Well I have had some special weeks during my career and tennis life. But few have been as interesting, exciting and surprising as my recent time in the USA. These past few days have changed my perspective on several beliefs and opened my eyes to some fundamental truths. I guess tennis tournaments, private planes, locker room gossip, celebrities and a group of battle hardened tennis legends reminiscing can do that to you 😉
Due to confidentiality I can’t divulge too many private details. However, I’ll give you a sneak peek into my last two days playing the PowerShares events in Nashville and Charlotte with Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. I’ll also tell you about my remarkable visit to the Williams sisters team base in West Palm Beach. It’s been a real eye opening treat for a tennis fan such as myself.
John Venison who runs Inside Out with Jim Couriers host a series of one night tennis events around the US. The events in Nashville and Charlotte had the “young old guys”, as I call them (Agassi, Sampras, Roddick, etc.), playing each other in a round robin type format. Followed by two events with us “oldies” replaying the original US Open Super Saturday from 1984. Connors, McEnroe, Lendl and Cash – Four more unique personalities you could not see anywhere else.
Jimmy Connors, one of my hero’s, is a true super star. I played him several times in my early days and a few times around my peak. He is a wounded warrior, having now had three hip replacement surgeries. Of all the tennis autobiographies out there Connors is the only one I have ever really wanted to read. Why? Well he was at the forefront of the biggest expansion the professional circuit ever had. There was a huge mixture of exhibition matches, pro events and Grand Slams. He was also the one to start the seniors/legends tour in the US.
After our first event in Nashville I sat in the private plane with Jimmy Connors, Jimmy Arias, John Venison and the Inside Out team as we flew from Nashville to Charlotte at midnight on a freezing cold night.
We were all happy having survived night number one. I only did by the skin of my teeth, after straining my calf muscle playing Lendl, I had to battle McEnroe in the final. It was a good match with a mixture of hard competitive tennis, fun light hearted moments and plenty of trick shots. In other words, some great entertainment.
Jimmy did well playing McEnroe in the first semi final. Once the fiercest of rivals who never had a nice word to say about each other, they played a lighthearted set which Mac had control of. Sure Mac could have run Jimmy all over the court, pushing those new hips to breaking point. but I couldn’t help think to myself how lovely it was to see them treating each other with respect. Even having a laugh in the locker room afterwards.
Just to highlight how different we all are. Post match I was stretching and icing. Mac had a beer with a mate and headed to a honky tonk gig. Ivan hit the road deciding to drive the 400 miles. And Jimmy snuck out to get a quiet bite.
As our private plane took off, Jimmy started talking about the old days. Of playing events from town to town, making hundreds of thousands of dollars compared to only $10,000 for winning Wimbledon.
His regrets of not supporting Lamar Hunts WCT tour. Yes, back then there were two rival tennis tours! I only played about a year of that tour before Lamar got tired of handing over his money to players who didn’t or couldn’t support his tour (The MIPTC who ran the Grand Slams imposed sanctions).
Jimmy’s fondness of our good friend Vitas Gerualitis who has since passed away. The mayhem he and Illie Nastase caused plus stories of the Italian tour stud Adriano Panatta. All priceless moments and priceless for us all sitting on the plane listening.
I think exhibition events like the PowerShares tour are great. They have something for everyone. A trip down memory lane for some, and raw tennis spectacle and entertainment for those too young to have seen us play professionally. Perhaps the PowerShares series is just a nostalgia trip for some of the fans. Like seeing the Rolling Stones live (to fare the Stones still rock). But it was a walk down memory lane, for me too. Did I really play during some of these golden days of tennis? I suppose I did! Wow how lucky was I?
Before our 2nd event in Charlotte, Jimmy pulled out his phone to take a photo saying “well I kinda miss the locker room banter. Everyone get in the photo, this may well be my last time”. It was a sentiment most of us felt. Mac still has a full schedule of exhibitions, but the rest of us including the promoters, staff, old tour physio Gary Kitchell were thinking the same thing as Jimmy.
Locker room banter covered a mixture of topics including who was winning in Indian Wells. Of course Lendl was interested as he was at that stage still officially coaching Andy Murray. Mac and I enquired how Andy was going and as usual he didn’t give anything away. Only in retrospect did a half murmur in a heavy Czech accent of “He thinks he is ok but he’s not” seems somewhat revealing.
We talked about the problems on the tennis tour and what the they should be doing. We mused about how the tour was back in our day. Discussed what modern players don’t understand, and laughed about how we’re all getting old and losing it in our old age. I don’t think anyone could top my Alzheimer’s like effort, leaving my laptop on the plane one day, then leaving town with my phone still in the hotel room the next day!
And of course we told stories of some of our old tennis buddies. Two time Australian Open champion, Johan Kriek was there as an emergency back up player and he had plenty to add. But it was hard to get a word in with Lendl and his terrible jokes taking centre stage. Though they were better than the ones he used to tell ha ha!!!
After finishing the exhibition matches, the surprise day of the week started. I arrived in Miami at 6AM to interview Venus Williams for my CNN Open court show in West Palm Beach. We only had a 15 -20 minute window to interview Venus before her practice session. This is not a lot of time to ask Venus a combination of questions about her career, the 45th title she won last month in Dubai, her Sjogrens syndrome plus all the other things I wanted to ask her.
Being a big fan I was looking forward to talking to her about my favourite women’s match ever. Her Wimbledon final with Lindsay Davenport. I have chatted with her briefly over the years but never at length. Our paths usually cross in the players restaurant at the Grand Slams which is not a great time to bother the players with banter. I have chatted with her dad Richard more often. I’m always fascinated to hear his interesting theories.
Strangely enough I had never really spoken to Serena. I always had the feeling she didn’t like me for some reason. I have always prided myself on the fact that I have been fair and honest in my reports on TV, radio and newspapers. However, sometimes that doesn’t go down well and someone inadvertently gets offended. I figured that was the case with Serena. I’ve always respected and admired her game but I hadn’t felt the need to bother her with chit chat either.
As I arrived at the Williams team home base my heart jumped a little as I saw Serena and her coaching team arrive before Venus for training. What should I say? Would she even say hello? Where was Venus? Should I just chat with Sascha Bajin and Patrick Mouratoglou her coaching team? These were all questions racing through my mind. To say I was shocked at what happened over the next two hours is an understatement!
A more friendly and lovely group of people I couldn’t have wished to meet. Almost the first words out of Serena’s mouth was “I hope you have time to hit with me?”…… Really? I was just coming here to interview Venus for 20 minutes. I’ll admit I secretly hoped to hit with Venus and at the last minute I had brought my tennis gear along. Half of it still sweaty from the matches I had played! Luckily I had an extra couple of clean wristbands and headbands! Always be prepared!
I was Stunned! This was a chance I wouldn’t dare miss but first I had to interview Venus. She was charming, funny and perhaps a little bored at some of the generic question but she was a great sport. As luck would have it rain started pouring down from nowhere. Bad luck? No good luck! As we all waited for the rain to clear Richard, Patrick Mouratoglou and I had a great chat about technique. As usual I got asked about the dying art of volleying.
One thing is for sure, the Williams sisters can volley. Being adept at both singles and doubles they are the complete package. They have the essential speed required for good net coverage they use it to great effect. For the next few hours Richard picked my brains as I picked his. From time to time Richard called one or both of the girls over to hear my theories and they chirped in with their own. This went from a quick interview to a full on brainstorming session. Soon after we finished the girls asked me if I could show and explain my thoughts on court with them. Soon it was a full on training session!
What we did is confidential so I can’t go into detail. But the thing I walked away with from these last few days, is how open and interested everyone was in getting better. Better player, better coach, or in the case of us old guys better at enjoying the moment perhaps our last out there on the centre court!
I think the lesson here is to never stop being curious. Always keep learning. Strive to get better and never close your mind and eyes to new ideas, thoughts and experiences.
Thank you PowerShares Series, Inside out, CNN, Mac, Jimmy, Ivan, Venus, Serena, Richard, Patrick, and the powers that be for not only returning my laptop and phone but putting the planets in line! I am truly grateful.