- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thousands of fans descended upon Verizon Center on Friday night to watch four middle-aged men hack it around on the tennis court. At times it looked like the players were shaking rust off their rackets rather than hitting tennis balls, but everyone in attendance knew they were getting their money’s worth before the first serve was even tossed toward the sky. After all, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras were in the mix.

Fans were enticed further upon seeing the bracket of the condensed four-man HSBC Tennis Cup, which pitted Agassi and Sampras, a Potomac, Md. native, on opposite sides. Excited murmurs of a classic-championship showdown fluttered in the air, a rematch of Sampras‘ win against Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final, the former’s last top-level tournament match before retirement.

Those hopes were soundly dashed, however, by two men with impressive credentials of their own. Former Grand Slam champions Michael Chang and Jim Courier played their way to the eight-game final, with Chang emerging victorious 8-3 in the Washington leg of the 2011 Champions Series.

The 39-year-old Chang proved he hasn’t lost the feisty determination that made him a household name in tennis circles. His quickness and hustle ultimately put him past Sampras and Courier to claim the second event of the revamped Champions Tour circuit. Perhaps it was his 6-4 loss to Sampras the previous night at the inaugural event in Sunrise, Fla. that spurred his revenge.

Whatever the case, the event wasn’t about winning or losing. Hard-fought points frequently came in between light-hearted banter amongst the Hall of Fame participants, each of whom acknowledged the importance of giving back to the fans and sport that gave them so much.

“My competitiveness comes from feeling some good things that I haven’t felt in a long time, feeling the ball come off the racket, and that’s where I compete,” Agassi said. “I don’t compete to test my skills necessarily at this stage. Making sure people enjoy themselves is the top priority.”

Friday night’s action was part of a five-week tour highlighted by seven tennis legends visiting 12 U.S. cities for a series of one-night tournaments. Nearly every city will see a different four-player field, as John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander are also scheduled to join the fray. Each tournament consists of a pair of one-set semifinals preceding the eight-game championship match, all in anticipation of the $1 million prize pool to be shared by the top three finishers at the conclusion of the one-month season.

That ultimate prize was hardly on the players’ minds, though. Rather than throw rackets or bicker at linesmen, they were busy teasing the ball boys and high-fiving fans. In his semifinal against Agassi, Courier became frustrated with his play and decided to trade places with a nearby ball girl. After handing her the racket, the young lady proceeded to draw the biggest cheer of the night when she won a point against Agassi off a long rally. The late point proved costly to Agassi, who lost the match in a tie-break.

Chang displayed plenty of gamesmanship of his own during his semifinal match against Sampras. Both players joked around about several questionable calls from the linesmen, with Chang at one point doing his best imitation of a tennis replay challenge simulation to show exactly where the ball had landed out of bounds. At one point, after three consecutive aces against Sampras, a baffled Chang yelled across the court, “I just have one question: How does it feel to be on the other end of that?”

The loss wasn’t going to deter Sampras, who was happy to run around for a change.

“I’m not like I used to be, so it’s less stressful,” Sampras said. “It’s a fun night. You get to see some talent out there and everyone’s going, ‘Well, I’m not as good as I used to be. I’m a little slower, but I can still serve okay.’ All of us still like to work a little bit. You can only play so much golf in a week.”

At the end of the night, Sampras, Agassi and Courier packed their bags to begin drive up to Philadelphia, where they will join McEnroe for Saturday night’s competition.

“The history we all have together, to be able to share that with one another at a time in our lives where we can really take it in and appreciate the moments and create a little nostalgia and spend some time together,” Agassi said. “It’s really one of the true wins of this is to be together.”