John McEnroe responds to an ovation from the crowd after...

John McEnroe responds to an ovation from the crowd after retiring against Ivan Lendl due to an ankle injury. (Feb. 28, 2011) Credit: Jason DeCrow

A night at the Tennis Oscars - previous century edition - filled Madison Square Garden last night for an exhibition featuring two of the sport's antediluvian rivalries: Pete Sampras against Andre Agassi and John McEnroe against Ivan Lendl.

By necessity, the event was more about stars than current performances. Giants of tennis though they may be, with 37 titles in Grand Slam tournaments among them, those champions of the 1980s and 1990s appeared as in an episode of "Cold Case."

Though still with the passion and motive to revisit past on-court crimes against one another, they are past their considerable athletic peaks. The eldest of them, 52-year-old McEnroe, was forced to concede to a twisted ankle - suffered during warm-ups - nine games into a one-set duel against Lendl, 50.

Predictably, the more spry duo - Agassi, 40, and Sampras, 39 - played the crisper tennis, and possibly had aficionados yearning for the time when American men dominated. Sampras brought his familiar power, including slam-dunk put-aways, and Agassi conjured some old service-return magic and precise ground strokes.

But beyond the final scores - Sampras beat Agassi, 6-3, 7-5, and McEnroe was ahead 6-3 when he retired - the evening's appeal clearly was rooted in the contrasts and antagonisms that marked long-ago scraps over the world's No. 1 ranking.

Agassi described his relationship with Sampras as "strictly platonic'' - "That's the nicest thing you've said about me in two years,'' Sampras countered - in addressing a nasty snit between the two during an exhibition in California a year ago. Agassi had called Sampras stingy while wearing a microphone during play and Sampras answered with a hard serve near Agassi's head.

"We've straightened it out,'' Agassi said. "As much time as we spent together, I never really knew him. Two different people, two different styles. Those differences were never bridged between us. But I recognized him as a superior athlete. We've looked at life differently over the years. Hopefully, we'll get to know each other better going forward.''

Sampras confirmed their tiff "is over. We're still here. He's a rival and a friend.''

But, as usual, it was up to McEnroe left to describe - with humor - how the competitive fires always burn. "We have a lot of history,'' he said of Lendl. "Now, it's easier to look at him and say maybe one of his 10 jokes is funny.''

On his way out, McEnroe revealed a pair of short tennis shorts - circa 1984, the last year he was ranked No. 1 before Lendl took the honor - under his modern shorts, cueing Lendl to offer to play next time "in shorts shorts, with wooden rackets.''

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