Fun reigns in charity event
Stars such as Andy Roddick and James Blake show off talent and penchant for humor at Mercedes-Benz Classic.
By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer (St.Petersburg Times)
Published March 24, 2004
TAMPA - On one side of the table, Andy Roddick quickly shoveled in his pregame meal. On the other, James Blake did the same.
Ninety minutes before their singles match Tuesday night in the inaugural Mercedes-Benz Classic, a charity exhibition at the St. Pete Times Forum, the American tennis stars spoke and joked about the other. They shared stories, and a few laughs.
When asked if he had watched Roddick win last year's U.S. Open, Blake responded, "I was actually there still doing a little meet and greet, you know, trying to schmooze some people up," before his dinner mate interrupted.
"What was her name?" Roddick said.
Hey, they might be rivals, but they're also friends.
"I'm going to try to beat him so I don't have to deal with him any more on tour," said Blake, a Tampa Palms resident who trains at Saddlebrook.
Later, he did.
Blake broke Roddick's powerful serve late in the pro-set match and clinched it with a forehand winner for an 8-5 win before an announced crowd of 8,437.
Earlier, Saddlebrook's Jennifer Capriati defeated Sesil Karatancheva, a promising 14-year-old Bulgarian who trains at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, 8-4. The foursome capped the event with a mixed doubles match won by Blake and Capriati 6-4. Jim Courier and Sarasota's Monica Seles served as nonplaying captains.
"It felt good playing in front of my hometown for the first time," Blake said.
The classic raised more than $400,000 for Raymond James Courier's Kids Foundation, which benefits the St. Pete Tennis Center and other local charities. The players were not paid for their appearance. Earlier in the day, Courier, Roddick and Karatancheva attended a clinic at the St. Pete Tennis Center.
"They made an extra-special effort to get here," said Courier, who grew up in Dade City but now splits time between Orlando and New York.
"We had a great clinic this afternoon with the kids at the tennis center. That gave (the players) an idea of what we're here for."
Karatancheva, a late sub for an injured Chanda Rubin, might have been the most excited of the bunch. Exhibitions are old hat for the others, but playing on a stage so bright with three of the sport's top players was a bit imposing. Once the tennis started, though, she seemed right at home.
"It is exciting," she said. "I'm really happy right now."
Capriati also seemed to enjoy the moment.
"People really love tennis here," she told the crowd. "We need a tournament."
Roddick might have lost to Blake, but the main attraction did not disappoint.
The world's third-ranked player routinely blasted jaw-dropping aces, and not surprisingly, most of the night's lighter moments - and there were many - came when he was on the court.
After a Roddick miss against Blake, Roddick screamed, "God, I'm terrible." Seles, acting as Roddick's coach, quickly replied, "That was terrible." As Roddick walked toward her, Seles asked, "Am I fired?"
During the mixed-doubles match, Blake smashed a volley off Roddick's leg. Roddick twice lifted his shorts to see the mark, tossed his racket to the ground, hopped over the net and pretended to go after Blake. As this was happening, the theme from Rocky played on the loudspeaker.
"All of these players, they get it," Courier said.