Few things can compare to beating Serena Williams.
Except maybe partnering with Serena Williams to beat Chris Evert.
Talk about tennis nirvana. Daydreams came true on a clay court in Key Biscayne.
My fellow Walter Mittys and I have found ourselves carried away by visions of curtsies to the Royal Box at Wimbledon, sliding forehands on the red clay of Roland Garros, aces to cheers of “Ole!” at the Miami Open. On Tuesday we opened the mind’s eye and we were there. Or close enough.
Williams on one side of the net, Evert on the other. It was like sharing the basketball court with LeBron James and Bill Russell, or catching a pass from Tom Brady while being covered by Jake Scott, or taking the baton from Usain Bolt in a relay race against Carl Lewis. We were playing in a cross-generational fantasy league.
The stars and star-struck aligned at the seventh annual All-Star Tennis Event hosted by Cliff Drysdale at his Ritz-Carlton Tennis Center. Drysdale brought together an assortment of amateurs and pros to raise money for First Serve Miami, which has enabled 50,000 disadvantaged local kids to learn tennis and life skills over the past 42 years.
He paired Williams and me against Evert and Haute Living journalist Sara Mirnelli.
Last year, Venus Williams and I teamed up to defeat Serena and Miami TV sportscaster Jim Berry in a doubles clash that will go down in history — so far down, in fact, that no one will recall anything about it. But I’ll always cherish that cunning match-point lob over the No. 1 player in the world.
This time around, I had Serena on my side.
“I used to have one of those,” she said, admiring my retro Wilson Hammer racket. “Cool!”
Alas, rackets don’t make shots. Players do. Which is why I encouraged Williams to take as many as possible.
She served, I played at the net. Not to make excuses, but volleying is not my strength. I’m very good at picking up balls from out of bounds, but not volleying. So while Evert tried to feed me an easy return on a silver platter, I slapped it long.
“Move closer to the middle,” Evert said. “Ready this time?”
Then she took Williams’ serve and sent me a beautiful bouquet that I turned into an ugly rock. Long.
Drysdale was merciless with his Don Rickles repartee.
“Are you choking?” he said. “Sheesh.”
Williams kept us in the game with her smooth groundstrokes. She was like a Ferrari doing 35 mph to keep the rallies going. Had she unleashed her normal serve, an ambulance would have been called. It is amazing to watch the pros’ effortless control. They can place the ball wherever they want.
“OK, we got this one,” Williams said as she wound up.
Sure enough, I somehow managed to hit a squirrelly drop shot that Evert couldn’t reach.
“They are finished now,” Williams said, giving me a high five. I half expected her fangs to come out. Earlier in the day, she had talked about how she hates to lose more than she likes to win. But the player who once threatened to jam a ball down a lineswoman’s throat was — as she always is in this relaxed setting — wonderfully congenial. You couldn’t ask for a better partner.
Victory was sealed with my off-balance forehand that nicked the line. Serena gave me a hug.
For someone of my era, who grew up hitting balls against the garage door alternately pretending to be Evert and Martina Navratilova on each shot, playing this pretend match with my idol Chrissie was a memory to treasure. It was also fascinating to see her textbook strokes contrasted with the sword-fighter slashing of Williams. She mocked their different styles by imitating Williams’ grunts, to the laughter of all.
Later, Williams, Evert, Eugenie Bouchard, Kei Nishikori and Richard Gasquet played — the way they would play with toys — with other amateurs, including former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell and Matt Besler, who was there with members of the U.S. soccer team, in town for a training camp.
“That was like missing the goal by 20 feet,” Drysdale said of one of Besler’s shots.
Then the women won a Battle of the Sexes match against the men.
What came across most clearly in observing the pros was their love for the game. Williams looks severe during tournaments. She’s all fist pumps and primal screams. But here she was having fun, like the kid in Compton with the clacking beaded braids and the big smile. She said when the game stops being fun she will retire.
“I’m the opposite of Serena because although I like to win I don’t like other people to lose,” said Grace Glass, a 15-year-old from Georgia who got to play Williams and Bouchard. “I thought Serena would be really intimidating. But she was so sweet, so genuine, so different from what you see on TV. You can tell she enjoys the game because she is able to laugh at herself.”
Drysdale believes the most successful players are those who never lose their love of play. The freedom intrinsic to the concept of play is what fuels the imagination, keeps motivation fresh.
“If it’s no fun, it becomes drudgery and if it’s drudgery it becomes work and if it becomes work you don’t want to do it anymore,” he said. “Players go through phases: John McEnroe and Andre Agassi hated tennis for a period of time. Serena went through a phase when it was a grind. But then they rediscovered that it’s a game, and you can have fun playing it.”
Athletes such as Williams, Brady, Roger Federer, Jaromir Jagr and Michael Phelps keep competing because they are able to tap into the simple joyfulness of their inner kid.
We amateurs did, too, and found our daydreams came true — maybe not at Wimbledon, but on a clay court in Key Biscayne.