Old rivalries still alive in tennis expo

(L-R) Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and (L-R) Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras pose for a photo during the BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden. (Feb. 28, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

What Monday night's Madison Square Garden tennis exhibition proved, apparently, is that opposites attract great crowds. Why else would 17,165 people pay to watch four over-the-hill champions attempt to recreate athletic quarrels of 20 and 30 years ago?

There is no denying that John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi are goliaths in their sport; for two solid decades, one followed the other as the world's year-end top-ranked player - McEnroe from 1981 through '84; Lendl in 1985, '86, '87 and '89; Sampras from 1993-98; Agassi in 1999.

Among them, they won 37 Grand Slam events, 295 pro tour titles and reigned as No. 1 for a total of 827 weeks - roughly 16 years.

But that was then.

McEnroe is 52 now, Lendl 50, Agassi 40, Sampras 39. Though the always emotive McEnroe summoned a bit of the old hand-eye legerdemain Monday night and led the stoic Lendl, 6-3, in a one-set race to win eight games, he was forced to call off the fight because of a sprained ankle suffered in warmups.

And, while Sampras and Agassi still were very much the act you've known for all these years - Sampras the serve-and-volley master, Agassi the bustling little baseline rally monkey during Sampras' 6-3, 7-5 victory - no tennis purist would want to sacrifice either, at this age, to those modern gods, Rafael and Roger.

Still, the Garden was packed and, as McEnroe noted, "the crowd was buzzing."

Because, all evidence indicated, everyone - including the players - treasured the old hostilities. In their primes, McEnroe vs. Lendl was a heated stare-down of starkly different styles and personalities. And Sampras vs. Agassi, while generally more civil, was just as much a clash of dissimilar antagonists.

In scrapping over the sport's highest stakes, the rivals never infringed on the other's intellectual property; it wasn't possible, because McEnroe was so different than Lendl and Sampras so unlike Agassi. On and off the court. Just this week, Agassi described himself and Sampras as "two different people, two different styles. Those differences were never bridged between us."

All along, though, the lack of bridges - along with the players' enormous skills - added to the charm, and surely was a core reason the two classic rivalries could continue to sell, well beyond their expected expiration date.

"You can't do what you used to do," McEnroe acknowledged after his latest on-court spat with Lendl, "but it's generally the same thing."

Considering whether their relationship has changed in their retirement from the pro tour, McEnroe shrugged. "It's not as if we see each other a whole lot. I don't think it's that much different, in a way. When you're trying to win the majors or be the best and you look at your adversary, it's a lot easier to look at the glass half empty, and what's wrong.

"When you get older, and there's not as much at stake, you start to say, 'Well, the both of us went through a lot in our own ways.' And you start to look at it: 'Well, maybe once out of his 10 jokes, he's funny.'"

When McEnroe stripped off his tennis shorts after his brief performance, to show Monday's Garden crowd that he was wearing 1984-style short shorts underneath, he confessed that he also had brought a wig to show off "hair, circa 1982." Being forced to forfeit, the ability to actually turn back the clock was "unbelievably depressing," he said.

Still, the crowd got what it came to see, that the competitive fires are not diminished and, in spite of mellowing age, there never was anything phony about the two rivalries.

Lendl, who was part of the group promoting the event, joked how he "always knew John would be working for me some day." Which prompted McEnroe to slyly observe that, given that arrangement, "Maybe Ivan made the court slippery so I'd sprain my ankle."

Tennis isn't hockey. Fans don't want actual fighting and weren't comfortable with last year's public Sampras-Agassi tiff when Agassi made snarky comments about Sampras during a California exhibition and Sampras answered with a high, hard serve. But a fiesty reprise of old sporting battles seemed to do everyone some good Monday night.

"We played pretty good for old men," Sampras said.

"It's nice," McEnroe said, "to feel you can go out there and still do it, sometimes."

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