NEW YORK -- There were moments when, if you squinted a bit, you would have sworn that was the Pete Sampras of old, rather than an old Pete Sampras, the way he'd arch his back before swatting a serve that managed to clip a line and fly past Roger Federer for one of 13 aces.
There were moments when, if you listened to the whip of the racket through the air, you would have been absolutely sure Federer was giving it his all, hoping to make sure he wouldn't lose to Sampras on this night, in this arena, before this crowd.
And then there were moments Monday when, as you watched Sampras throw his racket to the ground in mock disgust or saw Federer raise an index finger to celebrate four aces in a single game, it didn't really matter whether this match counted or not.
Federer is closing in on the retired Sampras' career record of 14 Grand Slam singles championships, a mark that exists only in black in white, written in a record book. Yet for nearly 2½ hours, before an appreciative and occasionally raucous gathering of 19,690 at Madison Square Garden, these two living, breathing greats of their game shared a court, Federer in his ultra-modern all-black getup and Sampras in his old-school all-white outfit.
"It was a great night for tennis," Sampras said.
Federer flicked his fancy strokes from all angles, just the way he does on the sport's grandest stages these days. Sampras smacked big forehands and bigger aces, just the way he did back in his day.
Pistol Pete vs. The Federer Express.
The Past vs. The Present.
"Good vs. Evil," as Sampras said with a snicker earlier in the day.
Current No. 1 Federer beat former No. 1 Sampras 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6) in an encounter that certainly doesn't settle the "Who is better?" debate, given that one participant is 26 and the other is 36, nothing more than bragging rights was on the line, and, frankly, who can truly know how hard each was really trying? It did, however, raise tennis' profile, make both men some money -- $1 million for Federer, less for Sampras -- and, well, allow people to say they saw Sampras, the best of his generation, face Federer, the best of his.
"It turned out to be this thriller match," Federer said.
No one can say they saw Ali face Tyson in a boxing ring. Or Hogan face Woods on a golf course.
Tiger Woods, who happens to be pals with Federer, sat in the front row Monday, part of a sellout crowd that included Donald Trump, Regis Philbin and Anna Wintour. They sat around a hard court set up where the NBA's Knicks and NHL's Rangers play.
"This is maybe why so many people came out: You don't often get the No. 1 in his prime playing against maybe the greatest player of all time," said Federer, who recently recovered from a bout of mononucleosis that he thinks contributed to losses in his past two tour matches.
It was the fourth Federer-Sampras exhibition; Federer won two of their three matches in Asia late last year.
The two only played one real match, back at Wimbledon in 2001, when an up-and-coming Federer edged an on-the-way-out Sampras in a five-setter on Centre Court.
That ended Sampras' 31-match winning streak at the All England Club; he would never add to his seven titles there. Federer would go on to win five consecutive championships at Wimbledon, a streak that he will try to extend this summer.
Sampras never played a professional match after winning his last Grand Slam trophy at the 2002 U.S. Open. Federer's Slam count is already up to 12, and Sampras acknowledges he fully expects the record to change hands -- and that the kid could wind up with 18 or 19 Slams.
"Roger's got more important things to worry about," Sampras said, "than playing me."
On this night, Sampras showed off the serve-and-volley style that carried him to a record six straight years ranked No. 1. And Federer showed off the all-court game that has helped him enjoy a record streak of more than 200 consecutive weeks ranked No. 1.
Both players took things seriously at times. They also took things frivolously at times, such as when Sampras spiked his racket to the court or pleaded with a linesman to change a call.
After one volley winner, Sampras pumped a fist and threw two uppercuts, proudly playing to the crowd in a way he rarely did during a professional career marked by equal doses of excellence and stoicism.
Before the match, Sampras spoke about hoping to find "some old magic" -- enough just to keep things interesting. He did that and more, earning his first break point with a cross-court forehand winner that would win a real point in a real match in a real tournament right now.
"You still got it, Pete!" rang a cry from the stands.
And right on cue, as if to remind that spectator and maybe even himself that he enjoys retirement, Sampras proceeded to miss three consecutive shots and lose that game.