Tennis' Old Masters Serve Up Christmas Cheer in BlackRock

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Tennis' Old Masters Serve Up Christmas Cheer in BlackRock

In the chill and gloomy days of a British midwinter when there is no tennis to warm the cockles of the heart, London has offered up a joyful little bowl of sunshine in the Royal Albert Hall.

The BlackRock Masters event is one of the rare occasions when the UK hosts the world’s top tennis players—albeit from a decade or two ago—and this year brought some the best of all time to this famous stage.

It was Sampras’ first involvement. It was Edberg’s first, too. Both had been asked for several years by McEnroe to join the event, both had refused—until now. This fan at last caught up with one of her all-time favourites. A warm glow indeed!

Sampras, of course, is the man, the record holder, the target for everyone else. JMac is a legend for his creativity, the imprint of his personality, those contests with Borg—and still a huge presence whenever he steps onto court.

But Edberg is an artist with a racket, one of those men who glides effortlessly. He maintains a quiet elegance while attacking every shot. It was him I hoped to see, and with tickets for the opening Tuesday night, I did.

The delight of the Albert Hall is its intimacy. Most spectators are no more than a few metres from the action, so for the many women-of-a-certain-age encircling the court, the proximity to Pat Cash was almost too much.

Shouts of "come on Pat," squeals of delight when he changed his shirt, binoculars passed from seat to seat—it was priceless entertainment! His attractions always passed me by, and he is now looking a little rough round the edges, but he has charm in spades. He kisses one lady in the audience when he discovers it's her birthday.

So Cash versus Edberg, two versions of the serve-volley game, beautiful tennis. With a total of seven singles Grand Slam titles between them, they battled as though it was for an eighth. But Edberg’s superior record in Slams showed, despite his 42 years.

I’d forgotten the pleasure to be had from watching a classic serve swung out wide to one side, followed by glide to the net and immaculate volley to the opposite corner, executed with elegant economy. There are elements of Federer in Edberg’s graceful movement and slim, loose-limbed build. His serve seems to pause for a couple of seconds in mid-motion, ball hovering above the head as though awaiting permission to be struck.

I’d forgotten, too, how different tennis looks when there is a complete absence of two-handed shots. A rarity in the current game, there isn’t a player in this tournament who departs from the single-handed grip, and it produces consistently poised, fluid movement. The power is less obvious, but superb technique generates fast, net-skimming slices and quiet, clean volleys.

There is also plenty of aggression in the tactics. McEnroe still steps in to return the serve shockingly early, taking his opponent by surprise time and again. Then there’s the classic left-handed serve that swerves wickedly away from the court.

But at just weeks shy of 50 years of age, JMac lacks the energy and constant pace to keep the pressure on, and he crashes out of the tournament without a victory. He is tetchy to the end, and may bow out of this circuit despite looking more trim and fit than he did in the '80s.

We must hope that Sampras picks up the baton, now that he has been persuaded to take part for the first time. I had hoped—and expected—to see him in Sunday’s final, but he suffered his first career loss to Cedric Pioline on Saturday, and I missed my chance.

Cedric barely registered on my radar back in the '90s but the stats show that he lost twice to Sampras in Grand Slam finals, so revenge after all these years must have felt sweet. His skills and fitness were so well preserved that he went on to win the tournament.

Pioline was a worthy victor, though I did my (semi) patriotic bit and cheered on Rusedski. In any case, how can you not warm to a man who smiles all the time? He has the cheeriest demeanour in tennis (at least I thought so until I watched a fabulous doubles encounter with Mark Woodforde!).

The bottom line for this event—and the BlackRock tour as a whole—is that the everyday tennis fan has the privilege and pleasure of watching some of the best exponents of the game 'up close and personal.'

They played with panache, skill, class, and massive will-to-win. They were charming, sporting (well, McEnroe still assumes the mantle of tournament brat at times), and played wicked tennis on a super-fast court. What better way to lift the tennis-lover’s spirits in the dark depths of December?

I hope the punishing 21st century style of tennis doesn’t wreck the bodies of today’s great exponents before they get the chance to strut their stuff for fans who can, as a rule, only support and admire them from afar.

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