Sampras Loses in Exo Comeback, USTA Wins

Posted on April 6, 2006

By Richard Vach, Senior Writer

The United States Tennis Association says its mission is "to promote and develop the growth of tennis," and the USTA lived up to that creed Thursday night with a "first-ever live webcast of a professional tennis match" with Pete Sampras returning after a 3-1/2 year hiatus to play an exhibition against 23-year-old American Robby Ginepri.

"I'm going to try and run him, take the legs and breath out of him," said Ginepri with a smile in a pre-match interview.

While Ginepri was smiling, Sampras gained confidence with the knowledge that Ginepri had been eliminated from the River Oaks draw earlier in the day, winning only three games off of unheralded Greek Vasilis Mazarakis.

Playing with the "Roger Federer racquet" as Sampras called it, the Wilson nCode, the record six-time year-end No. 1 rued the slow red clay in River Oaks during a 6-3, 7-6(10) loss to the No. 19-ranked American.

But the story was as much internet innovation as the return of a legend.

The broadcast's technical presentation, as expected with a first-time event, was shaky. And the on-air talent tripped beginning with the first interview of River Oaks Tournament Director Van Berry by John Granado, who had a Freudian slip calling Berry "the guy who bought -- uh, brought (Sampras) out of retirement." On the technical side the pull-back camera-shot during rallies appeared as if you were watching the match from the Goodyear blimp, and there was a perpetually-dark cloud in the lower left bottom of the picture.

The producers keyed a commercial during the first changeover of the match, but after it ran over into the second game of the match, the commercials were abandoned until 5-2.

To nit-pick, the graphics were suspect, with one showing Sampras at No. 2 in US Open titles behind Richard Sears, who played in the pre-Open Era (before 1968) when the Slams were filled with amateur players. The USTA is an arm of the International Tennis Federeration, which likes to pretend all tennis has been of the same level since the 1800s.

Tennis-wise it was as if River Oaks organizers set up a lose-lose situation for Sampras, whose classic aggressive game was nullified by the slow dirt. The 34-year-old American's second serve, which during his career gave him the opportunity to steal an ace or sneak in to the net, instead sat up like t-ball practice for Ginepri. Sampras showed he could still crack the forehand, but the muddy red dirt combined with Ginepri's quickness cut down on Sampras' winners.

Ginepri broke for 3-1 in the first, a fact which escaped the announcers who babbled on about the humidity and Sampras' fitness level, then ran to a 4-1 lead and a 6-3 win in the opener. A frequent feature of the first set was Sampras running side-to-side and up-and-back, then smiling with his hands on his hips after Ginepri finally put the ball away.

Talkative tour pro Paul Goldstein joined the booth announcers as Sampras held to begin the second set, and until Sampras held for a 4-3 lead, with Goldstein's mike going out for 30 seconds and sounding like they had locked him in a closet.

Ginepri went into "Exhibition Mode" in the second set, going for more short angles and cutesy passing shots to keep things close, but at 4-all with Sampras serving, Ginepri flicked the switch. Or tried to.

At 4-4, 15-all, Sampras came in behind what would have been in his heyday on hardcourts the moneymaker-serve down the middle, but it sat up on the dirt, and Ginepri flicked a backhand return down the line for a winner. A blown sitter volley and a passing shot later, Sampras was broken, but then broke back after fighting off a match point to even the set at 5-5.

Sampras amped up his serve in the 11th game, delivering an ace to earn a seat on the sidelines where he smiled at the opportunity to, if not win the set, simply catch his breath.

If Ginepri shifted down to fourth gear in the second set, he was having trouble finding fifth gear again, and after holding serve found himself down 2-4 in the tiebreak. The young American missed an easy match point volley at 9-8 in the breaker, failed to close it out again at 10-9, but then slapped a clay-slowed Sampras serve for a winner for an 11-10 lead, and won when Sampras netted the next service return.

"Actually I was a little bit winded at the end," Sampras understated after the match. "Second set I felt like I played a little bit better and served a little bit better. I didn't know what to expect. I was a little shaky and missing shots, I don't know if it was nerves or a little bit of rust. I had chances to win the second set but it didn't happen. I though I played pretty good, I didn't play great, I didn't play main goal coming here was to have some fun for the people and I think we did that tonight."

Sampras was the people's champ in the end, showing flashes of brilliance amidst some huffing and puffing on the worst possible surface for a return to the spotlight.

But the biggest winner Thursday night was the USTA. The organization that has helped give U.S. tennis a shot in the arm over the past two years with the US Open Series blazed a new path with the first live webcast to fans around the world, featuring the "comeback" of the greatest player the game of tennis has known to date.

And as one Tennis-X staffer noted, "The webcast picture was better than when ESPN used to show Hamburg a few years back -- you could actually see the ball! I was waiting for the (USTA) server crash, and it never came."

Kudos to the USTA (with technical help from IMG) for, warts and all, truly bringing tennis into the 21st century. Now who will pay for the ATP's tennis broadband service of canned media clips when the USTA is dishing the real thing -- giving fans actual live tennis on the internet -- for free? The USTA has raised the bar.

Richard Vach is a senior writer for, was recently awarded "Best Hard News" story writer for 2005 by the United States Tennis Writers Association, and can currently be seen on The Tennis Channel's "Tennis Insiders: Super Insiders" episodes.