Los Angeles - Monday night's inaugural Los Angeles Tennis Challenge was an effort to prove that Southern California tennis fans will support the sport in impressive numbers if the big names in the game come to play. The event certainly met that goal as an enthusiastic crowd of over 8,500 came out to watch some of the top tennis players in the world.
The event took place at UCLA's famed Pauley Pavilion where a fast hard-court surface was installed over Wooden court. The evening began with a red carpet walk that included the tennis participants and a number of celebrities, including Bruce Willis, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Dr. Phil, drawing cheers from fans and onlookers alike.
Three "pro-set" matches were scheduled to be played in total, with each match requiring the victor to win 8 games (with a tie-break to 10 points if the match was tied at 7-7). Once the tennis began however, a few comical hitches delayed matters.
The first match featured pros James Blake and Tommy Haas, both of whom have previously been ranked in the top 10. In the middle of the set, Haas hit a first serve into the net that collapsed it - drawing both gasps and laughter from the crowd. Haas, currently ranked #19 in the world, jokingly flexed his muscles to the crowd's delight.
For those who might not know, such a freakish occurrence is less common than even the shattering of a backboard in basketball. In fact, this writer had never seen it before in person or on television.
After a brief delay, it was determined that the players would shorten the set in order to stay on schedule. Haas eventually defeated Blake, 6-5.
The second match of the evening featured the true headliner of the event, current undisputed world #1 Novak Djokovic, whose introduction was followed with a performance by a Serbian dancing troupe to make the Serb "feel more at home."
The top-ranked player in the world had won an ATP tournament in Dubai just a couple of days earlier, and was preparing to play at Indian Wells next week. On this night, Djokovic entertained the crowd by playing both singles and doubles. Beyond his usual high-level of tennis, Djokovic clearly embraced his role as an ambassador for the sport.
In the singles match, Djokovic defeated former top-10 American player Mardy Fish, 8-7. Throughout the match Djokovic joked with ball girls and boys, engaged in conversation with the crowd, and even broke out into a little Serbian dance himself after winning a point. Playing loosely, Djokovic tried a number of trick shots to entertain the crowd and drew laughter from the crowd when he hugged linespeople who gave him beneficial calls.
Despite the clowning around and some unusually stiff competition from Fish, currently ranked #32 in the world, one never had the feeling that Djokovic could actually lose the set. Unsurprisingly, when the match came down to a tiebreak, Djokovic picked up his intensity and dominated the final game. Even in an exhibition match, the world #1 clearly was not going to allow himself to be beaten.
The final event of the evening was by far the most intriguing for tennis fans. Arguably the top doubles team in history, the top-ranked Bryan brothers, played against Djokovic and the long-retired 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras.
On paper, one might assume the Bryan brothers would easily win the match. Neither Djokovic or Sampras have ever seriously competed in doubles and certainly neither had ever played with the other as a partner.
Yet as many tennis fans know already, many top singles players could certainly dominate the doubles scene as well if they were willing to commit to that form of the game. Certainly, if Djokovic and Sampras were good enough to win on Wimbledon grass, then attacking net play would not be unusual for either of them.
But the bigger question concerned Sampras himself. What could we really expect from a former legend like Sampras, who had retired way back in 2002?
Apparently, quite a bit.
Sampras began the match extremely sharp and even thrilled the crowd by athletically putting away a couple of overhead smashes. Although his serve, probably the greatest serve in the history of the game, was in no way the dominating weapon it once was, Sampras would still occasionally unloaded a massive first serve that would harken one back to the old days.
After a couple of Sampras forehand winners broke serve, the all-star team found itself up 4-2 and certainly the two seemed to enjoy playing with each other. After a tough call went against Djokovic, he playfully yelled at the umpire in a mock rendition of John McEnroe's famous "You can't be serious!" rant.
Shortly thereafter however, the lights went out in the lower half of the stadium, causing another delay. When the match resumed, the Bryan brothers appeared more focused, obviously unwilling to allow their impressive doubles reputation to be sullied by a defeat to the crowd favorites. Eventually, they pulled out the match in a 10-7 tiebreaker.
Djokovic cherished the experience of playing with his boyhood idol. "It was such a blast to share the court with Pete. I always wanted to play a match with him or against just to share the court with him. All the memories come back to me."
For his part, Sampras was relatively pleased with his own performance. "I haven't played in four months. I don't want to embarrass myself. I actually played OK."
This enjoyable and appreciated night of tennis will hopefully mean that Los Angeles will remain an important stop on the ATP tour.
by Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com