How do you beat Serena Williams?
An impossible task, like lassoing a tornado.
But here’s how you do it: Partner with Venus Williams.
That’s what I did, and Venus and I managed to defeat Serena and sportscaster Jim Berry in an abbreviated doubles match at Cliff Drysdale’s annual All-Star tennis charity event at the Key Biscayne Ritz-Carlton.
Did I mention that Serena is ranked No.1 in the world, winner of 19 Grand Slam singles titles and arguably the greatest player in women’s tennis history?
Did I mention that Serena can intimidate opponents and linesmen alike with one fist pump?
Did I mention that I hit the winning backhand lob?
OK, I will concede that there was nothing at stake, no $900,400 in prize money, which is what Serena will take home if she wins an eighth championship at the Miami Open down the road. The Williams sisters, along with pros Ana Ivanovic, Kei Nishikori, Martina Hingis and Chris Evert, were playing — and this meant “playing” in the same sense as a grizzly bear juggling a couple salmon before letting them free — with amateurs to help raise money for Techo, which is working with impoverished communities in 19 Latin American countries to improve housing, education and employment.
Nor did Serena actually serve the ball. Had she unleashed one of her 125-mph rockets, I would have resembled one of those cartoon characters with a smoking, see-through hole blasted through my torso. It was bad enough when I lunged for one of Serena’s drop shots that had the maddening trajectory of a housefly, I could only scoop air.
“Move your feet!” admonished Drysdale, whose biting commentary on everything from players’ groundstrokes to apparel kept everybody laughing.
“So close!” added Venus, my indefatigable partner, winner of seven singles Grand Slams, 13 doubles Slams with Serena and three Miami titles.
Venus can make any hack look and feel competent.
“Take as many shots as possible, please,” I told her, sharing my tactical acumen.
We exchanged a few more points. Venus hit a baseline-kissing forehand at the shoelaces of Berry, the CBS4-TV sports anchor and an excellent tennis player. He missed.
“We’ve got them frazzled now,” I said to Venus, noting the expression of utter amusement on Serena’s face.
And then came Serena’s soft backhand that was meant to lure me to the net, where I would be pulverized by a Serena volley. But I was able to loft it over Berry’s head into the back of the court, where not even Serena could rescue it.
“You got it, baby!” cried Drysdale.
Victory was ours, and, yes, it was sweet to beat the BEST PLAYER ON THE PLANET.
The sisters and their fellow pros continued playing with other amateurs who were thrilled to be on the same court with their idols — who didn’t act like idols at all. They exerted gentle control to keep the ball in play and selfless pinpoint placement to keep the rallies going.
“There is so much tension and pressure and drama in what they do for a living at tournaments,” Drysdale said. “Here in a relaxed setting, they let their hair down and they’re way more natural. You get to see the real person.”
Behind the racket, Serena is affable and patient. Venus is humble and hilarious. Ivanovic is warm and sunny. Nishikori, Hingis and Evert — friendly and accommodating.
“So down to earth,” said Mary Beth Martino, one of a group of friends from Philadelphia’s Overbrook Country Club who come to Drysdale’s event each spring.
“Evert was giving instruction and advice to her partners,” JoAnne Bogan said.
“At one point, Venus said, ‘I have to stop and watch Chrissie play because I’ve never seen her play,’” Annette Brennan said.
It was interesting to see Evert’s textbook form compared to the loose, loopy style of today’s players.
“This is the way real tennis used to be played before it became table tennis,” Drysdale said of Evert’s shots.
Ty Switzer, an 11-year-old ranked junior player from New York, said the pros made him feel at ease.
“I want to be like them, so I wasn’t too nervous,” he said. “You try to stay calm. Just breathe.”
Yuki Denmark of North Miami said it will take a while to recover from fulfilling her daydream — playing with Nishikori.
“I told all my Japanese friends I’d be playing with Kei,” she said. “I’m going to be a bragging big-mouth.”
When the Williams sisters teamed up against Ivanovic and Nishikori to win the day’s grand finale 10-6, it was like they were little kids again.
It reminded me of a time I interviewed the sisters in 1997, when Venus was 17 and Serena was 15. They were hanging out at their Palm Beach Gardens house, plopped on their beds, doing French homework and studying a financial guide their father Richard had given them on how to buy property with No Money Down. They carried on a dialogue in exaggerated French accents before bursting into giggles. Later, on their practice court, they made silly cracks about each other’s shots.
Eighteen years later, Venus, 34, and Serena, 33, are still having pure fun playing a game they still love. When they almost collided as they converged on the ball, they bent over in simultaneous laughter.
“You are amazing!” Serena said in mock awe to Venus after match point.
I’m just relieved I didn’t have to play against both of them.