By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
Professional tennis was played at Madison Square Garden for decades, with some of the best players in the history of the game taking the court at the World’s Most Famous Arena through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Four years ago, pro tennis returned to the Garden after an eight-year absence from the last women’s year-end tournament in 2000 and again featured two of the best of all time, with then-men’s all-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras facing current all-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer in an exhibition.
Since then, a yearly tennis exhibition has become a Garden tradition, and this year, Federer, the 16-time major champion, returns to the Garden court for the first time since 2008 and will face rival and former US Open champion Andy Roddick in a best-of-three-set exhibition as part of the BNP Paribas Showdown on March 5, with world No. 2 Maria Sharapova and No. 4 Caroline Wozniacki taking the court first in another best-of-three-set match.
The BNP Paribas Showdown is part of the annual Tennis Night in America celebration in a collaboration with the USTA to host youth registration events, tennis Play Days and Kids’ Tennis Clubs throughout the month of March to encourage more children of all playing levels to sign up for tennis lessons and have fun playing the game.
10 and Under Tennis, which scales the game of tennis to the size of the child with shorter courts, foam balls and smaller racquets to make playing and learning the game easier and more fun, will also be showcased at Madison Square Garden. There will be a demonstration prior to Sharapova and Wozniacki taking the court for the opening match of the BNP Paribas Showdown.
The pro players will then compete on a blended-lines court featuring the regulation lines for 10 and Under as well as the pro game.
Federer is excited to make his return to Madison Square Garden and to return to New York at a time other than during the US Open, having enjoyed his match against Sampras back in 2008 and the energy of the packed crowd.
"Playing Pete was obviously a great moment for me," Federer said. "There was a buzz in town that we were back in the city at a different time of the year really. It’s been a successful event since, and I can’t believe it’s been four years already. I’m really looking forward to it, being in America and the great rival, and I’m sure it’s going to be a wonderful night for tennis and for New York."
Federer and Roddick played one of the best men’s matches of the last few years in the Wimbledon final in 2009, with the Swiss prevailing 16-14 in an epic fifth set. Federer has a commanding 21-2 advantage in their career head-to-head match-ups, but it does not feel that way to him.
"We’ve had the chance to have great matches against each other. It’s a really one-sided rivalry, in terms of head-to-head, but every time when I’m playing him, I don’t feel I have that winning record against him for some reason just because he competes so well, and he really is an amazing player," Federer said. "He’s got one of the greatest serves of all time in the game and has a great personality for the game, and I really enjoy his matches."
While Federer is making his return to the Garden, it will be the first time playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena for Roddick, Sharapova and Wozniacki. For Wozniacki, in fact, it will be her first time ever there, for tennis or anything else.
"I am really excited to come and play and to play Maria and, along with Andy and Roger, I am sure it is going to be an unbelievable event at Madison Square Garden, which is something very special," Wozniacki said. "I have actually never been inside, but I am extremely excited to go and play, and I love New York, and I have always played well at the US Open. I am looking forward to going back there, and I am sure that it will be great."
Sharapova, the three-time Grand Slam champion, leads the head-to-head matchup 3-2 over Wozniacki, although the pair split their two meetings in 2011. She is looking forward to returning to New York, one of her favorite cities, and, like Federer, experiencing a slightly different New York in an indoor exhibition in winter.
"Obviously, this is huge to be coming to New York and playing in Madison Square Garden, not only because of its history and history of tennis in that area but because it is New York City," she said. "And when you have the chance to play at the US Open every year, there is really nothing like an experience at Madison Square Garden, and I think for every athlete around the world, not just to be in the stadium but to be performing there is really an honor, and I can’t wait for that opportunity.
"I love going to and playing in Queens, but the energy we will experience at Madison Square Garden is going to be quite different than what we have ever experienced before," she added. "That is just something that I am looking forward to."
The Showdown also gives many fans in the New York area another chance to see some of their favorite players at a different time than August and September in a more relaxed setting and potentially expose some new fans to the game, including hopefully inspiring some children to start playing tennis.
"I think as a professional athlete, whether we are playing tennis or other sports, I think one of our main goals is to encourage those kids to be active and to play sports," Sharapova said. "Sometimes when you experience a sport on TV, it doesn’t necessarily bring out that energy through the screen and the physical aspect and the emotion of how you play, and the energy that you put into every stroke and the emotions are gone after points or certain situations. I think it is a unique experience for children and also their parents to see it live, and I would love to see as many kids out there as possible."
Federer enjoys playing exhibitions as a nice break from the day-to-day intensity of the ATP Tour and to give potentially more fans a chance to see some of the game’s top players live. With the tour next heading to U.S. hardcourt tournaments in Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami, it makes New York a good first stop to have some fun and hopefully have some families come watch.
"I really enjoy playing exhibitions. It sort of throws in something different. It’s not the usual tournament; the atmosphere is different. There’s always a different crowd, as well," he said. "There are people who otherwise don’t get a chance because they are somewhere else or in a different part of the world during (the US Open). This way, it gives people another chance to come be with tennis. Maybe some come to the women’s, some come to Roddick, some come for me. I think it’s really a nice opportunity, and hopefully many kids get to come and watch."
"I think it’s a good time to play a match like this and keep the buzz going throughout New York and all tiers of time when we know we’re coming back for the US Open," he added. "It’s a good thing. Kids and families usually enjoy it. I couldn’t believe the buzz when I played Sampras, when the city created the buzz around us."
The BNP Paribas Showdown begins at 7 p.m. ET and will be streamed live on ESPN3 domestically and on ESPN International to over 130 countries. A tape-delayed broadcast will air at 11:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
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