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March 19, 2024

Pickleball Slam 2 Showdown

World-class tennis legends Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf take down John McEnroe and Maria Sharapova at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida.

By Drew Wathey

Last April, after the inaugural Pickleball Slam, John McEnroe walked off the court disappointed from his loss. Andre Agassi had teamed up with Andy Roddick and outlasted McEnroe and Michael Chang, taking home the $1 million prize by winning the third-game tiebreaker 12-10. Always the competitor, he turned to David Levy, co-CEO of Horizon Sports and Experiences and organizer of the event, and said, “I never thought I’d say this, but as long as I can walk I’m playing pickleball. I can’t wait to get back on the court!”


Levy knew he had his marquee name again and was poised to further enhance the Slam 2 event, adding a few matches prior to the showcase event and—rather than having it be a men’s doubles exclusive—introducing to the mix two of the greatest former women’s tennis players in the world: Steffi Graf and Maria Sharapova.

“As long as I can walk, I’m playing pickleball—that’s how much I enjoy this game.” —Andre Agassi


“The main reason I wanted to participate in this event was to play against Steffi Graf, who I admired for so many years,” said Sharapova. She didn’t have the chance in tennis competition to face Graf, who, at 22 Slams, owns more major titles than McEnroe (7), husband Agassi (8) and Sharapova (5) combined. She was also ranked #1 in the world for an incredible 7½ years.


Never one short on confidence, however, Sharapova was ready for the challenge with her partner “Johnny Mac,” saying before the event, “It’ll be great to compete against Steffi and Andre with John, and all of us playing this sport that’s having such a moment. I’ve been practicing a bunch, so we’ll see. But I think John and I are going to be a formidable team.”


Back home in Las Vegas, Agassi and Graf hit the courts as only world-class athletes know how, to get ready for the showdown with McEnroe and Sharapova. “Mac is one of those guys who you don’t have to overthink your strategy because he kind of defeats himself, and I’m kind of counting on that as game plan A,” said Agassi. “But game plan B is going to be so much better, with my wife—my secret weapon. Her learning curve is like the greatest German engineering you’ve ever seen. We have 30 Grand Slams between us, and Mac has seven. I’m worried about Maria though, because if she gets into pickleball I can see her being very effective.”


As with all former tennis champions, the transition from one court to the next takes some getting used to and it was no different for Graf, who possessed perhaps the greatest forehand ever in women’s tennis. “I tend to want to keep my feet moving. That’s what I learned in tennis,” she says. “My mind knows what I should be doing, but my body is not quite ready to let that tennis mind go. I have a bit of a hard time getting back into that competitive mode. I want to enjoy it. I love the challenge of it… but I also don’t want to get too competitive.”


Being too competitive has never been a problem for John McEnroe. The Queens, New York, native has taken to pickleball, surprising many. And, as the Slam 2 warm-up matches featuring former players James Blake and Jack Sock were finishing up, many of the 7,000 fans in attendance at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, were clamoring for the main attraction. Sock has also fully embraced the sport of pickleball, now playing professionally full time.


Playing the best of three games to 11, the premier Pickleball Slam 2 match started off with a signature backhand volley off the paddle of McEnroe that Graf couldn’t handle. But Agassi showed his fast hands and got them up 6-4 in the first game when he sent a deft backhand drop shot that Sharapova netted to put the Graf-Agassi pairing up by three points.


But what would a match be without an outburst from Johnny Mac? Down 9-7, Sharapova was called for a foot fault and the all-too-familiar fiery McEnroe exploded in anger, questioning the referee but to no avail. “How come we can’t challenge that? Suddenly, we can’t challenge it. Just out of curiosity, is there some sort of rule since we’re playing an exhibition here?” said Mac. For his antics, he received a code violation. Fans were expecting entertainment and McEnroe, in his own inimitable style, delivered like only he can.


With a first-game win under their belts at 11-7, Graf and Agassi jumped out to an early 7-3 lead in the second game, displaying prowess in their net game. With match point on her paddle at 10-7, Graf tried to serve it out but McEnroe had other plans, hitting a backhand return that she couldn’t handle. Sharapova and McEnroe both displayed steady net play over the next two points, evening the score at 10.


Perhaps the point of the match came when Agassi was serving for the win at 11-10. After a lengthy rally, Graf missed an overhead but Agassi recovered, only to see McEnroe put away a backhand winner. The crowd came alive, sensing a potential third game. But, with Graf serving at 12-11, Agassi fired a passing shot down the line that nicked McEnroe’s frame, giving the match to the husband-and-wife team, 13-11.


“This is such a great event with everyone coming out to support it,” said Agassi. “This is so good for the game of pickleball, and it’s been a thrill to be on the court with Steffi.” Playing in the event was a great experience for Steffi as well. “Last year, I came here as a spectator and John kind of pulled me in. So many fun times trying to learn this game… it’s been a lot of fun and a great challenge too.”


Agassi added, “Like I’ve said, ‘As long as I can walk, I’m playing pickleball—that’s how much I enjoy this game.’”


Not sure if John McEnroe would echo those sentiments, but we’ll see if he’s up for another shot in Pickleball Slam 3.  •


Drew Wathey is a published author and screenwriter (“A Season With Hope”) and former director of communications for the PGA Tour’s Phoenix Open. Wathey is the owner of SportsLink, a home-based sports public relations and marketing company. He is also a national sports anchor for iHeart Radio. His family lives in Phoenix, Arizona.


Tennis Icons Find a New Passion in Pickleball


Legendary tennis couple Andre Agassi, 53, and Steffi Graf, 54, defeated tennis legends John McEnroe and Maria Sharapova to win a $1 million purse in Pickleball Slam 2, which was broadcast in February in prime time on ESPN and held at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida.


Agassi is widely considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time and the only player to win the Career Golden Slam and the ATP Tour World Championships—a distinction dubbed a “Career Super Slam.” Graf is one of the greatest women’s players in history, with 22 Grand Slam singles titles, and is the only player to win the “Golden Grand Slam”—capturing all four majors and an Olympic gold medal the same year.


The couple have been married 23 years and have two children, son Jaden, 22, and daughter, Jaz Elle, 20.


Agassi’s post-tennis career is focused on philanthropy through the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, which has been instrumental in transforming public education in the United States, focusing on children and communities in need. He established the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Las Vegas, to provide quality education and opportunities to those who need them most.


Agassi’s newest venture in pickleball is a partnership with Komodo Pickleball, where he’s helping to create innovative paddles. While most paddles are made out of carbon fiber, graphite or fiberglass composite, Agassi is experimenting with a Kevlar variation to combine a soft feel (for dinks) with a powerful burst (for slams).


—Julie Talerico

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