Monday March 15th, 2010

Best of Three while wondering what is the appropriate tip for a valet?

1. Hate for Hitty: A few years ago a friend of mine got married. The rehearsal dinner was a pleasant, elegant affair until some jackass makes an impromptu toast. Fueled by Maker's Mark, he slurred a monologue that focused extensively on the couple's (premarital) sex life, their illicit drug use and other galactically inappropriate topics. All that was missing was a lampshade. With the exception of some relatives who got up and left disgustedly in the middle, the rest of us sat there squirming and speechless.

I was reminded of that excruciating, uncomfortable feeling watching this clip from Hit for Haiti. Or, as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi call it: Hate for Hitty.

Held in Melbourne on the eve of the Australian Open, "H4H1" was a heartwarming, ad-libbed exhibition-"organic" (Mary Carillo's excellent characterization) highlighting everything virtuous and fun about tennis. Roger Federer's brainchild -- very much made in its creator's image -- went a long way toward extinguishing tired stereotypes about pampered and self-absorbed players.

The Sampras-Agassi clip happened at H4H Part Deux, held Friday at Indian Wells. It seemed like a fine idea, a stateside sequel that would raise $1 million for a country in distress. Unfortunately, the event was clouded -- if not outright hijacked -- by the cringe-inducingly awkward, passive-aggressive (and not always so passive) sniping of Agassi and Sampras. A night that was supposed to be about raising money for charity somehow became about a pair of retirees trying to settle old scores and playing out hostilities from the pages of a memoir. (Federer and Rafael Nadal, two guys who have a vibrant, active rivalry, stood on the court understandably dumbfounded.) If we're assigning blame here, Agassi gets grounded, while Sampras merely gets sent to his room without dessert. When Agassi wrote about Sampras' alleged stinginess and robotic nature, it was in questionable taste. But knowing that it upset Sampras, making the same points again on Friday night was hostile -- a total line-cross. Sampras' serving at Agassi's head wasn't the height of cool either. Admittedly, I wasn't in Indian Wells and I'm basing this off the same clip everyone else has seen -- but it comes across as so tone-deaf. They both looked small and petty, unable to sublimate their egos.

If nothing else, this bit of badinage offered some nifty insight into both players -- consider it a video outtake from Open. We saw Agassi at his thin-skinned, insecure worst. (Was this not the same component of his personality he suppressed well, but occasionally popped out in the form of the infamous eBay watch comment, the weird feud with Mardy Fish, or rifling the ball at the Wimbledon lineswoman?) A major step back for a guy who had cultivated so much good will and sympathy lately. At the same time, we saw Sampras as businesslike and cool, but flustered and annoyed when he sensed Agassi was showing him up in front of the crowd. (Aside: What was up with Sampras' bringing up Obama? I took this to mean he was being taxed so heavily, he had nothing left for the valet, a curious sentiment for a man who just put his house on the market for $25 million.)

As we've discussed here before, it's funny how some of the skill set required for success in sports -- intensity, self-absorption, reflexive competitiveness, a low threshold for disrespect -- doesn't always translate so well to the real world. I found this whole exchange fascinating in an icky kind of way. Sampras and Agassi are both great champions and, on the athlete continuum, are both still squarely in the good guy camp. But, to traffic in understatement, this was not their finest moment.

Before we move on and chalk this up to another wacky interlude in the Kingdom of Tennis, let's acknowledge that a seven-figure donation was made for a cause that sorely needs it. A tip of the cap to Larry Ellison and BNP Paribas for making this happen. A tip of the cap to Federer and Nadal -- may their rivalry sustain its class. A tip of the cap to the women, including Steffi Graf, who preceded the men and comported themselves like professionals who realized the night was about something bigger than them individually. If you'd like to contribute -- that is, if the pockets of your sweatpants aren't empty -- you can do so here.

2. They did play real matches in the desert. And not only that, there were some significant upsets, none bigger than Gisela Dulko taking out Justine Henin. Yes, Dulko is a good big-match player. And yes, Henin was dealing with unusual conditions. But this was shocking. (Props to Henin, however, for fulfilling her obligation and still showing up for Hit for Haiti.) Also, top-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova was ousted in her first match. And Ana Ivanovic lost early. Yet again. Especially with the Williams sisters sustaining their boycott, I'm not sure how the WTA keeps a straight face when they petition for equal prize money at this event. As for the American scene, the streaky Melanie Oudin lost in her first match. But some optimism came in the form of Sloane Stephens, 16, who scored the first WTA-level win of her young career and gave Vera Zvonareva, the defending champ, a good run on Saturday.

3. You had to look a little deeper to find interesting early round men's results. But rest assured they were there. James Blake scored his best win in a long time beating David Ferrer. In his first ATP match since 1991 or thereabouts, Mario Ancic scored a three-set win. Brian Dabul, a Brazilian journeyman of Rochus-ian height, upset the fading Gilles Simon. (Countrymen Monfils, Gasquet and Mathieu went out as well.)

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