(June 30, 2013) Current and former WTA world No. 1s gathered together on Sunday in London to celebrate “40 Love” – the 40th anniversary of the WTA, founded by trailblazer Billie Jean King.
The WTA and its leaders have strived to bring equality, recognition and respect to the tour over the years. The organization is now the global leader in women’s professional sport, and proudly counts many pioneering accomplishments, including the successful campaign for equal prize money.
Seventeen of the 21 WTA No. 1s were in attendance, including three of the original nine, displaying elegance and beauty. Can you name each one in the photo below?
Emcees Pam Shriver and Mary Carillo introduced each of the No. 1s in style, referencing the “sassy sour” Maria Sharapova to the ever elegant Monica Seles. Each lady then had the chance with the mic, and afterward, it was time to mingle and celebrate.
The “pink” carpet arrivals were no less stunning.
Teenagers Eugenie Bouchard and Madison Keys were also invited guests, with the WTA calling them “potential future world No. 1s.” Quite an honor.
Watch all the pink carpet interviews with the World No.1s, gala speeches from the legends and much more with a full replay of all the Sunday celebrations. (Begins around the 24 minute mark.)
By Maud Watson
Beating a Dead Horse
Rafael Nadal made headlines this week, and quite frankly, the reasons behind the headlines are getting old. First he announced that he isn’t setting a return date, which had already been established. Until it seriously looks likely he’ll miss the Australian Open, it’s a topic that doesn’t need attention until 2013. The second reason was for Nadal’s incessant complaining about the number of hard court tournaments on the calendar. Nobody denies that hard courts are more taxing on the body, but he seems to be the only player with a major gripe about the surface. If anything, Nadal’s remarks came across as self-serving. A number of players call the hard courts their best and favorite surface, and many of those past and present players have enjoyed fruitful careers with few to no injuries. Furthermore, the Spaniard didn’t seem to complain about the general slowing of the surfaces, which has allowed for more extended rallies, which in turn has arguably contributed to his physical woes. But most disappointing of all is Nadal’s blindness, or perhaps unwillingness, to recognize his own role in contributing to his physical breakdown. Yes, a genetic problem has been partially to blame, but pundits have said for years that his grinding style would catch up with him. Now it appears it may be time to pay the piper. If that now means adjusting his schedule to pick up a few more clay court events – something he sounds almost bitter about – then so be it. We all want to see a healthy Nadal competing at the highest level year round, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of tailoring the calendar to suit one player’s needs.
Off the Mark
Coming on the heels of the 39th anniversary of the famous “Battle of the Sexes,” Billie Jean King was asked about the topic of equal prize money, which became a hot-button issue in 2012. “The guys can’t stand it,” she said in reference to the subject. She cited how dominant groups have historically struggled to share with non-dominant groups, and she expressed her disappointment in Federer’s lack of open support for equal pay to help overcome this barrier, particularly given the number of influential females in his life. She also called out players who have openly opposed equal prize money, like Simon and Tipsarevic, suggesting that they think of their possible future daughters. She stressed that, “It’s not about the money – it’s about the message.” But what exactly is the message? That the WTA players deserve the same pay as the ATP players just because they’re both professional athletes playing many of the same tournaments? There should be more to it than that. BJK may have refuted the “best-of-five vs. best-of-three” argument, but she didn’t address other points raised by opponents of equal pay – namely that the men consistently do a better job packing the stands, which in turn leads to higher ticket sales and more lucrative television deals. The ATP also doesn’t suffer from the shrieking epidemic that has turned some fans away from the game. Furthermore, until recently, the WTA has struggled to find consistency at the top, and the last couple of years, some of their biggest draws have been inconsistent performers at best, and part-time competitors at worst. Essentially, the men are currently offering a better product. What would BJK do if the shoe were on the other foot? Would she be so quick to say the men deserved equal prize money if it were the WTA offering the better deal? The WTA is moving closer to creating a comparable product, but with all due respect to BJK, until that product is established those who oppose equal prize money have a solid argument.
Current No. 1 Victoria Azarenka may have had to withdraw from Tokyo citing dizziness potentially brought on by chronic fatigue, but with her run to the quarters, she’s moved ever closer to clinching the year-end No. 1 ranking. The Belarusian presently doesn’t know for certain the source of the dizziness, but she’ll be looking to be rested and ready to go in Beijing. As if she needed added incentive, Serena Williams has announced her withdrawal from the upcoming mandatory event in China due to a bad bout of the flu. Despite a history of playing very little in the fall throughout her career, many thought the younger Williams would look to make a push this autumn in an effort to finish the year atop the rankings. If Azarenka can get herself healthy and put together a run to the final next week, however, it will be mathematically impossible for the American to overtake her young rival. It’s a big ask for Azarenka, but it’s certainly added a bit more intrigue to the conclusion of 2012.
Always on the Defense
Danish superstar Caroline Wozniacki ended her long title drought with a win last week in Korea. She absolutely thumped Kaia Kanepi with just the lost of one game in the title match. Despite the win, however, reporters instead chose to take digs at the former No. 1, suggesting that her ranking of No. 11 was a disappointment. It’s natural that questions would have been asked when she initially fell out of the top spot, but at this stage, enough is enough. Wozniacki can’t be blamed for reaching the apex of the women’s game just because she proved the most capable player of showing up week in and week out. And while 2012 has been rough on her as far as where the majors were concerned, she’s shown a willingness to try retooling her game. She’s still young enough to do that, and it’s too early to pass judgment. So for now, let her enjoy the win in Korea, the quarterfinal showing in Tokyo, and wait and see what 2013 holds before we write her off as another Jankovic or Safina.
Suddenly Jo-Willie Tsonga’s surprising loss at the US Open isn’t looking so bad. 23-year-old Martin Klizan, who knocked the Frenchman out of the year’s final major, has following up his success by claiming his first ATP title with his victory in St. Petersburg over Fabio Fognini in straight sets. Seven months ago, the Slovak was ranked 121, but with his win in Russia, he stands at a career high ranking of 33. Keep an eye on this fast-rising Slovak. He’s one spot away from being guaranteed a seed at a major, and he could cause some problems for some of the game’s best if his upset of Tsonga is any indication.
By Ashley Babich
PHILADELPHIA, Penn. — Before the Philadelphia Freedom took on the Kansas City Explorers at their home base at Villanova University, the creator of World TeamTennis, Billie Jean King, sang the praises of the organization, the fans, and the dedicated players. King cited the success of World TeamTennis to “keeping the economics under control” and finding support from the people who surround her. “I’m very fortunate with the team of people I have working with us.”
Speaking about the importance of team tennis, King highlighted the need for children’s tennis to operate from a team framework.
“For over 50 years now, my mantra has been, when they sign up for tennis, put them on a team. Get rid of the word ‘lesson.’ Kids don’t like that word. They’ll learn lessons in life from it, but they don’t need that word. Here’s what most kids do today, they play lacrosse or baseball or football; it’s a team sport usually. They practice two times a week and have a game. And what do they say about tennis? ‘Oh, I have a tennis lesson once a week.’ If a child is putting in 8 hours a week on one sport and then an hour on tennis, which sport do you think they’re going to choose after a year or two? I want them to practice two or three times a week and then I want them to have a game or a match. So they look forward to it every week. I don’t care what the skill level is, it’s fun!”
The WTT match on Monday night promoted marquee players Mike and Bob Bryan playing for the Kansas City Explorers. When asked to discuss the Bryan Brothers’ dedication to WTT, especially during an Olympic year, King had many positive things to say.
“It means a lot to us. Our format is totally built for them because they’re so great in doubles, and doubles is 60% of our scoring effort. They’re fantastic. They play their butts off.”
King also celebrated the recent Wimbledon Mixed Doubles title won by Mike Bryan and Lisa Raymond: “Do I love it?! My little team tennis players? I love it.”
King ended the conference with a conversation about how special Elton John’s song “Philadelphia Freedom” is to her.
“We have the best signature song in all of sports, which no one ever writes about … He used to sit on the bench, when I played for the Philadelphia Freedoms, yelling, ‘c’mon!’ He was a maniac!”
King recalled that she was on her way to a concert with Elton John when he offered to write a song about her, and she candidly described her reaction: “I’m thinking, ‘are you kidding, yeah right, what are you smoking?’”
“He said, ‘let’s name it Philadelphia Freedom after the team,’ and I said, ‘Great! That would be a great gift to the people of Philadelphia.’”
King laughed as she described a favorite part of the song: “He told me the part [in the refrain] that goes, ‘Phi-la-delphia,’ that’s you getting ticked off at the umpires. And I said, ‘I love it!’”
The Philadelphia Freedoms went on to beat the Kansas City Explorers 20-16 in Monday night’s match, with strong playing from the other twins involved that evening, Kristyna and Karolina Pliskova, playing for the Philadelphia Freedom. “Tonight is twin night,” as King put it.
Before exiting the press room, King went over to Carmine, who was quietly stringing racquets for the team in the corner of the room, and thanked him for executing his crucial job for WTT King asked him to take a picture with her, and he happily obliged. She’s a dynamic one, that Billie Jean King.
By Maud Watson
For the first time in 14 attempts, Fernando Verdasco defeated his compatriot Rafael Nadal, handing Nadal one of his earliest defeats in a clay court tournament. Some credit has to be given to Verdasco. He played some good ball, especially in the opening set, and unlike in their previous encounters, he didn’t throw in the towel when it appeared nearly all hope was lost. But this match was mostly about Nadal, and this was one of his ugliest losses. The fact that Nadal appeared out of sorts and off his game wasn’t surprising. He was one of the most vocal critics of the change to blue clay, even before the tournament got underway, so the fact that he at times appeared unsure should not have come as a shock. He should be more self-assured next week in Rome when the familiar red dirt is under the soles of his shoes. But the fact that he blew a double break lead in the third – against a guy that he owned – is troubling, no matter what the surface. With the exception of Monte Carlo and Barcelona, he’s developed a habit of struggling to close out matches in recent memory, and this time he paid for it. As superstitious as he is, a loss like this is apt to creep into his mind down the road. The way Nadal handled himself after the match also left something be desired. It’s understandable if he wants to boycott the event next year, and he’s not the only one to suggest he’d do so, with Djokovic also hinting at such an action (though it would be nice if both guys would give organizers a chance to fix the slippery court problem). But Nadal’s arguments for boycotting lacked tact and came off as sour grapes. He’ll need a good run in Rome to feel confident for Paris, or else what he did in Monte Carlo and Barcelona will be for naught.
We’re more than well under way in Madrid, but the talk about the blue courts has hardly decreased. Players’ and fan’s reactions continue to be all over the map, with some liking it, some indifferent, and others making it well known that it doesn’t have their seal of approval. Personally, I’m loving the blue. From a spectator’s point of view, the ball is easier to see, and the blue clay hasn’t denied fans the opportunity to watch some highly competitive battles. The only general complaint – a complaint that Tiriac thankfully recognized as legit – is that the courts are too slippery. How much of this problem stems from the dye used, the structure under the clay, and the courts not yet fully settled remains to be seen, but it is a problem that organizers and tournament officials, including former No. 1 Carlos Moya, claim can be fixed and arguably should not impact Madrid being contested on blue clay in 2013. Besides, we saw some pretty nasty injuries on Monte Carlo’s main show court, proving that no clay court is perfect. In short, Madrid’s choice to go blue is not a failed experiment, and organizers should be given the opportunity to correct issues before any final court color decisions are made for the future.
Lost in all the chatter about the blue clay was the fact that Aga Radwanska has quietly moved up a spot in the rankings to the number three player in the world. And don’t be deceived by the apparently large gap between the Pole and the two rivals ahead of her. Radwanska has little to defend and much to gain in the coming weeks, which cannot be said for Azarenka or Sharapova. If she continues her run of fine form, she’ll be knocking at the door for number two, and perhaps even number one. There’s still work to be done for Aga, but in many ways, her potential continued ascendency up the rankings could be great for the women’s game. Sharapova has done well to fight back to form and up the rankings, and the improvements Azarenka has made to become a Grand Slam champion and reach No. 1 are both remarkable achievements. But it would be refreshing to have a crafty player at the top – and as an added bonus, one who’s quiet!
When last Tsonga was making tennis headlines, it was due to his comments of what he perceived to be biased officiating in his three-set loss to Nadal in the Miami quarterfinals. Many jumped on him for that, but he’s quickly turned around any damage to his reputation with the sportsmanship he exhibited in his straight-set win over Ryan Harrison this week in Madrid. In the second set tiebreak, Tsonga chased after a drop shot that the chair umpire thought he had reached in once bounce in order to the win the point. But Tsonga knew the ball had bounced twice, and despite the fact that it might have eventually led to losing the tiebreak and a third set, he admitted to the double bounce and gave the point to Harrison. Such an act, especially in a tiebreak, is a rarity, and it’s great to see this kind of sportsmanship.
Ms. King Goes to Washington
Billie Jean King continues to be a crusader, this time going to the marble halls of Washington DC in order to ask the government to assist the USTA in its efforts to reach more communities. The USTA has done good work, refurbishing over 25,000 courts in public parks and schools over the last seven years, and anything that will help grow the sport should be encouraged. How much help the government may prove to be is a complete unknown, however. After all, as the old joke goes, “If ‘pro’ is the opposite of ‘con,’ then isn’t the opposite of progress Congress?”
There have been plenty of opinions voiced lately by players, media and fans alike about how the men’s ATP tour calendar needs to change and what can be done to alleviate the tension felt between players, tournaments, and sponsors. And now we can add two more players’ thoughts to the mix: legend Pete Sampras and current Davis Cup captain Jim Courier.
The most recent verbal outpouring on the topic resurfaced at the U.S. Open where players such as Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal expressed concern over scheduling woes and even threatened to strike. There have been talks of a possible players’ union to address their issues, but will any party ever be fully happy with a deal? It’s an endless argument that has only brought minimal change in the past and on a time scale that moves very slowly. It has taken several years to finally move the ATP World Tour Finals to two weeks earlier in the calendar (starting with next year), but is that really enough to quiet the conflict?
Ideas such as decreasing the number of mandatory events for players, introducing a second off-season after Wimbledon, and players simply needing to be better managers of their own tournament scheduling have all emerged as an attempt to solve this problem. But what do past players who have fought these same battles in their time believe? I had a chance to chat with Pete Sampras and Jim Courier last Friday during the Washington, D.C. stop of the Champions Series and got their opinions on the matter.
Romana Cvitkovic: “Recently, a few players have vocalized their desire to form a players’ union. What is your take on the situation and do you think it could change the sport?”
Pete Sampras: “I don’t know if it will change the sport. I think if the players want to get things done, they all have to get in the same room, the top ten guys, they all agree upon one thing, and they walk out of that room with a definite decision, that’s the only way things will get done. Everyone is complaining about the schedule. In Davis Cup, even when I was playing and before, [the scheduling] didn’t work, we complained about it, but nothing really got done. If the top ten guys agreed upon one thing, like on the schedule of the U.S. Open with the Saturday semifinals and Sunday finals, they could change that if they wanted to. The top guys have so much power, they have all the power. It’s a name-driven sport. If Nadal, Murray, Djokovic and Federer don’t play something, or threaten to do something, it will get done, trust me. I know these promoters, they want [these players’] names [in their tournaments].”
In reference to the same question, Courier commented on how players have an influence on the development of the sport, especially with the forthcoming appointment of a new CEO for the ATP men’s tour.
Jim Courier: “I think we’re in for an interesting time period in the next few months because the players’ association, which I was a member of, changed into a union between the tournaments and the players. So ‘union’ is maybe not the right word, ‘association’ may not be the proper word here for the players to form, to have more of a unified voice, because right now they are in a joint venture with the tournaments. So they are in a 50/50 partnership as opposed to having full representation. And there’s a new CEO that is going to be announced at some stage here in the coming months, for the ATP, and [the players] can influence his mandate. Because they are the ones who are hiring him; he is working for them. But if [the players] want to make some impact, now is the time. And we’ll see. But let’s be clear, that everyone in this sport, since Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith fought for Open tennis, we’ve all been overpaid, grossly overpaid, for what we do. So let’s be clear that this not a pity party, but I don’t think that player representation is necessarily a bad thing.”
Courier elaborated with an interesting transition to today’s game, the heavy physicality of the sport, and how we should preserve our players.
Jim Courier: “But there are probably some things that could create longevity for the players which would benefit everyone. I played Jimmy Connors last night and there is so much appreciation and love for Jimmy. Jimmy lasted so long on the ATP circuit. And there’s Andre [Agassi] – he lasted so long, played until he was 35. If you could extend the careers of Serena [Williams], and you could extend Roger [Federer], and you can extend Rafa [Nadal], these brand names, it would help the sport. Tennis doesn’t have the Capitals, the Redskins. Those don’t exist in tennis. You don’t have people who were born an Andre Agassi fan, and their kids will be Agassi fans and their grandkids. You don’t have that legacy; you have to build it every time with players. So, the longer you can have those players be in the sport, the healthier and the better it is for the sport. That’s really where the focus needs to be. It’s not about the immediacy of ‘we want this’ or ‘we want that because we need immediate gain.’ In my view, it’s the long view of how do we make the sport better for the players and therefore better for the fans and for everyone that surrounds the sport. And the off-season is a no-brainer, it needs to happen, but we’ve been saying that for thirty years and it hasn’t happened.”
Courier concluded by remarking on today’s players having “arguably more” respect for the game than his generation of players, particularly with the current struggles.
Jim Courier: “If you look at players on the men’s side and their sense of responsibility for the sport, I think we’re seeing [this respect] right now, with what they’ve been discussing with players getting a little more representation … When you look at Andy Roddick and these other players standing up, understanding that they’re lucky and wanting to protect the sport, and also protect themselves at the same time. I think we’re in a golden era of tennis.”
(For my USA Today piece on the Champions Series, please go here.)
First Lady Michelle Obama applauded the United States Tennis Association (USTA) for engaging millions of children in tennis, introducing tennis into thousands of elementary schools throughout the country, and building more than 2000 right-sized courts that provide a place for young people to play tennis. The USTA’s efforts were part of its partnership with both the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative to encourage more children to become active and lead healthier lifestyles. The USTA exceeded its commitment.
Mrs. Obama was in New York to participate in a USTA 10 and Under Tennis Clinic at the US Open. She was joined by several current and former tennis champions including Billie Jean King, Serena Williams, John McEnroe, James Blake, MaliVai Washington and Katrina Adams, as she thanked children from the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program for participating in her Let’s Move! initiative.
“I have been trying to get to the US Open my entire life. I am so incredibly excited to finally be at my first US Open, but I am equally excited and proud to be standing in partnership with the USTA and all they have done for hundreds of thousands of kids across this country. You are an example of what we can do when we put our minds to it,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “I am again grateful to the USTA. The courts you build, these kids sized courts, are just amazing. They will break that barrier; they will make tennis accessible to kids… I am so proud of the USTA.”
Earlier this year, the USTA partnered with the “Let’s Move!” campaign, which helps more kids to get moving, lead healthy lifestyles, and earn their own Presidential Active Lifestyle Award (PALA). The PALA award recognizes kids who stay active for 60 minutes per day, five days a week for six out of eight weeks. Kids are encouraged to play tennis during their program hours and are reminded to stay active at home or in school. PALA’s national goal is to get one million youngsters to take this challenge. To date, the USTA is responsible for providing over 226,634 kids who have participated in and completed PALA through its National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network, Jr. Team Tennis (JTT) League, Community Tennis Associations (CTA), Schools Tennis, Tennis in the Parks, and Wheelchair Tennis programs.
By Lindsay Gibbs
The New York Sportimes will kick off their 2011 World Team Tennis season this week as they take on the Boston Lobsters on Tuesday night (in Boston) and make their home debut on Wednesday (July 6th) at Sportime Stadium on Randall’s Island in New York City at 7:00 PM. Martina Hingis, the former world No. 1 and five-time major champion, will play for the Sportimes as they take on a Boston Lobsters team featuring former U.S. Davis Cupper Jan-Michael Gambill.
World Team Tennis is an innovative co-ed sports league that was co-founded by Billie Jean King. The competitive team atmosphere, multi-colored courts, mixture of stars, and integration of singles and doubles provides a fresh and energized take on the conventional tennis format.
The New York Sportimes have been competing in World Team Tennis since 2000. They are currently defending their 2010 Eastern Conference Championship and hope to win their second World Team Tennis Title this year to match the one they earned in 2005. The Sportimes 2011 team includes Martina Hingis, John McEnroe, Robert Kendrick, Katie O’Brien, Jesse Witten, and Abigail Spears and is coached by Fritz Buehning.
The Sportimes will play five matches at Randall’s Island (July 6, 11, 14, 15, 20), and two home matches in Albany at the SEFCU Stadium (July 18 and 19). Many legends of the game will compete this year as World Team Tennis celebrates its 36th season, “A Season of Number Ones.” On July 14th at Sportime Stadium, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors will renew their heated rivalry when Connors’ Philadelphia Freedoms come to town. On July 20th Serena Williams and Martina Hingis will face off when the Washington Kastles come to Randall’s Island.
Ticket information and a full schedule for the highly anticipated New York Sportimes season can be found at www.NYSportimes.com You can also find out more information on the other nine World Team Tennis Teams and sixty-three matches happening around the country this summer at WTT.com.
By Maud Watson
Well, the bad news is that the USTA isn’t putting a roof on any of their courts…yet. The good news is that they have approved a more than $300 million budget to begin making a string of much-needed upgrades to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The first change to be made is the immediate construction of a mini-stadium that will be adjacent to the hospitality area. It is expected to be ready to go no later than the 2012 US Open and may even be given the green light for the 2011 championships. The bigger change, however, which isn’t slated to begin for another six to eight years, will be tearing down the beloved Louis Armstrong and Grandstand stadiums to create two new stadiums. When all is said and done, approximately 3,000 – 5,000 seats will be added between the two new Armstrong and Grandstand courts. And while neither stadium will have a roof, they will at least be “roof ready.” Of course the USTA has still not yet listed a solution to the no-roof over Ashe issue, but this latest bit of news is encouraging that they are moving in the right direction.
It wasn’t a shocker, but it did become official. On Wednesday, Carlos Moya, the first Spaniard to reach the number one ranking since the Open Era rankings began in 1973, announced that he is retiring from the game. The 1998 Roland Garros champion stated he was forced to arrive at this decision due to a niggling foot injury that doctors have been unable to agree on how best to heal. It’s unfortunate that the retirement did not go as Moya had planned, which was to have the opportunity to say his good-byes at some of the grandest venues in the game, but with a Slam, the number one ranking, and a Davis Cup title to his name, he should have no regrets.
Plethora of Proposals
With so many other thrilling storylines as the season nears its close, the possibility that the French Open might be forced to leave its current Parisian venue was put on the backburner. It’s come back as one of the top stories this week, however, with the news that the city of Paris has presented the FFT with a plan to build a new (albeit small) stadium across the street from the current site. This new court would replace the current Court 1, affectionately known as the “Bullring,” which is slated to be torn down. The proposal will be competing with three additional proposals from other Paris suburbs. In the end, fans and players will want what’s ultimately best for the second Grand Slam event of the year, but it would be hard to see it move from its current historic venue.
Notes from Paris
The season may be nearing its conclusion, but there’s still plenty of good tennis left to be played in the final week if the Paris Masters was any indication. With Rafael Nadal the only name in the top five who didn’t play, the field in Paris was plenty strong. The semifinals were thrilling to the end, and included home crowd favorite Gael Monfils saving five match points against Roger Federer to reach the final where he eventually lost to the big-hitting Swede, Robin Soderling. It will be interesting to see if the win spills over as Soderling competes in London this coming week. No doubt the players could use a longer off season (and we may just hear about that next week), but hats off to the players for still delivering a quality product after a long year.
Now That’s Determination
The next time someone complains about ticket prices, just think of Gayus Tambunan. The Indonesian tax official not only shelled out over $40,000 in order to walk out of prison to watch the WTA’s Bali event, but he donned a wig when he did it. It was one of the quirkier stories of the week, and definitely one of the more amusing anecdotes. Tambunan stated his reasoning behind going to see the Bali event was due to stress at being detained and the need for a vacation to deal with that stress. Still, it would be nice to think he brought a new meaning to the phrase “for love of the game.”
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!