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Tennis legends in Tampa to entertain, compete

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Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 12:30 AM
TAMPA -

They don't move as quickly. They don't hit with as much power.

But when the PowersharesSeries Champions Challenge arrives tonight at the Forum — when John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Mats Wilander and Michael Chang take the court — it's expected to carry a big-event aura.

"I'm just thankful people still know who we are,'' McEnroe said.

Really?

To quote Johnny Mac himself: You cannot be serious!

The Champions Challenge is a seven-week, 12-city tour that includes over-30 tennis legends. They compete for an end-of-the-series $1-million purse, divided among the top three finishers.

There are light-hearted moments, sure, but even more occasions that are deadly serious. There's also the kind of connection between players and fans that sometimes seems absent from today's ATP Tour.

"When I came in, there was a lot of personality,'' McEnroe said. "There was the feeling that we were on to something magical. And people remember that. They associate us with kind of a magical time. I guess people expected that to go on forever.''

The Championship Challenge provides some of that. It also includes Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Patrick Rafter and Todd Martin, with players alternating in and out of tournaments on a weekly basis. Jimmy Connors was part of it, too, but he canceled his 2012 season due to a hip injury. Connors, who just turned (ahem) 60 and was scheduled to play in Tampa, was replaced by Chang.

"I think most of us once said, 'There's no way we're ever going to play champions tennis,' yet here we are and we like it,'' said Courier, the Dade City native who achieved the world's No. 1 ranking and won four Grand Slam tournament singles titles.

"History shows that the great players of the sport like to keep playing when they're done, if they're physically able. All the usual suspects will be part of this in due time.''

How competitive is it?

Obviously, it's not Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. But it's the reincarnation of some classic rivalries. Even at this stage, it's not taken lightly.

"We can truly have our cake and eat it too on this tour,'' Courier said. "We get emotional for short bursts of time, one-set matches. We're all competitive beasts, and you can't turn that switch off. We're going to do what we do.

"I'm able to compete at a level I'm proud of. I'm not embarrassed by it. If it becomes embarrassing, I won't be doing it anymore. I want to win.''

Courier still pounds the ground strokes. Chang still displays his speed and determination. Wilander still utilizes his graceful all-around game.

McEnroe still shows an instinctive touch and feel around the net. Every now and then – shocking! – he might raise his voice. That's part of the show, too.

"It's unbelievable,'' McEnroe said. "There were things I got criticized for, sometimes justifiably, and now there's a demand for that.''

POWERSHARES SERIES CHAMPIONS CHALLENGE

WHERE: The Forum, Tampa

WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m. (gates open at 6:30)

TICKETS: Range from $25 (general admission) to $250 (courtside seating). Available at Forum box office or www.ticketmaster.com.

SCHEDULE

7:30 p.m. — Jim Courier vs. Mats Wilander

8:15 p.m. — John McEnroe vs. Michael Chang

9 p.m. — Championship match


jjohnston@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7353 Twitter: JJohnstonTrib

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