Pete Sampras vs. Roger Federer: Behind the Scenes at the MSG Showdown
by Weller Evans
Last month, American tennis fans were treated to a special match as the man many regard as the greatest player of all-time, Pete Sampras, stepped on the same court as the man most bet will eventually assume that moniker, Roger Federer.
If you were one of the lucky 19,690 fans to pack Madison Square Garden (the event sold out in two weeks), you saw the two great champions battle live for nearly 2-1/2 hours, with Roger squeaking by Pete 6-3, 6-7(4), 7-6(6). While the tennis was uneven, spectacular shot-making mixed with some head-scratching misses, everyone including Donald Trump and Regis Philbin left having been thoroughly entertained.
No, I did not have a $1,000 ticket or even one of the “cheap” $50 seats. I did, however, have the opportunity to work behind the scenes to insure that the two guys got what they needed and did what they were supposed to do. At most “special events” or exhibitions, especially one of this magnitude, the players usually are kept pretty busy for the brief period they are in town. I am sure Pete, for example, looked forward to playing the match in part because, for him, it would be the easiest task of the day.
Both players arrived in The Big Apple in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the day before The Showdown. Pete from Columbus, Ga., where he had defeated Ponte Vedra’s Todd Martin 7-6(3), 6-4 (two night’s earlier, the hometown-boy Martin had prevailed over Sampras 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-3 in Jacksonville). Both matches had been scheduled as Pete’s preparation for the event at The Garden. Roger, on the other hand, who was coming in from an early-round loss to Andy Murray in Dubai, found himself grounded in Baltimore for five hours due to the weather before touching down in New York (even superstars occasionally suffer the same travel delays as you and I). Except for autographing a ton of stuff for the event, the boys were on their own for most of the day. Pete took the opportunity to sleep in, catch some PGA and NBA action on the tube and get a long massage before he and Roger attended a party hosted by event sponsor NetJets. Both, by the way, are clients of NetJets, the “market leader in private air travel.”
Monday had them waking up to a press conference along with several one-on-one interviews with selected members of the media. While they chilled at their Upper Eastside hotel, I headed to the World’s Most Famous Arena. Along the way I picked up some special requests for their respective locker rooms…four canisters of Original Pringles for Roger and Gatorade’s new G2, and sugar-free Red Bull for Pete. As celebrity backstage requests go, that was a simple as it gets.
As I descended into the bowels of The Garden, I noticed not much had changed since 1987 when Ivan Lendl brought a 16-year-old Sampras along with him as a hitting partner for The Masters held there. Now, just over 20 years later, Lendl was responsible for bringing Pete back to The Garden as Ivan was one of the promoters of the event. Once the locker rooms (Pete had the Knicks, Roger had the Rangers, and both received authentic jerseys with their names on the back) and player guest lounge had been set up, it was time to check out the court. It was hard to believe that just the previous evening the Rangers had skated to a shootout victory over the Bruins on that very spot. While the ice was still there you would never have known it, as a fiberglass-insulated top covered it and a Premier Court had been laid on top. Justin Gimelstob, who was the courtside commentator for the evening, and I took the opportunity to hit some and test out the surface, finding it to be medium-fast (I found it fast hitting with Justin…he found it medium hitting with me!) with a rather low bounce. There were a few rough spots as there always are with a temporary court, most notably a little ridge inside the service line, which Pete discovered during the match as one of Roger’s serves bounced over his head and another almost hit him in his shins.
The players arrived around 4 p.m. and it was then the 21-page script for the evening kicked into high gear. They did both separate and joint interviews for Tennis Channel’s broadcast later that evening and met with the show’s producer for a brief run-through of what was planned on-court. They finally got to take the court and warm-up around 5 p.m., which not surprisingly captured the attention of most of the people inside the building who had been scrambling to attend to last-minute details before the doors opened. Even tough but sports-savvy New Yorkers realized that you do not often get the chance to see the No. 1 player in his prime playing competitively against the greatest player of all time.
Lendl and I had a concern that without a net or screen behind the court, some expensive ticket holder might end up closer to the action than expected, so while Pete practiced his serves, we sat front row behind the center service line. After dodging a few Sampras rockets, we decided to add an extra sure-handed ballboy with quick reflexes at the end of the court.
With practice over, Pete and Roger split up; Pete to meet with some lucky USTA members, Roger to spend some time with a Make-A-Wish child. A quick change and it was off to another NetJets reception as well as a Men’s Vogue party. John McEnroe, who had been in and out of the locker room catching up with the guys, then interviewed both of them in the Knicks locker room for both The Garden and Tennis Channel audiences. After tributes to the victorious U.S. Davis Cup team (with the Davis Cup on display), Ponte Vedra’s own Tony Trabert, Stan Smith, 12-time singles Grand Slam winner Roy Emerson (whose record Pete broke back in 2000), Billie Jean King, and a recap of their one and only official meeting in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2001 where Roger snapped Pete’s 31-match Wimbledon winning streak in five sets, and we were ready for action.
With apologies to Spike Lee, for the rest of the evening I had the best seat in the house. In the player guest lounge I caught all the action in brilliant high-definition on a couch with Ivan Lendl (one of seven hall of famers in attendance…with Roger a lock, make it eight) and former Top 10 player Tim Mayotte. Needless to say, we had our own commentary, plenty of stories and the banter between Ivan and Tim was not nearly as one-sided as Lendl’s 17-0 career record against Mayotte (and you thought Andy Roddick had it bad with Roger)!
One of the highlights of the evening was after a winning shot in the second set, Pete mimicked Tiger Woods’ famous fist pump right in front of the golfing great’s seat in the first row. It got a huge smile from Tiger and a roar of appreciation from the rest of the crowd. Woods, a NetJets owner since 1997, had made the trip to New York to hang with his good friend Roger before going back to Orlando to win his 5th Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
As Newsday’s Shaun Powell wrote the following day, “More than anything, Federer and Sampras got together to bring passion and entertainment back into Madison Square Garden for one night and allowed folks to go home happy, and when is the last time that happened at a Knicks game?”
Meanwhile, Roger and Pete jetted to the West Coast together before dawn the next morning; Roger for a Nike photo shoot followed by the ATP event in Indian Wells, Pete to rest his weary bones and play with his two young sons. And I flew back to Florida (commercially) to look after a few more tennis players, the 3A District Champion Nease High School boys team.
Weller Evans is a former tour manager and executive vice president for the ATP, now retired and happily swatting tennis balls and coaching in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
This story appeared in the May 2008 issue of Play Tennis Florida, official magazine of USTA Florida, www.PlayTennisFlorida.com
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