monday night

Celebrity Smash Hits Boasts Entertaining Tennis, Charming Personalities, and AIDS Awareness

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.

Media Room

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.

Live Auction

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.

Court Battles

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!

Rafael Nadal: Post-US Open Media Tour Videos and Photos

Newly crowned U.S. Open winner Rafael Nadal began his media tour the second he fell to the ground after defeating Novak Djokovic in the championship. All eyes were on him then and not much has changed in the past 48 hours.

Gone are the days of trying to decipher Rafael Nadal’s words in an English-speaking interview. With his heavy Mallorcan accent, he created sounds that the average American hardly knew what to do with. Add on top of that his unique facial expressions that further strained his enunciation of certain letters and it quickly turned into a frustrating venture, even for die-hards fans. Today, however, his English is starting to look like a legitimate second language next to his native Spanish. And it came just in time for his first win at the U.S. Open this year.

One theory I actually have about why Rafa didn’t win the Open earlier in his career, is that he needed to perfect his English for media and fan purposes first. Seems like a silly notion, but think about the times you have listened to athletes, political figures, and leaders express joy in a language you didn’t understand. If the language barrier is significant enough you may not have connected with them on an emotional level at all. Knowing the language of the country you are in strongly accelerates the fanbase you have there, the U.S. Open and Americans notwithstanding. So kudos to Rafa for improving not only his game during all these years, but also his dedication to improve his English. Without it, we may not have a new Career Grand Slam Champion.

We can also finally understand all the great interviews he gave us during his media tour following his win in Flushing Meadows — without having to pause and rewind after each sentence. Let’s get started!

If you missed the Men’s Trophy Ceremony on Monday night like U.S. viewers did when ESPN2 cut away just before Rafa hoisted the trophy, fear not. Now you can watch it in full here and giggle in his boyish charm:

Rafa made his way to the press conference room two hours after the last point was played and one of the journalists wasn’t afraid to ask him “What took so you so long?” Rafa said that he already had “control antidoping,” met with the “US Open staff,” the “President of the Spanish Federation” and his “family for a few minutes.” Then after in the locker room he had sponsor obligations before his presser. The man barely won and already a flood of responsibility! Catch his full press conference here (video and transcript): http://www.usopen.org/en_US/news/interviews/2010-09-13/201009141284439013666.html

Via @EsteAcostaRubio on twitter, the ATP’s Media & Marketing Manager for the Americas, we got a glimpse of Rafa still on-court later that evening giving an interview.

The champ finally earned his sleep, but only for a few hours before making the rounds at the early-morning talk shows in New York City. First up was the Today Show on NBC. Sporting a casual look in jeans and a navy Nike polo, Rafa talked about his goals.

Part two happened on the show Live with Regis and Kelly. Not only did Rafa meet Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively (who was also a guest star), but Regis had a total man-crush on Rafa. He couldn’t get enough of his smile and even asked if he had a girlfriend!

Next up was the traditional photoshoot in New York City’s Times Square. If you’ve never been, it’s already one of the most hectic intersections in all of the U.S. Add on top of that a handsome 6’1” Spaniard with striking looks, screaming fans and security galore and you have a scene straight out of a movie!

Rafa and Team Nadal

Watch the video on Yahoo!  http://news.yahoo.com/video/us-15749625/21899049

Rafa then joined John McEnroe for a Q&A session at Niketown New York honoring his historic victory.

Rafa really doesn’t like to let go of that trophy!

And one more interview with Candy Reid from CNN International as a send-off before the champ headed home.

If you thought the U.S. media was crazy so far, the Spanish media didn’t even let Rafa leave the Madrid-Barajas Airport without holding a press conference first! He was all-smiles of course and stuck around to sign autographs.

“As a tennis player, I took an important step forward with this [win] and these have been six unforgettable months,” Nadal said shortly after touching down in Madrid. “I can’t say that I’m the best Spanish sports person of all time because I have no idea. But it’s an honor to be considered.”

Eurosport commentator Miguel Seabra tweeted that Rafa also did a Spanish interview with El País journalist Juan José Mateo. If you’re comfortable with your Spanish, you can read the full interview here, but I did my best on translating a few key points below (http://www.elpais.com/articulo/deportes/he/terminado/historia/elpepidep/20100915elpepidep_2/Tes).

When asked about his emotions between winning Wimbledon and winning the U.S. Open, Rafa had an interesting insight. He said that at the U.S. Open, he “was much more calm [before the final], nervous obviously because it was a final of a Grand Slam, but more calm … I was more nervous before the final of Wimbledon and Roland Garros.”

Rafa was also asked about all the knee treatments and shots he’s had to endure in the past to stay healthy and ready. “It was painful the first time: the following times were not so painful because I asked to be sedated. I could not stand it … I almost fainted the first time. It was between Monte Carlo and Rome. A pain so great that I nearly fainted!” It looks like Rafa is human afterall.

The last tidbit that was entertaining was when Rafa was asked about whose serve he would steal from the tour. He answered that he “would take Karlovic’s serve, no doubt. With that serve it would be very difficult to lose.”

The last stop of Rafa’s media tour was fitting. As he is an avid soccer fan, his final appearance was at the start of the UEFA Champions League game between Real Madrid and Ajax at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, Spain. A short clip was shown of his win and he acknowledged the crowd with his killer smile, one that hasn’t faded since he won. Amazing. Catch the action below:

I leave you with this great poster Nike made in commemoration of Rafa completing the Career Grand Slam.

Polansky Gives Canadian Tennis A Big Boost

It’s safe to say that when you’re ranked outside of the top two hundred and find a way to defeat a guy ranked 15th in the world it’s likely the biggest win of your career. Such was the case Monday night with 22 year old Canadian Peter Polansky who defeated a big-time player in Jurgen Melzer.

Playing in the first match of the evening session, Polansky delighted the home town fans with a stirring display of shots worthy of a player far more experienced than he.

With both players staying on serve throughout the first set, a tiebreak was required to decide the opening frame. Unbelievably it would take Polanksy eight set points to gain the upper hand in the match and close out the set. In the process he saved one set point against him.

After the match I asked him if he was starting to sweat it after failing to capitalize on the first seven of those set points.

“Yeah, those were a little bit tought, I mean, having all those set points. But I knew even if it went to a breaker I was just going to stay with him. Even if I lost that first set, I was going to try not to let it get to me. I don’t think it was going to. I knew no matter what, he would have been in for a long match, because I was going to stay right there with him.”

With that huge boost of confidence Polansky kept the ball rolling by breaking Melzer in the opening game of the second set. His pre-tournament practice session with Roger Federer must have taught him a thing or two as he continually made shots you’d expect from a much higher ranked player.

Any nerves or jitters that Polansky was feeling were well hidden as he won four straight points leading 5-4 on serve to secure the 7-6(6), 6-4 victory.

After the match Polansky revealed that despite his struggles of late, he was inspired by some positive results in practice the past few days. During that time he revealed that he took a practice set from Tommy Robredo of Spain and split sets with Frenchman Arnaud Clement.

Next up for Polansky is 54th ranked Victor Hanescu. The Romanian toppled one Canadian hope earlier today in Milos Raonic and Polansky joked that he might text Raonic for some inside information before his second round match.

“…Milos and I are friends, so I’ll get some tips from him. And the whole Tennis Canada staff, they were watching as well. I’m sure they’ll have something to say. I mean, regardless, I’m going to go out there playing my game and doing what I can.”

For now Polansky can take a big sigh of relief at the ranking points he defended from his first round win a year ago in Montreal and hopefully also find time to enjoy the moment before his next match here in Toronto.

CELEBS WATCH AS VENUS WILLIAMS TAKES HOME BILLIE JEAN KING CUP

Venus Williams won the Billie Jean King (BJK) cup last night beating Belgian Kim Clijsters  6-4, 3-6, 7-5 at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.

Sister Serena was unable to attend the BJK cup due to a leg injury, missing the opportunity to avenge the loss of last year’s controversial match at the US Open.

“On the way here, I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to see Serena in New York,”’ Venus said. “We talked today, but we didn’t talk about tennis at all.”

Kim Clijsters was given a tough time in front of a Venus-friendly crowd of 11,702 and struggled especially in the beginning.

“In the beginning it took some time to find an aggressive game,” Clijsters said. “If you’re not feeling the ball 100 percent, it’s very hard. I kind of just had to look for my game a little bit, really look for my position on court. I got better as my match went on.”

Among the 11,702 people who attended in Madison Square Garden, New York,  were David Duchovny, Star Jones and Herb Wilson and Nancy Kerrigan.

Serena opens defense with 6-4, 6-1 win over Glatch

NEW YORK (AP)—Serena Williams has begun the quest for her fourth U.S. Open title with a 6-4, 6-1 victory over Alexa Glatch.

Williams entered Monday’s play ranked second in the world behind Dinara Safina, even though Williams has won the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year and Safina is without a Grand Slam title.

Seeking her second straight U.S. Open championship, Williams hit 18 winners and had 19 unforced errors in an uneven start to the tournament. It was still good enough to beat Glatch, who earned a wild-card entry into the draw.

Williams’ sister, Venus, was scheduled to play Vera Dushevina of Russia on Monday night.

Kim Clijsters Victorious In Return To Sony Ericsson WTA Tour

Kim Clijsters’ highly anticipated comeback to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour after a two year hiatus was marked by an impressive, 6-4, 6-3, victory over No. 12 seed Marion Bartoli on Monday night at the Western & Southern Financial Group Women’s Open in Cincinnati.

Clijsters, the 2005 US Open champion, came out firing, jumping out to a 4-0 lead by running down every shot in sight and smashing winners from all across the baseline. The former world No. 1 then saw her lead slip away, as Bartoli evened things at 4-4. But Clijsters broke Bartoli’s serve to take a 5-4 lead and then consolidated the break to take the opening set in front of the pro-Clijsters crowd.

The momentum stayed with Clijsters throughout the second set as the Belgian maintained her high-level of play by breaking serve for a 3-1 lead. Although she faced 10 break points, the 26-year-old and mother of 18-month-old daughter, Jada, won 20 of 30 first serve points and broke serve on four of six occasions en route to victory.

“I was really excited to be out there,” said Clijsters. “I’m excited I will be playing another match.”

Monday’s match was Clijsters’ first match since May 2007, when she lost to Julia Vakulenko in straight sets in the first round in Warsaw, Poland, and later that month announced her retirement from professional tennis citing injuries.

With a compelling victory over a Top 15 player, who just beat Venus Williams to win the title in Stanford, Clijsters’ peers will immediately feel her presence on the tour.

“Without playing a match for two years, it is pretty amazing the level she already has right now,” said Bartoli.

Although her entourage will be with her all week in Cincinnati, as well as next week in Toronto and at the US Open, Clijsters indicated that she will have to balance the physical demands of competitive tennis and family life on the road before she can commit to a full-time schedule.

“I’m not going to have the same type of schedule, 20, 21 tournaments,” said Clijsters, a winner of 34 career singles titles. “I want to see where I am and what is possible, how many weeks I can be away, those are the type of details I need to work out. It is very hard for me to say these are my long term plans.

Awaiting Clijsters in the second round is Patty Schnyder, who beat Gisela Dulko, 6-4, 6-0. Clijsters owns a 5-2 edge against the lefty from Switzerland and has won three of the meetings on hardcourts.