For some tennis fans, the main draw at the LA Tennis Open isn’t the Main Draw but the “Legends.” Pete Sampras (a two time champ in L.A.) played an exhibition against Marat Safin on Monday night before an enthusiastic crowd. Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier and Michael Chang – all past champs in Los Angeles – are also competing against one another in a series of exhibitions matches played alongside main draw action.
It’s fun to see these former champions walking around the grounds, hitting the practice courts and signing autographs (Edberg even helped a fan with his service grip.) Chang, Courier and Edberg sat down together for a press conference on Wednesday – representing 11 Major singles titles in one cramped, wood paneled trailer.
The veterans gave their perspectives on the tour’s uber-professionalism, the promising state of tennis and the considerable gifts of the sport’s newest legends, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
I asked the players to comment on Marat Safin’s complaints (click here) that the current tour is “too professional” and unfriendly.
“It changed from time to time.” said Stefan Edberg, who admitted to being away too long to comment on today’s tour. “Back in the 60s (the players) all hang out together, eat together. And over time it changes. There was even a change from the early 80s to the early 90s when it becomes more and more professional.”
Michael Chang, who retired in 2003, agreed that the game is becoming more “professional.” He said this insulated, Team Me mentality begins in the juniors:
“Our generation, we’re practicing together. We’re obviously playing against each other. Jim and I, we roomed together in Junior Davis Cup. Pete and I trained before a lot of the bigger tournaments and in our younger years. And nowadays a lot of the juniors don’t even hit with each other because they don’t want their opponents see what kind of game they have or what they’re working on. And I feel like maybe it starts a little bit from there. So there is some truth in it.”
“I’m sure Marat is being sentimental about (the old days). I think nostalgia plays.” Jim Courier said, saying that while the tour wasn’t as “jovial” as it used to be, the players are still comrades in arms.
“I sit here with these two guys.” Courier said, nodding to Edberg and Chang. “Guys I’ve played a lot of great matches against. These guys have broken my heart on more than one occasion, but they’re the guys I have more in common with than anyone. We have shared experiences and shared life experiences apart from each other. But we understand the mentality and I think Marat over time will probably find that to be true, as he looks over the course of his career.”
I asked if “professionalism” was a dirty word in tennis, and if it had a negative impact on the fan experience.
No way, said Jim Courier:
“The internal machinations of the game may not be as ‘sweet’ as they were back in other eras, but the product that is being displayed on court for the average tennis fan is fantastic. The attitudes are tremendous. The role models are there in lots of different places. So while I think things do change. . . the common themes of two players walking on the court and one player walking off the winner stays the same. The guys doing it right now make me proud to be in tennis, because it’s in really great hands right now.”
Of course the main “guys” in question are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who Stefan Edberg says “have taken the game to a different level.”
“What impresses me is that (Federer and Nadal) can keep the level for 5 sets. It doesn’t seem to bother them. They’ll still be running at high speeds in the 5th set. So they’ve really made the game more interesting.” Edberg explained.
He also credited Robing Soderling’s recent success for helping grow the game in his home country. “From a Swedish perspective. Robin Soderling doing what he did to Nadal in the French Open has just lifted tennis to a new level in Sweden. It got so popular over the last 3 months. We’ve been starving for a new Swedish star and it’s created a lot of attention.”
Of course, Stefan Edberg, a six time Major champ and an international superstar, is also legendary for his sportsmanship on court. The ATP’s Sportsmanship award, which he won five times, was renamed the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award in 1996. With Roger Federer recently winning it for the fifth consecutive time, Edberg “yoked” that the award needed a name change: “Maybe we should rename it, say ‘Roger, here it’s your turn.’ He’s just a tremendous guy and has done so much for the game. And you know the great thing about (the award) is that it’s voted by the players.”
I asked what made Roger Federer so popular with his colleagues and Jim Courier had this to say:
“Roger in the locker room is I think pretty unique in terms of players of his stature. I have several friends who are still playing on tour full time. They talk about Roger minutes before he’s playing a grand slam semi final. They’ll still be there playing doubles, and he’ll be listening to their ipods and asking them what their favorite new songs are. And this is literally minutes before he’s going out to play a prime time semi final grand slam match. . .Roger just has this very light energy around him. He’s not a tortured artist by any means. He’s someone who loves being around the courts. Loves hanging around tennis, loves talking tennis, loves being in this world. And it’s this very special lightness of being that I think the other players marvel at because he doesn’t show any mercy when he plays. But he knows how to make people feel comfortable around him. And for many, many years there were champions whose M.O. was to make everybody else uncomfortable. So it’s a very different energy that he brings to the table.“
Courier, Edberg and Chang will be bringing their own special energy to the courts this weekend. Click here for more information from the LA Tennis Open website.