Nole + Andy = Love at the Garden

Scenes from World Tennis Day at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan – the Bryans take on the McEnroe boys; Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic put on a show. Photographs by Gina Gouveia.

World Tennis Day – which was celebrated March 3 with marquee matchups of past and present stars around the globe – featured something that Andy Murray said we were not likely to see again. He and Novak Djokovic squared off in the “BNP Paribas Showdown,” an exhibition that reminded us what makes tennis and friendship so great.

A tennis exo – as exhibitions are sometimes called – is a bit like a rock concert mixed with a boxing match. There’s smoke (no mirrors). There are lighting effects and an irresistible beat. There’s an announcer who pronounces everyone’s name dramatically. And there’s an opening act – in this case my all-time fave, John McEnroe, and his younger brother, tennis analyst Patrick, squaring off against the doubles team PMac has coached, the Bryan brothers.

Let’s just say that Johnny Mac and PMac were lucky to win a few games (final score 8-3).

The Bryans (Bob and Mike), the premier doubles team in the world, are mirror-image twins. One is left-handed, one right-handed. (But then John McEnroe is left-handed and Patrick right-handed.) The man sitting next to me wanted to know if I thought lefties had an advantage, and I said yes because a lefty serve is harder to read, just as a southpaw can really bedevil a lineup.

The Bryans were so fantastic, with the sparkling play and the chest-bumping after winning a crucial point, but every once and awhile you saw flashes of the McEnroe of old, as opposed to the old McEnroe – his feathery touch at the net, his Achillean rage for perfection tempered by time into disappointment.

After the Mac attack, the International Tennis Hall of Fame announced its class of 2014, which included Lindsay Davenport, who accepted the honor remotely, and über-coach Nick Bollettieri, who was introduced by perhaps the greatest player he ever coached, Monica Seles (looking terrific). Nick, who has had more wives than Henry VIII, likes to call everyone “baby,” in the manner of a Las Vegas agent. But he turned teary and humble when he described himself as an Italian from Pelham and accepted the honor on behalf of all the kids he’s worked with.

Then it was time for the main event. Andy entered first, wearing an entirely teal tennis outfit with blue sneakers. (Andy, you little minx, why didn’t you tell us you were quite the fashionisto in le coleur du moment?) Then it was time for Nole, looking stylish in gray and black Uniqlo with a diagonal stripe and matching wristbands. (Andy’s white wristbands were his only fashion miscue.)  As he arrived on court, Nole put a tender hand on the tiny towel boy who accompanied him as if he were a ring-bearer carrying a jewel for a prince of the city.

The blue-eyed, sandy-haired Andy, clean-shaven and relaxed (for Andy), won the coin toss and elected to receive, taking a quick two-game lead on the true-to-form, slow-starting Nole (light stubble, glossy black hair a little longer on top, accentuating his brilliant green eyes). Whereupon the wife of the man sitting next to me expressed her alarm. She wasn’t the only one. Longtime tennis writer Peter Bodo wrote a column for ESPN in which he said the pair both need a win. Let’s put things in perspective, shall we? Andy is coming back from back surgery. Nole, after a blistering fall and early winter, is adjusting to a new coach (Boris “Bam Bam” Becker) and the prospect of getting married (to the lovely Jelena Ristic). Nole is also notoriously streaky. I don’t think we have to push the panic button yet with these two.

Especially as there was some stunning play – long, deep rallies that changed tempi and direction as they went on, sprinkled with devastating lobs and pinpoint winners. OK, so maybe Nolandy or Novandy, as some prefer (for Novak and Andy) doesn’t have the high-octane theatrics of Rafanole (Rafael “Rafa” Nadal and Nole), but it’s pretty damn good.

I came away from the match, which was closer than Nole’s 6-3, 7-6 win, thinking that Nole may be the greatest indoor tennis player I’ve ever seen. And Andy matched him. Let’s face it, they are both superb defensemen and returners in the tradition of Ken Rosewall and Andre Agassi. They could rally forever.

On a night of twins and doubles, I was reminded what Judy Murray – Andy’s coach and mother – once said, that her son and Nole were like twins. (They were born a week apart in May of 1987 and grew up together on the junior tour, unlike Rafa, a prodigy who went straight to the men’s tour and challenging Roger Federer.) The first time Nole met Andy, he was eager to try out his English on him but couldn’t understand his Scottish brogue. They were two kids separated by a common language, to borrow from Oscar Wilde. Now there were moments at the Garden where, despite the exhorting crowd that was split down the middle, they appeared to be the only two people in the room – in the world. Andy would hit these moon shots that soared to the Garden’s hanging pennants. (Andy, were you trying out for the Knicks? Don’t quit your day job.) And Nole would answer those shots as if they were practicing. Which they were. (They were both headed to the Indian Wells, Calif. tournament after the match.)

This being an exo, there was time for play within the play. Each took turns hitting with a youngster. (Those kids can really whack the ball.) Recently retired Wimbledon champ Marion Bartoli, on hand to beat the drum for tennis, took a turn hitting with Andy. Nole did some pushups, rubbed Andy’s legs and wiggled his sculpted tush to the music during the obligatory nude scene, in which he and Andy changed their shirts.

There was a funny moment in which Nole wanted to challenge a ball that he thought was in, only to be told by the chair ump that there were no challenges in an exhibition. Whereupon Nole marched the ball to Andy’s side of the net and put it inside the line. Whereupon Andy moved it outside the line. That Andy makes a good Ethel to Nole’s Lucy.

By far the most playful, poignant moment in the spontaneity was the one in which they stopped the match, pulled out their cells and took selfies of themselves together at the net, their two heads touching.

For a moment, they were not the young men they’ve become  rivals with serious relationships, dogs, real estate, charity work – but Mrs. Murray’s twins, chasing Rafa and Fed, chasing a dream.