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Monson: McEnroe, Sampras show Utah some legendary tennis

Published February 25, 2014 11:13 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

We all stepped into a time tunnel Tuesday night at EnergySolutions Arena and, in the spin, it was easy to come to a couple of conclusions: 1) time exacts its toll on what used to be, and 2) the yearning to take that trip into the past tells you all you need to know about the sorry state of the present.

John McEnroe and Pete Sampras, along with Jim Courier and James Blake, showed up at ESA to play one another in a tennis exhibition that was half-celebration of what once was and half-realization that these guys are half — OK, maybe a little more — the players they used to be. Yeah, Father Time is undefeated in taking on all comers, no matter how many titles they own.

"I'm 42," Sampras answered when he was asked if he's ever tempted to make a serious return to the grueling sport that he once held by the tennis balls. He ruled the game.

Now, he's kind of goofing with it.

Even going halfsies that way, though, has advantages over being subjected to the current state of American tennis, a condition that makes lovers of one of the world's great individual sports in this country turn their heads around. Fond memories of American champions past trump facing the cold realities of bleak prospects for American champions now.

Echoes of victory are preferable to an empty void.

The few thousand willing to buy tickets for the exhibition in Salt Lake City would take a 55-year-old McEnroe and a Sampras over, say, a 28-year-old John Isner or a 26-year-old Sam Querrey.

They already know the sad truth: Where American men have been is a whole lot better than where they are.

Sampras won 14 Grand Slam singles tournaments, McEnroe seven. Throw in Jimmy Connors, who got eight, and Andre Agassi, with another eight, and the path to the top was pretty well worn on this country's courts. Those guys weren't all exact contemporaries, but, in extended form, they rolled through the glory days of American tennis, back when winning was the thing.

Now, losing in the second round is the thing.

Isner is the top American in the current ATP rankings. He's No. 13. Querrey is second — at No. 56. That's right, there are only two American male tennis players ranked among the world's top 56, and neither of them is within shouting distance of Spain's Rafael Nadal or Serbia's Novak Djokovic.

From Nadal to Querrey, there are 10 Spaniards. There are eight Frenchmen. There are three Germans. Switzerland and Canada have as many ranked players over that span as the United States, only their guys are much more highly ranked. At least the Swiss have Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, each in the top 10.

There are three other Americans in the lower rungs of the top 100.

It's as though tennis has been transformed into cross-country skiing or the two-man luge. Next thing, Finland will be crushing us.

"Tennis has lost its edge a little bit," McEnroe said. "There's not enough interest, as much as I'd like to see. The game's too expensive. If we could nab some of the guys who are playing basketball and football, we'd be in a helluva lot better shape. But you got to make this game look more sexy, like it's something they want to do. Grab them when they're young. You look at the interest in Europe and you see a lot of the best athletes playing tennis. That's why they're dominating."

McEnroe said tennis in the U.S. needs to be made more available to young athletes, among other changes.

"One of the things other countries have done is pour more resources into tennis," he said. "You get the better athletes playing tennis, generally speaking. … We have to do what other countries are doing. We have one guy in the top 40."

It's enough to cause American tennis fans to long for the days of McEnroe, who made every tournament he entered a ridiculous adventure, either because of his deft touch or his petulant behavior, and Sampras, who might have lulled everyone into a coma but who woke one and all by lifting a trophy at fortnight's end.

And even when the fellas lost, they created some wondrous matches and wicked rivalries with great opponents, so interest in tennis grew. When it comes to championship contention now, the great game, from Florida to Hawaii, is growing all right, growing … dormant.

Where have you gone, Johnny Tennis?

Well, aside from the broadcast booth, he's playing in mostly meaningless exhibitions like the one at ESA on Tuesday night. He hopes to be an ambassador for the game, spreading the good word as he moves around, competing against the other legends. He seemed to enjoy himself, while taking that competition quite seriously, as did Sampras, Courier and Blake.

McEnroe spent a couple of days in Utah, Sampras flew in Tuesday afternoon and was scheduled to fly out Tuesday night. But those local hungry American tennis fans here soaked in what they could, what was left of the great ones' games. It's all they have, all this nation has, at present. It's not everything, but it's … something.

Half — OK, maybe a little more — of what it used to be.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.