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Tennis legends entertain

By Lorenzo Perez, News & Observer

July 22, 2007

RALEIGH – The fans began to whistle and clap, anticipating a vintage 1980 tantrum from John McEnroe when the line umpire sat motionless. McEnroe had allowed Pete Sampras’ volley return to bounce past uncontested, anticipating it would be ruled out.
Yet none of the umpires at Saturday’s exhibition match were going to be swayed merely by the glare from a fiery Hall of Fame tennis player.

The glare never ignited past a few muttered complaints and the 48-year-old McEnroe proved more eager to play for laughs and the appreciation of a modest RBC Center crowd there to witness two of the greatest American tennis players compete.

The volleys were shorter, the serves several ticks slower on the radar gun, but a graying McEnroe and a slightly balding Sampras entertained the fans with a three-set performance that offered glimpses of their masterful touch around the net.

Sampras, 35, outlasted McEnroe, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, closing his victory with a signature ace. Yet it was McEnroe, less than 12 hours after the duo had competed in an earlier exhibition match in Charlottesville, Va., who came out with the early fire.

McEnroe cruised to a 5-2 lead in the first set, lunging and grunting and celebrating winning shots with a quick fist pump or two. Sampras, who won 14 career Grand Slam titles and who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame earlier this month, appeared happy to play straight man much of the match to McEnroe, the crowd favorite.

Yet it was Sampras clowning around late, offering his racket to a ball boy for a point and pulling the glasses off an umpire to wipe them off when an apparent McEnroe ace in the third set was ruled out.

The low-stakes match offered the feel of friendly dinner theater. Saturday’s match lured about 5,500 fans, and the clink of glasses from the club level bar, the chirping of cell phones and loud smacks of gum-chewing fans all ricocheted around the arena.

At one point, McEnroe stopped his serve just before his swing, disrupted by the loud crying of a young child seated nearby. The cries did little to disrupt McEnroe, who ripped an ace past Sampras as soon as the child calmed down.

Following his formal retirement in 2003, Sampras went about three years before returning to play exhibitions and in select World TeamTennis summer events. Sampras was unavailable for comment after Saturday’s match, but in a July 3 teleconference, he said he has been practicing at least three times a week the last six months.

“It’s amazing what a little bit of practice will do for you, so my tennis has gotten a little bit better, he said.”

Good enough to edge past the still game McEnroe, who picked his spots to chase down Sampras’ volleys and nail winning volleys down the lines.

Yet there was no luck for McEnroe in either his three-set match with Sampras, nor in two, 10-point doubles matches with area ACC players. In a mixed doubles match, McEnroe and North Carolina’s Sara Anundsen lost 10-8 to Sampras and incoming Duke freshman Reka Zsilinszka. Paired then with N.C. State rising senior David Rozek, McEnroe lost to Sampras and former State player Will Shaw.

Moments before that final loss, a heckler screamed, “Mac, you gotta win something!”

The crowd groaned and booed the fan’s comment, but McEnroe merely turned his back to the heckler, bent over and slowly pulled his shorts down for a half-moon glimpse of his underwear. Judging from the applause and roars of laughter that followed, the crowd had been waiting all afternoon for the real McEnroe to arrive.

Source: News & Observer

Filed under: Archives 2003 to 2011

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