Garden Party: Thoughts From My First BNP Paribas Showdown

I’ve always been skeptical of exhibitions.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they produce big moments like the painful but noteworthy spat between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, or this gem from Andy Roddick and Serena Williams:

My take on is it has been that if I don’t attend an exhibition, I probably don’t miss more than the YouTube clips that surface the next day.

But, when this year’s BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden was announced, I was intrigued by the prospect of getting to see Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov in full showtime mode, along with my childhood heroes Gabriela Sabatini and Monica Seles. So, I took the plunge and got a ticket.

The night started off with Seles and Sabatini. Understandably, neither of them was exactly in top form, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Between the missed serves and muffed shots were glimpses of the brilliance that drove Sabatini and Seles to Hall of Fame careers. Seles strung together a series of shots that pushed a very fit Sabatini from side to side until she broke under the attack. Sabatini unleashed her looping one-handed backhand, a shot that is now something of a unicorn on the WTA tour. Was the tennis perfect? No, but it was a pleasure to see these two players showing their skills after a long absence from the world stage.

Most of the crowd came for the main event: Federer versus Dimitrov and, although this was New York and there was a hardy flag-festooned Bulgarian contingent present, the vast majority came to see Roger Federer. While it’s always hard to gauge exactly how seriously the players are taking an exhibition match, this one had many of the hallmarks of a regular tour match: Federer’s unwelcome shanks, Dimitrov’s easy power, and a desperately pro-Federer crowd. Like the Seles-Sabatini undercard, this match also gave the crowd a good look at what makes Federer and Dimitrov special. Dimitrov showcased his flexibility and his puppy-like exuberance, which manifested itself both in dominating power plays and overeager misses. Federer impressed with the dazzling shot-making that has endeared him to fans worldwide, but also inspired groans when he missed the mark.

The high points of the match came, not surprisingly, when the players let loose. An exchange of tweeners won by Federer might have been the highlight for many, but for me the best moment came when Dimitrov let a boy from the crowd play in his place, who promptly hit a winning lob over Roger Federer’s head.

It’s easy to take potshots at the rusty skills of former players who have come out to play for the public after years away from the tennis court…

…but the point of the evening was not backhands and serves.

The event was a celebration of the power of tennis to effect positive change, from the kids who learned confidence and excellence from community tennis to the many former professional players, such as Todd Martin, James Blake, and Katrina Adams, who have devoted their post-playing days to growing the game and protecting its legacy, and the evening’s stars, who relished the opportunity to play tennis in one of the world’s iconic venues in front of an appreciative crowd.

For my part, I was grateful, not only for the opportunity to see some of the tennis stars who have inspired me, but also for a chance to witness the transformative power of the game itself in so many lives. At the risk of sounding sentimental, it may be that Sabatini and Dimitrov left as the official winners of these unofficial matches, but the real winner was tennis itself.