Wednesday, 17 November 2010

It's a love match

Sir Elton John threw off his signature shades. Stefanie Graf and Andre Agassi kissed on the court. Rennae Stubbs playfully chased Anna Kournikova around the court.

John got the crowd in cheering-mode by using his solid forehand during mixed doubles with partner Martina Navratilova against Graf and Agassi. And Billie Jean King, doing what she does best, drew a crowd while promoting two of her favorite things: tennis and a worthy cause.
More than 3,000 attended the 18th annual World TeamTennis Smash Hits event at American University's Bender Arena on Monday. Each year, WTT – co-founded by Billie Jean King — and the Elton John AIDS Foundation raise money for AIDS research and prevention through an auction and team tennis matches in a different city each year.

"After 21 years of doing this, I'm pretty much tired of the competition side of it, but do love getting out there and seeing how a little effort can go such a long ways," Agassi said. "The competition I could live without, the tennis is fun and the results are fantastic."
Washington D.C. has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the United States, making it a perfect city to raise awareness.
This year WTT and EJAF raised more than $500,000, pushing their total raised in the last 18 events above the $10-million mark. Approximately $133,500 of this year's funds will go to the Washington AIDS Partnership.

For Navratilova and King, being back in Washington brought back fond memories. The Hall of Famers recalled playing against each other in one of the first tournaments of Navratilova's career at the 1973 Virginia Slims of Washington.

"My favorite part is the coaching," said King, who did not take the court Monday because of recent knee surgery. "I don't really get to coach anymore, but here I have my own team and I get to get them all riled up. But we're really big on them playing quality tennis."
The event is for charity, but King and John are competitive. They demand the best from their teams. Team Billie Jean King included Eric Butorac, Navratilova, Mark Philippoussis and Stubbs. John was happy with his team, too, which included Agassi, Jan-Michael Gambill, Graf and Kournikova.
"[Winning] does matter to me," John quipped before the action started.

King's team won 19-15, so she gets gloating rights for a year. She only evened the score, though. John and King are 9-9 overall since the first event in 1993.
The tennis pros took the games seriously, but that didn't stop the event from being more interactive than a normal match. Agassi yelled "I'm so nervous!" from the court before scoring the game-winning point of the men's doubles match and implored Graf during their mixed and women's doubles matches with, "You got this, baby!"

Old rivalries were reignited during the tournament, too. Steffi Graf and Navratilova, considered two of best tennis players of all time, squared off in women's doubles and mixed doubles.

No man or woman has won more singles and doubles titles than Navratilova's 345 (167 singles, 178 doubles), and her 59 Grand Slam titles (18 singles, 31 doubles, 10 mixed doubles) are second most all time. Graf won 107 singles titles on the WTA Tour, including 22 Grand Slam singles titles, and was ranked No. 1 in the world for a record 377 weeks. 

The two played each other twice in exhibitions in the past year and a half, but the legends hadn't faced off prior to that in 15 years.
Off the court the two joked, but on the court Graf and Navratilova didn't hold back. The crowd gasped as Graf smashed a ball straight at Navratilova. Graf ran around the net immediately and the two play-fought before continuing with the game.

At the beginning of the night, the announcer reminded fans, "You are a part of this; you've got to get in this." Fans of all ages didn't disappoint. During matches, cameras flashed and people cheered on their favorite players. 

The crowd even yelled short exchanges with the tennis pros on the court. Not to mention the children, some younger than 12, who played the pros in between matches.

But the fans fulfilled their responsibilities before the tournament, too, at the charity auction. Auction attendees bid on 10 items including King's Wimbledon tickets and John's autographed piano benches. The most expensive item — tennis lessons with Graf and Agassi — went for $50,000. 

The players got in on the bidding as well, though only King walked away with anything. She won a limited-edition photograph of pop singer Madonna taken by renowned photographer Herb Ritts for $18,000.

The tennis portion of the event was filmed and will be shown on the Tennis Channel November 29. But when it comes down to it, Smash Hits is just as much about charity as it is about tennis for the players.

"I've kind of learned the more that I've been on the tour that it's really all about entertaining and giving back," said top doubles player Butorac. "When I see people like Martina and Billie Jean and I see all the things that they're doing for the sport, it really inspires me to carry on that legacy."

Courtesy: USA Today

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