Four of the Miami Open’s top pros got to remove the competitive straitjacket they’ll be wearing during the tournament and play tennis purely for the fun of the game Tuesday on a clay court in Key Biscayne.
Venus Williams, Nick Kyrgios, Jack Sock and Simona Halep hit, laughed, hugged and clowned around with each other and ordinary players at Cliff Drysdale’s annual All-Star pro-am event at the Ritz-Carlton, which raised $12,000 for First Serve Miami, an organization that teaches underprivileged kids how to play.
The pros displayed not only the mischievous side of their personalities but also wizardry with the ball that they can’t often reveal when they’re trying to win trophies and paychecks a mile down the road at what used to be known as the sport’s “Fifth Grand Slam.”
“It’s great to see them so relaxed when everything in their world is so serious and high-stakes,” said Scott McCulloch, the vice president of operations for Drysdale’s management company and commentator for Tuesday’s matches. “Tennis started out for all of us as a simple, joyful game. Settings like this allow the pros to be kids again.”
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The pros kept balls in play that were clearly on their way out of bounds. They hit between-the-legs and behind-the-back circus shots. They made jaw-dropping drop shots. They devised Cubist angles for flicks across the net. They wielded rackets like wands. Kyrgios sat on the court for a couple of exchanges, smiling all the while.
“They can do anything they want to with the ball — anything,” said Dianne Salter, an amateur who partnered with Kyrgios. “You realize when you’re up close just how amazingly skilled they are. Even if we practiced 24 hours a day, we couldn’t come close to their level.”
Yet the pros never ran out of patience and generosity when engaging with the recreational players, making them feel at ease rather than in awe, said Salter and her friends from the Overbrook Country Club near Philadelphia. They’ve attended Drysdale’s event for nine years straight.
“Playing next to these stars you watch in the Miami Open or the U.S. Open allows you a peek at what they’re really like,” Annette Brennan said. “Jack was so funny; we got to learn more about him. Venus is super sweet, a class act. Simona was soft-spoken and kind. And Nick gets a bad rap as the bad boy, but he was very friendly.”
The amateurs played with Fred Stolle, Sebastian Grosjean and John Lloyd earlier in the day, receiving helpful tips.
“Nick and Jack were adorable,” Marybeth Martino said. “It’s nice to see them as friends. Venus and Serena were much more serious when they were younger.
“ Now they have a good time making fun of themselves.”
Williams was mellow and regal. Kyrgios, the flashy Aussie given to nasty outbursts in tournaments, chatted with junior players who attempted to outhit him and joked with Sock during one exchange of smashing groundstrokes. In person, he looks like a wiry basketball player. He and Halep lost to Williams and Sock in the doubles finale.
“Nick marches to his own drumbeat and that’s part of his edge and that’s caused mixed feelings among Australian fans — although whether you love him or hate him, he’s electric,” McCulloch said of the 2016 Miami Open semifinalist. “I was impressed with how he connected with fans here.”
Most marvelous was the effortlessness of the pros.
“It’s’ like they’ve got forever to hit while the rest of us are so rushed,” McCulloch said. “Their swing is the same, consistently impeccable. For the amateur, it’s a surprise how their stroke will turn out. You see how elastic the pros are. Mortals stiffen and choke.”