TORONTO - Thursday night’s event at the Air Canada Centre was billed as The Faceoff but, for once, it had nothing to do with pucks, the Maple Leafs or the associated heartbreak.
This was mostly just about fun.
Pete Sampras, one of tennis’ most celebrated players, debuted the game at the hockey palace against Canadian Milos Raonic, who some believe sits on the cusp of being equally celebrated some day.
“I just hope I can be competitive. He (Raonic) obviously has a huge serve,” Sampras told a press conference prior to the match.
“I’m not as agile as I used to be and hopefully Milos remembers that I was his idol. That I could be his father,” said Sampras, who retired from the ATP tour in 2003, kidding his superstar-in-training.
For those keeping score, Sampras showed he still had plenty of game with Raonic’s serves hitting 222 kilometres an hour. Neither lost serve through 12 games before Raonic prevailed 7-6 (7-4), 6-1, ending it with an ace.
But this was a night when that was mostly incidental. There were old hockey players and moonlighting Toronto broadcasters masquerading as tennis players. Not sure if that’s worth a 100 bucks a ticket, but they did get to see Sampras: A little slower, curls thinning on top, but still a master at selling the game, if not quite so dominant playing it.
The event was held to give Canadian tennis a boost, not to mention put a little cash into the pockets of sponsors and participants and, oh yeah, give Raonic the opportunity to play his boyhood idol. And, 5,000 tennis fans showed up to say that was a good idea.
At age 40, Sampras is now where Raonic someday hopes to be: Grand Slam tournament winner, No. 1-ranked, Hall of Famer, and happily retired to the Champions Tour.
“Remember, I’ve won 14 more majors than you,” Sampras kidded the 20-year-old from Thornhill, who went on a mercurial run from 156th to 31st in the world rankings.
The 6-foot-5 Raonic’s serve and volley game, is reminiscent of Sampras’ own.
“He was a big inspiration to me,” said Raonic, whose serve has hit 140 miles an hour, “especially seeing how he was able to dictate and impose his own game with that (serve). The fear it puts in opponents’ eyes, knowing you’re able to close out a set with your serve just puts a lot more pressure on them.”
On Thursday night, Raonic got a chance to see his hero’s game up close. Although Sampras admits it isn’t nearly what it used to be.
“Everything just falls apart when you hit 40,” he said.
These days, he plays former stars such as Andre Agassi and Jim Courier as part of the Champions Series. Or guys who, as tennis players, make great TV announcers. But Raonic? Now, that’s a challenge.
“Playing Milos is a whole different game. He’s got a big serve and a big game. It’s like night and day,” he said. “Playing Courier and Agassi, we’re older ... For me to come up here and compete is not easy.”
For Raonic, it was a hoot. How sweet is it to be sitting on a podium in front of TV cameras while one of the best players the game has seen, is telling the world how great you are?
“Amazing,” said Raonic.
It’s not like the two are buddies, either. They met for only a few minutes last year in San Jose. The bond is the game, and the way they play. Powerful. Aggressive.
“I think he’s got a great game (for today’s tennis). Everyone playing today ... pretty much stays back. It’s pretty one-dimensional,” said Sampras. “I want so badly to see some serve-and-volley tennis. It’s heartbreaking to see everyone stay back. To see some variety and see guys come in and impose their will. As a fan of tennis, I miss it. It’s unfortunate the art of serve and volley has gone.”
It is an art Raonic watched Sampras master, an art he is eagerly forging. No Canadian has ever won a Grand Slam singles. None has ever won the Rogers Cup since it became a tournament of stature. For Raonic, both could become reality.
“It’s up to Milos,” said Sampras. “When you have a serve like he has, he’ll be tough to beat. What Milos needs is experience. He’s only 20. Very young. Let’s be patient. It takes time to be a champion. Let’s not get carried away. All the tools are there, but ... don’t expect him to win Wimbledon next year. It’s going to take some time. He can do it. He’s got a great future.”
Sampras, meantime, is content in the present, trading shots with McEnroe, Connors — or occassionally, a young stallion like Raonic — and where his best volleys now come when he’s talking up the game.
“It’s nice to be back in the sport (but) I’m enjoying it on my terms,” he said. “I don’t need to grind like I used to. It’s Milos’ turn for the sleepless nights and all the stress.”
He laughed. Beside him, Raonic, a mountain of expectations on his horizon, smiled. A little.