By Cam Huffman
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS —
Pete Sampras’ legendary tennis career came to an end in 2002 — with a win over rival Andre Agassi in the finals of the U.S. Open — but the Potomac, Md., native proved Saturday he’s not that far removed from his glory days.
The 42-year-old went toe-to-toe with current world No. 12 Tommy Haas during the singles portion of the second edition of the Greenbrier Champions Tennis Classic, splitting two sets before falling just short in a 10-point tiebreaker.
Sampras, who lost the first set 7-5, battled back to break the powerful serve of Haas in the second set and win 6-3. That set up the tiebreaker, and Sampras built up a cushion before Haas came from behind for a 10-7 win in front of a crowd of more than 600 tennis fans inside The Greenbrier tennis center.
“Trying to keep up with Tommy is not easy,” said Sampras, a 14-time Grand Slam singles winner, who set a record by ending the year ranked No. 1 in the world in six consecutive years. “It’s hard for me to move like I used to, but I still can hit it pretty good. I still serve pretty hard. But it’s the little things out there you lose as you get older.
“I thought I handled myself pretty well. It wasn’t easy.”
Sampras joked about his age throughout the afternoon, muttering, “Not bad for a 42-year-old,” after a big overhead and stopping to catch his breath after a couple of long rallies. But his serve was a strong as ever and he hit a couple of backhands that reminded fans of some of his classic matches over the years with Agassi or Patrick Rafter.
Haas did plenty to entertain the crowd as well — including changing his wet shirt during the match, drawing cheers from the female fans in the audience. He joked with the line judges and the fans at courtside and generally seemed to enjoy the experience.
“I could get used to this,” said the German-born Haas, who now has homes in Florida and Los Angeles. “It’s definitely fun. As an athlete, you always want to compete and play well, but when you’re on tour it’s a whole different ball game. Here’ you’re just trying to play some tennis and entertain the crowd.
“Anytime I get a chance to come out and play against my idols, I’d be crazy to say no. Just to be around those guys and give back to the fans is exciting.”
Just months removed from a win over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Miami, the 35-year-old Haas wowed the crowd with his one-handed backhand, widely considered one of the best in the game.
“To get back to the top 15 in the world and beat Novak and Roger (Federer) at his age is incredible,” said Sampras, giving plenty of respect to his victorious opponent. “It’s not easy to do, and I commend him.”
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Entertainment was also the theme of the first match, which featured International Tennis Hall of Famers John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. After McEnroe won the first set 6-4 and Lendl took the second 7-6 (7-4), the two legends agreed to skip the 10-point tiebreaker and end the match in a draw.
But none of the fans left disappointed, despite the rain, which moved the event indoors.
“When you play a match like this and both players are playing well, it’s not about winning and losing,” said Lendl. “It’s about having fun. I think we did that. We both played well, and I think the fans enjoyed it.”
McEnroe was as volatile as ever against his longtime rival, once telling a line judge that “The line is in West Virginia, too.” He berated the judges and the chair umpire and joked with golfing legend Nick Faldo, who was seated courtside, throughout the match.
But Lendl, known more for his topspin than his entertainment during his career, which included eight Grand Slam singles titles, kept pace not only on the court but with the fans.
When McEnroe shouted, “I thought you didn’t come to the net,” after a Lendl volley winner, the Czechoslovakian fired back by saying, “I just tripped and ended up there.”
After a run of three straight aces against McEnroe early in the match, the 53-year-old Lendl said to the crowd, “Hitting the ball is not a problem. Getting to it is.”
Lendl, who said he had trouble, at times, distinguishing whether his opponent was joking and entertaining or if he was serious when arguing about calls, also had fun with McEnroe’s antics.
After a close forehand was ruled in, much to McEnroe’s displeasure, Lendl said, “I saw two balls — one in and one out. It’s like best ball in golf. I’ll take the one I like.”
“It’s a little of both now,” said McEnroe when asked if his rants were genuine or simply part of his act. “It’s definitely expected, but there were some bum calls, no doubt about it. It wasn’t too difficult to get into it.”
McEnroe’s play, at times, brought back memories of his career, which including seven Grand Slam singles titles and a ranking of No. 1 in the world on 14 different occasions.
His served often froze Lendl and he used his intelligence of the game to make the right shots at the right times.
“I probably play six or eight events a year,” he said. “But I thought I played well. I made some shots and had a lot of fun.”
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the day came when 8-year-old Alexandra Anderson, who was serving as a ball girl for the matches, took the court. As Sampras found a chair for a breather after a long rally, he handed his racquet to Anderson and pointed her toward the court.
The young tennis player began to volley back-and-forth with Haas eventually coming toward the net and lacing a forehand winner down the line. Her play brought about a standing ovation from the crowd and both of the professionals.
The Greenbrier Champions Tennis Classic will continue today with a doubles match pitting the Europeans against the Americans. Scheduled for a noon start, Sampras and McEnroe will take on Lendl and Haas. Officials are hopeful today’s match will take place on the outdoor clay courts.
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.