It made for pretty uncomfortable viewing when Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras faced each other on a tennis court last week, for the first time since their US Open final of 2002. It was at the ‘Hit for Haiti’ event in Indian Wells; the aim being to raise cash for victims of the earthquake which devastated the country earlier this year.
The cast list was incredible, including the likes of Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and those two great rivals of the 90s, Sampras and Agassi. They were all mic’d up, and the good natured banter was flowing.
That is, until the animosity that Agassi and Sampras feel for each other spilled over. It all started when Sampras decided to mimic Agassi’s famous pigeon-toed walk. The crowd lapped it up, and it looked like Agassi was tickled too, until he retorted by accusing Pete of being a stingy tipper, something he famously touched on in his fantastic autobiography Open. Then Pete nearly decapitated Agassi with a wild first serve. He also accused him of ‘getting personal’, to which Agassi replied, “No, everyone knows it already Pete.”
The crowd went eerily silent, as if they didn’t know where to look. And then there were the other two players on court, Federer and Nadal, the duo who inherited the mantle of the games greatest rivalry. They both sensed the uneasy atmosphere, Federer joking, “This rivalry is intense, man” during a pause, “I mean, Rafa, start. Do something!”
Nadal later pleaded ignorance of the whole incident, conveniently blaming the language barrier. The whole spat has been widely criticised in the media, with many people accusing the American pair of casting a shadow over a charity event by letting their egos get in the way.
Agassi and Sampras were always very different characters. Agassi burst on to the tennis scene in dramatic fashion in the late 80s as a brash showman, while Sampras seemed uneasy with all the attention that accompanied his US Open win of 1990.
That set the pattern for the remainder of their careers, with Agassi creating as many column inches in the press for his off court antics, while Pete was more than happy for his racket to do the talking, without ever truly shaking off accusations that he was boring. Their contrasting personalities added flavour to their rivalry in much the same way as their on-court styles. Agassi summed it all up perfectly when he said, “I think both of our worst nightmares would be to wake up the next morning and be the other.”
There have been other tennis rivalries over the years which have featured players who couldn’t stand each other as people, none more so than Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, who nearly came to blows on a couple of occasions. But it is extremely rare for players to reveal the full extent of their mutual antipathy once their careers have finished.
The Agassi-Sampras episode contrasts unfavourably with Roger and Rafa, two champions who exude class and mutual respect. It is inconceivable that they would engage in such a spat; indeed their relationship has been punctuated with moments of genuine warmth. When Federer broke down in tears after losing the 2009 Australian Open final, Nadal took time out from his own celebrations to console him.
Nadal and Federer seem to cherish each other and the part they have played in their respective careers. Admittedly it wasn’t always like that, with Federer initially regarding Nadal as an upstart, but he ultimately recognised the Spaniard’s brilliance, particularly after their epic Wimbledon final of 2008.
If anything, the Indian Wells incident will enhance the Federer-Nadal rivalry. To have two players in the same era that are so competitive with each other, yet have seemed to remain friends throughout speaks volumes. It is a shame that Sampras and Agassi had to sully their own rivalry with the unsavoury exchanges of last week that no one could have predicted.
There was one thing that was unsurprising about this soon to be infamous match though. Sampras found a way to win, just as he did during so many of their epic tussles while their personal animosities weren’t being so publicly aired.
Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. Ã‚Â© The Sporting Exchange Limited
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news
BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge