It’s one thing to root for your favorite players on a dimensionless TV, coaching them through the screen. It’s a completely different matter to interact with them directly and observe their personalities in a relaxed, yet competitive, setting. And that’s exactly what happened Monday night at American University’s Bender Arena where current and retired professional players took part in bringing awareness for a great cause while entertaining patrons with power-hitting tennis and charming on-court exchanges. On hand were several greats, including Elton John himself and the always entertaining Billie Jean King.
As I made my way into the arena, the atmosphere was calm, yet the anticipation of the night’s event was palpable. Patrons walked in joyful and carefree, as if entering a new world disconnected from a cold and dreary outside. For the next five hours, all that mattered was tennis and raising awareness of HIV and AIDS through the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the Washington AIDS Partnership.
After winding stairs, small corridors, and sweaty campus athletes running by, I found myself in a room full of photographers and reporters. I felt lucky to find a spot in the third row and settled in for two press conferences. First up was Team Billie Jean King which included Rennae Stubbs, Mark Philippoussis, Martina Navratilova, Eric Butorac, and Billie Jean King. Philippoussis replaced an injured James Blake, and Butorac (given only 24 hours notice) replaced Mark Knowles who qualified for the year end doubles championship in London.
As soon as the players sat down, the noise level increased exponentially and it was only then that I realize how many photographers were present. The clicking and snapping shook me to the point where I half-believed a motor vehicle was being started right inside the room. It took more than a few minutes to adjust but the players didn’t seem to notice a difference. I guess that’s what happens when you travel the world and get grilled by media everywhere you go.
It was my first time seeing several of these players in person, including Billie Jean King whose presence filled the room. Her take-charge attitude took me by surprise but she didn’t get this far in the tennis business without her candor and resilience. Philippoussis was also incredibly microphone-shy but I completely forgot about that when he opened his mouth to speak. His Australian accent was inviting and his devilish smile put me in a trance. Navratilova was also a class act and raised awareness of one of the evenings’ causes while giving us some hard statistics: “93% of the time when a gay kid is bullied, teachers do not correct the action.” But if “any other name [had been used], they would have corrected it.” Although no source was stated, she went on to say that “a gay teenager is six times more likely to be bullied over their sexual orientation than a straight kid. It’s astonishing.” It’s truly heart-breaking to see the recent deaths of youth and it begins within our educational system she added.
Team Elton John, consisting of Anna Kournikova, Andre Agassi, Stefanie Graf, and Jan-Michael Gambill, elaborated on this phenomenon. Elton John pleaded saying that he was “worried about the current climate in America.” As much as he loves America and what we stand for, he sees the difference between us and other nations. As Americans, “we’re not talking to each other, whether it’s spite, sexuality, etc. It’s time to change and talk to each other.” He likened the situation on a global scale with his example of the Burmese woman who is in talks with the military to bring peace to her country. It’s only through communication that we can begin to solve our differences.
The mood then changed to a more light-hearted topic and Agassi’s foundation was also touched on. Graf looked calm and exquisite, while Kournikova remained relatively quiet. What Kournikova didn’t say was made up for with the amount of makeup on her face and enormous square-cut yellow-gold plated engagement ring (isn’t she supposed to be married by now?). Regardless, she was beautiful and became more engaging when her fans were present during the next stop in the evening: The very loud auction, headed by none other than Baltimore, MD-native Pam Shriver.
As I had never attended a live auction before, I didn’t know what to expect. But as soon as it began, it was clear who was in charge. The players were assigned to help Pam auction off the items, but she single-handedly commanded the room with her charm and humor, talking football, modern art, and even tennis. The rallies were intense and the attendees were smitten into bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars. Kournikova privately commented to Billie that Pam was “brilliant” in the way she took charge. Pammy, if commentating doesn’t work out, you’ve always got a career in auctioneering.
The auction went as follows:
- Two signed Sir Elton John Piano Benches and a photo with Elton John went for $10,500 each.
- 2011 BJK’s Wimbledon Package included two tickets to the Men’s and Women’s Finals in her box, private tour of the grounds with Billie Jean King and 4 nights’ accommodation, and went for $32,000.
- 2011 US Open Package included two suite tickets in BJK’s suite for two sessions during Labor Day weekend, air transportation, and 2 nights’ accommodation, and went for $17,000.
- Andre Agassi Grand Slam Limited Edition watch from Longines, 18-carat rose gold case set, with 56 VVS quality diamonds, and a gold ’8′ representing his grand slams. Billie herself got a bid in for $10,000 and Elton John outbid her for $12,000. Agassi then came to the microphone and surprised everybody with his offer: “I’ll hand [the watch] to you personally, I’ll sign it if you want, … and you can kiss my wife!” The crowd roared with laughter and cheers, with Pam exclaiming to Stefanie to “pucker up” when it sold for $16,000.
- 2011 French Open Package included tickets for the first two days, 4 nights’ accommodation, a meet and greet with Tennis Channel on-air personalities and a visit to the Roland Garros set among other things. Navratilova then took the mic and said, “We’ll see you in the booth. We might even get you to answer a couple questions during the match. I’ll be there!” She sold the package for $25,000.
- 2011 Super Bowl Package included four tickets, two hotel rooms for a three night stay. Stubbs even bid on the item but it was taken home by an attendee for $11,000.
- Tennis lesson and hitting session with Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf for two people for 60 minutes was the most expensive event of the night. As the rallying became heated, Agassi even bid “$25,000 NOT to do it.” Elton John bid twice among others as well. In the end, it went for $50,000.
- An original limited-edition Herb Ritts Photograph of Madonna went for $18,000 to Billie Jean King.
- Agassi’s Grand Slam Experience included two tickets to his “Grand Slam for Children” event in Las Vegas, two nights’ accommodation. There were two packages sold for $12,000 each.
- 2011 International Tennis Hall of Fame Tournament and Induction Ceremony included two tickets to the induction ceremony as well as two tickets to the semifinals to the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships next July, and one night accommodation. Agassi will headline the ballot for induction. There were two packages and the winning bid was for $11,000 each.
In total, $267,000 was raised during the auction, with half of the proceeds staying in the Washington, DC area to benefit the Washington AIDS Partnership. The total money raised for the evening was around $500,000 and this took the World Team Tennis Smash Hits event over the $10 million mark during its eighteen year history. The remaining proceeds will go to the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
After the auction, it was time for what everyone had been waiting for, the on-court matches. It began with a celebrity mixed doubles showdown, and then went into the World Team Tennis match format, consisting of men’s doubles, women’s doubles, men’s singles, and mixed doubles.
As the player introductions were being made, I noticed that although it was Team Elton John pitted against Team Billie Jean King, it might as well have been Team Nike versus Team Adidas. Elton John sported Rafael Nadal’s white/lime green Nike Court Ballistecs while the majority of his team sported other Nike shoes. Meanwhile, Billie Jean King was clad in white/dark blue Adidas Barricades, with the rest of her team also in Adidas. During the press conference Billie had mentioned that there was no method to the way teams were chosen this year, but I believe I figured out their secret.
The celebrity showdown consisted of Elton John with Martina Navratilova taking on married couple Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf. As Elton John walked onto the court, I began to wonder if he could actually play tennis. He started this pro-am event when he was 45 years old and today he stood at a sturdy 63. My doubts completely vanished when he hit several unorthodox forehand winners and “out-lobbed” Agassi on two occasions.
It was more than once that Navratilova and Graf got into heated cross-court volley rallies while the crowd cheered and applauded. But what took me most by surprise was the level of hitting from Graf. As I had seen both Navratilova and Agassi live at the US Open the year they both retired (2006), they looked just as strong and animated in their play tonight. However, I had never before watched Graf play live. Her attitude and poise on court was unmatched. She graciously applauded unreturnable shots but hit booming cross-court forehands when she had the opportunity as well. She was not only quick on her feet, but had a gentle smile permanently glued on her face. And why not? It was a good evening to have fun for fans, for a cause, and she was playing with her hubby as well who was cheering her with “come on, baby!” and “you got this!”
The first match in WTT format was men’s doubles consisting of Agassi and Gambill taking on Philippoussis and Butorac. From Philippoussis’ first serve, it was clear that I chose the wrong seat to sit at. With media sitting directly behind the baseline, Philippoussis blasting powerful serves right at us, and no barrier between the two, I was quickly reminded how easy it can be to get hit if you’re looking down for a split second. The crowd applauded his aces and Agassi even stood baffled a few times. When Team Billie Jean King went up 4-1 due to Philippoussis’ serve it seemed like it would be over quickly, but Agassi and Gambill stepped up their games and put pressure on Team Elton John with better returning. In the end, Team Elton John came out victorious with a 5-4 win.
The women’s doubles that followed was considerably livelier with players taking body shots left and right! Of course, none were intentional as Graf and Kournikova teamed up against Navratilova and Stubbs.
At one point, Graf perfectly aimed a forehand for Stubbs’ right shoulder which playfully knocked her down before Graf ran over smiling and helping her up. The next time it was Kournikova’s shot that accidentally hit Navratilova. Stubbs retaliated by chasing Kournikova around the court and bringing the crowd to their feet. What amazed me was that as small of stature as Kournikova is, she has a piercing forehand and splendid accuracy on her volleys. Navratilova and Stubbs walked away victorious giving Team Billie Jean King the win 5-3.
In possibly the most anticipated serving clinic of the night, Philippoussis took on Agassi with both players served blinding balls that the crowd responded by “Oooing” and “Ahhhing.”
When points were actually played, it wasn’t hard to see how Agassi had won his 8 grand slams or how Philippoussis attained world number 8 in his prime. The only difference I could notice between retired players such as Agassi and Philippoussis and current pros such as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic was the level of consistency. The power of these retirees was still as compelling as ever and their precision to paint the lines was evident. It was only their somewhat decreased level of consistency that separated them from their younger and stronger counterparts. Although Philippoussis walked away with the win, 5-3, the match wasn’t without giggles from both the players and the ball kids as Philippoussis once held up play to direct the ball kids to where they were “supposed” to be standing.
In the night’s final match, Agassi once again teamed up with his wife Graf and took on Philippoussis and Navratilova. By this time, the players were even more comfortable on court and it showed by their increased interaction with fans.
Several times Agassi apologized to Graf after fumbling a point “Sorry babe, here we go!”, but it was Navratilova’s stamina that amazed me most of all. She was the oldest on court at 54 but moved like someone nearly half her age slicing backhand winners down the line. At 2-2, Graf sustained a minor injury to her upper left calf and Kournikova stepped in to finish. The baseline duel between the men continued until Kournikova stepped in to put away a perfect short volley confusing both of her opponents, Philippoussis and Navratilova. On the next point, Philippoussis took it easy on Kournikova as they hit cross-court baseline shots to each other. After 8 rallies someone in the crowd yelled “boring!” This was enough to make Philippoussis lose his focus and smile while his next shot went straight into the net. The match went to a tiebreaker but Philippoussis and Navratilova were just too much for Agassi and Kournikova, who won 5-4. This brought the final cumulative score to 19-15 for Team Billie Jean King and the 18 year record of this event was evened out at 9-9.
As the evening was brought to a close and the players began walking off court while signing autographs, I realized that I had never attended an event like this before. As a tennis fan, I appreciated the competitive yet animated edge of the evening’s festivities. As a supporter of bringing goodness and awareness into this world, I was proud to be a part of history. But I think it’s the players most of all who make this positive energy possible. They search for ways to educate and interact with their fans and the causes that are important. May we each take time in our own small ways to bring prosperity and awareness to others, and stand in the footsteps of our favorite tennis players who set the supreme example of charity.
To view a video of the evening, go to USA Today’s Tennis page
Video courtesy of USA Today Sports
Until next time, cheers!