On my eighth birthday, my uncle gave me a junior-sized Wilson tennis racquet. It had a black frame, but just above the handle there was a yellow decal, the signature of some guy named Pete Sampras. I’d be lying if I said I knew who he was at the time, but later that year, Sampras finished the season as the top-ranked male tennis player in the world.
That was the sixth season in a row he had accomplished the feat, which is still a record. In fact, until Roger Federer came around, it was Sampras who set the standard with his 14 Grand Slam tennis titles. Needless to say, I was soon inspired to start swinging my racquet like Pistol Pete. No doubt that countless kids started watching and playing tennis because of Sampras, including current Canadian star Milos Raonic.
Sampras is now 43 years old and has been retired from professional tennis for over a decade, but on Saturday night he took to the court at UBC’s Thunderbird Sports Centre with the PowerShares Series tennis circuit.
Although it was Sampras’ first appearance of the year, the event was the last in a 12 city tour and the first of its kind to come to Vancouver. To participate, players must be at least 30 years old. More importantly, they must have held a top five world ranking or played in a Grand Slam final.
At the Vancouver event, Sampras was joined by tennis legends John McEnroe, Michael Chang and Mark Philippoussis. Combined, these four men have 163 singles titles, including 22 Grand Slam titles.
They also have a great sense of humour. McEnroe came out wearing the same outfit as Sampras, prompting the announcer to ask the crowd “who wore it best?” and Sampras to joke that he is the more complete package. The ongoing banter between the players throughout the night made it clear that the event was equal parts competition and show.
There were two semifinal matches, one set apiece, with the winners playing in the final. “I think the format suits old guys -- one set -- so at least I have a shot,” said McEnroe, now 56, prior to his semifinal match with Sampras. “I’m pretty good for an hour, but this’ll be a tall order, clearly, to try to hang with him. Of all the players I ever played, [Pete] was the toughest guy.”
The other unique part of this series is there are no umpires: the players must call their own lines. There is also no limit on the number of incorrect challenges a player can make, whereas on the professional circuit each player can only incorrectly challenge an umpire’s call three times per set. (The challenge system relies on instant-review technology and was not introduced in professional tennis until 2006).
“I like the fact that there’s a challenge system now,” said McEnroe. “I wish I had it when I was playing because I think my hair wouldn’t be this grey.”
Sampras, however, wasn’t sure what to think of it. “I wasn’t quite used to it. It was a little bizarre, and obviously playing with John was very intimidating,” he said.
While he struggled to correctly challenge calls, Sampras overwhelmed McEnroe with his serves and came away with a 6-4 win. Philippoussis did the same to Chang in the other semifinal, setting up for a big hitting final round. The final went the full distance, but in the end, Philippoussis came away with the victory in the tiebreaker, winning the match 7-6 (7-4).
The PowerShares Series may be a bit “joke and stroke,” but fans certainly seemed to enjoy the opportunity to see these champions play in a more relaxed environment. Plenty of kids were on hand, and I would not be surprised if Sampras and co continue to inspire the next generation to pick up a tennis racquet.