Senior Tour Tightens Its Focus on the Big Three
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Last May, the Hall of Fame tennis player Jim Courier and his business partner Jon Venison left Boston after staging their latest senior event with the conviction that they needed to revitalize their five-year-old tour, the Champions Series, in a difficult economy.
“I think we were getting lost in the shuffle a little bit with our tournaments, where we’d have one night that was a focal point and a couple of other good sessions and a few that wouldn’t rate at all,” Courier said. “We wanted just to get rid of the fat and get down to the essence of what people want and what works best for the players.”
What resulted, after a trip to Las Vegas to recruit Andre Agassi, is a compact, one-month circuit with the emphasis heavily on the three most successful and visible American men’s players of the last 30 years: Pete Sampras, John McEnroeand Agassi, who has played team tennis, exhibitions and charity events since retiring in 2006 but has played only one event on a formal senior tour.
The management company IMG also runs a global professional senior circuit, the ATP Champions Tour, with 12 multiday events scheduled this year in a season that runs from February to December.
But the revamped Champions Series will be the first to bring the longtime rivals Sampras and Agassi together regularly as seniors. Agassi is now a part owner of the tour, which will start shortly after the United States Open and run from Sept. 22 to Oct. 22.
Details are to be announced this week, but according to Courier, the series will have 12 one-night indoor events in, for now, American cities. Those will include — in the first year — Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. There will be a $1 million bonus pool, with $500,000 for the series winner.
“I didn’t need a lot of convincing at all,” Agassi, who is a close friend of Courier’s, said by telephone from Las Vegas. “It just makes too much sense to take these three-day events and turn them into one-night experiences for the fans and take more burden off the players and give more of a blast of entertainment to those that have gotten us to this point in our lives.”
Each event will feature only four players with two one-set semifinals and then a final decided by an eight-game pro set. The idea is to crank up the star power and ensure that fans get to see the players they paid to see while keeping scheduling demands minimal and physical demands manageable.
Agassi said he had had recurring nerve problems in his back since retiring and had a major episode last fall because of radiating pain.
“I have to listen to my body these days,” Agassi said. “For a lot of years, I told my body what to do, and now it’s paying me back.”
McEnroe remains remarkably fit at 52 and has long been one of the most active senior players. He estimates that he played more than 40 matches last year, whereas Sampras said he was happy playing “about a dozen.” But McEnroe is more than a decade older than Sampras, 39, and Agassi and Courier, who are both 40.
“I think my best chance, obviously, if I was able to beat a guy like Pete or Andre, would be in a one-set format,” McEnroe said by telephone from the Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy.
There appears to be a significant appetite for such nostalgia. On Feb. 28, more than 17,000 attended a one-night exhibition at Madison Square Garden in which Sampras beat Agassi and McEnroe faced Ivan Lendl but had to retire with a sprained ankle.
“To be honest, I was a little surprised there were 17,000 people, and that made it a little more stressful, because we wanted to play well and make sure the fans got their money’s worth,” Sampras said by telephone from Los Angeles. “You kind of live your life with your wife and your kids, and you sort of forget who you were a little bit.”
Agassi said he viewed the Champions Series largely as an opportunity to re-engage with his public but recognized that others might be more focused on winning.
“I thought this was going to be a real family entertainment tour, and then they told me John was participating, so I realized maybe it’s not,” Agassi said with a laugh.
At least two of the men whom Venison calls “the big three” (Sampras, Agassi and McEnroe) are contracted to play each night. Courier, the current United States Davis Cup captain, who was ranked No. 1 before Sampras and Agassi, plans to play regularly, too, and there will be a limited number of slots for other former champions, most likely Michael Chang, Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, Patrick Rafter and Ivan Lendl.
The legitimate concern is that this tour will be dominated by Sampras, who has trained with Roger Federerrecently and appeared to be in fine form in New York, where Agassi was clearly constrained physically.
“My goal is not to embarrass anyone out there,” Sampras said. “I want to have it be fun for all the players and the fans, but at the same time, people want to come see me play. They want to see me serve 130 and serve and volley, and it’s hard for me to play halfway. So it’s something we all figure out.”
Last year, Sampras and Agassi had an edgy exchange in Indian Wells, Calif., at a charity match for Haiti after Agassi mocked Sampras for being stingy, an accusation Agassi had already leveled in his autobiography. But they played without incident in New York.
“We had some misunderstandings, whatever you want to call it, the Hit for Haiti thing, people really grabbed onto,” Sampras said. “We’re fine. We’ve always communicated pretty well and looking forward, where our relationship is, is fine. We’re not the best of friends, and we’re not enemies.
“I have a lot of respect for Andre and what he did for my career and him as a person. As different as we are, we got along quite well, and we actually do have quite a lot in common, married with two kids and slowing down our lives. I’m looking forward to playing Andre in these matches, and hopefully, we both feel good about it.”