The two boys. They just don’t really like each other, do they?
What was supposed to be a little bit of fun in picturesque, laid-back Palm Springs this week — a charity doubles game with Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer — quickly turned sour as the mask slipped and the pair’s real feelings for each other were embarrassingly exposed.
Tennis, of course, has often thrown up entertaining duopolies pervaded by a personal rivalry down through the years — I’m thinking McEnroe-Borg, McEnroe-Connors, Chris Evert and Martina, and even now the aforementioned Federer and Nadal — but never have two men’s style and outlook been so different, and yet their careers so linked.
It’s like Mozart and Salieri. If that is, Salieri, rather than allow his rival’s success to drive him to the asylum, instead rocked up at to Roland Garros in a tie-die bandana with a punkish entourage, stole the crowd’s heart with swashbuckling tennis and swanned off with not a care — even if he was rarely the No 1 in the 90s.
So what happened a few days ago in a balmy holiday resort, during a fundraiser for Haiti?
Well, the end result is that Sampras still hasn’t replied to Agassi’s apologetic text message, even though it was Mr Graf who shipped a serve to the head from Sampras — and he wasn’t even the one in the serve box.
On the other hand, Agassi, wearing a headset microphone like he’s working in a call-centre, had just accused Sampras of being a lousy tipper, as he pulled out his pockets in the universally understood ‘elephant ears’ style while he shrugged open-palmed, saying, not so subtly: “I’m Pete, I have no money”.
Sampras visibly seethed as he asked, bouncing the ball aggressively: “Oh the tipping. Really?”
The charge of being tight is also one Agassi serves up in his recent and controversial book Open — but this time, an obviously hurt Perfect Pete was just across the court and in front of thousands.
It was certainly the ‘dude violation’ that ESPN memorably described it as, but Agassi was, in fairness, reacting to Sampras’s imitation of his own distinctive pigeon-toed gait.
As the faux air of bonhomie that only exists on episodes of A Question of Sport and these charity tennis games was shattered, words were exchanged about ‘getting personal’ while dirty looks were tossed from either side of the net like a Lendl serve and volley.
Neither player attended the post-match news conference.
All the while, the other pair in the four-ball were left to stand embarrassed. Federer — the best player ever, let’s remember —– and Rafa Nadal, Andre’s natural successor, were like a pair of kids strapped into the back seat on the way to the beach, watching bemused as their parents bicker loudly.
The argument may have started ostensibly about the best route to Banna Strand, but this is an old wound they’re reopening.
The Federer-Nadal plotline emerged organically and has endured naturally, but Agassi-Sampras was more likely concocted in a meeting room on a spreadsheet than between any chalky tramlines, as tennis gasped for a new rivalry in the drought of 1994.
This, remember, was the year when a Sports Illustrated cover story screamed: “Is Tennis Dying?”
It was a fair question; McEnroe and Connors — headline-generating rivals on a par with Blur and Oasis — had retired a couple of years earlier. Martina Navratilova quit in 1994, while her adversary Chris Evert was long gone.
The female stars of the day Monica Seles (stab injury) and Jennifer Capriati (burnout) were off court. Boris Becker was spilling more ink in restaurant cupboards than in newsrooms.
And Steffi Graf — now Mrs Agassi, of course — endured one of her worst seasons, surrendering her No. 1 ranking to the forgettable Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.
So tennis needed Sampras-Agassi.
And they were to become the two best players of the decade, between them winning 17 Grand Slam titles.
But while Pete took the majority (12), Agassi was the one who won hearts and minds.
As he ducked a 100mph Dunlop this week in a knock-about charity game, he must’ve sensed there’s still one he’s failed to capture.
Watch the YouTube footage here: http://tinyurl.com/yg3tps5
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