SAN JOSE (AP) — After one long point, Pete Sampras sat in a chair to catch his breath, while Gael Monfils dropped to the ground to do a push-up, followed by a sprint and then a sit-up.
That was just one piece of evidence of the 15-year age difference between the two competitors in the exhibition match that highlighted the opening night of the SAP Open on Monday.
Monfils was faster on the court, showing the ability to track down drop shots and other volleys Sampras thought would be winners. Monfils had more power on his serve as evidenced by three straight 130-plus mph aces at one point. And Monfils got the better of the 14-time Grand Slam winner, beating Sampras 7-6 (4), 6-4.
“I felt I played a little better than I did last year and held my own,” Sampras said. “Physically, that’s the most I’ve served and volleyed in the last seven years. Not easy. Gael is a great mover, returns well and made me work really hard on my service game. All in all, I’m very happy with the way I played. I had a few chances in the first set that I let slip away. He’s the real deal.”
This exhibition marked Monfils debut at the San Jose tournament. He can only hope that opening his first trip here with a victory over Sampras will work out as well as it did last year for Fernando Verdasco, who followed up his exhibition victory over Sampras with a tournament win.
In first-round matches played Monday, James Blake beat qualifier Jesse Levine 7-5, 6-1, in his first match since October. In other matches, Michael Russell beat Alex Kuznetsov 6-4, 6-2, Tim Smyczek defeated Robert Farah 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, Denis Istomin beat Roman Borvanov 6-3, 7-5, and Donald Young knocked off Dustin Brown 7-6 (2), 6-4.
Monfils thoroughly enjoyed the lighthearted affair, playing to the crowd of 4,911 whenever he got the chance. At one point, Monfils grabbed a camera from a photographer and snapped a shot of Sampras. Then between games, Monfils fetched his cell phone from his bag and had a ball boy take a photo of him with Sampras.
Monfils later filmed Sampras’ postmatch interview with his phone, recording praise like this: “I’ve played a lot of good movers in my day. He’s one of the best I’ve ever played.”
Monfils, who was just 4 years old when Sampras won his first major title at the U.S. Open in 1990,
“To play against you, Pete, is a dream,” he said after the match.
Sampras played an exhibition here for the fourth straight year. Afterward, he said he’d like to play someone closer to his own age next year, like John McEnroe or Andre Agassi.
Sampras will square off with his old rival Agassi later this month in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden and he took the opportunity to hype up that match.
“I always beat him in New York,” he said. “I will say that.”
Sampras is also finally starting to embrace the technology that has taken over the sport in recent years, switching from the old Wilson racket he used during his career to the more powerful Babolat that is so popular with today’s players.
“I need a little bit more pop,” he said. “I need it if I’m going to play some tennis.”
Blake had not played since losing to Lukasz Kubot in the first round in Vienna last October because of shoulder and knee injuries. Blake, a 10-time winner on tour who was once ranked as high as fourth in the world, has fallen to 170th in the latest rankings.
Blake has previously overcame a broken neck and a case of shingles in 2004 to make it into the top 5 of the rankings two years later. Now he’s looking for another comeback at age 31.
He got off to a shaky start against a player ranked 293rd in the world, failing to take advantage of early break point opportunities and falling behind 5-4 in the first set after losing serve on the only break point he faced in the match.
Blake responded by breaking Levine right back to extend the set, starting a stretch where he won nine of the final 10 games in the match. He won the first set when Levine hit a forehand into the net, then dominated the second set. Blake lost just 11 points in the seven games, winning 80 percent of the points on his own serve.
“It’s going to take a little while because I hadn’t played a match in four months,” Blake said. “It will take a couple of matches. This was a good step to get through this one. I was happy that once I got broken I didn’t hang my head or start panicking or freaking out or anything. I got back on my horse and broke him back.
“I thought it might take a little while to get back to playing my best in the big time,” he said. “Hopefully this is a good step and it will keep getting better.”
Blake will next play the winner of Tuesday’s first-round match between fourth-seeded Xavier Malisse and Milos Raonic.
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