It’s a simple feel-good formula. At tennis exos, players show off their best strokes, trick shots and standard comedic riffs, plus there’s a little repartee — all in order to raise money for good causes.
And the Indian Wells Hit For Haiti on Friday night March 11th was even better. The stunning opening act featured Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Justine Henin and Lindsay Davenport (who, god-forbid has won ONLY three Slams). All together the foursome had 50 slams, three Olympic golds and about 71 years at No. 1 (or it seemed that way.) After the quartet (which included the best two players of all time) did their thing, the crowd licked their chops.
Now Roger Federer and Pete Sampras (the two best on the men’s side) would be teaming up. On paper the best dubs team ever (with 30 Slams between them), would be facing Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi who could boast 14 Slams.
From the outset, bald bad Andre took the initative. A charismatic extrovert on stage amongst three quiet introverts who at times seemed like spear carriers. A knife going through butter, it was the locker-jock Agassi who dominated: Andre as wise guy not wise man. Say it isn’t so, that other Agassi – the incredibly reflective and well-spoken sage and philanthropist – inexplicably took the night off.
Tonight’s show starred Agassi the Vegas showman – full of hilarious sarcasm and self-criticism, spit and vinegar.
Asked about the performance of his wife Steffi, he joked through his on court mic “are you talking about on court or off?” Andre unleashed flash forehands and twice predicted the speed of his serve within 1 mph and bragged “I’ve got mad skills.” When Federer seemed to ramble, Andre asked “are you having a party in your head over there” and then told The Mighty Fed, “you’re not very intimidating.” The Swiss responded, “[I’m] very neutral, very relaxed.” The mild Swiss then tried to enter the roast and challenged Andre to take off his sweatpants to reveal his pale legs.
But what Andre had been taking off recently was his gloves as he let the world know of his unvarnished views of his rivals in general and Sampras in particular. In his tell all bio “Open,” he wrote “I envy Pete’s dullness. I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration.” Beyond this, Andre (whose Dad made his livelihood from casino tips in Vegas) again and again told the long devastating tale of Sampras being a lousy (just a buck) tipper. Then to make matters worse, Sampras embarrassed himself in San Jose in February when he revealed that, despite his millions, he and the USTA couldn’t settle on what Pete should be paid in order to coach American juniors. He claimed it was a matter of principle. Skeptics countered, “what principle? Get out there and teach.”
Meanwhile, back at the Hit for Haiti, Agassi offered a stacotto stream of chatter. For instance, he teased Sampras for his thinning hair: “we all know the secret.” Suggesting Pete should shave his head, Andre quipped “it’s liberating, it changes your life.”
Pistol Pete, whose stiff repartee was as slow as his serves were fast, only gave Andre more grist for his fast-talking mill.
“You always have to get serious, huh Pete?” Agassi said.
Finally, proud Pete had enough. “Okay Andre, I’ll joke around a little bit, I’m going to imitate you.”
Then Pete stood pigeon-toed and began waddling just like Agassi. For the first time all night, Agassi seemed stunned. Andre the beloved humanitarian, the helper of kids, Zen man and caring family dude was now getting a hefty dose of his considerable medicine. One wondered, could he take it?
There was an awkward silence. In a flash an uneasy tension gripped the 16,000 in attendance. This was supposed to be fun. The players had gone way off script.
“Say something,” Sampras told the suddenly silent Andre.
“I want to impersonate you,” Agassi replied. He pulled out his pockets and said, “I don’t have any money. I just like … I … ”
“Oh,” Sampras said. “About my tipping? Okay.”
“No,” Agassi said. “No wait. I’ve got a dollar.”
Sampras: “That’s how you want to play, huh?”
The escalating teases now seemed to have gone over the top. Sampras was at a loss. Hardly a comedic genius, he didn’t have the quick, laugh-it-off wit to defuse the tension. Not exactly an adept sage, he didn’t step back and say wait a second guys, this evening is about good will and making the world a better place. Let’s all take a deep breath here.
Instead, he awkwardly said, “so that’s it, I’m a bad tipper. I’m sorry, Barack Obama.” Then he called on his best tool, his racket, and blasted a serve right at Andre. Not a great move, and he promptly got what perhaps was the first warning for unsportsmanlike conduct that had ever been issued in a hit-and-giggle fundraiser.
But truth be told, it should have been Agassi, the most curious, compelling and nuanced figure in our game, who should have been warned for unsportsmanlike conduct.
For starters, his on court chatter was entertaining but a tad too much. (Even his chilled out partner Nadal warmed him to cool it.) But for Andre to portray his celebrated rival Pete (in front of 16,000 fans at a feel good fundraiser) as a hapless cheapskate was more than an unfortunate unforced error.