Jimmy Connors was about to serve to lead off the second set. Just before going into his pre-serve ritual, he held up his hand to signal for time, walked over to Sampras, grabbed him by the back of his tennis shirt and hissed at him:
“Get your ass in gear, Sampras! Where’s that f*ckin’ big serve I saw for so many years?”
“Look, Jimmy, why don’t you back the hell off me, man?” Sampras spat back. “I’m not the one who was volleying like Chris Evert. We’re playing f*cking Federer and McEnroe, man, put some vinegar on up at the net.”
“You tryin’ to put this thing on my back, Pistol?”
“No more than you’re tryin’ to put it on mine, Jimbo.”
Connors stormed back into his position to serve, mumbling audibly about his “smart-ass partner breaking my damn. . .” You should be able to figure out the rest.
McEnroe could scarcely contain himself, turning his head over his shoulder in a failed attempt to stifle his laughter.
Federer called out to his partner from the baseline: “Look alive, Big Mac.”
“Alright, Fed,” McEnroe replied, “just let me savor the moment.”
“I’m gonna wipe that smirk off your damned face, McEnroe!” Connors seethed.
The crowd, picking up on the heated banter, began to mutter in expectation. Each of the four superstars heard his name called out in exhortation from far-flung corners of Flushing Meadows. The mood was getting edgy and boisterous.
“Quiet please,” said chair umpire Rich Kaufman. “First service, Mr. Connors.”
Connors made eye contact with Federer and the Swiss legend nodded his head in readiness.
Jimmy promptly snaked a 118 mile-per-hour serve down the “T”. Federer could only watch helplessly as the offering almost whacked a baseline ball boy in the head.
Connors gave a huge fist pump and pointed his finger at his partner.
“Now THAT’S what I wanna see from YOU next service game, Pete!”
Sampras slumped his shoulders in his own inimitable way and nodded his head sharply. It was no longer time to talk; he came here to play tennis.
Another ace whizzed by McEnroe traveling in excess of 115 mph, followed by a return error and a fourth serve that pulled McEnroe wide to his backhand side. The result was a blocked return that floated tantalizingly to Sampras at the net.
Pistol Pete sized it up. McEnroe immediately bolted back toward the middle of the court as Federer cut off Pete’s natural angle by taking a couple of steps back and over to his left.
Sampras quickly pivoted his body and slammed the ball sharply into the deuce court, precisely the area that Big Mac had just left. A devious smile crept across his face as Jimmy performed another huge fist pump.
“SH*T!” McEnroe said loudly as he slammed his racket into the court.
The chair cupped a hand over his microphone, leaned over to his right and beckoned to Johnny Mac.
“Mr. McEnroe, though this is an exhibition, such conduct will not be tolerated. I let no more profanities slide. I will give no further warnings; the next time that happens, your team will lose a point.”
“Are you kidding me?” McEnroe screeched incredulously. “You cannot be serious right now! I’m just letting off a little steam and you go up my ass like that?”
“Mr. McEnroe, tone it down!” was Kaufman’s stern reply.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever man,” Mac mumbled as Federer took balls and prepared to serve.
Fed, much like Connors just minutes before, boomed one down the “T”, but it was just wide. It was an ominous foreboding of what would happen this service game: he was broken at 30.
Suddenly, the swagger and momentum all belonged to Connors and Sampras. Sampras held at 15, including two aces, one that touched 133 mph, to take a three-love lead in the set.
McEnroe and Federer kept exchanging bewildered looks, wondering if they were playing the same duo they had subdued in the first set.
As Sampras’ last volley—a crisp laser beam that creased the seam between Mac and Fed—ended the third game, Federer looked McEnroe in the eye and just shook his head, as if to say “That was too good.”
The Big Mac Attack was quietly fuming.
Serving love-three, Mac knew any hopes for salvaging the set rested on his racket. He kicked Connors high and wide on one of his trademark ad-court serves. Jimmy made contact and fired back a bomb that seemed to catch Federer by surprise.
The Swiss automaton calmly flicked his wrist and wrenched a beautiful volley right at Sampras’ feet. Pete’s backhand reflex shot dumped into the net. 15-love.
Mac double-faulted to even the score at 15-all, then surprised Connors with a service winner down the “T” as Jimmy leaned the opposite way. A Sampras return that caught the frame of his racket dumped another McEnroe kick serve into the net for 40-15.
With Connors unsure which way to expect to be served, McEnroe bombed one right into his body. Jimmy awkwardly ducked away and blocked the ball weakly into play, and Federer pounced on it like a lion on a wounded wildebeest.
Sampras had no chance on the volley. It was now 3-1, Connors.
Jimbo kept uncorking nasty serves all over the court, and two razor-sharp volleys off his forehand side, along with a service winner and a huge forehand pass made him personally responsible for a 4-1 lead.
After watching Fed whiff while trying to touch the vaunted Connors forehand, Sampras uncharacteristically played to the crowd, letting out a huge yawn and stretching like a man awakening from a long nap.
“Let me know when you need me, Jim,” he said, just before stretching out on the court as if to go back to sleep.
The crowd roared its approval with huge chuckles and healthy applause.
At this point, Federer decided to change the pace of the game. He beckoned for McEnroe to meet him at the baseline.
“These guys are making the points too short, we can’t stem their momentum,” he said.
“Well what the hell do you want me to do about it?” Mac shot back, obviously annoyed. “It’s your damned serve.”
“I know, I know, just listen to me Mac,” Fed implored. “I’m going to take some pace off and bait them into some big returns. You play back and let’s engage them in some rallies.”
“You asking me, or telling me?” Mac said through squinted eyes.
“Do you like the idea or not, John?”
McEnroe pondered the question for a moment.
“Let’s do it. We might throw them off their game a bit.”
The New York crowd was still going berserk, shocked at the showmanship of Sampras. Federer looked to the chair, who got on the microphone to restore order.
“Quiet, please,” Kaufman intoned. “Thank you. Mr. Federer to serve.”
Fed blasted a 112 mph serve out wide that Sampras easily pounded back over the center of the net. As Pistol tensed in anticipation of a McEnroe volley, he was shocked to see the fiery American backing away from the inviting return.
Federer shot a deep forehand back to Sampras. Bewildered, Pete dumped his own backhand groundie into the net.
Connors glared at his partner.
“What the f*ck was that?”
“I wasn’t expecting Mac to play back, Jim.”
“I wasn’t either, but I wouldn’t have blown that little backhand.”
“Okay, Jim, it won’t happen again. Okay?”
Connors snorted as he backed up and prepared to return.
Fed went down the “T”, and once again, McEnroe dropped back. Connors tried to catch his long-time nemesis with a nasty topspin forehand at his shoe tops.
McEnroe met the ball on a short hop and chipped a deep half-volley to Sampras.
Sensing the new strategy, Pistol Pete feathered an incredible drop shot that had so much spin, it cleared the tape by just inches and bounced back toward Connors’ side of the net.
McEnroe’s headlong charge was in vain. He didn’t even bother calling Federer in for another quick chat.
“Let’s try a different strategy!” he roared.
The crowd gave another hearty laugh.
Fed held for 2-4. Everyone remained on serve for the rest of the set, and the 6-3 tally knotted the match at one set apiece.
Roger Federer would serve to begin the final set.
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