NEW YORK -- Madison Square Garden, site of more than a few great championship boxing matches, was the venue Monday night for Federer-Sampras IV: Mano a Mono. It's already in the running for Most Overanalyzed Meaningless Tennis Match in History, but we make no apologies for chiming in.
The exhibition was actually the fifth encounter between the past and current greats, if you include the only time they played when it counted. That was Roger Federer's round of 16 win at Wimbledon in 2001 when Sampras was laboring through his penultimate season -- the only one of his career from 1990 on in which he didn't win a tournament -- and his prospects for wrestling down a record 14th major looked bleak. Sampras did break through that barrier the following year and now Federer, with 12 Grand Slam titles, is stalking the mark.
A sellout audience of 19,000 -- the U.S. Open crowd bundled in winter coats -- clicked through the turnstiles, eager to see the sequel to a three-match exhibition series in Asia last fall. Those meetings showed that on a given night and a fast surface, Sampras' go-for-broke serve-and-volley style and Federer's elegant fencing could produce entertaining and at times teasingly quasi-competitive tennis. Cyber-fistfights broke out among fans who disputed how hard the two men might have been trying and what was, or was not, at stake.
The events of the past few weeks injected more intrigue into Monday night's gala. Federer lost to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals, took a month off, then seemed irritable after capitulating to Andy Murray in the first round in Dubai. On the eve of the Sampras match, Federer told The New York Times his malaise in Australia stemmed from recently diagnosed mononucleosis and that he'd been cleared to play only days before Dubai.
Why the full disclosure now that he's well again? "I'm not one to make excuses," Federer said at a prematch news conference, addressing the obvious question. "There's no need to lie about being sick. It's like being injured." He'd just wanted to get it out of the way, he said, and seemed surprised at how much buzz his revelation generated.
Oh, Roger. After four-plus years at the top, hasn't it sunk in that every sneeze, burp, tic and perceived vulnerability is of major import now? Sitting next to him, Sampras flashed a wicked grin when he recalled the perils of being "the man to beat."
"The media needs a story, Rog," he said.
Tennis had been absent for a number of years from MSG, once a temple of the sport that hosted the women's year-end championships from 1979 to 2000. Between concerts and NBA, NHL and WNBA games, the legendary arena has very few open dates. Although U.S. tennis officials daydream about holding a Davis Cup tie there, it might take a major labor dispute in hoops or hockey to pull that off, since international regulations require the venue to be available for practice in the week leading up to the three-day competition.
The celebration preceding the match offered a smorgasbord of stars as the various promotional entities involved maximized their use of the facility. There were cameos by Stan Smith, Tony Trabert, Ivan Lendl, Billie Jean King, the brothers McEnroe and the hulking Davis Cup itself. Tiger Woods, Barry Diller, Donald Trump and Anna Wintour watched courtside. The recently retired Justin Gimelstob sounded on the verge of hyperventilation (even more than he normally does) as he played master of ceremonies.
Federer strolled through a 6-3 first set in 27 minutes. The second set went to a tiebreak, extended by clowning and mock protests of line calls. Sampras executed a few vintage leaping volleys and pumped his fist in Tiger's laughing face. You could almost see a director in the wings, pulling his hands apart in the theater's universal sign language for "slow things down, we need to fill time."
For those parsing things in the cheap seats, it looked like conventional crowd-pleasing stuff: split the first two sets, then play for real, or as real as it gets in this setting. But then Sampras improbably bolted ahead 5-2 in the third and the crowd, despite its prevailing support of the homeboy, hushed a little.
"This is when I thought that it is not easy in these exhibitions against Pete," Federer said. "He takes away the momentum, the timing and all of a sudden you are down and you don't know why."
Athletes who do this for a living have mastered the art of making missed shots look good, but a little doubt crept in, especially when Federer whacked a ball into the net after one flub in what looked like bona fide frustration. Could this thing really be that closely choreographed, or was Federer getting more than he bargained for? Would Sampras have any ambivalence about beating his new best pal at what is a slightly delicate moment in Federer's career?
The universe righted itself as Federer reeled in a tiebreak using pinpoint serves and passing shots. "I was happy to make it interesting in the third set," he said. "Having turned out the way it did, it was a fairy tale in a way."
Both men headed back to California -- Sampras to live happily ever after and Federer to prepare for Indian Wells. The impression here is that the match was fairly indicative of what the 36-year-old Sampras can still do, rusty as he is, but shouldn't be interpreted in any way as a gauge of the 26-year-old Federer's form.
Sampras had said earlier that he's never quite sure what's going to happen when he tosses the ball up these days. Federer, his recent struggles notwithstanding, is obviously nowhere near that point.
"I pushed as hard as I could tonight," Sampras said, and it's likely he meant it. "Sure I am a little disappointed, I had the match on my racket I can still serve well, volley OK and impose some of my will."
No amount of history, sentiment, showy drumrolls, fake smoke and fireworks can recreate the intensity of a match that matters. Federer shouldn't be judged until he's walking that knife edge again.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.