Pistol Pete prevails - Sampras returns to Boston, takes Champions Cup
By MIKE FINE
The Patriot Ledger
- For all the years he appeared to be the quintessentially dispassionate tennis star, Pete Sampras showed a true understanding of his surroundings yesterday.
After staving off three match points to take the final five points of a tiebreak set over Todd Martin to win the Champions Cup, Sampras told the Agganis Arena crowd, ‘‘I don’t know if you guys heard, I believe the New York Yankees just signed Roger Clemens.’’
Don’t let anyone say that Sampras and his fellow slightly-over-the-hill pros don’t have a feel for their surroundings.
‘‘It’s like a religion,’’ he said of the Sox fans. ‘‘I’ve never seen anything like it. Being from L.A., people are passionate, but here, it’s a whole new ballgame.’’
Indeed, the principals in the Outback Champions Series, which features former Grand Slam winners, know that they’re participating in a whole new ballgame, too. There have been senior tours before, but series creator Jim Courier, who finished fourth after losing to John McEnroe, has assembled a strong group of players whose talents are being appreciated in some carefully chosen locations.
Sampras used this Boston stop on the tour to return to competitive tennis nearly five years after retiring. His match against McEnroe on Saturday drew 4,720 fans, while yesterday’s two matches drew in another 3,560. The tennis is surprisingly good. These are mostly late 30-something players who aren’t far removed from their ATP careers, and while the rallies aren’t as long and the footwork might not be as crisp, the strokes are there, as is the power and the finesse.
Knowing this, Courier, a former top-ranked player who’s co-founder of InsideOut Sports, which runs the tour, has selected seven locations that he figures will appreciate the pros’ talents. The first stop was in Naples, Fla., in March, and now that Boston is over, it moves on to its only non-U.S. venue, Athens, Greece, May 17.
Courier is in the unique position as one of the players who takes these $142,000 tourneys very seriously (McEnroe at one point shouted at a linesman, ‘‘What line are you watching, pal?’’), and he’s also the man whose head is on the line.
‘‘From a playing perspective, I’ve got a few things to work on,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m looking forward to hitting the playing court in the next few days to try tighten things up before I head over to Greece. From the InsideOut perspective, this tournament has grown exponentially since our first year last year at Bosse Sports Club (Sudbury), which is a fantastic venue. We had about 2,300 to 2,500 seats and were sold out over the weekend, which was great, and this year we’ve had even more people. We’ve had a really significant uptick in awareness. I think more people in the city felt the buzz because it’s a year in, so there’s a little bit of that recognition of how was it last year, what it’s gonna be like this year. Adding Sampras has certainly added some extra buzz as well.’’
Courier is well aware that Boston has been missing something over the years - professional tennis. There is none, other than the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis, but the sport has otherwise been moribund for many years. The last major event held in Boston might have been the Davis Cup quarterfinals at Longwood Cricket Club in 1999. For many years, Longwood hosted a major tournament, the U.S. Pro Championships, which at one time was a tuneup for the U.S. Open. The Tournament began in 1964 and lasted until 1999, but by then it was little more than an exhibition for second-level players.
In the 1970s, tennis was so big that the Virginia Slims Tour staged events at the site of the South Shore Sports Center in Hingham, which was originally Old Colony Tennis Club. The event moved at one point to an old aircraft hangar that had been converted to a tennis club at Marina Bay in Quincy. Elsewhere around New England, the Volvo International Tennis Tournament, played on a 10,000-seat arena carved into the side of North Conway’s Cranmore Mountain, was a huge draw for Greater Boston fans. That tournament eventually moved to Stratton and then New Haven as the Pilot Pen tourney. It signaled the waning of professional tennis availability.
Courier has done his homework.
‘‘This not something we’ve taken lightly,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s something that takes a lot of energy and effort and manpower and brainpower from the other part of my company. We’ll see if we’re able to sustain this. I think there’s a market for this. I think this week shows that there’s an appetite for this brand of Boston.
‘‘As we look across the sports landscape and look for opportunities, certainly we seek places like Boston, like Charlotte and a lot of other major markets that are lacking in top-flight professional tennis with big names, and as you watch the ATP and WTA tour take more tournaments off the table, shrink the calendar and send more and more overseas, you recognize that American tennis fans in particular are going to get shortchanged unless there are some other alternatives, albeit exhibitions or the Outback Championship Series.’’
Having Sampras participate was huge. Having him look quite like the old Pete Sampras, who was ranked No. 1 for a record-breaking six years (1993-98), will only create that buzz Courier is looking for.
‘‘It would be really tough to beat him but I feel like I’ve done my job,’’ McEnroe said. ‘‘Basically I’ve passed the torch. I’ve done my best to try to make this a viable option for tennis fans in playing in the Champions and seniors tours. I feel it can add something to our sport. Back when Jimmy Connors started the tour back in the early 90s, before I even started playing, I was 35. The past dozen, 13 years, I’ve been playing pretty consistently, probably 10 to 12 events a year, supported it. Now in order for it to remain successful you have to have people like Pete play.’’
‘‘The bar is already very, very high the last year and a half,’’ Courier said, ‘‘but there’s no question when you bring in 14 major titles in one body that you have to recognize that it’s going to get tougher.’’
Mike Fine may be reached at email@example.com .
Copyright 2007 The Patriot Ledger
Transmitted Monday, May 07, 2007