By Matthew Laird, Special to Tennis Panorama News
SAN JOSE – Friday night at the HP Pavilion at San Jose, local tennis fans were given a special experience by the tennis greats who came together to put on a trio of matches which managed to combine the quality of a competitive match with the levity of an exhibition. The competitors were a selection of the most notable American tennis players of the last thirty years. Despite their increasing distance from their days on the professional tour, Todd Martin, Jim Courier, and John McEnroe all managed to show flashes of the brilliance that had made them so successful in their younger days. But despite their best efforts, the night – and ultimately, the championship match – belonged to Andre Agassi.
This seems appropriate, in many ways. This stop on the PowerShares Series, the year-long, cross-country nostalgia tour of tennis veterans showing that they’ve still got the goods, was sponsored by one of Agassi’s new ventures: Bilt by Agassi and Reyes, a line of exercise equipment. I would not be shocked if Agassi wanted to win to make sure that he didn’t let down his long-time trainer, friend, confidant, bodyguard, and mentor. Winning would have seemed familiar at this stop, as well. The venue itself is also the home of the SAP Open, an indoor ATP event that takes place in February – at least for another year. While the tournament may be moving to South America after 2013, Agassi had managed to win the title here three times out of the six times he made it to the finals.
Agassi seemed to be able to turn back the clock during both of his matches, playing stunningly well in patches. Fans who attend these events come as much to see the players themselves as they come to see their flashes of brilliance, but Agassi hardly looked like a player who was six years removed from hobbling off the court after his last professional match, with back problems that were so severe that he could barely walk, much less play tennis. In both of his matches, against Courier and John McEnroe, Agassi was able to hit winners from positions that defied logic, time and time again. Whether he was off-balance or hitting the ball of his shoestrings, it hardly seemed to make a difference, Agassi still managed to send the ball zipping over the net and skidding off the sidelines. All his opponents could do was watch the ball go by.
Before Agassi took the court, John McEnroe played an entertaining match against Todd Martin, a two-time grand slam finalist who nevertheless couldn’t compete with the seven-time grand slam champion and former world number one. Martin was a harbinger, of sorts, in that he was one of the first very tall players to have success on the tour. While now there are quite a few players at or above six and a half feet, Martin was among the first to show that it was possible for big men to move that well. Unfortunately for him, the challenge for these sorts of players has always been getting down low to handle slice, and that was exactly what McEnroe gave Martin, repeatedly. By preventing the match from turning into a hitting contest with low-bouncing slice shots and his incomparable touch at net, McEnroe was able to frustrate his opponent and take away the victory.
Of course, McEnroe found more than a few things to get frustrated with, himself. It’s hard to know precisely how sincere his outbursts are, at this point in his career, since he recognizes that many fans come to see him play hoping to see him yell at the umpire. And he obliged, during each of his matches, to stare down the line judges and impugn the umpire’s judgment, but compared to what he’s capable of producing, it was a fairly tame evening from the “SuperBrat.” Todd Martin actually managed to get one of the best reactions of the night, by re-enacting the path of the ball as it would have been displayed by Hawkeye’s instant replay technology, after a call on the baseline that he thought went against him.
While the first match had been played at a fairly slow pace, with the players diligently slicing the ball back and forth or moving their opponent around the court with well-positioned but conservatively-paced topspin shots, it quickly became clear that the second match was going to be a different animal entirely. Within the first few games, Agassi and Courier had each hit a handful of scorching winners, and the crowd was getting ready for the two baseline titans to go toe-to-toe. After Agassi dropped his opening serve somewhat tamely, he roared back in the next game by hitting the ball from sideline to sideline, consistently producing amounts of pace and precision with his shots that most top players today would have been jealous of.
After Agassi took a cleanly-struck, cross-court backhand from Courier on the rise, contacting the ball at approximately the level of his own shins and somehow managing to hit it straight up the line, over the highest part of the net, and in a totally unreachable position, Courier called out, “Are you going to keep getting lucky with that shot all night?” Agassi, who was clearly feeling so comfortable with his tennis that he had no problems with joking around before vaporizing another winner, responded, “I’ve been getting lucky with that shot for twenty years!” He actually sold himself a bit short, on that, since he’s been blasting backhands for closer to twenty-five.
While Agassi and Courier were both playing like heavy-weights and it was just that Agassi was able to land more punches, in the championship match between Agassi and McEnroe, it quickly became clear that the two were in different classes, this evening. McEnroe’s low-bouncing slice, which Todd Martin was unable to bend down low enough to handle, was perfectly situated for Agassi – who is just under six feet tall – to hit a clean winner. McEnroe’s troubles were only compounded by his difficulties on serve and his inability to get into the net to show off his volleys.
McEnroe did not play his best, certainly. Just a few weeks ago, the two had played in New York City, where McEnroe had home field advantage, and he had beaten Agassi handily. It’s hard to imagine how that match could have gone after seeing Agassi play the kind of tennis he played tonight, in which a McEnroe victory was never really a serious possibility, and in which he celebrated by raising his arms in the air and mugging for the crowd once he had won his first service game to at least get on the board after dropping the first four games to start the match.
It should go without saying for anyone with even a passing interest in tennis that McEnroe and Agassi are without question two of the most well-known tennis players of the modern era, and that they are also two of the most preternaturally gifted, as well. McEnroe was (and sometimes, still is) able to apply such deft touch and create such unexpected angles at net that comparisons to wizards and artists are not unusual. Agassi’s talents lie elsewhere, but are no less awe-inspiring when they are on full display. He seems to have an ability to see the court – his opponent, the ball, and his own options – more quickly and clearly than should be physically possible. His greatest contribution to the game was his ability to hit the ball “on the rise” or just after bouncing up off the court, before it reaches a level where most players would be comfortable with hitting it. He was among the first to be able to consistently step into the court and smack a winner with a ball that was still coming up, but hadn’t yet reached his knees.
While he may have been the first to use this strategy so effectively, he was hardly the last. This plan of attack, which was insanely difficult when Agassi started employing it more than two decades ago and as a matter of fact is still insanely difficult, is now fairly common on the tour. Nearly all of the top players are capable of hitting the ball this way. I couldn’t help thinking as I watched Agassi send another ball whizzing past McEnroe, hopelessly out of the reach of his racket, that I was watching a modern player take on a relic of the classic days of serve and volley tennis. And despite the fact that McEnroe is among the most talented people ever to rush the net, there’s not much that sort of player can do against the power and accuracy of a player like Andre Agassi, when he’s seeing the ball that clearly.
“I’m in a good place physically and mentally and I’m ready to do what it takes in the final events to take the season title,” said Agassi. “It’s a thrill to win the event here in San Jose and I’ll be ready for my home event in Las Vegas on Saturday.”
Matthew Laird was in San Jose covering the PowerShares event for Tennis Panorama News. He has written for tennis media outlets including Tennis X. Follow him on twitter @MatchPointAce.