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By Richard Pagliaro

Photo Credit: Zahed Khan

(March 12, 2010) INDIAN WELLS — A brief burst of pyrotechnics, a series of popping flash bulbs and a sustained ovation greeted Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal as they took the court for tonight's Hit For Haiti charity exhibition.

Then the fireworks really began.


Rivals reunited for cause and delivered some stupendous shot-making, stretches of humanity, hilarity, histrionics and even a bit of lingering acrimony during the doubles exhibition before an appreciative sell-out crowd of more than 16,000 fans.

It was all for a worthy cause to aid casualties of the catrastrophic earthquake in Haiti. The event raised more than $1 million for the cause.

The evening began with Steffi Graf and Lindsay Davenport partnering against Justine Henin and Martina Navratilova
— a compelling clash of champions who have combined to win 50 Grand Slam singles titles and 35 Grand Slam doubles titles.

Oracle CEO and tournament owner Larry Ellison presented a check for $1 million to the American Red Cross Haiti Relief and Development fund, which was established to help those impacted by the recent earthquakes in Haiti.

"We hope it's going to be more than a million dollars.  What we guaranteed was at least a million dollars, but people are continuing to make contributions," Ellison said. "We have our fingers crossed, but with a little bit of luck, we'll tally everything up and we'll go over the million dollar target."

During changeovers, images of the victims in Haiti were posted on the stadium scoreboard serving as a stark reminder that the fun and games on court were played to provide help for the very serious business of rebuilding a nation where the massive loss of life can never be salvaged.

"That was a bit sobering on the changeover," Navratilova said. "We were cracking jokes and you see it, and you're just reminded again.  You sort of try to look at it as an opportunity for Haiti, who has been in such a terrible state for so many years now.  Hopefully an opportunity to rebuild and actually eventually be better.  But at what cost?  So many people have lost their lives. It was just a horrible catastrophe.  But it's nice we can do a little bit about it, and help, you know, who knows who?  But because we hit tennis balls pretty well, we raise money for a great cause."

In a match played with more emphasis on fun than fierce competition. Henin's young legs and Navratilova's fine feel and guile around net carried them to an 8-6 victory.

Then the men took center stage. In an interesting pairing, the baseliners
— Agassi and Nadal — took on the all-court attacking players Federer and Sampras in a match that combined two of the most riveting rivalries of the Open Era.

In a touch of class, Federer removed his "RF" baseball cap out of respect for Hall of Famer Rod Laver, who conducted the ceremonial coin toss.

All four players wore microphones and Agassi put the clash of generations into a visual perspective for younger fans.

"The kids are asking 'Who are those bald guys playing with Federer and Nadal?' " Agassi asked at one point.

"I got a little (hair) left, you're like Kojak over there," Sampras shot back with a smile.

All four champions produced some dazzling shotmaking at various points. At one point, Agassi and Nadal ripped groundstrokes at the net men, but Federer fended off each baseline blast with a series of sharp reflex backhand volleys. As the exchange escalated in intensity, Federer stepped forward and knifed a slick, short-angle backhand volley winner.

Always the showman, Agassi carried on a near non-stop monologue in delivering playful digs to his opponents and partner. Agassi provided comic relief, using all three players as straight men at various points.

Drilling one bullet forehand past by Federer, Agassi smiled and told the 16-time Grand Slam champion "That was the best you got, wasn't it?"

When Federer responded immediately with a sharp winner, Agassi said "God you're good!"

A leaping Nadal nearly pulled off a highlight-reel high backhand volley only to see his shot hit the top of the net prompting Agassi to remark "They just don't make athletes like they used to." And when the speedy Spaniard came up short trying to run down a drop volley, Agassi remarked "You look a lot faster on TV."

The sarcasm later came with some sting. Urged by Agassi to lighten up a bit, Sampras said "I'll joke around with you."

Serving at 4-all, Sampras imitated Agassi's trademark pigeon-toed shuffle across the court prompting Agassi to retaliate with what he called his own impression of Sampras. Agassi turned his pockets inside out in a reference to the assertion he made in his memoir, "Open", that Sampras was a cheap-skate who once tipped a Palm Springs valet exactly $1 for pulling his car up at a restaurant.  It is a charge that seemed to have touched a nerve with Sampras when he was asked about it prior to last month's San Jose exhibition against Fernando Verdasco.

Sampras smiled at the gesture, but clearly was not amused, saying "You got personal with me." Agassi pressed the issue in pushing his rivals emotional buttons a bit.

"Oh it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt huh?" Agassi said. "It's better than being a valet when you pull up.  It's not personal. No everyone knows it already. It ain't personal Pete."

That acrid exchange created a brief bit of tension and an awkward atmosphere when Sampras sent a serve right at Agassi's body.

At that moment, Hit For Haiti, became hit out at the opposition.

Federer tried to make light of the situation suggesting that perhaps his rivalry with Nadal would someday percolate with a similar degree of personal intensity.

"Toward the end it's gonna get fierce with me and Rafa so I'm looking forward to that part of the rivalry," Federer said jokingly.

Leave it to Federer, always trying to make the right play, and Nadal, the youngest and most self-effacing man in the match, to show the most class on court.

A few games earlier, Nadal, apparently uncomfortable with an Agassi remark seemed to say "Andre, Andre, Andre (stop) with the lip."

The quartet tried to put that episode behind them though it did change the dynamic of the match and eventually Sampras and Federer prevailed, 8-6. Agassi and Sampras embraced at net and later Sampras tried to smooth out the tension, telling Tennis Channel's on-court reporter Justin Gimelstob "It got a little tense with Andre.  I love you, Andre. We're friends. I tip very well, trust me."


Ellison downplayed the Agassi-Sampras exchange as all part of the show.

"I think they both have a tremendous amount of pride.  They're both great champions, and I think they take the game very seriously," Ellison said. "On the other hand, I think all the kidding around was very, very good natured.  In that sense, I didn't think it was serious."

It doesn't quite carry the level of vitriol of the Connors-McEnroe rivalry but given Agassi's criticism of Sampras' personality in his book it seems looks unlikely the pair will be reuniting for an exo tour anytime soon.

In his book, Agassi wrote that his Southern California rival has all the personality of his pet parrot, Peaches.”At least when I bullshit a reporter, I do it with some flair, a little color,” Agassi writes on page 184. “Pete sounds more robotic than Peaches.”

It’s one thing for Agassi to basically brand Sampras, a man who earned more than $43 million in prize money, a tightwad after he said a valet at an Indian Wells restaurant confided to him and then coach Brad Gilbert that Sampras tipped him all of $1 (in a move that might even make Ebenezer Scrooge cringe, the valet claims Sampras told him to give the $1 to the person who actually pulled his car around to the door). But the level of antipathy between archrivals is even more revealing in Agassi’s interpretation of Sampras’ smile and pat on the back at the conclusion of their 2002 US Open final.

”Pete gives me a smile, a pat on the back, but the expression on his face is unmistakable. I’ve seen it before. Here’s a buck, kid. Bring my car around,” Agassi writes in revealing his vision of that iconic image of two of the greatest American champions in history sharing an embrace at net that was really one champion’s condescending smile after extending his Grand Slam final superiority over his rival.Give Agassi credit though, for not pulling any punches when it comes to his characterizations of his foes.

Sadly, on a night that was about trying to help one of the poorest nations in the western world, ravaged by an earthquake that resulted in thousands of victims, one of the most philanthropic players in tennis history didn't seem to understand the night wasn't about indulging his own ego or publicly trying to settle old scores.

Still, that mid-set clash of champions and egos should not completely detract from the positive purpose of the evening.

In the end, all of the participating players and fans who donated were contributors to a worthy cause.

Avid tennis fan Tony Bennett closed the evening with a moving rendition of the classic "Smile." A musical sentiment that served as a reminder of the true spirit of the night.


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