Tennis: Serena Williams' session is simply grand
Saturday, April 5, 2003
By TOM HANSON, [email protected]
When the members of Naples Bath & Tennis Club arrived for dinner Friday night, little did they know that Serena Williams would be headlining the evening's entertainment.
Along with the prime rib buffet, the guests were treated to an informal exhibition by Williams, the reigning champion of all four Grand Slam events.
The real treat belonged to Helene Smith of Visalia, Calif., who had the privilege of playing a half hour with Williams, who will be playing in the JPMorgan Chase Tennis Challenge today with sister Venus, Monica Seles, and Jana Novotna.
Last September, in The Hamptons, N.Y., Smith's future son-in-law, Donald Torasco, bid $17,000 as part of a charity auction for the hitting session, which included tickets to both today's JPMorgan Chase Tennis Challenge and the OWL Foundation Gala featuring Roberta Flack to follow.
"I saw this up for auction and jokingly said, 'Wouldn't this be your worst nightmare, playing against someone so overpowering and dominates on her own tour?'," Smith said to Torasco. "Little did I know that he would get this for me."
But much to her delight, Smith's so-called worst nightmare became a dream come true.
Smith greeted Williams, who was decked out in a bright orange and yellow tank top, with white capris and matching white and orange tennis shoes, with a larger-than-life card that read "thank you for the greatest moment of my life." The gesture earned Smith a hug.
As the two exchanged baseline volleys and just as many laughs, the crowd grew from 11 to over 100, as the word spread that the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world was out on the clay courts.
"We came for some cocktails and I noticed that Serena was out on the court playing," said Janet Kauffman of Naples.
"We're glad to have her in our back yard."
After 10 minutes of simple returns, Williams stopped to give Smith, 59, a quick lesson.
As local instructor Ido Abougzir served the ball, Williams said, "There is just one thing" and showed Smith a little trick that her father, Richard, taught her as a little girl.
"She told me something that her daddy always told her about hitting a forehand, that you should always have your elbow up," Smith said. "She remembered that when she started not getting them over the net, her father would say, 'Get the elbow up, get the elbow up'."
The lesson was an instant success as Smith started returning the ball with more authority.
Noticing the improvement, Williams started picking up the pace herself. And even though the velocity wasn't even half of tournament speed, the crisp returns drew ooohs and aaahs from the well-dressed spectators as they sipped on their Chardonnays and Cabernets.
The entire time Smith's husband Mike, clicked pictures with his disposable camera.
"This is pretty big stuff for us," he said. "We are just ordinary people, so this is a great day."
Williams, however, is far from ordinary.
In the past 12 months, she has dominated women's tennis. Besides winning 11 times, Williams has captured the last four consecutive major titles, which she has appropriately tabbed the "Serena Slam." And she hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. This season she is currently unbeaten with a record of 17-0.
The 2002 Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year has quickly become one of the most intimidating forces in sport. Her presence on the court strikes fear in the most worthy opponent. But with her infectious smile and soft-spoken voice, she seems the least bit intimidating.
"If I am intimidating, I don't know it," said Williams with a sheepish grin. "I can see where people are saying that, but look, I didn't intimidate Helene."
"It wasn't scary, she's the least intimidating person," Smith said. "She was very gracious and genuine."
Williams comes to Naples to participate in a match today, which starts at 1 p.m., that will benefit the OWL Foundation.
The 21-year-old will face Seles, a nine-time Grand Slam champion, in a best-of-three match.
Then Seles will team with Williams' older sister Venus, who has four Grand Slam titles of her own, in a pro-set doubles match against Serena and Novotna. The event will be capped off by a gala at 7 p.m.
As of Friday night there were less than 20 tickets remaining for the matches. Tickets for the gala are $200 and can be purchased at the ticket booth on site.
The heart and soul of the OWL Foundation is Williams' mother, Oranece Price.
Through her charity, Price hopes to give children who have learning problems an opportunity to reach their full potential.