By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
Tennis Night in America kicks off Monday, February 28, when four tennis legends – Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl – play in the BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden.
The event is an annual celebration of tennis, including its rivalries, its history and its future, as the goals are for many people to enjoy watching their favorite stars take the courts again, as well as to encourage more children to start playing the game, as a joint promotional effort between the USTA and StarGames, Inc.
Tennis Night in America includes the BNP Paribas Showdown, as well as hundreds of youth registration events at tennis facilities across the country that will be taking place throughout the month of March to hopefully sign up more young players for tennis programming. And perhaps children will see four of the greatest tennis players of all time live at Madison Square Garden or on television and be inspired to pick up a racquet.
The evening at The Garden begins with McEnroe and Lendl taking the court to play a one-set match, with the winner the first player to win eight games. Sampras, the first Tennis Night in America spokesperson, and Agassi then will play a best-of-three-set match.
Introducing tennis to more children is a goal of Agassi’s, and he thinks 10 and Under Tennis using the QuickStart Tennis play format, which scales the game of tennis down to the size of the child, is helping tremendously in that effort and in efforts to develop lifelong tennis players.
"That is the ultimate goal, when you really think of giving back to your sport, is spreading it, bringing it to new generations of players," Agassi said on a conference call of encouraging more children to play tennis. "I think the QuickStart play format is a fantastic way to accomplish that. It is a pretty daunting task to learn how to play tennis as a youngster and even more daunting for a parent who has never played to go and try to play tennis. It is hard enough, when I give a lot of tennis lessons for charity, for professionals to hit the ball with a beginner, let alone with someone who has never played. So I think QuickStart really allows children not to be so intimidated by the game, to get involved with the game. It allows parents to do it with them and to spend time with their child.
"If we can get more kids playing the game, we will have such a broader pool of not just high-end professional tennis, but it is a sport that teaches kids a lot about themselves, a sport that teaches you how to problem solve, and, in my opinion, tennis is a sport that teaches you many life skills, so to introduce it to children has been a goal of mine for a long time," he added.
He is also looking forward to facing his longtime rival Sampras. The two never had a close relationship, which was strained again last year after some verbal jabbing at the Hit for Haiti tennis exhibition. Agassi apologized directly to Sampras after the event and said he will make sure it never happens again.
In regards to their relationship now, Agassi said the two have always just been different kinds of people and that he never knew Sampras all that well, which is something he hopes to change in the future.
"Our relationship is strictly platonic, I assure you," Agassi joked. "We were just two different people, played the game two different ways and certainly went about business in two different styles. As little as I knew him, I always recognized him as the superior athlete and player that he was for so long. Hopefully life will allow us to get to know us a little bit better moving forward."
In preparation for the match, Agassi has been mixing cardio and strength training into his tennis, which was always the easiest part for him. And he is hoping to give the fans a good performance.
"I don’t get the luxury any more of just getting out there and thrashing myself around and then being able to do it the next day," Agassi, 40, said. "If I am strong and I get some cardio, my legs can move a little bit. Hitting the ball comes pretty natural; it is one thing I have always counted on. I have been staggering a lot more tennis than I normally do because no one wants to go to The Garden and be any less than their best. So that is my hope."