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Small Crowd Gives Big Embrace to Tennis Stars

By Ken Robison / The Fresno Bee
10/25/07 23:04:45

To Jaspreet Singh of Kingsburg, Selland Arena might as well have been tennis heaven Thursday. Pete Sampras was playing a tennis match not more than 30 feet away.

“A dream come true,” Singh gushed as Sampras polished off Jim Courier 3-6, 6-3, (10-8) on a makeshift court in the downtown arena. “To watch Pete Sampras, a guy I idolized when I was growing up.”

Singh’s comments were echoed by many among the crowd of more than 1,800 fans, who cheered the two Hall of Famers through thick (big serves and forehand returns) and thin (errors and mishits).

Thursday’s exhibition match was a charity event for the Miracle Match Foundation, which helps leukemia patients receive bone marrow transplants.

It was fitting that Sampras won Thursday, as he did 16 of 20 times against Courier when they were world-beaters in the 1990s.

It was Sampras who dethroned Courier as No. 1 in the world in 1993, who beat Courier in the Wimbledon final that year to begin a streak of seven wins in eight years on the London lawn.

Courier had won his fourth career Grand Slam title at the Australian title in 1993, but lost the French and Wimbledon and would win no more majors. Sampras went on to win 14 majors, the most of any male in history.

Thursday’s crowd wanted to see if these thirtysomethings still had game. The answer was yes and no.

The first set was a sloppy affair as both players sprayed too many shots short, long and wide. The quality picked up in the second set as Sampras regained his serving touch, and the tiebreaker was the high-level tennis we remembered from these two champions.

“Pete is still hitting the lines,” Kingsburg tennis coach Tom Gramza. “These guys are incredible athletes, their skills are still awesome.

“Fresno needs more of this.”

Of that, most would agree.

“Two of the greatest players and finest gentlemen ever to play the game,” said John Norton, one of many players from Sierra Sport & Racquet Club cheering their clubmate, Children’s Hospital executive Jim Meinert, in the preliminary doubles match.

“This is a wonderful event for Fresno. I’m embarrassed we didn’t have more people here. There are 2,000, we should have 8,000.”

That couple of thousand saw Sampras and Courier trade shots and barbs, first in the hit-and-giggle doubles, then in the more serious singles.

They were treated to each player’s signature shots — Courier’s inside-out forehand, Sampras’s running forehand and strong serve.

“Congratulations to Pete,” Courier said to the crowd afterward. “He played just well enough to win. He always manages to come up with the right shot at the right time. That’s why he’s a great champion.”

Courier was a favorite of some fans who remember his drive to No. 1 in the early ’90s that was fueled by equal doses of fitness and feistiness. And he has a local tie, having trained for part of his career with Fresno-based coach Brad Stine.

Sampras is still Pistol Pete, the gunslinger, considered by many to be the best who ever played. But he expects that honor will eventually go to Roger Federer, the reigning No. 1.

“He’s going to break all my records,” Sampras said in a pregame reception with fans.

Mike Pearson, the local pro paired with Courier in the doubles match, spoke for many when he said: “Those who missed this, too bad. Next year, it’ll be three times this size.”
The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6279.

Source: Fresno Bee

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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