Linda Robertson: Experiencing the stuff of fantasy at the Sony Open

Amateur players, including Miami Herald columnist Linda Robertson, traded shots with the world’s top stars.

03/20/2013 12:01 AM

09/12/2014 7:00 PM

Novak Djokovic served tennis balls to me.

Andy Murray was my doubles partner.

And I wasn’t dreaming.

Nor were the other hackers trying to score a point against the world’s best pros.

Personally, my goal was more modest: Try to make contact.

We proved up to the challenge Tuesday in Key Biscayne, but only because our opponents were merciful.

They “played” with us – to them it was child’s play – at a fraction of the speeds they are accustomed to. Kind of like Danica Patrick driving 60 mph or Usain Bolt jogging 100 meters.

But they did it with such good-natured aplomb that all experienced the thrill of sharing the court with athletes competing in the Sony Open, the Fifth Grand Slam.

Djokovic, Murray, Ryan Harrison, Ana Ivanovic and Bob and Mike Bryan provided a preview at Cliff Drysdale’s Tennis Center at the Ritz-Carlton, and simultaneously raised money for the Greater Miami Tennis Foundation.

What’s it like to swing at a pitch from Mariano Rivera? Or lay in an assist from LeBron James? What’s it like to run through the Baltimore Ravens defense? Or swim against Michael Phelps?

Go a round in the ring with Muhammad Ali? Or a round on the golf course with Tiger Woods?

The stuff of fantasy.

But for one afternoon, amateurs’ passion for the game was requited. The pros showed remarkable grace in connecting with their fans. They kept the ball in play when they could have poked winners and rushed back to celebrity bubbledom.

Drysdale used his imagination. He pitted the Bryan brothers versus Djokovic and Murray, and the twins confirmed 9-4 that synchronicity beats individual superiority in doubles.

World No. 1 Djokovic met No. 3 Murray in the finale. Djokovic milked the small crowd on his side, crowing, “I got my crew here!” as spectators responded by chanting his nickname, “Nole! Nole!”

Djokovic, a standup comedian in another life, returned a Murray moon lob with his head, then Murray kicked it back as Wayne Rooney might, except it fell wide.

“Some of these clever shots you’ll never see in a tournament, but you will when they are loose as a goose,” Drysdale said of the improvisational tricks.

Despite a convincing head fake on a drop shot, Murray lost, 9-6, which doesn’t mean he can’t reverse the result in the Sony championship.

During round robin and King of the Hill matches, recreational players saw up close the skill we take for granted when watching on TV or from the stands.

Most enlightening: Fleet footwork.

When Mike Bryan’s partner yelled “Yours!” on a shot that was obviously hers, he obligingly shrugged, “OK,” and hustled from the front corner to the opposite back corner to whip a return with his back to the net.

Pros don’t wield racquets like fly swatters the way we do. They are like guitar players, stroking their instruments to evoke precise notes.

“The way they strike the ball, the spin, the pace, the control – it’s incredible,” said Gregg Schwartz, a lawyer from Miami. “You hit the best topspin shot of your entire life over their heads and not only do they chase it down with ease but they angle it back so it’s untouchable.

“They’re like ballerinas, and we’re so tight and stiff.”

The pros grunted with exaggerated gusto but their overhead slams and cross-court lasers looked effortless. By comparison, we stumbled about like Inspector Clouseau.

“You come out here and appreciate the number of hours they have invested to reach this level,” former Sen. George Mitchell said of these Outliers who have married rare DNA with rare dedication. The number of stars in our galaxy or the number of forehands Djokovic has hit in 20 years – which is greater?

Cristina Daniels of Coconut Grove played with the smiling Serbs, Djokovic and Ivanovic, who complimented her “amazing” forehand. She recalled how Kim Clijsters set her up for a sure winner last year. This time, she scored twice against the Bryans.

“Against the Bryan brothers, you don’t know where to put the ball, so I tried their shoelaces,” she said.

Fabricio Alcobe, 13, was most impressed with the machine-gun volley exchanges. He can tell his grandchildren he once surprised the great Djokovic with a passing shot.

“Of course, he didn’t hit it his hardest or he would have killed me,” Alcobe said.

To flinch on an NFL sideline is to marvel at the physics of the collisions. To be trackside as half-ton horses gallop down the stretch is to be awestruck at jockeys’ fearless command. We are so inundated with TV action that we need to pause and fathom a gymnast’s balance beam routine.

The pros navigate in a different stratosphere. Hitting balls against them was a revelation for those of us who played our finest tennis against the garage door, pretending to be Jimmy Connors on one shot, John McEnroe on the next – crying, “You can’t be serious!” to an invisible ump on a missed point.

“There’s no handicap system and the lines are the same for everybody in tennis,” said ESPN commentator and former pro Darren Cahill. “These guys are responsible for the tremendous change in the sport from hand-eye coordination to very physical -- in which you’ve got to be able to crush the ball from both sides of your body, move like a sprinter, run a marathon and serve at 135 mph.”

Djokovic was serving maybe half that to me, so I got a couple returns and deferred to Murray whenever possible.

He’s known in England as the “dour Scot” (the adjective is automatic, as it would be for the “loud American”) but I, also of Scottish heritage, found him to be a wonderfully dry Scot.

“Good plan,” he said with cracking sarcasm in that irresistible brogue, high-fiving after I dumped a backhand into the net.

Serious tennis resumes at the Sony Open. Tuesday the world’s best took time out to exude and inspire love of the game.

“Let’s play!” they said. Let’s play.

About Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson

@lrobertsonmiami

Linda Robertson has been a reporter at the Herald since 1983. She writes sports features and columns and has covered both the Winter and Summer Olympics beat.

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