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Posted on: February 17th, 2009

Memphis Tennis First Round: Plenty of fire

- petepage

Neither Sampras nor Hewitt backs down in exhibition match

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

There are flashbacks when the 37-year-old mind of Pete Sampras thinks he's in his 20s again, rippin' and roarin' to 14 Grand Slam championships, $43 million in prize money and six straight years as the No. 1 ranked tennis player on the planet.

"When I serve, hit a crisp volley and move well, it feels good when I sort of hold my own," said Sampras, who won the singles title here in the Memphis tour event in 1996.

"That's the way I was taught to play. Bring the gas and be aggressive."

Then, there are reality checks, like on Monday night in Sampras' 7-5, 6-4 exhibition loss at The Racquet Club to current touring pro Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, almost nine years Sampras' junior.

"There was a lob or two where it was, 'Get up there, Pistol'," Sampras said with a laugh, "but I couldn't get the hops. Your mind wants to get to the ball, but the body is saying, 'Easy big fellow, you're not 27 anymore."

You couldn't have convinced Hewitt of that. Five months removed from hip surgery, Hewitt, who turns 28 in a week, is looking at every opportunity to regain the form that saw him beat Sampras to win the 2001 U.S. Open title and win Wimbledon a year later to rank No. 1 in the world for the second consecutive year.

So while the sellout crowd of 4,755 thought they were watching an exhibition to cap a competitive first day of tennis in the The Regions Morgan Keegan Championships and The Cellular South Cup, Hewitt didn't see it that way.

"When I got asked to play this match, I didn't hesitate," said Hewitt, who plays his first round match on Wednesday againstJames Blake, the 11th ranked player in the world and the No. 3 seed in this tourney. "It was good for old times, but it was great match practice. I need to get back and win some tournaments."

Which is what Sampras got an eyeful of, considering he thought the exhibition might be a lighthearted affair.

"He was cracking the ball in the warmup, there was no smiling going on," Sampras said of Hewitt. "It's tricky for him, because he's playing a guy that is six years retired and he doesn't want to lose, and I don't want to embarrass myself.

"The first couple of games, he came out swinging, I came out swinging, so I thought, 'OK, it's on.' "

For a while, it was. Sampras' big serve kept Hewitt on his heels, like in the third game of the opening set when Sampras boomed four straight aces.

But toward the end of the opening set, Sampras began to tire a bit. Maybe it was age, maybe it was the fact that he played and won the singles title on Sunday in Boston over John McEnroe in the Champions Cup, the opening event of the 2009 Outback Champions series for tennis players 30 years and older.

"The first couple of games, he was poppin' aces to the corners and I thought, 'I don't remember this from Lleyton'," a joking Sampras said. "I want a steroid test on this guy."

Hewitt broke Sampras' serve to take a 6-5 lead at the end of the first set, and never looked back.

Sampras had a few fleeting moments of glory in the second and final set, such as ripping a gorgeous forehand winner down the line past Hewitt in the sixth game. Hewitt responded with two aces to close the game for a 4-2 lead.

"He still hits it big," said Hewitt of Sampras, knowing he had to keep the heat on his elder. "I pride myself on my return of service, but it's hard to get back what you can't touch."

To the bitter end, though, Sampras kept fighting and the crowd kept urging him on. He thoroughly appreciated the support

"It feels great," Sampras said of the love shown by him from the Memphis crowd. "Throughout my career, when you're the best player in the world, you get respect but you don't get that support.

"As I got older and started losing more, they started to cheer for me. It's kind of like what (retired pro golf legend Jack) Nicklaus felt his last few years walking up 18, getting that nice ovation.

"I hope I'm back here next year."

Source: The Commercial Appeal

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