Ten thoughts in the wake of Pete Sampras' 6-3, 7-5 exhibition win over Andre Agassi:
1. More than 19,000 people packed Madison Square Garden. Even watching on television, you got a sense of the building's high energy. It was a happening. And you wondered: Outside of Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal, could any matchup of today's players compare in the New York setting? What a testament to reputation and legacy.
2. Although one has to add: In Seattle, Miami and a number of other big cities in this country, it would hardly be must-see theater.
3. Thanks to ESPN for the inspiring footage of their most classic matches, particularly the 2001 U.S. Open quarterfinal. But the network should have included the spontaneous, emotional standing ovation at Arthur Ashe Stadium as the two men returned to the court for their fourth consecutive tiebreaker. An indelible memory for anyone who was there.
4. I tuned in wondering how the John McEnroe-Ivan Lendl match (earlier in the evening) had turned out. What's with Chris Fowler and Patrick McEnroe, not even mentioning it until 2-1 in the second set? OK, it was a downer; McEnroe had to retire after several games due to an ankle injury sustained during warmups. But a lot of people cared about a matchup between complete-opposite types who rarely had even a civil word for each other. You can't leave the news hanging that long.
(A bit of irony, as well: McEnroe trains hard throughout the year, with the likes of Laird Hamilton and Chris Chelios in Southern California. He's in tremendous shape. For a man of McEnroe's titanic ego, the withdrawal had to be humiliating.)
5. Did that really happen? In the second game of the first set, Agassi unleashed a very good cross-court forehand, probably a winner in his mind. Sampras got there and crushed a running down-the-line forehand winner, triggering a service break. A stunning shot for a player of any age.
6. Sampras' win carried the element of justice. Agassi is a decent guy at heart, and charitable beyond words, but he really blew it during that awkward exchange at Indian Wells last year. This was payback, performed in silence.
7. Speaking of which: Thank goodness they weren't wearing microphones this time. That's a veritable invitation to farce.
8. Hate to say it, but if you'd never seen or heard of Agassi, and got a look at this bald, pasty character, you'd make the pre-match assumption that he'd won some kind of "Play a set against Sampras" contest.
9. In his prime, Agassi's service return was astonishingly accurate and punishing; historians felt only Jimmy Connors' could compare. We've lost the element of the exceptional returner in today's game, because the new racket technology makes it so easy to just swing away and hit ridiculous winners. Some players are better than others, obviously, but there's nothing to approach the utter shock of witnessing Agassi's hand-eye coordination.
10. Best bit of non-exhibition news: The short-court movement is taking hold in U.S. development centers. The idea is for 10-and-under children to play on smaller courts, with sized-down equipment. Absolutely. There's nothing more ridiculous than tiny children on a regulation court -- or an eight-year-old trying to heave a basketball into a 10-foot basket. This will put the fun into tennis for countless children who need a reason to keep putting in the work.
Just one suggestion: Forget the softer balls. Use the regulation brand. They aren't the problem.
NOTES: The upcoming hardcourt tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, already high in prestige, are gathering additional intrigue with the prospect of Federer meeting Novak Djokovic again. We're witnessing an amazing transformation in on-court presence when these two meet, quite evident at both the Australian Open and Dubai. Djokovic has become Federer, in a sense, moving like a magician around the court, owning all the shots, making all the right decisions, serving beautifully and coming through on the big points. Federer is now the one who looks a bit tentative and, it seems, struggles with a clear-cut game plan. Fascinating -- and not necessarily permanent . . . Sampras called it when he spoke to the press at the recent San Jose tournament: People can talk all they want about Federer coming more to the net, and Federer can work on that tactic with coach Paul Annacone, but when it comes right down to a huge point against a tough opponent, "He goes with what's comfortable" and the strategy goes right out the window.
You have to admire Vera Zvonareva's jacked-up game and newfound control of her emotions (most of the time), but she shouldn't be a threat to the No. 1 player in women's tennis, whomever it may be. The top player has to crush Zvonareva's game, every time. So it's a bit of a disappointment that Caroline Wozniacki, who lost to Zvonareva at the U.S. Open and the recent Doha tournament, can't establish some superiority. Serena Williams would (and will) own this rivalry, top to bottom, and so would the vintage Justine Henin .
Mario Ancic's retirement called to mind an afternoon in 2002, when he beat Federer at Wimbledon. He was a little-known qualifier from Split, the same Croatian city that produced Goran Ivanisevic, and aside from matching Goran's towering presence, the kid had the same tone, accent and cadence in his speech. He was ranked 154th in the world, he was 18 years old, and he could have passed for 14 -- except he hit the living hell out of a tennis ball. Ancic became the first teenager to debut at Wimbledon with a Centre Court victory since Bjorn Borg, then 17, in 1973. Smart man, Ancic. He began practicing law in the summer of 2007, when he was unable to play due to mononucleosis and a thyroid problem, and he graduated from the University of Split the following year. Just 26, he is now fully prepared to practice both commercial and civil law.
Sam Querry can't be happy about his dodgy right shoulder, diagnosed as "impingement" of the rotator cuff in a recent MRI. If it gets worse and he needs surgery, that's a long and maddening recovery. I can speak from experience there. After years of hard serving and throwing hardballs, I had rotator-cuff surgery, launched a diligent rehab process and spent 10 months in the process before all the pain and discomfort went away . . . Along those lines, Milos Raonic was smart to bypass the Acapulco tournament after feeling some discomfort in his shoulder. He's been blowing people away with that massive serve, described by Andy Roddick as "one of the biggest I've seen," and he can't afford to risk serious damage. Roddick forecast a top-10 future for Raonic if he can stay on track . . . After facing Raonic in Memphis, Mardy Fish said he'd never come across a player with such strong-looking legs. "You can tell he still has some growing to do in his upper body, and it's a scary thought to think he's got ways to improve." . . . For years, in San Francisco Chronicle columns, I chastised Roddick for his hat -- particularly the disgraceful act of wearing it backward during Wimbledon trophy ceremonies. (Might as well just say, "Good afternoon, Duchess, I'm a moron.") I know he sweats profusely during play, but it's really a dead issue now. As his hat flew off on that final point against Raonic in Memphis, we realized that Roddick is really losing his hair.