Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling are currently ranked as the top four men's tennis players in the world. But when it comes to living legends, there might be no better quartet than Peter Sampras, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi. Among them, these four tennis icons have amassed 37 Grand Slam singles titles and nearly 300 ATP Tour wins. But their work is not yet finished. All four will be on the court at Madison Square Garden in the 2011 BNP Paribas Showdown, where, as Jerry Solomon, CEO of event co-producer StarGames, explains, rivalries will reign again.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted February 24, 2011)
For many sports fans, it doesn't get much better than this: Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi at an event that could make tennis history. As a supporting commercial explains, "Four tennis legends. 37 Grand Slam singles championships and 295 ATP Tour events. Two epic rivalries. One night only. Madison Square Garden. Feb. 28. Sampras vs. Agassi. Lendl vs. McEnroe. Two rivalries that define decades. Legendary tennis continues at The Garden."
The 2011 BNP Paribas Showdown will renew rivalries that for some have barely simmered despite the passing of years. Sampras and Agassi, who will face off in a best-of-three set match, were ranked No. 1 in the world during the 1990s for a combined 387 weeks (Sampras held the spot for a record 286 weeks). They played each other 34 times (with Sampras winning 20) and faced one another five times in Grand Slam singles finals (with Sampras winning four). The two men also met in an exhibition this past August at the Coliseo Cubierto El Campin in Bogota, Columbia (with Sampras winning, 6-4, 603).
McEnroe and Lendl will compete in a one-set pro match (first player to win eight games). Lendl, who left competitive tennis in 1994 due to back problems and did not return until 2010, and McEnroe met more than 30 times during their careers. During a career in which the intensely competitive McEnroe earned such nicknames as McNasty and Superbrat, one particular match with Lendl is etched into tennis history. In the third game of the third set of the finals of the 1984 French Open, a headset belonging to a courtside cameraman began to emit noises. McEnroe, having apparently lost his focus, began to shout at him. Up two sets to none at that point, he lost the next three sets and Lendl earned his first Grand Slam title.
Title sponsor is BNP Paribas, a banking firm that is among the largest marketing partners in the sport. The BNP Paribas Showdown is being held in partnership with the U.S. Tennis Assn., will is using it to kick off “Tennis Night in America”, a national month-long program seeking to grow youth tennis participation. ESPN will stream live on ESPN3.com the McEnroe-Lendl match, followed live on ESPN2 by the Sampras-Agassi match. ESPN International will distribute the matches to 45 million homes in 130 countries and territories.
Sponsors also include 2K Sports, Longines (the official timekeeper), Nestle's Nespresso gourmet coffee making machines and New York-based Bowlmor Lanes.
Madison Square Garden has been home to the tennis classic since it launched in 2008 under the auspices of StarGames as the NetJets Showdown (featuring Sampras and Roger Federer). The 2009 BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup starred Venus and Serena Williams against Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic. In 2010, the BNP Paribas Showdown featured Kim Clijsters and Svetlana Kuzentsova taking on Venus Williams and Ana Ivanovic (who replaced an injured Serena Williams).
StarGames, a fully integrated sports marketing, management and entertainment company based near Boston, is co-producing the event with MSG Sports. This past December, StarGames produced in Atlantic City "The Caesars Tribute: A Salute to the Golden Age of American Skating," which featured the likes of Evan Lysacek, Sasha Cohen, Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton, Nancy Kerrigan, Peggy Fleming, Sarah Hughes, Kristi Yamaguchi, 1948 and 1952 Olympic gold medal winner Dick Button and Tenley Albright, who in 1953 became the first American woman to win the world championships and then an Olympic gold medal in figure skating in 1956. It was shown on tape on NBC on Christmas Day.
StarGames CEO Jerry Solomon, a former sports agent and the husband of Nancy Kerrigan, spoke with NYSportsJournalism about the 2011 BNP Paribas Showdown and the involvement of the iconic foursome.
NYSportsJournalism: Is part of the attraction of seeing these tennis icons play that they still want to kick each others ass on the court?
Jerry Solomon: Let's put it this way: There is a lot of professional pride involved. A lot of history. And there is a certain amount of friction. All that makes for great rivalries. And I think that is why there is so much interest in the event.
NYSJ: Are you getting a lot of interest from outside the tennis community?
JS: The way I view that is from the types of media requests we have been getting. And they not only have been from outside the tennis media but way outside of the sports media. We can't fulfill them all. But it's been fascinating. For instance, we were contacted by reps from Charlie Rose's show [which is seen on more than 200 PBS affiliates nationwide] and they had a great idea. They wanted to have all four guys in a roundtable discussion. That would have been fascinating. Unfortunately, we weren't able to do it, mainly because it would have been extremely difficult to get all four players together at the same time, let alone in the same studio. But we are getting all types of requests along those lines, which is fantastic.
NYSJ: Have you found it easier since the first event in 2008 to get sponsors to activate?
JS: It does have its own momentum. We have been very fortunate in that we have some of the most powerful brands in sports and in tennis involved in this event: Madison Square Garden, ESPN, USTA and BNP Paribas, which is the biggest sponsor in tennis. We have 2K Sports, Longines, Nestle's Nespresso, Bowlmor Lanes . . . We have achieved a certain level among sponsors that this is a great place to do some corporate entertaining.
NYSJ: What are the logistics of the event and how long will all four men be together?
JS: They are all scheduled to get into New York at different times. So the first time they will actually be together is for a press conference on the morning of the event at the Essex House Hotel.
NYSJ: It would have been great to get them all on the Late Show with David Letterman [which is based in New York] to do a Top Ten list.
JS: [Laughs.] That would have been great. But, again, their schedules are just too tight to have us consider something like that. Plus, the event is Monday night, so it makes something like that even more difficult.
"Let's put it this way: There is a lot of professional pride involved. A lot of history. And there is a certain amount of friction. All that makes for great rivalries."
NYSJ: It must be difficult to get any two of these guys together, so how did StarGames manage to get all four?
JS: Timing is everything when it comes to planning these types of events. This is the fourth year we've had the event at Madison Square Garden. Pete played in it the first year so he really understands what goes on in getting this together in that particular building. John is from New York. He has grown up at The Garden. So it was a great opportunity for him to play there. Ivan has a great history at The Garden, so he also saw this as a great opportunity to play there, especially since he was out of the game for so long. Now he has come back to play in some of these senior events and exhibitions. And Andre hasn't played in The Garden that much, maybe once or twice in his career. So he saw it as a great opportunity, as well.
NYSJ: Is this more than just an exhibition for the four participants?
JS: We are working with the USTA to try to grow the sport among young players. So it made a lot of sense for them because they knew they could do something special not only for themselves but for tennis in general. They all really do have a sense of history and the importance of their roles in the sport. Which is not only to just play, but also to make sure the game keeps going and grows after they are done.
NYSJ: But you just know that with the history of John McEnroe and the others that it easily can go beyond being a friendly reunion.
JS: In this particular night of tennis we have four guys who know each other's games well, who have played each other a lot of times. There is a lot of history there. So it just raises the level of everything surrounding it as a result.
NYSJ: When you were working as a sports agent, you clients included Lendl, Michael Chang and a lot of other major players in tennis. Does that help when trying to get athletes to participate?
JS: I still maintain my contacts. On top of that, the event has been very well received during its first three years. So there is a certain momentum. And we have achieved a certain level in the minds of the players that this is a good event to play. And I feel we have achieved a certain level in the minds of the public to put this on their calendar. It's a great event, it's a great fun evening. In addition to the tennis, we have a lot of parties in the building before the event. [Laughs.] It's become a giant cocktail party with 1,500 people in Madison Square Garden before the event. Plus there iis a lull in the sports calendar during this time so we are able to get a lot of attention. We have been fortunate that all of these things have come together.
NYSJ: Do you have players now contacting you to participate or has it become easier when you put out the word to get calls back?
JS: We are definitely on everyone's radar screen, and that's a good thing. Ana Ivanovic may have said it best when she came to play [in 2009 and 2010]. She said she normally comes to New York once a year to play at the U.S. Open and when she does everything is all business and geared around tennis. She never gets to see anything in New York. But for her it was a whole different atmosphere to play at Madison Square Garden and to be part of the event and to also get some time to go shopping and see some sights. I think all of the players really appreciate that.
"We have some of the most powerful brands in sports. We have achieved a certain level among sponsors that this is a great place to do some corporate entertaining."
NYSJ: Have you considered doing something similar in basketball or hockey, for example?
JS: I do sometimes wonder what reaction we would get if we put a basketball match together with some great retired players. I wonder what type of reaction we would get if we did the Legends of Basketball in Madison Square Garden. I think it would get a good reaction. But it would be harder because there are only a few sports where the older players would still be [in shape] to put on a competitive event. We did a successful figure skating event at Caesars in Atlantic City in December and it was the same sort of format. We had all of the legends of American figure skating, going all the way back to Dick Button. Not that they all got on the ice and skated, but a lot of them did, including Tenley Albright, who is 75. So it does depend on the sport and it also depends on the match-ups.
NYSJ: Did the figure skating event reach your goals, exceed them?
JS: We had pretty lofty goals for the event and we exceeded them. The feeling in the building with all of those superstar skaters together, many of whom had not seen each other in a long time, and who have great respect for each other, was special. There are a lot of friendships. It really spilled out onto the ice and into the crowd. Everyone who was there knew they were part of something special. That alone far exceeded anything I thought we could achieve. It was a great night for us, for Caesars, for the participants. They all wanted to come back again and do more. So we plan to be back there on Dec. 3 for "The Caesars Tribute Part 2."
NYSJ: How influential has your wife, Nancy Kerrigan, been regarding the figure skating event?
JS: She really has been unbelievable. We have three kids and she isn't really doing much in the way of performing. But she came out and had a great night, had a lot of fun, skated well and was the co-host. So it was a great night for her.
NYSJ: What are you looking at for 2011 as a result of the BNP Paribas Showdown?
JS: This umbrella concept that we have created with the USTA, "Tennis Night in America," has been a phenomenal offshoot of what we are doing at The Garden. Every year, the USTA gets 700 or more clubs from around the country to participate in an overall celebration of the sport. That has really been a big benefit to tennis. Pete Sampras is the spokesperson this year. The USTA has now moved its tennis month, which had been in May, to March. "Tennis Night in America" is now the kickoff of a 30-day focus for the USTA on tennis. We started "Tennis Night in America" as a promotional idea, and with the partnership of the USTA, it has grown into an exciting grassroots program to involve the broad tennis community. With Pete’s support and involvement this year, the whole concept is taken to an even greater level.