SALT LAKE CITY — For two decades, Utah sports fans had the privilege of watching golf legends past their prime compete as the PGA Senior Tour made an annual appearance in the state.
Tuesday night, it was the tennis legends’ turn as four of the top American players of all time put on a show for local fans at the EnergySolutions Arena as part of the PowerShares Series Champions Challenge.
The headliner was 55-year-old John McEnroe, who played more like a guy 20 years younger in knocking off 14-time major champion Pete Sampras in his first match of the night. But apparently he needed to play 21 years younger as he couldn’t quite keep up with 34-year-old James Blake, who just retired last summer, losing in a tiebreaker 7-6 in the finals match.
McEnroe, a three-time Wimbledon and four-time U.S. Open champion, played some phenomenal tennis with several aces and deft shot-making at the net that wowed the several thousand fans in attendance. He also played to the crowd, raising his hands after good shots and arguing calls on several occasions.
But he didn’t have quite enough in the tank to outlast the younger, faster and more powerful Blake, who rocketed several forehands past McEnroe, before ending the match with a lazy lob McEnroe couldn’t get to.
“It was fun,’’ said Blake, the most pre-eminent African-American tennis star since Arthur Ashe. “John still plays great, it’s incredible how hard he hits the ball, how great his hands still are. I hope I’m still moving that well in a few years, let alone 20.’’
Before Tuesday night, Blake and McEnroe had never met during their tennis careers, not surprising considering their 21-year age difference. But they had never met in any of the six PowerShares series events earlier this year either.
The PowerShares tennis series features 11 players, who take turns playing in 12 events around the country. Last week they played in Houston and Denver and Wednesday night they are playing in Sacramento.
McEnroe joked that the only reason he leads the circuit with 1,200 points is because he has played in more events than anyone. But he has won two events and finished second twice already this year before coming to Salt Lake.
Tuesday night’s win was Blake’s first and he said the win isn’t about to make him consider coming out of retirement. He had enough trouble with the 55-year-old McEnroe.
“I practiced with him a few years ago and knew he was still intense, but I forgot who I was playing against out there,’’ Blake said. “It surprises me every time I see him playing that well, but I should know better than to think anything different with John McEnroe.’’
Blake defeated two-time major winner Jim Courier in the first match 7-5 and McEnroe met Sampras in the marquee match of the night. McEnroe dominated the match, winning 6-3 as Sampras was playing his first event of the season. Perhaps he’s been spending too much time playing golf, which he mentioned more than once in a pre-match interview.
All of the players acted like they were having a good time as they tried to entertain the crowd, especially McEnroe.
At one point early in his match with Sampras, McEnroe ran down a drop shot near the net to hit a winner past Sampras. He reacted by first putting both hands above his head, then he headed for the exit, waving to the crowd and stepping over the barrier as if he were done for the night after such a terrific shot.
Another time McEnroe kissed the net after hitting a winner that had hit the net and dropped in.
McEnroe complained about several calls, some in jest, which brought the predictable calls from the audience of “Are you serious?,” a phrase McEnroe said he hears every day (“It’s amazing to have people 30 years later still yelling that at me”).
But several times McEnroe was upset and not acting as he argued with the umpire.
“If you’re asking me if I’m competitive you’re asking me if I breathe in the morning.’’ McEnroe said.
Johnny Mac showed his competitiveness Tuesday night, but it just wasn’t quite enough for one more victory.