The solid turnout didn't surprise Michael Chang.
The solid turnout didn’t surprise Michael Chang.
The native Californian felt the Puget Sound area’s tennis fever as a one-time resident of Mercer Island. Once ranked second in the world, not even name-dropping could get Chang premium court time.
“When I moved here and was trying to book court time,” began Chang, who currently resides in Orange County, Calif., ‘they’d say, ‘Sorry, Mr. Chang, there’s nothing available at that time.’ I actually had to book either really, really early or sometimes a day or two in advance, which is unheard of. Right then and there I knew Seattle was a huge tennis town. They love to play tennis whether it’s indoor or outdoor.”
On Thursday about 5,000 of those enthusiasts, including Sonics legend Lenny Wilkens, trickled into KeyArena for a new format on the game. Chang and fellow greats Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and John McEnroe competed in the Champions Series, the seventh stop in a 12-city tour where the players compete for a $1 million prize pool and raise money for USTA Serves, a development part of the U.S. Tennis Association.
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Only this time around for the one-set matches house lights were turned off, players entered to theme songs and were introduced as if preparing to enter the ring for a WWE main event. Chang, who still has a foundation based in Washington, was a crowd favorite but McEnroe easily stole the show with his signature theatrics.
“At my age, maybe one set gives me a better chance than I would have otherwise,” said McEnroe, 52, who has won seven Grand Slam singles titles.
Not Thursday. McEnroe, who recently overcame a hamstring injury, dropped his match to Sampras 6-4. Chang also defeated Courier 6-4.
Sampras won the event 8-4 against Chang. Sampras has won four events on the tour and leads the Champions Series with 1,700 points.
“It’s an opportunity to see serve-and-volley tennis,” said Sampras of his style versus what’s popular today. “We’re not as agile and good, but it’s still entertaining. Seeing the kids born in the ’90s dominating the world of tennis — I won my first U.S. Open in 1990.
“I just turned 40 (in September), so there’s a generation that hasn’t seen myself and Jim. It’s all been on tape and we’re hitting cities like Seattle that haven’t seen any real tennis in quite awhile.”
Sampras, who won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, was last in Seattle in 2001 to raise funds for cancer research in a team match with names like Bill Gates and Martina Navratilova. Major-league tennis hasn’t been back until Thursday.
Despite receding hairlines and less power on some serves, not much has changed. Courier even quipped that technology has helped them continue to play at a high level.
“Between the rackets and the strings, you’re able to generate a lot more pace,” Chang said. “And a heck of a lot more spin on the ball than what we were used to in our heyday. Now, because of the technology, we’re able to hit some shots that we were not able to hit when we were on the main tour. That’s been kind of fun.”