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Posted on: October 01st, 2011

[Sept 23, 2011] Champions Series: Legends deliver laughs, and good tennis

- petepage

WASHINGTON Walking onto the floor of a 20,000-seat arena that usually showcases the Washington Wizards and Capitals, a spectator may feel lost in the crowd. But on Friday evening at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., the setting was surprisingly intimate as tennis took center stage in the HSBC Tennis Cup

From Andre Agassi high-fiving spectators, to Jim Courier surrendering his racket to allow a ballgirl to play, to Michael Chang recreating a human version of the Hawkeye line-calling system, there was something in store for every tennis enthusiast.

The evening began innocently enough with Pete Sampras and Chang taking the court to hit with select fans before gearing up to answer questions from the media. Sampras shyly walked toward our group of reporters, flashing his grand-slam winning smile. Though he was reserved and quiet during his professional years, he was anything but Friday night. Instead, a charismatic, thoughtful, and witty Sampras emerged, cracking jokes and fielding questions covering Novak Djokovic's dream year to his take on the possibility of a player's union. It was evident he was at ease and even possibly missed playing tennis saying "it's not cutthroat tennis anymore, but as players we have a lot of pride and it is friendly competition."

The event is part of the Champions Series, a five-week, 12-city tour that utilizes a condensed set format, which Sampras wholeheartedly supports. Sampras doesn't simply "like it," he "loves it!" He elaborated, stating that "physically, there's nothing too taxing" in events like this and it diminishes the possibility of an injury.

He did hint at the necessity of getting back into shape at age 40, but not necessarily for this particular tour: "Last week I hit a little bit with Mardy Fish, and we played hard. I played as hard as I could, and I was exhausted. He was fine, fresh as a daisy. But I was serve-and-volleying on everything which is much harder on my body."

On court, Sampras' style has not changed and neither has appreciation from fans, as he was greeted to thunderous applause for the first match of the night against Chang. His opponent straightaway boomed three consecutive aces in the second game, triggering Chang to joke "How does it feel now?!" referring to "Pistol" Pete's legendary 130+ mph serves.

Not wanting to be outdone, Sampras laughed and stepped five feet in front of the baseline, putting pressure on Chang's serve. The point ended prematurely when Sampras' forehand was called wide, but he raised his hand, jokingly wanting to challenge. Throwing a mild tantrum for entertainment value, he enticed the crowd to support him. But Chang came to the rescue by re-creating the path of the ball on his own. Ball in hand high above his head, he predicted the trajectory in slow motion and tiptoed his way to the spot. It was clear to Chang and the makeshift Hawkeye system the ball had been out by a mile. Chang eventually sealed the deal by breaking Sampras' serve and winning the first semifinal 6-4.

As Andre Agassi was welcomed on court for the evening's second semifinal, an ironic tune blasted over the loudspeakers, Elvis Presley's A Little Less Conversation. For anyone familiar, it is the theme music to the now defunct TV show Las Vegas, which is also Agassi's hometown. Smart play, DJ.

Both Agassi and his opponent Jim Courier were in good moods, so it was unfortunate that the players were not mic'd up as their entertaining personalities resonated through the arena. Time and again, they picked on each other's playing styles, with even some friendly taunting by Courier, pulling up on his shorts much like Agassi does before serving. Agassi took the challenge and hiked his own shorts even higher. They knew how to play to the audience's weakness.

Agassi and Courier stayed remarkably limber and interactive with both attendees and ballkids, and the crowd roared with satisfaction as the two-man show continued. At one point, feeling dejected after Agassi hit a world-class passing-shot winner, Courier handed his racket to a ballgirl to play for him. Hilarity ensued as she won the point against Agassi. But again, it turned into another "competition within a competition" for the two men as Agassi answered by giving his racket to another ballgirl and granting her the chance to score on Courier. And it worked again, the ballkids stacked up well to these professionals, bringing the crowd to their feet.

Outside of the players' willingness to engage the audience, the most striking aspect to witness firsthand was each player's evolution in their game style since the time they were professionals.

Overall, the consistency and pace have diminished, but that is expected of those away from the upper ranks of tennis. However, Chang is still a quick mover and continues to hug the baseline, although not sliding nearly as much; Sampras has stayed true to his serve-and-volley ways going more for placement than pace; and Courier keeps his forehand-oriented game but replaces pace with a bit more variety.

The lone exception here is Agassi, who seemed only a step off from where the world last saw him prior to his retirement in 2006. The precision, energy and power in the majority of his shots and serves nearly fooled me into believing he was still playing professionally. In his press interview earlier in the night, he stated that he has kept himself active in the gym, and it really shows. Although he lost in the last moments of the match to Courier, he seemed closer to an elite athlete than any other man on the floor. And that's saying a great deal for a group of four men who hold 27 Grand Slams combined.

The evening ended with Chang taking down Courier in the final, but each attendee left with a renewed respect for what players do after the pro tour: they still play and they play with heart.

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