Agassi vs. Sampras

090114_SamprasAgassi_2000_h.h2Both men were sweating profusely, those two titans of the sport, one ranked #1 in the world, the other widely believed to be the greatest of his generation, and they were playing a game with which the rest of us were not familiar. The one was a classic baseline player, the best at returning serve, while the other possessed the best serve the game had ever seen, so their heavyweight battles were full of punches and counterpunches, body blows that came in quick and fast with a dizzying array of shotmaking ability.

It was late night during Australian summer, in early 2000, and the roof was open to the late evening sky, ushering in a slight breeze that still did nothing to cool off the players. Sampras blinked first, losing one service game in the first set that proved to be the difference as Agassi won it 6-4. The second set was a mirror image of the first, however, with Sampras getting the set’s only break to win it 6-3. Agassi had a prime chance to win the third set with a couple of chances on Sampras’ serve but they were not to be, as Sampras took the lead with a dominating tiebreak win.

In the fourth set of that epic match in the making, Sampras looked fresher but could not capitalize, as it went to another tiebreak, this time with Agassi coming out victorious. Then the time had come for a decisive fifth set that seemed destined to be just as dynamic as any set they had previously played. But the Sampras who came out for that fifth set looked tired as he sluggishly thumped around the court. It didn’t look like he had any gas left in the tank while Agassi looked fresh and fit, even 2 1/2 hours into the match. Agassi looked like the man who ran up and down hills just outside of his native Las Vegas to train. He steamrolled Sampras in that final set and raised his hands in victory. Continue reading “Agassi vs. Sampras”

The Magic of the Games

628x471I went ice skating once, a long time ago, and I did it because of peer pressure. I mean, everyone else was doing it, so I tried it too. When we got to the rink it reminded me of bowling because I had to rent skates, and the pressure was intense when they didn’t know if they would be able to find them in my size. Luckily for me there was one pair that wasn’t going to totally crush my feet, so I put them on and went out on the ice. And promptly fell flat on my butt.

But in my mind I was a world-class skater who never fell, who skated figure eights with the utmost of ease, and who didn’t need the wall just to hold me up. It was at times like those when reality somehow put a dent in my self-image, reminding me that while there might be some thing I’m good at, there are countless others that I should probably just leave alone. Unless I was absolutely committed to getting better at them and becoming something special. Otherwise, it would be best to live vicariously through others who were gifted or who put in the years of training to be as good as they were in a sport I wished I had in my back pocket.

So, in that summer of 1996 I made up my mind to learn as much as I could about international sports, to soak in the feel of victory and the agony of defeat, and to feel as alive as I could, as energetic as those people I watched on the screen who could do so much. And as luck would have it, the Olympics were occurring that very summer in Atlanta. I didn’t miss one second of them. I scrambled to watch every event, to cheer on each athlete, and to revel in the cultural aspects that make the Olympics second to none when it comes to sporting events.

I loved watching the parade of nations on that first night, seeing the gaudy costumes, the big hair, and the stunning surroundings. For two weeks I was mesmerized. I even tried once again to do some of those physical activities —  I hurt my back trying to do a flip like Shannon Miller. And by the time the fortnight was over, my absolute love of Olympic competition had been forged, despite the bomb, despite the poor showing of some of my favorite Olympians, and even with the lack of ice skating (I would have to wait another two years to see that in Nagano). I was hooked. Continue reading “The Magic of the Games”

The Nature of a Competitor: Part 5

**Summary: I coached varsity tennis for both girls and boys for six seasons, and this series is meant to highlight those moments that I felt were real connections between player and sport, between player and coach, or between opposing players in a competitive setting. The real nature of a competitor is shown through how she/he deals with pressure, adversity, surprises, and expectations.

It was my first year coaching the boys team, and I had some real doubts about our ability to win actual matches. The crew was undisciplined and small. If there were just two players who didn’t show up for a match we would have to forfeit one of the positions. That’s how small the team was. But they were fearless, which was their best quality. Well, that and their sense of humor. Even though we had a horrible year in the win-loss column, we never gave up and we always played hard until the very end.

One of our early matches that season was with a school we matched up well against. In fact, my first and second singles players won their matches rather easily, as did their second and third doubles teams. That meant the match came down to third and fourth singles, and to first doubles. We sweated out the first doubles match, winning in the third set 6-4. The fourth singles match came down to the wire as well, but we lost it in the third set 7-5. And, as often happened in those high school tennis matches, when players finished their matches they gathered around to watch whatever matches were still in progress. That meant everyone on both teams, including both head coaches, was gathered around to watch the drama that was the third singles match. Continue reading “The Nature of a Competitor: Part 5”