But the buildup paled in comparison. This was a congregation of the gladiators of tennis and yet the marketing of IPTL ended up being similar to that of a Vividh Bharati song request show.
It didn’t matter to me though. Getting to see Pete Sampras justifying his moniker ‘Pistol Pete’, with that delicious pause just before tossing for the serve, I knew, was clearly going to be special. It was that posture of his that ran past my eyes when I doubted if these tickets tagged with a five-figure sum are going to be worth it.
“ Let’s pack those bags. ” my tennis elbow screamed.
After all, Sampras occupied a lion’s share of the tennis coverage that came my way while growing up. Nirmal Shekhar and Rohit Brijnath waxed lyrical on the pages of Sportstar and Hindu about his brand of tennis. It was sometimes about his imperious one-handed backhand, and sometimes about his pistol-cork of a serve. On other occasions it was about his serve and volley game and then on days when they got bored of it all, they talked about his leaping overhead smash. The worst they ever said about him was about his personality- boring, they said. No sex appeal apparently.
But his tennis was above board, exquisite and charming.
So there I was cheering his entry as his name got announced at the stadium. The crowd knew their tennis and gave him a rousing welcome. He hadn’t even picked up his trusted Wilson and yet I somehow felt I had got my monies worth already. Hunched, casual, and walking about that rectangular arena that defined his life, he still looked like he meant business.
By the time he got ready to serve against Pat Rafter, I was salivating. There was significance here, this was a big rivalry back then and Pete had rolled over Pat on most of their meetings. Not this time though, as Pete struggled for most of the set and lost 6-2. It was some lovely tennis by Rafter that settled it and Pete just couldn’t get going on all cylinders. He did get a couple of clean aces and just about brought back memories of yore. In the meanwhile, in my thoughts, I had already raced ahead to the next day’s game- Sampras versus Ivanisevic.
While I read about their matches in school, I never imagined I would see them both on a tennis court. Back then as a student, you only think about these players living in a different world. They’re supposed to make headlines in sports pages and you’re only supposed to be reading them and wonder how good they would be. No other relationship is possible. It’s a distant galaxy they inhabit.
In 2001, I read about the giant Croat’s miraculous achievement in the papers of winning the Wimbledon in his fourth attempt as a wild card.
In 2014, I was looking right at him getting ready to receive a serve from Sampras. All I needed now was a dogfight between their racquets.
But there had to be a twist in this surreal world of mine and it came quick. Sampras was down 4-1 in less than 15 minutes. His next two plays got him to 0-30 down. His serve betrayed him. Worse, his next serve at that score, was a fault.
Sampras’ team captain called a timeout. It was a new format after all. His team circled around and we could see Fabrice Santoro the coach, talking animatedly. By the end of that huddle Sampras placed his racket slowly over by the courtside player bench. He quietly wore his track jacket while Fabrice came on-court as a substitute to replace Sampras.
Sampras had just got substituted because he wasn’t good enough. On a tennis court.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him for the next ten minutes. Sampras mildly cheered for his teammate in a typical nonchalant manner from the bench. He was trying to fit in as an audience. I was trying to come to terms with it. He was better off with those leaping smashes. I was better off reading about them.
That evening I was to meet him at a dinner, thanks to a friend who offered to organize it. I didn’t feel like it. I am sure, he didn’t either.