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.

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  • Steve · November 6, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Rafa & Hewitt & Connors are the most competitive and those three are more so than Mac. I never liked Mac’s schtick on court but now it’s in his contract to complain about calls, I’m sure. :-) Winning like a brat doesn’t mean shit.

  • Dan Markowitz · November 6, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    I’m convinced after seeing Mac play a few times over the last few years in person that while he does make some long stares and maybe some complaints for the schtick, when he goes ballistic, it’s for real. No one has the nerves pop out of their head for the show. Mac is the greatest 50+ player ever. It’s laughable what he’d do to the Bobby Riggs who beat Margaret Court.

    And to watch him beat Agassi, or go 4-4 with Roddick a couple of years ago, is truly amazing. Agassi wanted to beat Mac last night, but he couldn’t. At 53, not having played pro tennis since, I believe, 1991, Mac beat a guy who was in the U.S. Open finals seven years ago. It’s impressive and entertaining to watch. When he gets into a rally, the way he moves is unlike any player. He still glides and skips across the court in the most graceful of manners. He doesn’t bludgeon opponents, although he hit a forehand last night past Rafter that almost put a hole through Pat’s hip. He truly cuts you up, a nick here, an ace there, a slide volley that speeds away from an opponent.

    Mac hit a shot last night I’ve never seen before. He approached with a flat forehand that wasn’t a drop shot or a drive approach, but it was a muffled shot that completely fooled Agassi and he barely got his racquet on it. The guy is a genius, other players wield shovels, he’s playing with a wand.

  • Steve · November 7, 2012 at 12:51 am

    Love him in the booth. His serve & volley skills speak for themselves. The rest of it –not so much.

  • Dan Markowitz · November 7, 2012 at 7:10 am

    Love him or hate him, Steve, would you at least admit he’s the most important player or has had the most impact of any player ever? Think of it, 35 years since he first stepped on a pro court, reaching the 1977 Wimby semis at 18 as an amateur, Mac is still going strong. He created with Connors and Borg the greatest period in tennis’s history. His shot-making skills were second to none in my opinion for artistry.

    Since retiring, the guy played in a band, opened an art gallery, had his own talk show and is now the biggest profile commentator in the game. He opened his own tennis academy in NYC! His signature phrases, “The chalk went up,” “You cannot be serious” are still in the tennis lexicon.

    Bill Tilden, Jack Kramer, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, and Roger Federer all take a backseat to Mac in my book.

  • Steve · November 7, 2012 at 7:29 am

    Laver & Federer a back set to Mac? Even he would disagree. I’m not a fan for seeing histrionics on court esp. when it supersedes the tennis. It’s been great to see the other side of his personality in the booth over the decades now.

    Most of fans extra fans he attracted were into the act not into tennis. It’s like people that watch hockey for the fights.

  • Scoop Malinowski · November 7, 2012 at 8:29 am

    He’s not insane, Mac needs to conjure up his emotional adrenaline to keep up with these guys are are almost young enough to be his sons. He still wants and loves to compete and must jack himself up with the emotional intensity, which he can still do. If Mac played zombie-passionaless tennis he would be blown out. TO say Mac’s insane on the court is inaccurate. He still has major passion love and a fury to compete at the highest level and amazingly, he can still do it. That’s a testament to his phenomenal iron will. Loved all the outburts and yelling, humor and antics he demonstrated, it was a vintage performance by the one and only JOhn McEnroe.

  • Dan Markowitz · November 7, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Insane, Scoop, in the sense that who would get so bothered playing an exhibition match, especially when you’re more than a decade older than your opponents? He’s a very bright guy, but he loses it out there even when I think his attention is to remain relatively calm and not get hyped up by bad lines calls. I do not think his arguing is a stage. I actually think he just loses it.

    It’s an impulsive action. He can play passionate tennis without going nuts over a lines call. As for whether Mac is bigger than Federer and Laver–in the scope of what he’s done in his life (granted, he’s 22 years older than Fed so he’s done much more living)–yes, I think he’s had a far more varied and impactful life.

  • Scoop Malinowski · November 7, 2012 at 11:54 am

    He’s in total control of his emotions. THis is his Wimbledon finals again, he is doing everything in his power to win the match. All out. It’s awesome to see. Mac has not lost his drive to win at all and his competitive fires still burn as hot as ever. Simple as that.

  • Steve · November 9, 2012 at 8:12 am

    How often does he lose it over a bad call when he’s way ahead in a match? BG mentions this in his book.

  • Scoop Malinowski · November 9, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Good point. Never.



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