By Rachel Bird, Special for Tennis Grandstand
LOS ANGELES, CA (March 4, 2013) — With Southern California professional tennis on the decline, good friends Justin Gimelstob and Mardy Fish decided to do something about it. A year ago they were informed that the contract for the long-standing Farmers Classic at UCLA would not be renewed. Enter the first ever LA Tennis Challenge on Monday, March 4th at the brand new Pauley Pavilion at UCLA (to be televised Tuesday, March 5th at 7pm on Tennis Channel). Nothing was too outrageous. The more celebrities the better. The evening was all about charity and raising tennis awareness in Southern California.
To open the event, a red carpet was rolled out for stars and tennis players alike. Evan Handler (Sex & the City, Californication), Gregg German (Ally McBeal), Tim Olyphant (Deadwood, Justified) and Keenan Ivory Wayans (In Living Color, White Chicks) came out to support charity and tennis. Inside the arena were more stars like Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory), Rainn Wilson (The Office), Bruce Willis and Gerard Butler.
The charities for whom proceeds from the LA Tennis Challenge are to be distributed among include:
- The Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation
- The Justin Gimelstob Children’s Fund
- Novak Djokovic Foundation
- Call To Cure
- Southern California Tennis Association
Tommy Haas, the “older” player experiencing a resurgence, and James Blake, fresh off his doubles win in Del Ray, Florida, kicked things off with a one-set singles match. It was during their warm-up that the people in the best seats realized they would have to stay alert, as balls would be flying into their area regularly. Justin Gimelstob quipped that in the worst case scenario see the sponsor Esurance, which got a laugh. Quite a few people were hit during the course of the evening, but no one seemed hurt and most people shook it off.
Angelenos Haas and Blake had some fun rallies, like a tweener Haas kept in play and an overhead slam Blake was about to take until he heard Haas whimper and then just tipped it over the net. But for the most part, they came to play and were competitive. Then Haas broke the net.
Gimelstob was a real professional as he dealt with the various challenges of the evening. He kept it fun and light during the fifteen minutes it took to repair the net and first had Haas and Blake play mixed doubles with two little girls. Then he had them sign autographs while he invited all the kids to come down to do tennis drills. Meanwhile there was a raffle, which included signed Federer and Nadal memorabilia.
With the instructions to stop hitting so hard into the net, play resumed. Gimelstob decided Haas and Blake would play a tiebreak at five-all to speed things up. At 7-5, Haas emerged victorious.
Next, Mardy Fish, another Los Angeles resident, was trotted out to play the #1 ranked player, Novak Djokovic. It was announced that a local Serbian church wanted to do something special to welcome him, so a Serbian dance troupe in traditional garb emerged and did a number. At the end, Djokovic joined them. The incongruity was amusing.
Djokovic opened with a love game but the crowd seemed to be pulling for Fish. Fish gave it a real fight before Djokovic went up 3-2. Then Djokovic got silly. He had some words with a lady in the front row who got hit. He handed his racket over and let a little ball girl play a point. He mentioned that his serve was a let and complained to the chair umpire that he’d been sleeping.
Fish fought back to 4-all. Then a lineman called a fault that went Djokovic’s way. Fish was obviously disappointed. Meanwhile Djokovic high-fived and hugged the lineman. When he went up 5-4, Djokovic did a little Serbian dance before he took his seat.
At 7-all there was a tiebreak. After some horsing around, Djokovic took the set and dropped to the ground like he’d won a Slam, lying on his back as if in disbelief. The crowd burst out laughing and cheering. It only got more wild and crazy from there.
Gimelstob introduced the Bryan Brothers as the best doubles team of all time, claiming they’d won five million tour titles. Their childhood hero, Pete Sampras, came out next to join his doubles partner, Djokovic. It was past and present world number one’s doubles.
Pistol Pete started out a little rusty when he tried to finish a point at the net and ended up hitting straight into the net. Soon after he hit a shot that the Bryan Brothers threw up their rackets simultaneously to hit. After a particularly good point, Djokovic went to chest bump Sampras, a la Bryan Brothers, and got nothing but Pete’s back.
Djokovic had more words with the chair ump after he played through a call he hadn’t heard. “ARE YOU SERIOUS?” Obviously all in good fun. Later he re-enacted a point in slow-motion to prove it had gone out. Up 4-2, Djokovic was loose and celebrating with a little dancing.
The chair ump was replaced in the middle of the match with Rainn Wilson, or Dwight Schrute from The Office. Wilson started out by calling a time warning on Sampras. Then he coached him, “Keep your eye on the ball, Pete.” He wanted to know what Djokovic and Sampras were talking about when they had little chats at the baseline. Then he asked for some popcorn.
Wilson called for quiet and then fake passed gas as a Bryan brother served. A Bryan ended up throwing some of the popcorn at him. When Djokovic served, Wilson called him Choko-vic but when Djokovic had an ace, he received a thumbs up.
Sampras had it with Wilson’s antics and got the microphone from Gimelstob. “It’s time we had a real actor out here! Bruce Willis.” Willis was sitting courtside and the fans went nuts. He got up and made a move to come out to the court but the lights went out.
Gimelstob had to think fast. The fans were game so they acted on his joking request and turned on their flashlight apps on their phones. Pauley Pavilion looked like a tennis vigil. Gimelstob said it wasn’t regulation to play without lights but threw caution to the wind and suggested a super ten-point tiebreaker to end the evening. The fans were into it.
With more abuse from Wilson, the so-called “Robot tennis sensations of Camarillo, CA” the Bryan Brothers won the tiebreaker, 10-7. Bruce Willis and Gerard Butler came out to see the tennis players. The fans were crazy for Djokovic. I heard one security guard say he’d never seen anything like it. Meanwhile, I took shelter in the Audi R8 that was on display courtside. It’s a tough life, but someone’s gotta do it!