Confess: Who would you like most as your doubles partner?
My favorite — if you must pry — used to be Goran Ivanisevic.
But as of Tuesday evening, I switched allegiance to Novak Djokovic.
Not only did Djokovic exude consummate grace while playing tennis with hacks like me, but he can catch a moon ball in his pocket.
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He can take a serve to the head from apologetic partner Fernando Verdasco and laugh about it. He can push one of the greatest doubles teams of all time —Venus and Serena Williams — to sudden-death match point, and lose what Cliff Drysdale called “Battle of the Sexes II” with panache.
The Djoker is such an uncanny mimic he can even grunt convincingly on shots that require 5 percent of his ability.
Best of all, Djokovic is willing to share. He gave everyone tastes of his talent, like a five-star chef distributing samples, and because of his generosity, he renewed our appetite for wonder.
It’s as if he was saying, “Try this, and this and this,” with a volley, overhead and backhand, and we responded, “Wow,” “Exquisite,” “Unbelievable!” And he was taking it easy, “playing” with us in the truest sense of the word.
Too often, we take our elite athletes for granted. There they are, on the TV screen, 24 hours a day, dunking, pitching, intercepting, flipping, kicking, sprinting, serving, saving. One mind-boggling performance after another which we accept as commonplace when we should be savoring them the way bird-watchers record rare sightings.
Djokovic, the Williams sisters, Verdasco, Ana Ivanovic and Marion Bartoli awed and charmed a gathering of tennis lovers Tuesday on a court at the Key Biscayne Ritz-Carlton. They could have hoarded what they have so finely honed as they prepare for their opening matches at the Sony Open, but instead they gave it away, and in the process helped raise $18,000 for First Serve Miami, a tennis and educational foundation for local kids. They got their feet dirty with their fans.
To join professional athletes on the playing field is to comprehend just how other-worldly they are compared to us.
Consider yourself a decent runner? You probably could not keep pace with an elite 2:05 marathoner for even one all-out quarter mile.
Think you’re a competitive golfer when you hit a drive 220-250 yards? Bubba Watson can hit it more than 300 with one eye closed. Even if you’re seriously good, you’re still likely to finish your round seven strokes behind Phil Mickelson.
Strong? Weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu could snatch 2.5 times his body weight and clean and jerk three times his body weight. At 4-foot-10 and 132 pounds, Turkey’s “Pocket Hercules” hoisted a snatch best of 335.5 pounds and a clean and jerk best of 418 pounds. So if you weigh 175 pounds, you would have to snatch 437.5 pounds and clean and jerk 525 pounds.
Tough? A 200-pound NFL defensive back who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds can produce up to 1,600 pounds of tackling force.
Are you a basketball legend in your neck of the woods? Michael Jordan had a 48-inch vertical leap. Spud Webb, who was 5-7, could defy gravity at 46 inches. LeBron James is routinely four to five inches inches above the rim when he slams.
Let’s not get into the physics of gymnastics.
As for returning a serve in tennis, it is another skill that is much more difficult to master than it appears. Djokovic and Serena Williams proved how difficult when they served to ESPN correspondent Tom Rinaldi, who trained for the test by taking lessons with a pro in New Jersey, then warmed up Tuesday with Darren Cahill and Patrick McEnroe. Cahill gave Rinaldi a helpful hint that didn’t help: Djokovic sometimes tips off which way he’s going to serve based on the number of bounces he makes.
“What is hardest — hitting a major-league pitch, dunking from the foul line, running a four-minute mile, riding the mountains of the Tour de France?” Rinaldi said. “We wanted to give returning serve its due on the list.”
Williams, who has hit a 128 mph serve, and Djokovic, who can serve in the 140s, didn’t blast anything above 101 mph.
“It’s not just the speed, but the spin,” Rinaldi said. “The recreational player has no idea how to respond to a kick serve that bounces above your shoulder blade.”
McEnroe compared spin serves to a slider. He said Williams can hit any type of serve with the same toss, making her impossible to read.
“Pete Sampras was the best I faced, and Goran,” McEnroe said. “John Isner — forget about it.”
Drysdale, who enhances the annual pro-am event with his acid commentary, encouraged Williams and Djokovic to “stop hitting it like a marshmallow,” and Rinaldi managed to get a few back over the net, giving spectators a glimmer of hope.
But the nicest gift we took home after whacking at a fuzzy yellow ball was a sense of amazement.
Thank you, Serena and Novak.