Tuesday March 16th, 2010

As the "Hit for Haiti" exhibition descended into farce at Indian Wells the other night, I couldn't help but wonder what Steffi Graf was thinking. The sight of a lithe, spirited Graf had been a highlight of the women's event -- and then her husband and Pete Sampras decided the whole thing was about them. It's very hard to screw up an event of such class and integrity, but these two guys pulled it off.

Consider the magnificence of what had come before. Graf was out there with Lindsay Davenport, playing doubles against Martina Navratilova and Justine Henin. Each of the four players had microphones, and to the delight of some 16,000 fans, the chatty Martina kept the dialogue going with good-humored wisecracks.

Henin seemed relaxed and content -- not so easy, after her loss to Gisela Dulko earlier in the day -- but as a naturally shy person, she was in awe of the proceedings. As hard as she works on her net game, she'll never match the skills of Navratilova, who might still have the sharpest volleys in women's tennis. As hard as she crushes the ball, Henin would love to have the legendarily flat, punishing forehands of Davenport, now the mother of two but still looking quite fit. And Henin simply reveres Graf, her longtime idol, saying, "I'm still a little girl in front of her."

There were some wonderful exchanges. The 53-year-old Martina ended one 10-stroke, point-blank rally with a tremendous backhand cross-court volley, bringing great roars from the crowd. Later, when Graf breezily announced, "I'm not coming to the net," Martina answered, "I am."

When Graf, now 40, was unable to put a solid backhand on a ball around her ankles, Navratilova smiled and said, "It's a long way down, isn't it?" And there was a classic moment when, with Henin trying to serve out the match, Graf unloaded a massive first-serve return winner, giving everyone a glimpse of the most lethal forehand the women's game has ever seen.

("Oh, my God," marveled a friend of mine via telephone. "Steffi looks so good, it hurts.")

It was interesting to hear Graf tell the crowd that she and Agassi haven't imposed tennis on their kids, saying they're more into "baseball, a little bit of horseback riding -- not tennis. We just don't feel like the rackets need to be around the house too much." And it was revealing, in the age of the shrieker, to hear such sweet silence during play. Even with every sound amplified by microphone, these players hit the ball without sounding as if they were fighting off a crazed attacker. Because that's how they always played it. Because it never occurred to them to insult the sport.

In the break between matches, I was thanking the Tennis Channel for putting this (and so much more of Indian Wells) on the air. As a resident of the Bay Area, where we await Larry Ellison's rumored purchase of the sad-sack Golden State Warriors, I took heart in Ellison's masterful orchestration of "Hit for Haiti," from his $1 million personal donation to the glittering array of players on the court.

If only Agassi and Sampras had held up their end.

Know this: I'm a big-time admirer of both men, and nothing could change how I view them as players. I had the good fortune to cover almost all of their matches at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open over the years. Agassi's recently-published book, "Open," is the most beautifully crafted sports biography I've ever read, and just as I always enjoyed Agassi's gift for the incisive remark, I spent enough time around Sampras to know that he's not nearly as dull as he appeared to be on court.

There's no need to recount their full on-court exchange; surely you've heard it by now, and it's easily accessible on the Internet. The barbs seemed innocent enough at first, Sampras actually firing the first shots with a Kojak remark (Agassi's bald dome) and "Take those long pants off" (Agassi admitted wearing sweats to cover his pale, stay-at-home legs). It was all in good fun until, after Sampras whimsically announced "We're in the lead," Agassi answered, "You always have to get serious, huh, Pete?"

From that point on, these were the key violations:

Sampras: "OK, Andre, I'm gonna joke around a little bit. I'm gonna imitate you."

Wow, Pete, could the delivery be a little more stiff? I was waiting for "Page two."

Sampras, after mimicking Agassi's pigeon-toed walk: "Say something! Say it!"

No. Let Agassi respond, if he wants. Now it sounds like we're in the third grade.

Agassi, showing empty pockets and saying, "I don't have any money. No, wait -- I've got a dollar."

See, this is way out of line. In his book, Agassi made a point of revealing that Sampras is a lousy tipper. That's fine, but now we're on a tennis court, playing for charity, and all of a sudden the crowd has gone quiet.

Agassi, after Sampras fired a serve toward his head: "You know what, it's better than being a valet driver and you pulling up."

Andre, maybe you should just leave the court now. You dragged the stadium and a television audience into a catty, idiotic spat, and it's pretty clear that you don't mind hitting below the belt.

Sampras: "Here we go, I'm a bad tipper. I'm sorry, Barack Obama."


The exchange got so ridiculous, even Nadal, who had been deathly quiet all night, told Agassi to settle down. "Awkward," as Federer said later. "I thought maybe we had to give both guys a timeout." (On-court announcer Justin Gimelstob tried to smooth things over during a changeover, but when he blurted out, "I saw you leave much more than a dollar tip a few times, Pistol," he only made things worse.)

At one point, Federer told Gimelstob that tennis competition can be intense, and that as his rivalry continues with Nadal in future years, it will get "fierce." That was diplomatic of Federer, but we all know better.

"What a pity," Mary Carillo said via e-mail. "What struck me the most were the uneasy, deeply uncomfortable positions in which the veterans put Roger and Rafa -- two champions who are constitutionally incapable of delivering a cheap shot - in print or on the court."

What Agassi and Sampras have, apparently, is more fit for the gutter.

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