Twenty years ago it was about the rivalry—Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras. Two distinctly different players. Two opposed personalities. One-two in the world and poised for a U.S. Open run.
It was then, in 1995, that Nike created a commercial that celebrated this rivalry by having the two American champions race around New York City in a taxi, stopping to flash-mob a tennis court in the street. The commercial celebrated tennis in America. In New York City.
Nike set out to recreate that iconic moment on Monday evening, turning a section of street in the meat packing district near Manhattan’s High Line into a pop-up court and staging a street tennis exhibition featuring such stars as Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal, along with Nick Kyrgios, Genie Bouchard, Madison Keys, Grigor Dimitrov and John McEnroe (as, naturally, an umpire).
Of course, just as they did 20 years ago, Sampras and Agassi arrived in a cab to recreate the moment and perhaps revive an old rivalry.
During a break in the filming, Sampras took a moment to reflect on these two New York moments and how things have changed in tennis in the two decades between them.
“It has been 20 years since Andre and I put our commercial together,” Sampras said. “To recreate it here is exciting.”
The original commercial, directed by Spike Jones, was “one of the best commercials I’ve ever been a part of,” Sampras says.
“I remember it was chaotic when we were shooting,” he says, “It was very candid. We started a couple points and we were getting involved with the crowd. The crowd got bigger and bigger.”
The result? “It was such an iconic moment in tennis and it transcended the sport for a while there,” Sampras says.
At the time, Agassi was ranked No. 1 and Sampra No. 2, and the pair would eventually meet in the U.S. Open final in 1995. "[Even] people not following tennis ended up following our rivalry,” Sampras says. “It was an iconic spot and they nailed it. We nailed it as players.”
While Monday’s event was more about a group of athletes, 20 years ago it was about the rivalry. Sampras says he looks forward to the day when an American rivalry returns, adding that the Roger-Rafa rivalry has proven the most interesting in recent years.
“Rivalries are still there,” Sampras says. “The last great rivalry is Roger and Rafa. Those two guys carried the torch for a couple of years, but there is a shift with what [Novak] Djokovic is doing and a couple of young players making a move.”
As we watch the next rivalry take shape and await New York’s tennis major, Agassi and Sampras reminded us of an original American tennis rivalry. One celebrated in the streets.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.