American legends steal the show at 2011 Rogers Cup

Several months before the women took the court at the 2011 Rogers Cup in Toronto, four American male Grand Slam winners were already booked for championship weekend.  In fact, the schedule was formed around their four matches, touted as the inaugural Rogers Legends Cup, a quasi-exhibition singles event following the scoring format of World Team Tennis.

Were the four matches a collective attempt to boost ticket sales in Toronto, which traditionally brings in less revenue than its namesake counterpart tournament in Montreal?  Tennis Canada officials hedged when asked in earlier media reports, although it was clear the stakes and price tags were high when even the Rogers Cup program stated that bringing four retired stars to Rexall Centre occurred due “to generous funding from the Ontario government.”

The players knew what was at stake and – Serena Williams’ continued comeback aside – pretty much stole the show during three pleasantly warm days in mid-August.  Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier and John McEnroe proved that they not only still have the competitive chops, but also provided a surprising and painful reminder of what the ATP Tour is currently lacking today: variety, technique and entertainment, aside from the trio of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Chang and Courier took the court late in the evening on Aug. 12 after Williams defeated Lucie Safarova in three sets.  It was Courier who took the first set and it was also Courier who decided to lighten up the atmosphere in a match that was still by all accounts competitive (the two were locked dead even at 16-16 in their professional rivalry).  The vibe gradually dipped into a mood not unlike a night match session at the U.S. Open, with the two opponents making verbal jabs at each other; Courier receiving declarations of love from two different men; and another fan, on a Courier match point, joking with Jim to please hurry up so that everyone could go home. (For the record, Courier won in a third-set super tiebreak.)

Despite the banter, the players did not hold back when it came to serving up aces, whipping passing shots and dropping deft volleys.  This was evident in the next Legends Cup match the following morning, when a stoic McEnroe took on Chang.  Chang actually tried to lighten the mood by cracking jokes, but McEnroe took no part in it, and – perhaps overextending himself – slipped on the court and lay motionless while Chang and various medics rushed to his side.  The diagnosis was a left hamstring injury, one that took McEnroe out of the match and the Legends Cup, and one that left tournament organizers scrambling in the case that a Serena-less women’s draw left them without any star power for the rest of the weekend.

Thankfully for Tennis Canada, Williams ended up winning the tournament in her bid for a U.S. Open seed (which she managed to snag at No. 28), and Courier graciously stepped in to take McEnroe’s vacant spot.  That meant the two remaining matches would feature the same lineup: Courier vs. Agassi.  Agassi, noticeably slimmed down from his Madison Square Garden exhibition loss to Pete Sampras in February, ended up taking both entertaining encounters.  (Side note: McEnroe also injured himself at that event, spraining his ankle against Ivan Lendl.)

While Tennis Canada could collectively exhale, perhaps more worrying for the ATP Tour is the fact that it currently does not boast the depth of talent comparable to the personalities who competed in the glory days of the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s.  Fans in the States who did not have a chance to watch these players in their prime can do so when the four-week Champions Series tour kicks off Sept. 22 in Fort Lauderdale.  Judging from the level of play in Toronto and New York, a lot more than nostalgia is at stake.

For Champions Series tour scheduling and ticket information, go to www.championsseriestennis.com.  Players scheduled to appear include Chang, Sampras, Agassi, Courier, McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander and Bjorn Borg.

Photos: 2011 Rogers Legends Cup

A note about the Agassi-Courier match: Agassi handed his racquet to a ballgirl to hit a few points, she got in a few serves and the scoreboard kept running. Eventually she lost the game, prompting Agassi to chase after her with a racquet.