, all, thanks. I enjoy thinking about the tennis styles and eras on show here, as you all know I am an anti-GOAT-discussion type. Sounds like it was a really fascinating match.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 03/12/2008 at 04:32 AM

didn't read the posts so perhaps it was already addressed but just want to say that the picture of Fed in the steam & light above is really great, says so much even before the start of the show.
super kudos to the photographer!

Posted by afwu 1216 03/12/2008 at 06:30 AM

Is stadium 1 the center court at the Pacific Life Open?

Posted by Pete 03/12/2008 at 07:10 AM

I guess I did see the match through different eyes, AJV, and about that I sure am happy!

Posted by GVGirl 03/12/2008 at 07:46 AM

I took the match for what it was worth, a fun tennis spectacle done for entertainment.A "tennis Broadway show" at MSG. I hope that MSG will do this again.

I knew that it would be 3 sets! ;)

Fed/Sampras 5 is coming!

Posted by skip1515 03/12/2008 at 08:41 AM

Two other comments:

1. This was not a fast court. I don't know who chose it. After watching the Asian matches it was clearly not as fast. Of course, the rink at Rockefeller Center might not be as fast, either.

2. It was a treat, and illuminating, too, to see someone (Sampras) who's eager to move forward in a way that no one is today. I don't mean s&v so much as when somone's on the baseline, itching to jump on anything that lands just past the service line, take it on the rise, knock it into an open court and come in like they mean it, and as if they like doing it. This can create a kind of pressure that no one currently exploits, even as an occasional variation.

Sampras isn't fit, hungry or probably young enough to do this for 3 sets against someone who's on tour, but he was successful enough to demonstrate the tactic's viability.

Posted by Mike 03/12/2008 at 09:00 AM

I disagree that any player down 5-2 to Sampras in a third set would be toast. The way that Federer returns changes the equation. Just look at the U.S. Open quarterfinal against Andy Roddick. Federer's ability to return virtually every serve against even the biggest servers, and then to play sensational defense would have driven Sampras insane in his prime.

Two other thoughts after watching the replay of their Wimbledon encounter (thank you Tennis Channel). First, I remember Federer serving and volleying more at that time, but I could not believe how much or how well he did it. It was rather frightening to see how adaptable he really is. Second, it's also fascinating to see how much better his serve has gotten (sort of similar to how Sampras's second serve was much better by the end of his career than it had been at the 1990 US Open).

Ultimately, I think the lesson of the exos is that the courts should be made a little faster in general. They should not be as fast as they used to be at Wimbledon in the early 90s, but they should be somewhat faster so as to allow players to serve and volley again. At the same time, I'm not sure that would do much since the according to McEnroe the court at the Garden was very fast (faster than anything players play on today) and Federer seemed to have no problem flicking winners wherever he liked. In the end, it might be more about Luxilon strings...and oh yeah, Federer's uncanny being able to make contact with the ball virtually anywhere and still come up with winners :-).

Posted by The Original French(ie) 03/12/2008 at 09:32 AM

so Sampras is going to play Nalbandian in Buenos Aires on carpet and then there will be another match against Federer (possibly) !

if this is not the preparation for a comeback, what is??

Well, I'm not sure if looking at the match on tiny internet stream qualifies as "watching" but to me it had the appearance of a competitive match. You don't go 3 sets with 2 TBs with a "script" !! That doesn't make sense.

Still, I don't think these matches have anything to do AT ALL with the GOAT debate, particularly when Sampras will be playing so many top 10 (or former top 10) players. If David Nalbandian wins his match against Sampras, what will that mean? That he is better than Sampras? (that afyernoon perhaps, but overall?...)

Personally, I'm just waiting for Sampras to enter Wimbledon or the USO.

Posted by ptenisnet 03/12/2008 at 10:03 AM

Isn't the tactic's viability dependent on having a serve like Sampras does (all else being taken for granted. I realise this is a big assumption given the discussion underway)?

Posted by robbyfan 03/12/2008 at 10:09 AM

TOF-why would Pete return to the tour? I think he is bored and still loves tennis but I just don't see him going through the daily grind to come back. He certainly doesn't need the money, from all indications has a very happy home life.

Posted by skip1515 03/12/2008 at 10:20 AM

ptenisnet: No, I don't believe so. The groundstrokes today provoke plenty of balls short enough to let someone ply this tactic. What's being done by today's players is that they step in, hit another big groundie, and retreat.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 03/12/2008 at 10:29 AM

hello robbyfan! It would be for the competitive "race" (for lack of a better word). I cannot imagine someone of his level and competitiveness (and the 2 are linked) not wanting to experience that "adrenaline flow" again of winning for real, at least a couple of times, it's just too exhilirating. And it wouldn't really be "grinding" because playing Queens (as a preparation) and then Wimbledon for instance, that's just 1 month at a time maximum.

He can beat a lot of the guys (yes ok, I hear the smirks) and with some lucky draw...
I know I'm most certainly delusional but I'm trying to entertain the thought that it's still possible for him to come back. :)

Posted by ptenisnet 03/12/2008 at 10:38 AM

But Skip,
There are players who do those things today. Not as a primary tactic, the way Sampras does, and not many players, but we do see that. I think the more successful ones do anyway.

Posted by Sher 03/12/2008 at 10:42 AM

skip1515, now _that_ is the match I watched.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 03/12/2008 at 11:25 AM

the highlights:

and of the previous matches

Posted by Sam 03/12/2008 at 11:26 AM

skip: Enjoyed reading your take on the exo.

As for your comment "What's being done by today's players is that they step in, hit another big groundie, and retreat. " - how much of this do you feel is a mindset versus their stroke mechanics (i.e. the big groundstrokes not facilitating transitioning to the net)?

Posted by robbyfan 03/12/2008 at 11:29 AM

TOF-let Pete get the adrenaline rush on the golf course with Tiger. The grand old man doesn't need the possible humiliation of being frosted by young guns.

A theory of mine that I am inviting to be disspelled (I know I spelled that wrong) is today's passing shots are so much better than in day's past that it is easier to attack and defend from the baseline than at net. Federer can flick his wrist and pass the net guy easily.

Posted by crazyone 03/12/2008 at 12:31 PM

TOF: This guy had the most perfect ending to his career that you could possibly think of (save winning the French maybe on his last attempt, but that was basically impossible)...the likelihood of him coming back and winning Wimbledon is really small and the likelihood of him being embarrassed by some young (or even older) gun is quite high. Whether they are scripted or no, these exos aren't real tennis.

Posted by Christine 03/12/2008 at 01:13 PM

Mr. Bodo I think I missed your point. The article sounds like you (and other tennis fans)want the old Sampras back. From what I've read in other sources He has no desire to make a comeback.

Posted by Pete 03/12/2008 at 01:53 PM

Christine. I don't want (or not want) Sampras back. I just was moved by his ability late in that match to tap once again into the things that made him great.

Posted by Todd and in Charge 03/12/2008 at 03:18 PM

What a great write-up, I wish I were there! Instead I was in Los Angeles for some dumb court hearing....

My father-in-law is a classic ye-of-little-faither. He calls it "YOLFing," a condition most evident when Notre Dame, Boston College, or the Red Sox are losing. He yolfs and yolfs, grousing and fretting, hoping silently that this will somehow cause the team to turn it around and win.

Posted by Tim 03/12/2008 at 05:39 PM

while i think its clear that Sampie can still play a few good sets of tennis, and serve big and connect with a few groundies on a fast court,its also clear there's no way on earth he could do this day after day, on the slower hardcourt and grasscourts of today... how well do you think the old guy would have moved if he had another match to play today?

it would not be pretty, as much as this match for the most part was... these two could not have written a more perfect script, and it made for a memorable night is say

Posted by ms. tangerine popsicle (tangi) 03/12/2008 at 08:52 PM

I don't interpret Sampras playing a series of exos as an indication he is preparing for a comeback. I think it just means he misses competing and it's fun for him to play in front of a crowd and get the juices flowing again in a quasi competitive environment that doesn't bring w/it the pressures of the ATP tour. It's a win/win for everyone. Good for him, tennis and the fans as we get an opportunity to see him play.

Posted by jhurwi 03/12/2008 at 09:10 PM

TOF: Sampras isn't winning consistently on the senior tour against retired players his own age. He lost an exhibition match last week to Todd Martin, against whom he had an 18-4 H2H on the ATP tour and was apparently quite grumpy about being forced to play a full third set instead of the 10-point supertiebreak. That doesn't sound to me like someone who wants to put in the kind of training that would be necessary to return to the main tour even for one tournament.

Posted by sean m 03/12/2008 at 10:03 PM

i had the great fun of being there, and here are collected thoughts with no attempt to respond to anything above (though much of it was on point):

1) sampras was definitely using the old pro staff frame. the throat gave it away. i previously used that frame and currently use the pre-k-factor 90 sq. inch frame. it's not the same, not even if it was painted black. i don't know that pete is having an issue with wilson since he has many times complimented the newer frame as being more forgiving than the 85 sq. inch frame. perhaps it was a personal test to see if it was the frame that allowed him to compete in asia.

2) federer's four-consecutive-ace game at 2-5 could serve (forgive the pun) both sides of the fixing debate. did pete allow it? or was roger going for a little extra to say "hey, i've got a decent serve too"? in the moment i didn't see pete giving them away, though i can't say roger was going for aces. on to point 3...

3) perhaps pete was trying to play possum but he was taking a lot of time between points in the third set. roger was always ready to serve, but pete took a long time to step in and receive. tired? maybe.

4) it wasn't evident from my seat, but based on some of the bounces, there was a bad seam in the service box in deuce court on one side. OR...pete got badly fooled on three second serves. there were three times he was moving in to take it on the rise and had the ball jump at him and glance off his frame. on the last one, i believe when fed was serving at 4-5 in the third, i said to my wife that either pete was looking for topspin serve and got a slice or that he got an atrocious bounce. the woman seated on the other side of me gasped because pete took one of the face. the ball hooked into him (like a slice) rather than bounding up. again, could have been pete making an error caused by a lack of play, but it seemed more likely to be poor management of the laying of the surface.

5) pete's movement was not as lucid as it was in his heyday, but by the middle of the second, he was loose and acquitted himself beautifully.

5) related to that, during the match i was reminded of what former aussie davis cup coach john newcombe said after watching pete defeat pat rafter in DC in 1997. i don't have the exact quote but he described how pate imposed himself physically in person. i could see it somewhat on tv, but in person, he truly is a physical presence, even from the 300 sections. he stalks the court and uses that physicality to own it.

all in all, this was worth every penny i spent on the tickets. i had seen them both live before but seeing them together live, even in an exo, was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill that i will never forget. plus it was the only time in my life that i'll be in the same room as the davis cup. wow.

Posted by Backhand blaster 03/13/2008 at 12:00 AM

I thought the match was great to watch on TV. Loved Pete's article. The racquet Sampras used was the old pro staff, the one he played with on tour, painted over. My guess is he painted over the racquet because Wilson no longer sells them, they stopped making them well before Sampras retired. I am really interested in hearing from people who were actually at the match. Thanks.

Posted by jb (back from NY) 03/13/2008 at 12:24 AM

Very nice piece Pete. I really thought Pete (the 'other' Pete) would take the match. He had gotten into his rhythm, Fed seemed to lose concentration and viola, Pete pounced. Interesting to then see Federer almost visibly pull himself together; its like a lense turned and he was suddenly very sharply in focus and it was game on.

I know it was an 'exhibition', but still, it was fun to watch and I'm glad I was there.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 03/13/2008 at 05:07 AM

I just want to say VO-LAN-DRI.

Filippo won against Roger last year I think? Anyone with Pete Sampras' record would be annoyed to have to play (and lose against) Todd Martin (if I may).

Besides, why is Sampras playing all these guys around then?. It's certainly not for the money and the "grind" as was mentioned above can be difficult. So I agree it's all about the competition and the thrills of of something very special when you step on the court for a match.

I don't think it's an offending thought to see (or hope) Sampras comes back at the right time and at the right tournament even for a very short while.

I have no problem seeing Sampras taking Yeu-Tzuoo Wang, then Wayne Arthurs and Jonas Bjorkman. (That's the real draw of Wimbledon 2007, then of course there was Tomas Berdych in the quarters ....).

Let me dream please. :)

Posted by Ruth 03/13/2008 at 12:26 PM

jhurwi: Sampras has consistently won the majority of his matches against players his own age on the Seniors Tour. His loss to Martin is no more significant than any player's single loss to another player he normally would beat (see Federer and any of his losses). Having said that, I agree completely that he is not at all intersted in resuming the daily grind of playing competuitive tennis on the Tour, especially playing in a Slam like Wimbledon (which somwe folk urge him to give a try) where 3/5 matches are the rule.

Posted by Christine 03/13/2008 at 12:47 PM

Thanks for clearing up your article Pete B. Wish I could have seen the match.

Posted by Maplesugar 03/13/2008 at 12:53 PM

nice stuff, Pete!

I enjoyed this exo more than any of the others...Loved the tennis celebrities being there--Emerson, BJ King, Lendl, Pat McEnroe. I even ate up the hype and the entrance of Pete and Roger. It was also fun knowing that people I know were there---plus all those giggles and smiles exchanged between Pete and Rog were priceless.

Posted by Todd and in Charge 03/13/2008 at 04:05 PM

Maplesugar, that was my point about Davis Cup last winter. It was exactly that kind of "event" feel that could and should have been created -- by celebrities, tennis legends, etc -- but which wound up being yet another missed tennis marketing opportunity.

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