THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO — Canada’s Milos Raonic got a chance to play with his tennis idol on Thursday night.
He didn’t go easy on him.
The 20-year-old from Thornhill, Ont., defeated American tennis legend Pete Sampras 7-6 (4), 6-1 in an exhibition match at Air Canada Centre. Raonic used his booming serve to overpower the 14-time Grand Slam champion, who was playing his first match in Canada since retiring almost a decade ago.
"This kid’s serve is bigger than big," Sampras said.
While neither player was brimming with personality, the 5,707 fans in attendance were treated to some entertaining tennis. Sampras is still fit and showed he can hang around with one of the big guns on the ATP World Tour, even one who is half his age.
Sampras opened the match with a service winner and raised his arm high in the air after taking the opening game. Raonic answered with his trademark, a rocket of an ace that made the crowd gasp and left Sampras with raised eyebrows.
The veteran American still has the feathery touch that made him so tough back in the 1990’s, but he simply had no answer for Raonic’s power game.
The players appeared to enjoy themselves, with Raonic the more serious of the two. There was only occasional interaction with the fans, who paid between $25 and $100 for a reserved seat.
At one point a fan yelled out, "Why so serious Pete?"
Sampras smiled and playfully lobbed a ball that landed right in the fan’s private suite as the crowd roared its approval.
It was the first time that tennis has been played at the venue, which seats about 19,000 for hockey. Raonic said it was a thrill to step on court with the legend.
"It’s a moment that’s going to be tattooed in my mind," Raonic said. "It’s never going to leave."
Raonic is closing out a breakthrough season on the ATP World Tour. He started the year at No. 156 in the world rankings and currently sits at No. 31.
Sampras, meanwhile, still plays on the ATP Champions Tour and is considered one of the best players of all-time. At the pre-match news conference, Raonic looked a little shy sitting next to tennis royalty.
"I think I’ve watched him play a couple thousand hours more than he’s watched me," Raonic said.
He left the relaxed Sampras to joke around and work the room.
"I just hope that he takes it easy on me and respects the fact that I’ve won 14 more majors than (him)," Sampras said with a laugh.
The exhibition was their first real opportunity to get to know each other. Sampras said he first met Raonic last February at the Canadian’s breakthrough performance, when he won the SAP Open in San Jose.
"I saw him play a little bit over the last year and he possesses obviously a big serve, a big second serve," Sampras said. "But he can do a lot of different things. He can come in, he can stay back, he’s got a good sense of the game.
"He can do everything, he’s got a great future.
Sampras added that Raonic’s power skills are well suited for today’s game.
"When I look at a young kid, I look at a weapon," he said. "And when you can serve 135, 140 (miles per hour) on the line and really pick your spots, that’s a pretty big weapon to have.
"He’s on his way. He’s very young, he’s eager and he’s got a great future."
Raonic made it to the second round at Wimbledon last summer but was forced to retire due to injury. He later underwent successful hip surgery and was out of action for about three months.
"What Milos needs right now is experience," Sampras said. "He needs matches, he needs to get healthy and he needs to stay healthy."
The American also preached patience.
"Don’t expect him to win Wimbledon next year," he told reporters. "It’s going to take some time. He can do it but let’s be patient here. Let’s not put too much pressure on the kid.
"He’s got a great game, a great future and I wish him all the best."
Raonic displayed an ‘aw-shucks’ demeanour while his tennis hero weighed in.
"It’s amazing to hear all these comments come from him because it means so much to me," Raonic said. "But I know at the end of the day, I know that no one is going to give me anything in the future.
"I’m going to have to keep working for it."
.Sampras is pleased he doesn’t need to do the work anymore.
He joked about how he doesn’t miss the grind of sleepless nights and stress that comes with life on tour. He’s content to lay low and pick his spots, like legends matches or exhibitions.
"When I retired, I took three or four years and I didn’t play tennis, talk tennis, I wanted to get away from it," he said. "I put on some weight, got lazy, got fat, the whole thing. Now that I’m back into it, it’s nice and to play Milos is a big challenge."
Notes: ..WTA Tour player Aleksandra Wozniak of Blainville, Que., and junior star Eugenie Bouchard of Westmount, Que., took part in the opening mixed doubles match before facing off in a singles match. Canadian actor Hayden Christensen, entertainment personality Rick Campanelli, local news anchor Gord Martineau and former NHL player Brad May were on hand for the celebrity portion of the event.