As I anxiously awaited Pete Sampras’ first serve, he bounced the ball, looked up at me and laughed so hard he almost fell over. The 14 time Grand Slam champ may have been out there for hits and giggles, but I was serious about Monday’s Hit with the Pros doubles mini-match at HP Pavilion.
Sampras, who had just lost a beautifully played SAP Open exhibition with Gael Monfils, was teamed with KGO Radio contest winner Ryan Sablan, a 27-year-old, 5.0 USTA-rated player from Martinez.
Monfils drew the short straw. The 24-year-old French star had me as his partner — a 4.0 player more than twice his age. I didn’t start playing tennis regularly until about ten years ago, but thanks to my career choice I’ve been able to compete in a variety of celebrity pro-ams around the Bay Area. That said, nothing can prepare you for the adrenalin and anxiety rush of facing the world’s best players in front of thousands of spectators.
In my first charity event I almost hyper-ventilated playing alongside Martina Navratilova. A few years later, I had the match of my life against Chris Evert who loudly asked, “Who is this guy?” after I ripped a bunch of unexpected winners.
Afterwards, incredulous friends wondered what got into me. The truth is I really don’t know. For some inexplicable reason I was finally able to channel all that exuberance and intensity into my game. Call it a one hour visitor’s pass to “The Zone.” The next day my predictably inconsistent self was back.
In San Jose, Sampras couldn’t have been more accommodating. His soft lob gave me an easy overhead winner. But then I whacked one of his 60-mph serves about 20 feet past the baseline. I also whiffed on one of Sampras’ returnable volleys.
There were a few good rallies with Monfils playfully swinging twice at shots he could have crushed. When serving to win the second game, Gael quietly asked me, “Do you want the big one?” I said, “Sure.” Then he blasted a 130-mph ace.
Final score: One game apiece.
The four of us gathered at the net for handshakes and hugs. In the interview room Sampras said, “He wasn’t laughing at me before the match, he was laughing with me.” Yeah, sure.
Ernest Hemingway once described sports writer George Plimpton’s exploits of pitching batting practice to the National League All Stars and playing quarterback in a scrimmage for the Detroit Lions as “The dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty.” Nowadays, some people play fantasy football and baseball, I’d rather hit against Pete any day, no matter why he’s laughing.
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.