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A very interesting take on the Sampras-Fed exhibitions.

Something to Lose in a Just-for-Fun Match


There was a point in the second-set tie breaker when Pete Sampras timed Roger Federer’s first serve and clocked a forehand down the line. A step inside the baseline, Federer could only watch the ball land, a clean winner, and turn away in dismay.

Was it an improvised response, part of the theatrics? Only the expert eye might identify the staged from the serious, but something told me right then that Federer did not really wish to be extended Monday night, pushed into a third set, all the way to having to rally from 2-5 down to win, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6), no matter the post-match spin.

“To play against a childhood hero in Madison Square Garden was a great honor for me,” Federer said.

Classy, as usual, but the question lingers: What besides a payday and a friendship with his hero did Federer have to gain by meeting Sampras on Sampras’s turf, in front of a raucous sellout crowd that included Federer’s good buddy, Tiger Woods?

Their exhibition series has on the surface been a fun, inter-generational fantasy, pitting Sampras, the leader in Grand Slam tournament victories with 14, against Federer, needing two to tie, three to transcend.

Seven years after Federer beat Sampras in their only tour meeting (in the fourth round at Wimbledon) and after four years of virtual invincibility, Federer finds himself on a losing streak of sorts, the result of a recent bout with mononucleosis perhaps, or improved competition.

Novak Djokovic outhit him in the semifinals of the Australian Open early this year. Andy Murray bounced him in the first round in Dubai last week. Even Sampras, 10 years Federer’s senior, finished their three-match Asian jaunt on the winning side, albeit on a court so fast that the result was more suspect than the typical exhibition, or X/O, as the players call them.

On the slower surface Monday night, Sampras shook off his nerves, was able to unload his serves, climbed a rung or two on the ladder for his trademark smash. From 0-2 in the third set, he went on a five-game run that made Federer look a little unhinged.

“All of a sudden it was almost over,” he said. “I was pretty shocked.”

Does anybody really lose in an X/O? Typically, no. But against a 36-year-old, great as Sampras was, with the whole world (and probably Djokovic and Rafael Nadal) watching?

“The other guys are always looking for little ******,” Ivan Lendl, a co-promoter of the match, had said before Sampras and Federer carted their combined 26 Grand Slam tennis titles onto the blue carpet.

It is often said there is a point most No. 1 players reach where the others view them differently, with near-reverence, if not fear. Federer climbed that pedestal and has remained there by seeming to control time itself.

As Lendl explained, the truly gifted have an uncanny ability to make us believe the clock moves differently for them. “In every sport, all the athletes like Gretzky and Jordan, they all look like they have a little more time than anybody else,” he said.

How long can Federer maintain that shotmaker’s edge measured in milliseconds? After hitting with him last spring, Sampras went out of his way to say that Federer’s opponents, by abandoning serve-and-volley tennis and staying back, give him too much time to decide where to send the next stroke of genius.

They need to attack, the way Sampras contemporaries like Boris Becker and Patrick Rafter did, and who better than him to use a few X/Os to demonstrate the fundamentals of speeding the game up?

“Obviously I’ve got more time on my hands,” a grateful Sampras said. “He’s the one trying to win majors and stay No. 1.” He called the exhibitions “a treat for me, in a way.”

Treat, or trick? Not to say Sampras diabolically baited Federer into these matches, but which player was exposing his ego, risking his stature?

Sampras could lose, admit to being 36. He could do well, back up the argument he made last summer, have everyone flatter him with questions about another run on the Wimbledon grass that he has already said he has no intention of making. A good thing, too, given the difference between exhibition tennis and the Grand Slam grind across the steamy summer.

Those are the conditions Federer faces week after week, staying on his pedestal, trying to convince the others it is his rightful place, from now until he makes his long, anticipated historical claim.

Sampras has said he doubted the climb from 12 Grand Slam titles to 15 will be problematic for the 26-year-old Federer, but isn’t it fascinating how Sampras, retired since 2002, restrung his rackets and recalibrated his serve just as Federer closed in?

What was the restless competitor inside the Sampras subconscious trying to say? What, if anything, has he set out to do, or undo?

By the finish Monday night, he had only inflicted a few nicks at the Garden, without drawing blood. That’s a job for Djokovic and Nadal. Care to guess which way Federer’s new friend Sampras will be rooting at home?

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On the slower surface Monday night, Sampras shook off his nerves, was able to unload his serves, climbed a rung or two on the ladder for his trademark smash. From 0-2 in the third set, he went on a five-game run that made Federer look a little unhinged.
Did I miss something?
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