Tennis' golden oldies still enjoying the spotlight

Pete Sampras reacts during a friendly exhibition against

Pete Sampras reacts during a friendly exhibition against Andre Agassi at the Venetian Hotel in Macau. (Oct. 25, 2009) (Credit: AP)

They are like ex-Presidents, still in demand long after having been the most powerful men in their line of work.

Monday night, John McEnroe, 53, Pete Sampras, 41, Andre Agassi, 42, and Patrick Rafter, 39, were featured in a Madison Square Garden exhibition of retired champions. Rafter won the mini-tournament with one-set decisions over Sampras (6-3), then McEnroe (8-3), after McEnroe beat Agassi (6-4).

None of them envisioned, at the time they were winning Grand Slam tournaments, mostly in the previous century, that they still would be playing to appreciative crowds--though the Garden was not quite half-filled--all these years later.

But, as Sampras said, the sport is "name-driven," and these are some of the very biggest names.

"When I was done, I didn't want to play tennis, touch tennis, talk about it," Sampras said. "I was so done with the sport that, just didn't think, when I was the best player in the world and people asked me, 'Would you play senior tennis?' -- no way I would.

"But life goes on and you have kids and you're married and feel like you need to work a little bit, and it gives me something to focus on. And I'm still pretty good at it."

This current senior tour was organized by another star of the Sampras-Agassi generation, Jim Courier. It is a one-year project with 12 tour stops involving 12 former champions, the sort of thing that has been going on in tennis for decades.

(There was, in the late 1970s, a series that included the likes of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall that eventually had to exclude a lesser-known Aussie named Colin Dibley, because Dibley kept beating the bigger names.)

Anyway, here are these historic figures, still getting to show off in front of crowds.

"I didn't think I'd ever have a chance to come back and play in Madison Square Garden," McEnroe said of his glory days. "But it's something that keeps me close to the game. I mean, at this point, it's gravy.

"That I may not get this opportunity again might be an understatement. But it's fun when it still works every now and then. And it certainly makes me appreciate how difficult it is."

Agassi called it "a fun way to stay connected to the game and people and peers. It's a big compliment to be part of it. The sport's been such an important part of my life, so to think that I've been an important part to the sport would be the ultimate reward."

Yes, they are "slowing down a touch," as Sampras put it. "And that's frustrating. But the excuse is, I don't practice much. And I'm playing guys my age. Everyone's in the same boat."

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