A youngster and his idol sat shoulder-to-shoulder, one gushing about the other’s ability to deliver precision serves down the line at astonishing speeds, wondering aloud if he could keep their tennis match competitive.
The youngster was Milos Raonic, his idol was American tennis legend Pete Sampras. They sat together in a casual prematch meeting with media Thursday – and make no mistake – it was the idol nervously wondering how he would return Raonic’s monster serve and handle the Canadian’s big game in a friendly exhibition match at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
“I hope Milos understands I was his idol – I could be his father,” joked 40-year-old Sampras, asking Raonic to take it easy, noting he suffers from a bad back these days.
“I can still serve and volley pretty well, but to break Milos, that’s difficult. I don’t see his serve everyday.”
Getting to play the King of Swing, let alone beat him 7-6, 6-1, is something the 20-year-old rising star from Thornhill, Ont., might never have imagined when he was a young boy obsessed with the sport, studying hundreds of Sampras’s matches on videotape.
“I think I have watched him play a couple thousand hours more than he’s watched me play,” laughed Raonic, who began the 2011 season ranked 156th in the world and climbed as high as 25th during his breakout year.
“There is so much this moment brings. Nights like this are going to help tennis grow in Canada.”
On their first night on a court together, Raonic and Sampras first warmed up in a light doubles match, where they lobbed shots to various Canadian celebrities, such as actor Hayden Christensen of Star Wars fame and former NHLer Brad May sporting tall socks and tennis whites. A sideline coach yucked jokes into a microphone and the Toronto Raptor mascot served as a ball boy.
But the night took a decidedly more competitive tone when the main event began. The 6-foot-5 Canadian blistered the first of many aces at Sampras’s feet on his opening serve of the match, and the American handed his racquet to a fan in mock surrender. While it was tough to return those serves, the champion of 14 Grand Slams lunged for balls, smashed cross-court winners, and dusted ginger-drop shots to hang point-for-point with his young opponent, at least in the first set.
Sampras, who retired in 2002, still unleashed with that natural, familiar motion from the service line and contended with a serve-and-volley game that has disappeared from men’s pro tennis over the years. He took Raonic to a tiebreaker before allowing the Canadian to take the first set 7-6 before the crowd of 5,705 at the ACC’s first tennis event.
Raonic, the world No. 31, routinely thundered serves upward of 218 kilometres an hour, and Sampras ripped a few aces of his own, once even pumping his fist in triumph, a glimmer of the Sampras who went toe to toe in the 1990s with rivals such as Andre Agassi. Raonic then finished off his hero 6-1 to end the night.
Sampras doesn’t play much tennis these days, other than some Champions Tour matches. He finds the loss of serve-and-volley tennis heartbreaking, but is compelled by Raonic’s game, saying it’s well-suited to today’s power-hitting ATP. In an on-court interview after the match, Sampras called Raonic’s serve “bigger than big.”
“I think he’s on the right track, but he’s very young, so let’s be patient here,” Sampras said. “It takes time to be a champion. All the tools are there. Don’t expect him to win Wimbledon next year. It’s going to take some time, but he can do it.”
“I’m going to watch out for him over the next number of years. He’s going to break through.”