Some legendary male tennis icons are competing against one another in a special tour around the United States. The HSBC Champions Series recently made one of its stops in Washington.
U.S. Davis Cup team captain Jim Courier is one of the driving forces behind Champions Series tennis, which this year is playing in 12 U.S. cities over a five-week period.
The series, launched in 2005, is for players over the age of 30. And this year, Courier has assembled the best players in the tour's history. All are former major tournament champions - Americans Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Michael Chang along with Swedes Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander. Only four at any one time compete in each city.
Courier is also playing on the circuit.
“We want to support tennis and there are a lot of great initiatives around this. We’ll support USTA [the United States Tennis Association] Serves, which is their charity. But at the corps of it, you have players that resonate with tennis fans in this country playing competitive tennis and having some fun with the fans as well,” Courier said.
Michael Chang says it is special to compete against the other former champions.
“You know we all go back a long, long way. And to have the opportunity to play against such great champions in such nice venues as well is a treat for us,” Chang said.
At age 39, Chang laughed as he explained that he is the only player who is younger than 40. He said the format - with only single-set matches for the semifinals and a so-called pro-set match for each final, where the first one to eight games wins - is ideal.
“You know our bodies can’t take the pounding as if we were in our early 20s and stuff like that. And so that’s why we have the format that it is and , obviously, condensing it all into one night [in each city] makes it unique as well,” Chang said.
Pete Sampras says he was very receptive to the idea of playing in this year's Champions Series when Courier asked him to participate.
“It just seemed like it would be some fun, a little bit of competition. And I like to work. I like to get out of the house and do a little work and get myself in shape. [It’s] not like it used to be, so it’s less stressful. And it’s a fun night. You know, you get to see some talent out there, and everyone’s got to know I’m not as good as I used to be - a little slower, but I can still serve okay,” Sampras said.
Fans can see Sampras and the other former stars for as little as $35 a ticket.
Rick Batz brought his young tennis-playing daughter to see the matches.
“They help shine things through for the kids that are developing right now to see how far that tennis can go in their lives. It’s a great event for the kids. I have an 11-year-old daughter here and she’s loving it,” Batz said.
Another fan at the Washington tournament, Steve Giaier, said he grew up watching these legends on television and that it was a thrill to be able to watch them in person.
“They’ve still got it. I mean the Agassi and Courier match - they were hitting some hot shots across the net. Yeah, they still know how to play,” Giaier said.
Andre Agassi says he is enjoying not only the competition, but also the camaraderie.
“A couple things are great about this. First of all, staying connected to the game and to the fans that have been with me for so many years. Second is the history we all have together and being able to share that with one another at a time in our lives when we can really take it in and appreciate the moments and create a little nostalgia and spend some time together. So really, one of the true wins in it all is to be together,” Agassi said.
Jim Courier says he knows U.S. tennis fans would like to see American men on the regular tour compete for major titles again soon.
“I know our American public has been long spoiled by people like Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, and Connors and McEnroe and my generation of players with a plethora of majors, and we’ve not seen that for awhile. But I think we have to recognize it’s a very deep field that they’re going up against right now,” Courier said.
But overall, Courier, who is also a television commentator for the regular men’s tour, says he loves what he sees in today’s game.
“I think we’re in a real golden era and I think it’s hard for those of us who live in this country to maybe recognize this because the dominant male players aren’t American. But it’s an amazing time for men’s tennis right now. These guys are quality players and quality people, and I’m proud of them. They do a great job!,” Courier said.
The players on the Champions Tour are not competing just for fun. They accumulate points for games and matches won, and the top three players will split $1 million in bonus prize money at the end of the season.
In addition to Washington, other cities on the HSBC Champions Tour include Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Phoenix and St. Louis. The final tournament is set for October 22 in Buffalo, New York.