Federer beats Sampras in exhibition

MSG sold out for event
March 11, 2008 7:36:56 AM PDT
Past and present stood across the net from each other during a third-set tiebreaker at Madison Square Garden. On one end, a winded Pete Sampras tried to summon enough energy to give the New York fans another memorable win to talk about it on the subway ride home. On the other side, Roger Federer wore a sly grin like he knew age was about to catch up to the former world No. 1 - the man who owns the record of 14 Grand Slams he wants.

Youth is served, indeed.

Current No. 1 Federer emerged with a 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6) victory Monday night in an exhibition that featured a little bit of everything - some laughter, some stellar shots, uneven play and compelling tennis.

There was even a Tiger Woods sighting.

"It was a great night for tennis," Sampras said.

There were moments when, if you squinted a bit, you would have sworn that was the Sampras of old, rather than an old Sampras. There were moments when, if you listened to the whip of the racket through the air, you would have been absolutely sure Federer was giving it his all.

And then there were moments when, as you watched Sampras throw his racket to the ground in mock disgust or saw Federer raise an index finger to celebrate four aces in a single game, it didn't really matter whether this match counted or not.

"I don't think winning or losing was really the issue tonight," Federer said. "I think we both tried to do our best and have a fun night, and that's what it turned out to be."

For nearly 2½ hours, before an occasionally raucous gathering of 19,690, these two living, breathing greats of their game shared a court, Federer in his ultra-modern all-black getup and Sampras in his old-school all-white outfit.

It was Pistol Pete vs. The Federer Express.

"Good vs. Evil," as Sampras said with a snicker earlier in the day.

The encounter certainly doesn't settle the "Who is better?" debate, given that one participant is 26 and the other is 36, nothing more than bragging rights was on the line, and, frankly, who can truly know how hard each was really trying? It did, however, raise tennis' profile, make both men some money - $1 million for Federer, less for Sampras - and, well, allow people to say they saw Sampras, the best of his generation, face Federer, the best of his.

"It turned out to be this thriller match," Federer said.

No one can say they saw Ali face Tyson in a boxing ring. Or Hogan face Woods on a golf course.

Woods, who happens to be pals with Federer, decided he had to see it in person. He sat in the front row, part of a delighted crowd that included Donald Trump, Regis Philbin and Anna Wintour. They sat around a hard court set up where the NBA's Knicks and NHL's Rangers play.

"This is maybe why so many people came out: You don't often get the No. 1 in his prime playing against maybe the greatest player of all time," said Federer, who recently recovered from a bout of mononucleosis that he thinks contributed to losses in his past two tour matches.

It was the fourth Federer-Sampras exhibition; Federer won two of their three matches in Asia late last year. They left open the possibility of another, with Sampras deferring to whatever Federer wanted to do.

The two only played one real match, back at Wimbledon in 2001, when an up-and-coming Federer edged an on-the-way-out Sampras in a five-setter on Centre Court.

That ended Sampras' 31-match winning streak at the All England Club; he would never add to his seven titles there. Federer would go on to win five in a row at Wimbledon, a streak that he will try to extend this summer.

Sampras never played a professional match after winning his last Grand Slam trophy at the 2002 U.S. Open. Federer's Slam count is already up to 12, and Sampras acknowledges he fully expects the record to change hands - and that the kid could wind up with 18 or 19 Slams.

"Roger's got more important things to worry about," Sampras said, "than playing me."

On this night, Sampras showed off the serve-and-volley style that carried him to a record six straight years ranked No. 1. And Federer showed off the all-court game that has helped him enjoy a record streak of more than 200 consecutive weeks ranked No. 1.

Both players took things seriously at times. They also took things frivolously at times, such as when Sampras spiked his racket to the court or pleaded with a linesman to change a call.

After one volley winner, Sampras pumped a fist and threw two Woods-like uppercuts, playing to the rollicking golfer and the crowd in a way he rarely did during a professional career marked by equal doses of excellence and stoicism.

The crowd ate all of it up, cheering for Federer and adoring Sampras. "You still got it, Pete!" rang a cry from the stands.

In the end, he didn't have enough.

"I was happy I took the second set so we could give the crowd more tennis," Sampras said. "I was a little disappointed I didn't come up with the win."