The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 23, 2012

Sampras tops McEnroe in exhibition

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — John McEnroe is preceded by his reputation as a racquet-tossing, umpire-berating tennis legend. Fans were waiting for what just might be the four most famous words ever associated with the sport.

It took him all of three games to oblige.

When the chair umpire overruled a McEnroe serve to Pete Sampras, calling it a fault on what would have been game point, McEnroe approached the chair with a look of mock protest on his face.

“You cannot be serious!” McEnroe exclaimed, drawing a roar of laughter and applause from the sellout crowd at Saturday’s Greenbrier Champions Tennis Classic.

A crowd of 700 watched what was billed as the inaugural exhibition match at the resort that has a rich tennis history, even if not as famed as its golf tradition. The Greenbrier hosted the first five U.S. Open tournaments starting in 1937.

Ironic, with two of the sport’s biggest stars playing a historic match on the clay-like Har-Tru surface. McEnroe and Sampras have a combined nine U.S. Open championships between them.

The match harkened back to days when the United States was much more prominent in world tennis than it is today.

While McEnroe and Jimmy Connors carried the red, white and blue in the early 1980s, Sampras had a front row seat for arguably the greatest American run of tennis success. He and Andre Agassi engaged in one of the game’s all-time rivalries. They met 34 times, with Sampras winning 20 of them.

But it wasn’t just Sampras and Agassi. They were joined on the American side by the likes of Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Todd Martin and Malivai Washington.

Today, Andy Roddick had long been considered the United States’ greatest player before he retired earlier this month after losing in the fourth round of the U.S. Open.

John Isner is currently the highest ranked American at 10th in the world, and one of only eight in the top 100 — including Roddick.

Sampras and McEnroe both have their doubts that the U.S. will be able to make a similar run anytime soon.

“It’s a little thin, especially with Andy retiring,” Sampras said. “With Isner and (Sam) Querrey, two guys that have big games, but to take it to the next level, you have to be pretty special. With the top four guys being so good — I watched a lot of the (U.S.) Open and those four were just so much better than the rest — it’s out of this world. It’s a reality check for American tennis.

“In John’s era and in my era, we all hit No. 1, we all won majors, and the American fan and American media expect that every 10 years. Now it’s going through a down cycle.”

Saturday’s exhibition was competitive, but was more about entertaining the crowd. McEnroe, whose 53 years were given away only by hair that is significantly lighter colored than when he was battling Connors and Bjorn Borg three decades ago, certainly lived up to his end.

His joking banter with the umpire came mere minutes after he claimed he was getting the best calls he had received in 30 years.

“Where were you when I needed you?” he deadpanned to a side judge.

Sampras, who won 14 career majors, known for his calm, almost boring nature, smiled most of the afternoon and got in on the act. He disputed an early serve by McEnroe, telling the judge, “Uh, oh. You made a mistake.”

Sampras pointed out the ball mark to the umpire, who overruled the judge, prompting McEnroe’s “outburst.”

As for the match, Sampras, 41, outlasted McEnroe 3-6, 6-3, 10-7.

The third set was played under a 10-point champions tiebreaker.

Each of the first two sets was decided by a break of serve.

A pivotal moment came early in the second set. McEnroe had the advantage with Sampras serving and the set tied at a game all. Sampras served up an ace, the first of two straight set points he fought off.

Sampras eventually won the game to hold at 2-1, then broke McEnroe to go ahead 5-3. He swept the next game to take the set.

McEnroe’s theatrics continued before the start of the tiebreaker. He removed the blue, sweat-drenched shirt he wore the first two sets and replaced it with a black T-shirt with the words “You Cannot Be Serious!” on the chest. He first yelled those words at an umpire during a match at Wimbledon in 1981.

He tossed the original shirt into the crowd, where it was caught by an appreciative fan.

The two went back and forth in the tiebreaker, tied 3-3 after the first changeover and 6-6 after the second. But the next point proved pivotal — with some more comedy thrown in.

McEnroe missed on his first serve and delivered a second that appeared to be well long, but the side judge never made a call. Sampras assumed a double fault and protested when it was not ruled.

The chair umpire went to the court, and Sampras turned on his microphone so the audience could hear the conversation. Sampras pointed to the mark made by the errant serve, but the judge stood by her non-call and the umpire would not overrule.

Finally, after a lengthy discussion, McEnroe had enough and intervened.

“Wait a minute!” he said. “It was out. I even saw that.”

The crowd laughed, and Sampras was awarded the point for a 7-6 lead.

He won three of the next four points, taking the championship when McEnroe’s familiar left-handed forehand fell wide.

After the match, Sampras was presented the trophy by Greenbrier CEO Jim Justice, who threw in a barb of his own.

“John, I think the umpire cheated you, so I’m giving this to you,” Justice said with a smile.

Both McEnroe and Sampras were complimentary of The Greenbrier’s efforts to expand the visibility of tennis at the resort. Each expressed hope of being involved in any future Greenbrier tennis ventures.

“To some extent, that’s up to (resort officials),” McEnroe said. “Hopefully, the direction they head will include us in one way or another. That’s unknown.

“It’s like anything. Everyone’s got to work at it, and it looks like it was a good start, from what I saw.”

— E-mail: gfauber@register-herald.com

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