Tennis legends turn back clock at Verizon Center for Champions Series event

Jim Courier won four Grand Slam titles - two each in the Australian Open and French Open. (Associated Press)Jim Courier won four Grand Slam titles - two each in the Australian Open and French Open. (Associated Press)
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Many tennis fans bemoan American players’ back-seat status in the professional ranks, longing for the days when Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang and Jim Courier were dominating the sport. Such nostalgia will be briefly satisfied Friday, when those very players descend on Verizon Center in a one-night, four-player format that will give fans a chance to revisit some of their favorite tennis legends.

The star-studded evening will mark the second event of the 2011 Champions League Circuit, a five-week tour featuring seven of the game’s most recognizable Grand Slam champions. In addition to Agassi, Sampras, Chang and Courier, the tour will include fellow champions John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander. Players will visit 12 cities in a one-night tournament format that will pit four champions against each other in one-set semifinals, followed by an eight-game championship match. At stake is a prize pool totaling $1 million to be shared by the top three finishers at the conclusion of the season.

The newly expanded and reformatted circuit was orchestrated by Courier, a former world No. 1 player who runs InsideOut Sports + Entertainment, the company sponsoring the event. Courier said that convincing such big names to participate was easier than people might imagine, since the format allows players to maintain continuity in their lives away from the tennis courts.

“That’s the beauty of this concept of the one-night format,” Courier said. “It really worked for everyone. The guys like to compete, but they also all have families and children, and it’s important for them to be able to spend quality time at home. They’re able to get out and travel on a limited basis and play in these tournaments but not have to be away from home too much.”

While Friday’s event is sure to create light-hearted banter on the court, fans can expect to see the same competitive fire that burned among the athletes during their Grand Slam years. After all, more than bragging rights are on the line.

“I think the competitive aspect of it is about 65 to 70 percent of it for us as players,” Courier said. “But there is a piece of it where we are relaxed enough in between points where we’ll interact with the fans, interact with each other and be aware that our personalities are important for people to see. But when the ball’s in play, we’re going to be going full tilt.”

Courier eagerly anticipates his return to D.C., where he has competed in ATP events and the Davis Cup. With the arena’s size and impermeability to foul weather, he suggested Verizon Center would provide an ideal venue for the event.

“Tennis fans in Washington, D.C., are very rabid fans,” Courier said. “They love their tennis, and I’m excited to get back there and play. I’ve never played in the Verizon Center, so that will be a new and fun experience.”

Even with a 41-year-old body that isn’t quite what it used to be, Courier said he has been playing tennis four days per week in preparation for the circuit, leaving him fit and ready for battle. And he’s not the only one ready for action. Thousands of tennis fans have taken positively to the idea of seeing Sampras and Agassi square off again - even if they’re over the hill.

“People are fired up. I think this concept has really struck a chord with the fans because we’re all so busy these days,” Courier said. “So for them to be able to come out and spend three hours with us, and to be able to see four great players every night on this tour has really struck a chord with them. All the players are really excited to get out and play and engage with the fans.”

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