Monday, November 18, 2013

$700k Raised at Smash Hits Orlando

As she ran up stairs to serve the ball from the stands, Venus Williams kicked over a drink. The serve didn't make it over the net, but there was a more pressing issue she needed to address.

"I'm in trouble," Williams said, her voice booming through the speakers. "I spilled a drink, and I got yelled at.

"I deeply apologize. I have big feet. I'm a big woman."

Laughter echoed through the stadium. It was the first of many laughs Sunday at the 21st annual Mylan World TeamTennis Smash Hits charity event, hosted by Elton John and tennis legend Billie Jean King at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

More than $700,000 was raised, to be split between the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the Hope and Help Center of Central Florida.

In front of a crowd of 3,622, John and Andy Roddick beat Venus Williams and Marion Bartoli in a Battle of the Sexes match that kicked off the night.

Two teams of stars, coached by John and King, then faced off in multiple singles and doubles matches. In the end, team Elton — Roddick, Williams, Robert Kendrick and Vicky Duval — won 24-18 over team Billie Jean — Bartoli, John Isner, Jean-Julien Rojer and Taylor Townsend — breaking what was a 10-10 tie going into the night.

There may have been pros on the court, but aside from the play, it was far from a professional match. Music blared between points, the crowd yelled and cheered, and the players made fun of each other.

"It's not your typical tennis match," said Isner, who is currently the highest-ranked American men's tennis player. "It's more of a basketball game-type feel.

"It breaks the monotony of just going out there and playing in a typical match with your typical crowd, where it's very quiet."

Rising star Townsend, 17, played her first World TeamTennis match this year and found out pretty quickly it was a different atmosphere.

"My mom was in the stands going absolutely crazy,' Townsend said. "She brought pompoms and got really into it."

Applause erupted for big plays, but none as loud as when John hit his first ball.

The iconic musician was the reason fan Linda Arseneau was there in the first place.

"It's just amazing to be here and to know that he's here," Casselberry resident Arseneau said. "It's like, 'Oh my goodness!' And to watch him play!

"Just to know that he's out there, I get goosebumps just thinking about it."

The crowd roared again as he lunged for a ball and missed. His teammate Roddick jokingly threw a racquet on the ground in disappointment.

Longtime tennis enthusiast Josh Furman, 80, was excited to see King after years of following her career.

"I've heard about her, and I've watched her," Furman said. "What she's done for tennis and charities, I'm looking forward to saying, 'Hello,' in person."

Fans, some wearing outgrageous suits and carrying records in honor of John, lined the perimeter of the court for autographs. Others jumped for signed tennis balls being thrown into the air.

Seventeen-year-old Matthew Stucynski was hoping to get close enough for a photo of John to make his friends jealous.

Self-described ex-wannabe athlete Paul Lambert had two reasons for attending the event.

"No. 1, to support Elton John's charitable foundation," said Orlando resident Lambert, who played tennis at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. "No. 2, to watch tennis. Obviously, anytime you get a chance to watch Venus Williams it's outstanding."

Maybe he'd feel differently if it was his drink she knocked over.

Billie Jean King ran all over the court, chasing balls.

For a six-time Wimbledon singles champion, most recently in 1975, King is accustomed to being prepared to cover the court. Just not when she arrived one time for what was expected to be a leisurely match.

With Elton John on the other side of the net.

"He just about killed me because he doesn't hit it to you," said King, who will turn 70 on Friday. "I couldn't walk for a good three days.

"We were laughing so hard. I just remember my tongue was touching the ground, I was so tired. I said, 'Let up, man!' He said, 'No, I want to win.' He's so competitive."

Now King knows. The women's sports pioneer and iconic musician will host the 21st annual Mylan World TeamTennis Smash Hits charity event at 6 p.m. Sunday at Disney.

The night of tennis will benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the Hope and Help Center of Central Florida.

"I have always loved the sport, and I've also been fortunate to call the loyal and fabulous Billie Jean King my friend for many years,'' John said. "I love that we can get together to watch some truly talented athletes, while also supporting the cause nearest and dearest to me."

Whether it's famous singers, actors, athletes or former presidents on the other side of the net, their competitive natures kick in, regardless of skill level. Playing for charity does not mean giving anything away for free, even points in a match.

"Some people have never played, other people were crazy about it and they were very good," said King, who has played in more tennis matches against celebrities for charity than almost anyone. "Everyone was different. Our job is to adapt to whoever we're playing, because you never ever want to embarrass anyone."

Venus Williams said it's not difficult to restrain herself when playing non-pros. She and 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli will take on John and Andy Roddick to honor the 40th anniversary of King's victory against Bobby Riggs in the 1973 Battle of the Sexes match Sunday.

Williams never has played against John but did face San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis once.

"He never played the game before, but boy, can he compete," Williams said. "He can hit the ball on the court. You don't see that in tennis if they've never played before.

"He learns so fast, has natural athleticism, understanding competition. It was just crazy."

Robert Kendrick, who also is scheduled to play Sunday, has played with actors Warren Beatty and Claude Akins, best known for his role as Sheriff Lobo in the 1970 TV series "B.J. and the Bear."

"They had tremendous amounts of power on their shots and a lot of control," said Kendrick, a touring pro for the Winter Park Racquet Club who plays in about four charity events a year.

"It's for the cause, and it's just to have fun out there. I know to take it easy on the amateurs and make sure they're having fun."

He does that by screaming at them when they miss their first shot.

"It makes them relax a little bit," he said, laughing.

Former President George H.W. Bush, a former baseball player at Yale, didn't miss very often when King played him in a charity event, she said.

"He was excellent," King said. "His high backhand volley was extremely good."

As for John, whose hit, "Philadelphia Freedom,'' was about a World TeamTennis squad, King said the musician with the outsized personality and outlandish glasses needs work on his backhand. King said John's forehand is dangerous, recalling a match when he ripped a ball down the line.

"The crowd went mental, but Elton is absolutely thrilled and relieved when it's over," she said. "It's like one of us going out to sing or play the piano. It's like, 'Yikes, let me out of here.' I always go over and say, 'Well done. How are you?'

"He always says, 'Ah, glad that's over.'"

That's probably what King was thinking after chasing John's shots around the court, too.

- Orlando Sentinel

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