Madison Square Garden: Sampras, Agassi, Johnny Mac and Rafter
It was Throwback Night at the Garden last night with the foursome of Pete, Andre, Johnny M and Pat R. Scoop and I were both there as well, but surprisingly, there wasn’t much of a media turnout and I’d say there was only about 5 thousand tops, fans in the seats. The Garden’s upper decks were completely empty. But I enjoyed the matches.
Scoop and I sat right behind the court, getting a good look at the side-winding, Johnny Mac serve and the fluid Sampras delivery and Pat Rafter’s amazing kick-flat serves down the T. Rafter seemed to be enjoying himself much more than the other trio. He smiled, talked to the crowd around the court which included Fernando Verdasco and even went into the stands and sat at a changeover, eating popcorn and having a little Aussie nectar, a sip of brewski. Of course, maybe he enjoyed himself the most because he thrashed Sampras (he later joked that he’d trade this victory for Sampras’ win over him in the Wimbledon finals) and then McEnroe. Sampras was wearing black compression socks over his calves as he apparently had pulled one of them and had to skip the event in Philly a couple of nights prior.
Johnny Mac took out Agassi in the first match rather impressively. Mac is 12 years Andre’s senior and he looks with his hospital-grey hair and slouching build–next to Agassi’s pumped up biceps and still youthful vigor–as if he’s at least another half-decade older than that. But Mac served in his usual confounding way and exposed Agassi’s forehand. Mac was actually up 4-1 before Andre rallied, and Andre was while not exactly fuming–the way Mac was after Rafter reversed an early break and barraged Mac 8-3–not happy, somewhat nervous and embarrassed (it was Andre’s first go-round in this 12-event tour) and clearly intent on winning. Mac showed such better hands at net and it was surprising how well he covered the court side to side–as Agassi is one of the great East-West players ever–and exposed Andre’s diminishing scrambling skills by sliding the balls back low to Andre’s wings.
The two best aside jokes of the match came when Mac got what he thought was a bad call, stomped around for a bit and then screamed, “It never changes!” and later, after Rafter received what he thought was a bad call (it was amazing to see how Johnny Mac, especially as he got more tired and Rafter started taking him apart, responded to bad calls. He eyed them, even when they seemed close but clearly in, and a couple of times lambasted a linesman or the umpire. He seemed like a crazed child. Rafter was a complete prince and mensch when he reacted to what he perceived were bad lines calls. He beamed an easy smile and had the sweetest mien possible. He never eyed or spoke ill to an official) he tapped the spot where he thought the ball bounced wide and then walking back to the baseline, a fan called out, “It’s New York,” and Rafter smiled again.
Which brings me to the question of who is the most evolved tennis player? While Agassi is hailed as a great humanitarian and he conducted himself well last night, and Courier, who was on hand if Sampras couldn’t play, displays a chilling confidence, and McEnroe, at least before he loses it, is uber-intelligent, Rafter puts it all together. He engages the fans in a charming, Everyman fashion that the other four guys either don’t have a clue, a care or the charm to know how to connect in this easy and open manner the way Rafter does, and he plays to win, but he plays in again in a warm, hard-working but easy style that says, “I still like playing this game at a high-level, but this is really a lot of fun.”
As for Mac, he clearly wants–and needs at a deep level–to win more than any of the other players. At 53, he is brilliant, there’s no other word for it. I think he’d beat Serena and it wouldn’t even be that close, especially over one set. But he is also outright nuts. His wife and two of his kids were there, and it had to be embarrassing for them to see Johnny Mac just act like a guy who just got out of the state mental institution. It’s not an act, it’s insanity, but the guy is quite clearly the most competitive tennis player on earth. Only Jimmy Connors rivaled him and Connors is a looney, too, when it comes to these winning, especially when he played Mac, it didn’t matter whether on the real or senior tour; but being from Illinois, maybe Connors was a little better at hiding it than Mac.
But make no doubt about it, Mac is still the draw in these affairs. One knows they’re seeing a genius–and only Sampras in a more athletic but less artistic edgy way, can compare to Mac in this field–but they’re also seeing an athlete who like Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” will die trying to pull out one more victory. I asked Mac before the matches whether it was his priority to win or entertain or both in this event, and he mulled over both options, but then in the end, said his priority was to win. He looks like an old guy out there, but he plays like a maestro.