Commentary

Sampras' serve still sizzles

Updated: March 1, 2011, 7:48 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- While Monday's first match -- a 50-something battle between Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe -- ended with a sprained-ankle retirement by McEnroe, the main event in the BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden was so not old-man doubles.

Back in the day, Pete Sampras had the game's best serve and Andre Agassi usually neutralized that with a peerless return of service. But eight and a half years after Sampras won the last tournament he ever played -- the 2002 U.S. Open, over Agassi in the final -- that serve overpowered Agassi, early and often.

When one ace down the middle went darting into the crowd, Agassi could only smile and widen his eyes in mock horror -- or maybe it was real. Sampras, it turns out, has borrowed some of today's technology, those super-cool strings that give Rafael Nadal's game some needed pop against Roger Federer.

[+] EnlargeAndre Agassi
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesAndre Agassi found out that Pete Sampras can still bring it.

There was no radar gun at the Garden, but Agassi's former coach Brad Gilbert, who has a keen sense of these things, estimated that Sampras' first serve on this fast court could reach as high as 133 mph. That's good enough to hold serve on a fast court against some of today's better professionals.

Sampras was so supremely confident, on numerous occasions he announced to the crowd behind him where the serve was going -- down the T or out wide. He served and volleyed on second serves with regularity.

In the end, Sampras looked something south of his 39 years and Agassi, in an impression accentuated by his baldness and pigeon-toed gait, looked all of 40 -- and then some. Sampras won 6-3, 7-5 before a supportive, near-sellout crowd of 17,165.

"We played pretty good for a couple of old guys," Sampras said, clearly thrilled with his showing.

Sampras, always concerned with the bottom line, kept coming forward and pressuring Agassi, who looked, frankly, rushed. Agassi, ever the Las Vegas kid, seemed just as intent on entertaining the crowd.

The funny thing? Sampras actually camped it up, making some leaping volleys look a little harder than they might have been. He induced several bursts of laughter in pockets of the crowd with his post-point observations.

"Back when we were playing, Pete's biggest weapon was his serve," Agassi said. "It looked as good as ever."

What was his prematch goal?

"My hope was that I'd get injured, after seeing what happened to poor Johnny Mac," Agassi said, laughing. "Hopefully, we created a little nostalgia. That's why we're here."

Precisely.

That Sampras and Agassi renewed their complicated and contrasting rivalry was a pleasant gift to tennis fans in the dead of winter. They won a combined 22 Grand Slam singles titles, with 14 going to Sampras -- he prevailed in five of six major finals. By their own admission, they experienced some peaks and valleys in their relationship.

This was so not the "Hit for Haiti" disaster of a year ago, when Agassi and Sampras sniped in a charity doubles event at Indian Wells while partners Federer and Nadal twisted awkwardly in the wind.

The two longtime rivals entered amid WWE-style fireworks and the "Star Wars" theme; when one bank of sparks erupted, Sampras seemed startled and abruptly skipped to his place by the net. They made a point of chatting amiably, with smiles on their faces, before the match. In warm-ups, Agassi let a lob go and dropped a between-the-legs shot on the already buzzing crowd. Afterward, Sampras made a point of calling Agassi "a friend and a rival."

Sampras was simply better in the big moments; Agassi prone to the unforced error.

Agassi, trailing 3-5 in the first set, saved two set points, but lost the set when Sampras handled a shot hit right at him with delicate ease.

Agassi double-faulted to give Sampras a critical break in the third game of the second set. Naturally, he broke right back. Serving at 5-all, Agassi fell into a 15-30 hole when Sampras executed a volley winner. A forehand into the net and a backhand long put the match on Sampras' racket.

Still, you sensed that, in the time-honored tradition of exhibitions -- when there is a big payday, it's amazing how many times the result is the three-set maximum -- Agassi would level the set. Not even close.

Sampras' first offering was an ace down the middle, followed by another unreturnable serve. A backhand clipped the net cord and dropped in and, even when Sampras spun in a first serve, Agassi topped it into the net.

"I was a serve-and-volley player, he stayed back," Sampras said. "It was a great clash of titans, like Borg and McEnroe."

One of the surreal (and fascinating) elements of the evening was the big-screen replays of some of Sampras and Agassi's biggest matches, which were played during changeovers. Both players seemed to enjoy watching those clips, along with the fans.

"I had a lot more hair back then," Sampras said, drawing a laugh.

"Pete's looking good," marveled John McEnroe. "It looks like he's been putting in the hours, at least in the gym. I'm not sure how much tennis he's playing. Pete's just moving so well.

"Pete's into it, and that's nice to see. Over the years, you wondered how much he was digging playing."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.