Pete Sampras still remembers that summer night in Toronto nearly 24 years ago.
Before he was considered one of professional tennis' all-time greats, before his eventual epic rivalry with Andre Agassi developed, before the collections of Grand Slam titles, Sampras was a 19-year-old kid trying to find his own footing on a court opposite a legend.
e first time he faced John McEnroe, a star Sampras grew up studying and looking up to, the nerves crept in, but once the ball hit the racket, everything fell along the wayside. Sampras won the Rogers Cup quarterfinal 7-6, 4-6, 6-3.
On Tuesday, Sampras and McEnroe will again face off, but this time the two tennis greats are on the same tier. Both long retired, the pair — which has combined for 19 Wimbledon and U.S. Open men's titles — will be featured in the PowerShare Series Champions Challenge at EnergySolutions Arena. The 12-city tennis circuit featuring tennis legends over the age of 30 stops in various cities around the country to play a one-night tournament featuring three matches.
Former ATP stars James Blake and Jim Courier will also vie for a spot in Tuesday night's final against the winner of Sampras and McEnroe.
The evening will be more of a spectacle for fans than an intensive series of matches between former stars, but Sampras, who will make his PowerShare Series debut in Salt Lake City, said he knows tennis brings out the best in each of the former greats.
“You put a racket and some tennis balls in our hand and we want to play well,” he said. “There's moments during the set that could be a bit on the lighter side. We're not as intense as we used to be.”
But McEnroe, at age 55, is taking it seriously. Which should be no surprise.
He nearly beat Andy Roddick in the final of the Birmingham stop of the tour, losing 7-5 to the former American star 24 years his junior.
“I sort of use my racket, to an extent, like a slingshot,” said McEnroe after a recent tournament, “so I deflect someone else's power and try and get [power] that way instead of using a lot of force that would have a tendency to beat up your body more. Otherwise, you'd have to train an incredible amount.”
Sampras said Tuesday will be the first competitive match he's played in roughly six months, adding he's aiming to partake in three of these types of tournaments a year. The one in Salt Lake City will be his first.
“We're all in a good place where we can pick and choose what we want to do, and we're lucky,” Sampras said. “At the same time, it's good for me personally. It keeps me in shape and I think there's a market out there for some of us old-timers ... or mid-timers.”