Tag Archives: tennis

The last match of James Blake

Source: AOL

I bought so many headbands in the fall of 2005. Not the 90s fashionable kind for women, mind you, the athletic kind. I bought a black headband and a Carolina blue headband with the white Nike swoosh, a red headband with the black Jordan jump-man logo and, knowing my taste in tropical colors, probably something neon yellow.

I bought all of these headbands because of James Blake. He had become my favorite athlete. Continue reading

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Unsolicited Endorsements XXXV

Because sometimes you just want friends to tell you about cool things… the Brew House team offers up its weekly mix of author-supported goodness.

Remembering: Joe Posnanski on Andy Roddick

We know why both of these guys are in the news right now. Continue reading

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Breaking point

Damn the summer sporting scene. Daytime events just don’t fit into schedules of the working individual.

I, a sportswriter nonetheless, spent the morning at Starbucks sipping on a frappucino (Java Chip) while writing a story for a special high school sports summer section (concussions).*

*The job sure beats digging ditches, eh?

This, of course, meant no World Cup. This was the second time in a row I would miss the U.S. team’s match. I had already missed the coach’s son’s kick and the infamous referee from Mali. What more could I miss? It couldn’t get any worse than that, right?

At around 11 a.m., I received a text from fellow BrewHouse writer Rustin Dodd, bearing this message: Do you believe in miracles? YES!.

My response was acute: Damn it I missed the goal. I really need to start slacking more at work and watch more sports.

Quickly, I received a phone call and scheduled an interview for another story I was working on. Minutes later, Rustin called. He asked me if I had been watching Wimbledon, if I had been paying attention lately to the John Isner match.

The answer was a mild yes. As much as it pained me to miss Team USA play its last two matches, no sporting hurt caused by a work schedule stings as much as the type doled out during the summer Grand Slam schedule. The French Open and Wimbledon are nearly impossible to watch live. Nearly impossible.

Going into today, I knew about the Taylor Dent-Novak Djokovic match, Federer’s match against the qualifier and about Isner and Nicolas Mahut. I planned to check the scores on the Internet as I worked. That’s really all I could do in order to stay productive.

And then Rustin called. I told him I had checked the Isner score about an hour ago and saw that it was 11-10 in the fifth. I had already thought this score was both surprising and outstanding.

And then Rustin served up the ace. He said it was 27-27 in the fifth set.

I had two choices: stay at the coffee shop and refresh the scoring page every minute or go home and put work on the back burner for a little while.

I chose to speed home. And I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

At first, the Isner-Mahut match played out like a moment of triumphant history happening live on TV. I made a sandwich and watched. Surely it would end soon but hopefully not too soon. I did want to watch some of it.

After a few minutes, it was 30-30. Then 33-33. And I began noticing something.

Isner really didn’t appear to be moving around the court well when he wasn’t serving. It wasn’t that he was dogging it, no, not at all. He’s 6-foot-9, and he was exhausted.

As for Mahut, he appeared to be in ridiculous shape, at a nearly perfect fitness level for a tennis player. He wasn’t going to tucker out, yet he couldn’t return Isner’s bullet serves.

This was an obvious conundrum. Neither player was going to get a break and thus the match would last forever.
I mentioned this to my roommate, Joe, who was at home eating lunch. Hearing this, he decided that we should change the channel and play FIFA. I agreed, but was then interrupted by a phone call from a source.

For 45 minutes, I discussed with him his time in the military, typing out the words furiously. They passed through my mind, and I comprehended them, but it sounded like Isner and Mahut were the ones talking. I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

But it had been 45 minutes. The match had already lasted longer than any in history by a hell of a lot. I know I made that comment about this match having the potential to literally last forever, but it was half in jest.

The score was 48-48 when I returned to the living room. I sat.

And sat.

And sat.

Sitting on the couch, I began to feel like my life was intertwined with this match and that everyone else who watched felt the same way. We had given up part of our day, given up productivity, given up time, and we had to see that our sacrifice would pay off in the form of seeing the end of a historical sporting event.

But it never ended.

It was pleasure, yet torture at the same time. It felt like we were all out there on Court 18, rewarded with the joy of tennis but punished with having to experience tennis and nothing else for eternity.

Normalcy, i.e. our job, our day, our families etc., couldn’t resume until this match ended, until one of the sweating men hit match point and that Rolex game clock on the side of the court stopped.

Around 3:45 p.m., this nearly happened. Isner had two break points and quite a few other opportunities on Mahut’s serve. There were only four break points in the entire fifth set, and here were two of them. This was it. This was perfect, right at dusk. Life could resume with still an hour left in the traditional working day.

But, as a Guardian blogger, Xan Brooks, put it, (and you must check out his hilarious live blog): “A tweet, a tweet from Mr. Andy Murray. “This,” he says, “is why tennis is one of the toughest sports in the world.” Thanks for that Andy: wise words indeed. Actually we were hoping you were tweeting to say when the angel was coming to rescue us all. Instead we get that. You sit comfortably, and eat your nice dinner, and spare us the tweets. Unless they’re about the angel, that is. We still have hopes for the angel. And ooh look, it’s 57-games all.”

Murray hadn’t invested himself in this match. He could eat his “comfortable dinner.” I had invested. The Guardian blogger had. Anyone who gave up their time to watch tennis had.

And while we watched, at least on TV, we didn’t quite notice that the dusk was turning into straight darkness. The game was tied at 59 when the two players approached the umpire.

Mahut wanted to postpone the match. Isner didn’t. The umpire seemed to want to play another two games (like that would help).

Mahut won. AND WE ALL LOST.

So now here I am, almost 11 at night. I wanted room for summer sports in my daily life but not like this. I can’t sleep. I can only think of awe and disgust but mainly awe about tennis.

And it will only increase. Closure hasn’t come yet and might not for a while. Isner and Mahut resume their marathon on Thursday, meaning daily life shifts back to Court 18 for a little while longer.

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The Chronicles of Roddick

Editor’s note: So I was slated to do a story on Andy Roddick last summer because he was going to appear at the now-defunct Indy Tennis Championships and interviewed numerous people, like his brother, his mom, Sam Querrey, Robby Ginepri, Patrick McEnroe and even Johnny Mac. And I was on a quick conference call with Roddick himself. Anyways, he bailed out because of injury and I never got to write the story. UNTIL NOW. A year later, and about 2,000 words longer, we get this…

As a rule, tennis doesn’t reward those who take their time. The sport caters to the fleet-footed and swift-minded. It goes without saying that a player can’t think at length about whether he hit his groundstroke deep enough to put his opponent at a disadvantage and thus should rush the net.

A player must react. A player must decide. A player must be ready to change in a match – be it a change of position, strategy or mental state.

This rule of tennis, of course, applies everywhere throughout the sport and not just in the basics of play.

Yes, transformations are rapid. Metamorphoses seem to occur overnight if not quicker. Sam Stosur was barely a top 50 player a year ago. She’s now a contender in Grand Slams. Robin Soderling was dubiously known as one of the ATP’s best indoor court players. He’s now seen by many as the best player behind Federer and Nadal.

Yet as rapidly as players’ fortunes rise and fall on the courts, their reputations change faster. Andre Agassi was a rebellious prodigy whose shallow persona prevented his play from reaching its ultimate depth. Then he was a wise philanthropist, a man who made use of his talent to reach out to others.

Federer was a talented headcase. Then he was the undisputed king of tennis. Then he was washed up. Then he was back on his throne, the billowy white jacket with a gold 15 emblazoned the lower corner at last year’s Wimbledon illustrating that.

Federer slipped on that jacket after a match against Andy Roddick that lasted 30 games into the fifth set. It was in those five sets, in those 30 games that a transformation, rapid even by tennis’ standards, occurred.

When it was over, Roddick was the bruised and battered hero. He was vulnerable. He was wounded.

And we saw that.

One day we felt iffy about Roddick, the next day we admired him.

This is about that transformation. This is about the origins. This is about a man who was misunderstood for so long.

This is about him, and it’s about us.

Why didn’t we feel passionate about Roddick from the beginning? Why did we have to change?

What took us so long to like Andy Roddick?

***
The rule was no basketball. And that was an order straight from Roddick’s coach, Tarik Benhabiles. He coached one of the top juniors in the country, and he didn’t want to see him get injured playing something that wouldn’t improve his tennis.

This wasn’t a typical rule for a tennis prodigy. Can you imagine a young Ivan Lendl even considering picking up a basketball?
But Roddick was never like the others. A tennis life for an ordinary kid began, where else, the Midwest. There, in Omaha, Roddick joined a class of 7-year-olds at Westroads Racquet Club. He was 3 1/2.

Blanche Roddick, his mother, knew he would fail. She only enrolled him because the class would shut down for good if another student didn’t join. So she signed him up.

“If you want to get rid of him,” Blanche would tell the instructor, “go ahead.”

Nobody got rid of Roddick. Even if he wasn’t better than the rest of the class, they couldn’t have. He would stand in front of the club’s rebound wall and pound the yellow ball endlessly, not budging for anyone.

Years went by and Roddick improved and he hit a growth spurt and soon he was one of the better young Americans and then one of the best young players in the world. He still wore a hole-covered Nebraska Cornhuskers hat when he played. He still spent his formative years in the Midwest. He still played basketball.

And when his family finally did move to Florida to further his tennis career, Benhabiles began working with him the way a typical coach would work with a tennis prodigy.

And one of his rules was no basketball.

So one night Roddick told Blanche he planned to see some friends, left the house and came back late. Blanche scanned the paper the next day and stumbled upon the box score from the Boca Prep basketball game. There, printed among the Boca players who scored, she found an interesting name. It was Andy Roddick.

***
Robby Ginepri knows a Roddick none of us know, the one without the Mach 3 serve and baggy Lacoste polo.

“He was a grinder,” Ginepri says.

Roddick had to be a grinder. He was small, almost comically small until midway through his high school career. The wall measurements were posted in the Roddick’s house in Austin, and Blanche can’t remember his exact height by his early teens, but…

“He couldn’t have been more than five feet,” she says.

This meant that Roddick came up with deceptive ways to win points. This meant that he put himself in better condition. This meant that he outworked his opponents so that he still finished near the top of the 14-and-unders despite standing smaller than all but one of the top 128 in the rankings.

But he did grow, and he grew into, well, Patrick McEnroe tells it through this story.

Tennis has taken McEnroe all over the world and then back to those places again, every year, as a commentator and a Davis Cup coach. Yet he vividly remembers Basel.

It was 2001. He was a freshly-minted Davis Cup coach and high on his list of priorities was finding a spot for a teenager who had not only turned professional but rose higher than any young player ever had. That player was, of course, Roddick.

McEnroe invited him to Basel for a match against Switzerland and held a practice for the entire team on the day they arrived. Todd Martin was there, so too were Justin Gimelstob and Jon-Michael-Gambill, and jet lag threw off everyone’s timing.

Roddick stepped on the court and began rifling 140 mph serves like he was in a Grand Slam match. McEnroe turned to Martin. He saw energy, and he still saw that grind-it-out mentality.

“I’ve seen that side in Andy many times in distant lands,” McEnroe says, “and it’s something few people have.”

***
“Andy Roddick can’t find the remote either.”
L. Jon Wertheim used that sentence to begin an SI story on Roddick shortly after he won the 2003 U.S. Open. You get it, right? In a tennis world where top players like Marcelo Rios ran over their trainers in SUV’s and punched Roman taxi drivers, Roddick never missed a Nebraska football game and played poker with Mardy Fish and James Blake.

He may have dated Mandy Moore and earned millions of dollars, but he was one of us. Roddick was the everyman.

Of course, he was one of us back then because he just won the U.S. Open. In September of 2003 the future of American tennis established himself as the present.

He had a world-record cannon serve. He had a sense of humor, too. He’d poke fun at media members during otherwise boring press conferences.

But he wasn’t Pete or Andre.

A few years later, we discovered that. He lost in the first rounds of Grand Slams, and when he did reach the semifinals or finals, we knew he didn’t have a chance. And he didn’t. By 2008, Roddick had never won that second, third, fourth or fifth Grand Slam like we expected.

His serve no longer struck awe. He was called one-dimensional, lazy. His outbursts to the media weren’t hilarious but instead moody and aloof.

He still advanced deep into the draws of most Grand Slams. He planted himself in the top 10, finishing eighth or higher for the year-end rankings every year since 2002. He helped several people escape a hotel fire in Rome. He started the Andy Roddick Foundation, a charity unmatched by anyone in tennis except for Agassi. Through it he started tennis academies in poor areas and sent tons of kids, including a young Jozy Altidore, to school at Boca Prep.

“Where would be without him?” McEnroe asks.

Where would we be without him? Did we even notice that we had him? Everything Roddick did seemed to spur feelings of apathy, or worse.

I remember the fall of 2008. Roddick played an early round match at the U.S. Open against Ernests Gulbis. Gulbis was a rising star, a young Latvian riding a summer hot streak. I remember watching the beginning of the match at a friend’s house and mentioning to the group you wanted Gulbis to win.

They shrugged their shoulders.

They felt the same way.

***
There’s another layer to McEnroe’s story about Basel. The U.S. lost that Davis Cup match to Switzerland, and the main reason why McEnroe remembers, was because of a young man named Roger Federer.

That same man was wearing white on championship Sunday at Wimbledon last year and staring across the net at Roddick like he had so many times before. Roddick was 2-18 against Federer in his career.

Then the match started, and Roddick won the first set, and he had the second set won if he just made that volley. But he didn’t. He did come back to win another set though, and it went to the fifth, then it went to the 22nd game, then the 24th, then the 28th and Roddick still hadn’t been broken.

Yet no matter what we may have thought there was no way he was going to win. Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras had come to England to watch. This was about the coronation of Roger Federer. A dreamer serving aces on fumes wasn’t about to change that.

And Roddick didn’t. He did get broken. He did have to watch Federer put on that white jacket with a golden 15 emblazoned on the side and hear him apologize for the defeat.

Later, night fell on Wimbledon and McEnroe rushed over to Roddick’s rented townhouse to see if he’d be able to play in the Davis Cup event the next weekend.

Roddick was there with his wife, Brooklyn Decker, his trainer, Doug Spreen, and coach, Larry Stefanki. He was gutted. He was defeated.

McEnroe couldn’t do much to change that, but he felt he needed to say something.

“I know this isn’t going to make you feel any better,” McEnroe said, “but you’ve earned more fans with this loss than you did with any of your wins.”

The next week Roddick traveled to New York so a doctor could check on his hip. People stopped him on the streets, more than ever had before. They all gave him words of encouragement.

“I couldn’t go a block without people telling me how much they enjoyed the match,” he says.

Perhaps Joe Posnanski captured the zeitgeist best by writing “he offered that rare fan feeling: He made me feel like we had been through something together.”

It was true. Roddick had played with the guts of the grinder Ginepri knows, with the rebelliousness and joy of the kid who snuck out for a basketball game, with the energy McEnroe has seen thousands of times away from the TV cameras.

Really, he played the way he’s always played: the way we had previously never noticed.

Roddick didn’t change. We did. That quickly, how it always is in tennis, we converted.

We couldn’t get enough of Andy Roddick.

***
The draws are out for this summer’s Wimbledon. Roddick is ranked fifth and is placed in Novak Djokovic’s quarter. TV reports, blogs and news stories will bring up last year thousands of times over the next few days. They’ll show the English crowd chanting Roddick’s name as he vainly tried to win in the fifth set.

Then on Monday, the matches will begin. Flashbacks to last year will stop. Roddick will have to defeat six opponents, possibly Djokovic and Federer, just to get back to the Final.

It won’t be easy. He lost to Dudi Sela at a Wimbledon tune up last week. He played well on the hard courts in the spring but has slogged through injuries and inconsistencies the last two months.

Many wonder if Roddick has been able to recover from last year’s Wimbledon. The match that marked his mid-career resurrection and endeared him to us could have caused permanent damage to his game.

To be able to advance deep into the draw, he’ll have to forget about it. He’ll have to forget that he did everything he could against Federer for five hours and still couldn’t win.

As for us, we’ll remember. We’ll watch him hit bullet serves on the pristine grass and remember.

Our views of Roddick changed suddenly in one afternoon, and now we can take our time admiring his career.

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The Ghost of Pete Sampras

The man in the white hat slowly bows his head and wipes sweat from his eyes. His fingernails are chewed raw, his feet are burning, and his eyes — those unforgettable eyes — tell the story of man who was blessed with a gift… and cursed with a burden.

The man in the white hat is America’s Only Hope.

And so America’s Only Hope — a man who was born in Omaha, raised in Austin, and trained in Boca Raton — is here, in a faraway land, staring across the net at a 21-year-old kid from Croatia.

He shakes his head. He rolls his head. He looks on in disbelief.

He throws a towel to the ground. There isn’t much time left.

How did he get here? How did this happen? How?

Once again, he wipes sweat from his eyes. The baking sun beats down. And the Australians in the crowd are silent.

They already know the ending.

Andy Roddick is about to lose again.

**

He is America’s Only Hope. He is the greatest men’s player in a country with more than 300 million people.

And yet, he is a failure.

He is one of only two men to be ranked in the top 10 continuously from 2002 to the present.

And yet, he is a failure.

He is America’s Only Hope — the only American man capable of winning on the biggest stages in tennis.

And yet…

They’ve always measured Andy Roddick against the titans of his era. And, of course, he is lacking. He doesn’t have Federer’s grace. He doesn’t have Nadal’s toughness.

Sometimes, they measure him against his American forebearers. And, of course, he is lacking. He doesn’t have Agassi’s dominant return game. He doesn’t have McEnroe’s intensity.

But Andy Roddick’s biggest weakness — his most glaring flaw — has always been something that he couldn’t control.

Andy Roddick’s greatest flaw hovers over him, haunting him in on the blue courts of Melbourne and the dirt of Roland Garros.

The Ghost chases him around the grass at Wimbledon… and it trails him at the U.S. Open, existing in the fog under the lights of Flushing Meadows.

The ghost is always there. And he can’t do anything about it.

Andy Roddick isn’t Pete Sampras.

***

I think of Pete Sampras every January.

Each January, the Australian Open begins, ushering in another year of tennis.

There is snow on the ground in Kansas, but the sun shines in Oz. The best players in the world descend on Melbourne Park. And as they compete under a blue heaven, battling for hours and hours in the midst of Australia’s golden summer, I think of Pete Sampras.

People will remember Peter Sampras, of course. They’ll have to. He left them no choice.

They’ll remember Sampras, the stoic with a serve for the gods. They’ll remember Sampras, the King of the All-England club, the handsome American with jet-black hair who conquered Wimbledon seven times. And they’ll remember Sampras, the steady foil who spent a decade providing agony for Andre.

They have to remember Agassi and Sampras, the great American tennis rivalry, with its two leading men competing in a theater filled with compelling contradictions.

And when they think of Pete and Andre, they’ll think of Andy and the torch he was supposed to carry.

They’ll think of what Roddick was supposed to be.

And then they’ll think about what Andy has become.

He isn’t Pete the Great. He isn’t Pistol Pete, the greatest American tennis player of our time.

To me, Roddick is fascinating. But I don’t want to forget about Pete.

Of course, history is a funny thing. It vary rarely is an accurate description of the past. Most of the time, it’s an amalgamation – a mish-mash – of people’s thoughts, memories and perceptions.

And when those people are gone, and they take their old, rusty memories with them, we are left with nothing but watered down memories of the past, nothing but old reprints of the Mona Lisa.

So yes, I don’t want to forget about Pete.

***

This week, Roger Federer, perhaps the greatest tennis player who ever swung a forehand, won another match on the blue courts of Melbourne Park. He took down a Russian, Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals of the Australian, and later this week, he’ll play in the semifinals.

With two more victories, Federer will win his 16th Grand Slam title and put an early-season stamp on his case for being the most dominant tennis player of all-time.

His case is overwhelming.

Federer has won 15 Grand Slam titles (6 Wimbledons, 5 U.S. Opens, 3 Australian Opens and one French Open), one ahead of Sampras, who won seven Wimbledons, five U.S. Opens and two Australian Open titles.

Sampras’ last Australian title came in January of 1997, when he beat Spain’s Carlos Moya for his ninth Grand Slam. He was the greatest player in the world then, perhaps the greatest force the game of tennis had ever seen.

His serve was dominating, at times unreturnable, and he complimented his greatest gift with a sledgehammer forehand and an overhead that seemed to ripple the clouds.

It’s hard to believe that that was 12 years ago.

The world was a different place then. Barack Obama was a young Chicagoan serving his first year in the Illinois state senate.
Tiger Woods was a couple of months away from his historic 1997 Master’s victory, and Federer was just 15 years old, a young boy in Switzerland who had only begun to discover his other-worldly talent.

And now, of course, we are in a different time.

The world keeps moving, and tennis balls are hit harder, and America still leans on Roddick — its only hope — while searching for its next generation of tennis stars.

Sampras will turn 39 in August. The world tells him he’s still young, but in tennis, he’s a gargoyle. And all we have left are the memories.

***

To understand my view of Sampras, you have to understand my family. My family was a tennis family. My mom and dad started playing tennis in the 70s as the exercise boom was sweeping the country. They joined a neighborhood racquet club.* My dad played in a men’s group. My mom would play in a women’s league, and they played together in a mixed doubles groups.

*It was called Nall Hills Country Club, named for the housing neighborhood where I grew up. The name was a little ironic, though, because there wasn’t really anything country club about it. It had a handful of outside courts, a decent-sized pool and a small clubhouse. That was about it. No golf course, no grand ballroom, not snooty members or dress codes. It suited us fine. We weren’t really a country club family.

Tennis wasn’t just a sport. It was a weekly event. A way to bond.

Then my older sister came into the world in the late 70s — an era where girls were just beginning to compete in youth sports in large numbers.

My parents aren’t particularly tall people. And perhaps they hoped they had the next Chrissy Evert or Tracy Austin. Anyway, they dragged my sister to the old neighborhood club and put a racquet in her hands.

My brother came next, then another sister, and I finally showed up in 1986. Around that time the old neighborhood club closed its doors. My parents were saddened. They’d made a lot of friends at that club, and they’d played a lot matches on those old outdoor courts.

But we were still a tennis family. So we joined one of those new indoor racquet clubs that I imagine started appearing quite frequently in the late 70s and early 80s.

We spent a lot of time at that club. When I was just beginning to play, I would spend hours at the snackbar. I’d order a Red Cream Soda from the soda fountain, and to this day, I don’t think any soft drink has ever tasted better.

I’d wander around that club all day. I’d watch matches from balcony railings above the courts. And I’d find an open racquetball court and slam forehand after forehand against the wall, pretending to be Sampras or Courier or Michael Chang.

I can still hear the sounds of that indoor club. I can still smell that place.

I can hear the ball being shot out the ball machines. I can still smell the snackbar – that combination of popcorn and thrown together turkey sandwiches and all those other little snackbar smells. I can see dozens of 6-and 7-year-olds hitting nerf tennis balls over tiny portable nets. I can hear the sound of hundreds of perfectly struck forehands… and the echo of a tennis ball striking those heavy black leather curtains that hung behind each court.

And I can hear the voice of my father, sending out strict instructions…

OK, forehand cross-court, backhand down the line, forehand crosscourt, backhand down the line.

We all played junior tennis. Each age group would have a rankings ladder. If you wanted to challenge someone above you, you just called them up and set up the match. On the weekends, the top six players would play the top six from another local club.

Those matches meant everything. We might as well have been playing at Flushing Meadows with the lights on and the whole world watching.

***

Sampras wasn’t supposed to be the great one. I think that’s what I loved about him.

I don’t remember the 1990 U.S. Open. After all, I was only four. I was more interested in crawling around my living room floor, watching Sesame Street and eating macaroni.

But it was at the 1990 U.S. Open that the world first found out about Pete Sampras.

He was just 19 years old. He was tall and slender and he had this rugged swath of pitch-black hair.

The world didn’t quite know what to make up him.

Most people don’t realize this, but he was the 12th seed in that tournament. It was a funny tournament all around. Stefan Edberg was the No. 1 seed; he would get bounced in the first round.

So here was Sampras. Here was this young kid with the big serve and quiet nature. He rolled through the first three rounds in straight sets. He beat Thomas Muster in the fourth round, he defeated the once-great Ivan Lendl in the quarters. Lendl had been to eight straight U.S. Open Finals.

He played an aging John McEnroe in the semi-finals. McEnroe was 31, and he was trying to make one last stand, one last-ditch effort at glory at his hometown tournament.

Sampras knocked out Johnny Mac in four sets.

Then came Andre Agassi in the Finals. Agassi was a whole other story. He was a brash kid from Las Vegas with crazy long hair. He was destined to be the great one, destined to be the next big thing in tennis. He had the look, the personality, he was the heir to McEnroe and Connors.

As you may remember, Agassi was the fourth seed at the U.S. Open so, of course, he was favored over Sampras.

Pete beat Andre in straight sets.

I’ve always wondered how that match affected history. You may say that Pete clearly had more talent than Andre, that he had the bigger serve and the bigger forehand, and that he certainly had the better head.

But let’s just say that Andre wins that Open final. Does Pete still have the better career?

I think he does, but I still wonder, how did that final affect Agassi?

***

It was such a strange event. And every year I get older, it seems to get even stranger.

I’m still not sure why the Davis Cup came to Kansas City. And I’m not sure why they played matches at Kemper Arena.

I mean, the Davis Cup is a worldwide event, and sometime in the early 90s, someone decided that the Davis Cup and Kemper Arena would be a winning combination.

It was either 1991 or 1992. I think it was ’92. Of course, we were a tennis family, so my parents made sure we were there.

I went the first night with my brother and dad. It was the night they played singles.

Jim Courier played the first match and lost. I can’t seem to remember who they were playing.

Agassi played the next match and won. They played Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and Agassi had tears in his eyes as the match ended. It was quite a sight.

Sampras didn’t play that night. I don’t think he played in the doubles the next night either, although I could be wrong.

I wish I would have seen Pete play on that night in Kansas City.

I would never see him play in person.

***

Sampras didn’t win a Grand Slam in 1991 or 1992. Perhaps success had come to soon, to early.

He would say later that he needed those years to figure out how to become No. 1.

In 1993, Sampras began to figure things out. He began to master his serve and volley game, he figured out how to beat Courier, and without a doubt Sampras was the best in the world.

He won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1993 and he won the Australian in 1994.
He won Wimbledon again in 1994 and 1995.

He won the U.S. Open in 1995 and 1996.

From 1993 to 2000 Sampras won a Grand Slam every single year. He won 12 out of the 32 Grand Slams during that time span.

Of course, Federer would come along 10 years later and blow Sampras’ mark out the water, but we didn’t know it at the time.

Sampras was simply the best in the world.

I have so many memories of Sampras. Memories of him dominating Agassi. Pummeling poor Andre in to submission.

“I was pretty blessed in my career to have Pete,” Agassi would say. “In other times, I’ve been cursed by him.”

There was the time in the 1999 Wimbledon Final. Sampras dominated Agassi like he never had before. It was an annihilation. A massacre. Andre simply had no answer for Pete. Nobody did.

“He walked on water today,” Agassi would say.

***

Eventually my family would slowly move away from the game of tennis. We stopped belonging to racquet clubs, and we slowly stopped playing as a family.

My oldest sister did play it in college. And she would eventually coach the game too.

My other sister played in high school. But she did so more out of fun and obligation, than out of love for the game.

My brother and I would focus on other sports – namely baseball and basketball.

Eventually, it became too much. My summer tennis got in the way of baseball. And, of course, baseball and tennis shared the same season – Spring – in high school.

Perhaps that’s why I love Pete so much.

After awhile, he became my strongest connection to the sport.

Watching Sampras on Sunday morning in the Wimbledon final took me back to that old tennis club with the Red Cream Soda and tennis lessons and the sound of ball machines.

***

After a decade of dominating, and a decade of keeping his emotions to himself, Pete finally gave us something in 2000.

He was at Wimbledon. He’d won 12 Grand Slam titles, tied with Roy Emerson for the most ever.

He played Pat Rafter* in the Final. His parents were sitting in the stands. They’d never been to Wimbledon before. Sampras was gunning for his seventh Wimbledon title in eight years.

And here were his parents, these seemingly normal people with a son with these brilliant gifts.

They were the exactly opposite of normal tennis parents. They were hands off, they weren’t overbearing. They didn’t need to be in the limelight.

*There’s a funny story about Rafter and Sampras. Pete was always so cordial, such a gentleman. But one day, at a press conference Pete showed his competitive side. As you probably know, Rafter was a great player from Australia. He did win a couple U.S. Opens. And I’ll always remember the sunscreen he caked on to his cheeks. Anyways, one time a reporter must have been doing a feature on Pat Rafter, and he wanted Sampras to compare himself to Rafter.

“What’s the biggest difference between you and Pat,” the reporter asked.
Sampras, a little perturbed, looked blankly at the poor guy and said, “You mean, other than 10 Grand Slam titles?”

Sampras won, of course. And after the match, he climbed into the stands, found his parents, hugged his father and broke down.

He’d won his 13th Grand Slam, more than anybody in the history of tennis.

His father hugged him back. He cried too.

***

In the 2001 Wimbledon, Sampras returned to Wimbledon to attempt to win his fifth straight title. Instead, he lost to some young 19-year-old kid named Roger Federer. It was a historic passing of torch, except nobody knew it at the time. It was the only tour match they’d ever play.

Eight years later, we have a new perspective.

Federer has been a brilliant Swiss revelation. A powerful storm of grace, skill and humility.

He’s a champion for the ages.

And then there’s Nadal, perhaps the greatest clay-courter who ever lived, and now he’s making his own history.

It’s tough to say how Sampras and Federer would stack up in their prime.

Federer can probably claim to have the most polished, the most refined all-court game.

Unlike Sampras, Federer broke through to win the French last year.

Of course, some people knock Sampras because of his own failures at the French. They call him a two-trick pony. A player who could only be successful on grass and hard courts.

That criticism may be fair. But I don’t know.

I still have this feeling. This feeling that says that if Sampras and Federer were both in their primes, and if they played in the Wimbledon final, Sampras would hang with Federer all day.

***

His career ended just like it began. He stood on center court at Flushing Meadows at the U.S. Open.

On the other side of the net stood Andre, his old nemesis.

That’s where the story ends. An aging Pete beating an aging Andre in the final of the 2002 U.S. Open.

He wouldn’t announce his retirement for another year. It was typical Pete. He always tried to avoid the fanfare, he never wanted to attract too much attention.

After the match, after Pete had held a Grand Slam trophy above his head for the last time, after he had conquered Andre for the last time, after he had hit that serve for the gods one last time, he simply walked off the court.

It was the last tournament he ever played.

**

America’s Only Hope walks off the court in Melbourne, Australia. He is still the only hope.

And yet, Andy Roddick is a symbol — a symbol for a lost generation of American tennis. A generation that couldn’t live up to a legacy of greatness.

They forget sometimes. They forget that Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003.

Of course, that was one year after Sampras’ reign ended. Roddick was supposed to take over.

And now, nearly seven years later, Roddick may never win another Grand Slam.

He lost to Federer in the Wimbledon final in 2009. Roddick would say it was greatest match he ever played.

It wasn’t enough. Federer would win in five sets, 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14.

On Tuesday, he lost to 21-year-old Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals — another excruciating five-set loss.

Afterward, he talked to reporters, and he answered questions about another lost opportunity.

“That’s the way it goes sometimes,” he would say.

And slowly, he started to crack a smile.

And for a moment, the ghost lifted. Andy Roddick isn’t Pete Sampras. And for him — and for all of us — that just might have to be OK.

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Ode to the Aussie Open

A quick thank you to Rustin, for keeping this blog afloat as I slacked for about two weeks. Maybe I’ve just been too busy watching the Australian Open…

If you stare long enough, the rubberized blue surface begins to morph from mere tennis court to bottomless ocean.

This happens after hours of watching the men and women who are standing on top of it as they hit the golden ball back and forth, lulling you with repetition and pulling you under.

And I greatly enjoy sinking into this sea.

The above happens every year; it, in fact, is happening right now. The best tennis players in the world are playing in the world’s most tennis-mad country, Australia, in the Australian Open.

Rafael Nadal thrashed his first two opponents then needed a little extra effort against Philipp Kohlschreiber. Roger Federer had a little trouble in round one. America’s sweetheart Melanie Oudin lost, so too did Motherhood’s sweetheart, Kim Clijsters. Serena Williams didn’t threaten anyone yet. Justine Henin upset a top-10 player. And James Blake came heartbreakingly close to beating Juan Martin del Potro in five sets.

There’s the hot news from Australia. The short summary tells everything that’s apparent on the surface.

But the Australian open has never really been about what’s on the surface. Indeed, the literal surface has changed several times throughout the years. As recently as 1987, the major was played on grass courts. Since then, it’s moved to the greenish Rebound Ace to what it is now: the deep blue Plexicushion.

Anyways, like I said, the Australian Open is about so much more than surface characteristics. The tennis played there once a year is the kind that makes you think.

In a way, tennis has always been like that. It’s only natural. Games of tennis begin with the score at Love-Love, and the back and forth patter of the ball from each person’s racket creates a steady rhythm incomparable to any other sport.

All kinds of writers have captured this sort of phenomena. A book called “Tennis and the Meaning of Life” features brilliant authors all telling their tennis stories.

With that book containing only pieces of fiction, the Australian Open gets no mention. In real life, though, the event is mesmerizing, boasting a setting, a time and place, no work of tennis fiction can match.

That time is, of course, right now, in January. I suspect many people would consider January the worst month of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the only month that doesn’t include a real holiday (no offense to MLK, but that doesn’t count). It’s the only month that doesn’t include warm weather. It’s a month that follows Chrismukah and New Year’s Eve and the college football season.

And it’s a month of transition. A new year has begun and with it comes all the hopes and challenges of something different.
For college students, the second semester begins. For businesses, the new fiscal year starts. The classes might get easier, or they might not. Investors might become bullish or they might not.

In short, January is a month of harsh uncertainty. There are no breaks from the routine and no breaks from the conditions.

You’re in Dallas. You’re in Kansas City. You’re in New York. You’re in the best place in the world. You’re in the worst place in the world.

You are where you are and transition doesn’t come quick or easy. You push through January knowing the weather will get warmer and that the new problems you encounter will go away when you discover solutions.

But when I watch the Australian Open, it feels like I’m cheating. It feels like the solutions are here, and I’m moving to some place else entirely.

The month is January, yet the women tennis players wear tank tops. The time on your cell phone says 8 p.m., yet Marin Cilic is pounding serves in 99-degree heat and sunlight.

On Sunday, I watched Yanina Wickmayer win her first round match while writing a small piece for the Dallas Morning News. Three years ago, I watched Andy Roddick defeat a young J.W. Tsonga the night before Daily Kansan orientation. Five years ago, I listened to my high school locker partner discuss how he stayed up until 2:30 a.m. so he could watch Marat Safin defeat Roger Federer.

Time, place and circumstances change. The Australian Open doesn’t.

Some may argue this same point about other sporting events. The World Series happens every fall, the NCAA Tournament every spring and so on.

But they don’t carry the same magic as the Australian Open. They don’t take place during one of the strangest times of the year, and they don’t provide such a drastic change to that setting.

And every year, the Australian Open does.

It begins in January and brings with it the comfortable certainty of men and women slapping a ball back and forth over a blue expanse.

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Perspective and Agassi

Before the post, some housekeeping: It’s been a while. Wow, looks like almost three weeks since either of us wrote a blog. Yikes. Well, here’s one, a genuine rambler about Andre Agassi that might or might not make sense. Anyways, let’s hope this starts a hot streak for more posts…

I finished reading the Andre Agassi autobiography a week or so ago.

Everyone knows about this book. We know because of the crystal meth. The passage has been repeated so many times.

Agassi does the drug more than once. He gives it up but not before he tests positive, lies to the ATP and gets released because the ATP believes his painfully bogus excuse.

And for about two weeks everyone cared. Katie Couric interviewed him on “60 Minutes.” Jim Rome talked about it on his TV show. People wrote columns. Sports Illustrated featured that segment in an issue. Ryan Seacrest* even had him on his radio show.

*I’ve now mentioned Ryan Seacrest in consecutive posts. Feel free to make fun of me as much as you please.

Once the meth passage broke, others weighed in. Andy Roddick stood up for Agassi, as did a few other players. Most didn’t. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal expressed dismay, mainly because they said it tainted tennis.*

*This is completely ridiculous, especially for Nadal. Hard-core tennis fans will know that earlier this summer, he stood up for his friend, French tennis player Richard Gasquet, who tested positive for cocaine, another recreational drug. Yet, when Agassi, who did it 10 years earlier and confessed when he really had no need to do so, reveals himself to have done a recreational drug, Nadal expresses anger.

It’s unfortunate that his drug use has caused such a stir because that news has shrouded the importance of his biography. In it, he does what few public figures have done. He gives a clear image of one of the more complex athletes in recent history.

We finally meet the real Andre Agassi.
***
There’s a book, a wonderful book, called “Hard Courts.” John Feinstein wrote it, and in it, he details the 1990 season on the professional tennis tour. No one has written this complete of a book about tennis since.

He writes about a young kid with Greek ancestry named Pete Sampras who surprises everyone at that year’s U.S. Open.

He writes about John McEnroe, who threw maybe his most infamous temper tantrum at the 1990 Australian Open and had to forfeit his match.

He writes about Aaron Krickstein, a young Monica Seles, Peter Graf, the Davis Cup, a very young Jennifer Capriati, and of course, Andre Agassi.

At this point, Agassi was already the villain. He had refused to play at Wimbledon for a couple of years. Clothes, the media would say. Agassi wouldn’t play there because he didn’t want to trade his raggedy jean shorts and tropical t-shirts for Wimbledon white.

Feinstein also mentions his entourage. He talks about Phil Agassi, Gil Reyes and Nick Bolletieri and how they let Agassi get away with everything, how they coddled Agassi.

Feinstein’s view is clear. Other writers at the time were too. Mike Lupica, who Agassi singles out in his book, wrote several negative columns about him.

Agassi was a punk, they all said. He hurt the game because he didn’t care about tennis. He cared about winning fans with publicity stunts, strange fashion and long hair. He threw a Davis Cup match. And don’t even get them started on that “Image Is Everything” commercial.

In his book, Agassi explains. His brother was one of his best friends. They lived off three baked potatoes a day when he started his tennis career. Reyes transformed his body and mentored him in his personal life.
They were familiar. That’s why Agassi wanted them to stick close.

He didn’t throw Davis Cup matches. He tried harder in them.

He chose those strange looking jean shorts for Nike because John McEnroe turned them down, and he thought they looked cool. He didn’t think they would cause a stir.

His hair was long, because he didn’t know who he was yet. The hair was a coping mechanism.

Agassi notes he never told the media any of this because, well, he was immature and didn’t expect anyone to believe it.

But what if he did tell the truth?

If Agassi told us back then that he surrounded himself with his brother, his best friend and Gil Reyes because he was scared and immature; if he told us that he didn’t play Wimbledon because he hadn’t figured out the grass court game yet and wanted to save himself for the other majors; if he told us yeah, he did once throw a match but never would have done that at the Davis Cup; if he told us he shot the “Image” commercial in one quick take because he wanted to spend time with his girlfriend and didn’t think about the message, how would everything have changed?

We already had him penciled in as the rebel, the racket-carrying prima donna.

That was what we knew.
***
The 2006 U.S. Open rolled around, and this was the last go-round for Andre Agassi.

NBC aired a montage of his early, rebel years. The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” played in the background. Then the background music changed and Agassi was bald and winning Grand Slams and earning admiration from crowds.

Yes, Agassi had transformed.

Writers, maybe the same ones who accused him of throwing matches, adored him for his apparent love for the game and the gentleman way he now carried himself off of it.

I recall watching the entire five sets of his second-round night match against Marcos Baghdatis. He easily won the first two sets, then lost the next two. By the end, both men could barely walk. And Agassi won.

He would play one more match, a loss against Benjamin Becker, and afterwards, Agassi blew kisses to the crowd and gave a speech. That had never been done before.

The loser, especially a loser in the U.S. Open’s third round, didn’t speak to the crowd. But we all loved Agassi.

Everyone loved Agassi. James Blake wore a retro, pink and black shirt with a bandana in his first round match out of respect for Agassi. Baghdatis admitted to emulating Agassi’s game when he grew up.

After that match against Becker, after the ovation and speech, all the men in the locker room, except for Jimmy Connors, stopped what they were doing and congratulated him.

In his book, Agassi details this. He also details how on the morning before his match against Baghdatis he thought about how he wanted everything to end and how he hated tennis.

No one knew any of that though. The 2006 U.S. Open was about Agassi because he had said all the right things.

But what if he told the truth?

If Agassi told us he hated tennis, that he couldn’t wait for it to end, that he lied about his love for the sport and how he wanted his son to love it as much as he did, how would everything have changed?

We loved Andre Agassi and thought of him as a hero, a legend, a person who had really changed.

That was what we knew.

***

It’s all out there, now. Everything. That’s why he called the book “Open.”

Who is Andre Agassi?

We finally know.

He hated tennis, hated how his father forced him to play it. He did throw a match once.

And yes, he tried meth when his career and personal life teetered toward disaster and lied about it. But he also donated lots of time and money to save a prematurely born child of one of his friends.

He wasn’t the devil wearing Nike of the early 90s or the saint of 2006.

In reality, he’s always been human.

And we finally figured that out.

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Pistol Pete

*Quick housekeeping note. In case you didn’t notice. Rustin and I combined blogs. We’re still working on getting this site to look cool, but hopefully we’ll have all the bugs out soon. On to the post…

The phone call from Pete Sampras was supposed to arrive at 12:10. Not noon.

“He’s very regimented, always right on time,” his PR guy said.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Sampras was coming to Dallas for an exhibition match against Todd Martin. They play tonight.

As the de facto tennis writer for our paper, I got the assignment (ran in the paper on Thursday). Of course I crave writing these stories. Since about the 2005 U.S. Open, when James Blake had his coming out party, I’ve enjoyed tennis as much as any sport, perhaps except college basketball.

And it’s strange, I seem to levitate more toward tennis with each passing year, each passing Grand Slam. This September I watched at least one match every day during the U.S. Open. Maybe it was because I didn’t have to waste my time doing any homework, or because of the great storylines of Caroline Wozniacki, Melanie Oudin and of course, Roger Federer. I’m not sure. But I watched more tennis than I ever have and read every store there was to read on SI.com.

Anyways, Sampras’ reign ended long before I became a true follower. But I still knew about him. I want to say my first memory of watching tennis involved him. It’s quite fuzzy, but I remember seeing a guy with brown, curly hair playing on TV and then later saying he was my favorite player.

Because of this, because of his 14 Grand Slams and because well, I’m 22 and still new to this writing business, I fretted about the conversation I would be having with Sampras.

I sometimes get nervous before I interview high school cross country coaches. And a tennis legend was going to call my cell phone.

Then I heard that comment from his agent. This made it infinitesimally worse. Yeah, of course I knew Sampras was the silent assassin. He would rock his opponents to sleep before attacking when the match got too close and then say four words about it if he was in a talkative mood. He was great, but he was an enigma. He was either aloof or just quiet.

This scheduled 12:10 thing made it seem like he would call in a hurry, answer questions with short sentences and announce that he had to go after five minutes.

The night before the scheduled interview, I jotted down several questions – something I always do but not as strictly as I did for this. That morning, I arrived to work at about 9:30 and made a few phone calls for some other assignments.

At about 10:30, my phone rang, flashing a 310 area code on the screen. That’s Los Angeles.*

*Why do I know that area code by heart? It must be from this Ludacris song. I’m still upset he didn’t mention the 913, or at least the 816 or 785.

“Hey Mark,” the voice said. “This is Pete. Hope this isn’t too early for you.”

The most regimented man in tennis called me almost two hours before his schedule. He had just dropped off his oldest child at school.

For about 20 minutes, I asked questions. He answered them and went off on his own stories, laughing a few times while telling them.
In sports writing, you’re not supposed to admire or really, get anxious talking to anyone, but when it’s one of the all-time tennis greats, you get nervous that you’re talking to him, and you get nervous that he could come off as too big-time.

Sampras didn’t necessarily ever have a reputation of being hard to deal with, or even having a mean streak, like say, Michael Jordan. But he was never quite open to the public. He was kind of a mystery man.

Because of that and the 12:10 call and warning from his PR guy, I thought this Sampras interview could have gone either way. Any person, especially one as famous and busy as Sampras, could have cut short an interview or not taken it seriously with a small-time, rookie journalist.

He didn’t. He may not have genuinely cared, but it sure seemed like he did.

The fact that Sampras seems to be a great guy shouldn’t rock the world as great news. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. He played sports well and still puts on shows at exhibitions.

But to know he does that and cares about the public, well, doesn’t that make the sports world shine a little brighter for everyone?

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