It was just like the old days.
But Tuesday night didn’t present the roar of a Wimbledon crowd on its feet, or the kicking up of clay at the French Open. There were cheers, but they were accompanied with more of the jovial, laid-back nature opposed to the raw emotion John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, James Blake and Jim Courier were accustomed to when they were the kings of tennis.
Final » James Blake def. John McEnroe 7-5 (6-6)
Semifinals » James Blake def. Jim Courier 7-5, John McEnroe def. Pete Sampras 6-3
The PowerShares Series Tennis Champions Challenge stop in Salt Lake City inside EnergySolutions Arena was a showcase of different generations facing off in the series of former top pros touring the nation on a 12-city expedition.
The one-set semifinal and one-set final format brought out the heightened but friendly exposition.
And there was drama. The McEnroe-Blake final, the first-ever meeting between the former stars, went into a 6-6 match tiebreaker, which Blake eventually won 7-5 with a looping lob shot. It was Blake’s first tour win.
"If you’re asking me if I was competitive, that’s asking me if I could breathe in the morning," McEnroe said. "This is actually lucky that we have this opportunity to go out and do our thing a bit and the format’s good for me."
The few thousand fans crammed into the lower bowl of EnergySolutions Arena saw old flashes of skill that can still wow. Blake beat Courier in a 7-5 marathon semifinal, a set capped off by a dramatic forehand return that skipped off the center of the net and fell to the ground as Blake raised his hands in triumph.
McEnroe said participating in this tennis tour for former ATP stars is both about proving themselves against one another, but also aiming to garner some interest in the sport.
"Some of it’s ego, I think, that you can still go out there, but part of it is you hope there’s a couple kids who will be inspired, some young kid that would come and that would turn to tennis," he said, "and if you can do that with a handful of kids, you’ve succeeded."
Long considered one of the best showmen and personalities of tennis, McEnroe was on point when he waved to the crowd and walked off the court briefly following a drop shot by Sampras on their semifinal matchup. It only took the 55-year-old McEnroe into the third set to take his patented stare at the umpire moments after he flexed his arm after an ace serve. Johnny Mac’s first bite at the umpire came in the first set of his final match against Blake, to which the crowd laughed.
"I actually get paid a bonus to do that now," McEnroe said. "It’s amazing how before, they wanted to run me out of the game, now people are screaming at me if I don’t yell at [the officials]."
The tour stop was Sampras’ first time in Utah. The former No. 1 player in the world with 14 Grand Slam titles flew in Tuesday afternoon and flew out Tuesday night and received a standing ovation following his 6-3 semifinal loss to McEnroe.
"I’m still good at it," Sampras said, "just not as good."
The four stars weren’t capable of what they once were Tuesday night. But to the fans, the three one-set matches at EnergySolutions Arena were worth the price of admission.
"We just want to create more tennis fans," said Blake, a former No. 4 player in the world, "and the more fans we create, the more players we create."
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