Last night I saw the first pro tennis match in my life, and it was an exhibition. Frivolous, right? No. Awesome. Pete Sampras (who you’ve heard of) against a ridiculously athletic French player named Gael Monfils (who you may not have heard of, but you should probably get to know).
France-bashing is kind of a pastime in this country (remember the regrettable “freedom fries” phase some people around here went through?), but French athletes always bring the personality. Monfils is no different. From the way he played — covering ridiculous amounts of space on each point, ending many of them with slides ending in splits that would rip most humans’ groin muscles in half — to the way he played the crowd, dude’s a star.
Monfils also pounded several serves over 130 mph in a 7-6, 6-4 win over Sampras that was extremely competitive seeing as Monfils is the No. 12 player in the world and Sampras is 39. Sampras’ fastest serve I saw hit 116 mph (slacker!), and his volley game is still on point. He played around with Monfils and the crowd, too (taking a seat in the front row at one point after Monfils hit a particularly crazy shot that somehow went in), but his competitive streak is still there. When Monfils broke his serve in the second set and the end appeared near, Sampras quit hamming it up and got all Sampras-serious, leading to some incredible long rallies overflowing with shot-making bordering on magical. It was the Pete I remember from his career, the one who wiped the floor with Andre Agassi on a regular basis.
Sampras and Agassi obviously haven’t cleared the air since their infamous battle at Indian Wells, and the snark was on full display after the match even though Agassi was probably in Vegas or something. Hopefully for Agassi he’s training, because Sampras sounded ready to face him at the BNP Paribas Showdown later in the month at Madison Square Garden. After the match Sampras said of Monfils, “I’ve played a lot of good movers in my day. He’s one of the best I’ve ever played,” and how he’s looking forward to New York where he can face “guys my own age” like Agassi and John McEnroe. Then after that little “age” dig that was sort of like a harmless lob, Sampras also mentioned how he always beats Agassi in New York. Moments later, Sampras jumped up for an overhead smash on Agassi:
“I always enjoy kicking his little ass.”
Sampras may have had a smile on his face, but he wasn’t joking.
The whole thing was great. Fantastic match, prop comedy (with Monfils grabbing a camera from one of the courtside photographers and taking pictures of Sampras), interactions with the crowd from both players (although Sampras didn’t totally appreciate the woman who yelled, “I love you Pete!” while he was serving), and some fuel for a great rivalry that has somehow gotten better after both players retired. You know word spread to Agassi about what Sampras said almost immediately. He’s probably writing a book about it right now.
The second match of the night, not an exhibition, was between Lleyton Hewitt (who reached No. 1 back in 2001) and Bjorn Phau, a gritty little guy who really didn’t have much of a chance. I always loved playing as Hewitt on Top Spin and sending lob after lob at my opponent, which actually proved to be a pretty good strategy. My wife and I were interested to see what the difference would be between an exhibition match between a top-3 player all-time and a top-15 guy of today and a match between two guys ranked lower (Hewitt is currently at 70th-ranked player in the world, Phau at No. 93).
The difference in the quality of play was pretty much zero. Even while messing around, Monfils/Sampras was easily as good a match as Hewitt/Phau, except Monfils/Sampras had more drop shots and faster serves. This isn’t to denigrate Hewitt or Phau, it was just a statement as to how well Sampras has kept in shape and how electric Monfils is on the court (he’s definitely my wife’s new favorite player, a spot which was vacant up until last night).
– That stereotype that the crowd needs to be extremely quiet at a tennis match — it’s true. I didn’t hear the head judge say, “Quiet please,” which was kind of disappointing (I love it when they do that for some reason), but play was stopped during the Sampras/Monfils match when a couple slowly made their way to their front row seat behind Monfils while he was trying to serve. Sampras wasn’t having any of that. Then during the Hewitt/Phau match, play was stopped due to a baby crying, leading to an awkward moment where the players turned their attentions to the wailing infant, almost attempting to shut the kid up with their death-stares.
– HP Pavilion had the cleanest parking lot I’ve ever seen after a sporting event … by far. I think it was cleaner when we left than when we arrived.
– When a wayward shot from Phau landed in the stands, the fan who caught it immediately tossed the ball to one of the nearby ballgirls. No way I would have done that. MINE.