Seles, Navratilova thrill fans in exhibition match for charity at N.O. Arena
By BENJAMIN HOCHMAN
The children cheered wildly for a couple of ladies whose heydays were before the kids were born.
The adults, who told the children about the greatness, cheered on Friday as well, part in appreciation, part in awe, for the ladies still can play.
Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles, tennis luminaries, played an exhibition on Friday night at the New Orleans Arena, where generations of fans united.
“It is just unbelievable seeing them live,” said Abrie Duplooy, one of the promoters of the event.
Seles won the best-of-three match 2-0, but the estimated 3,000 fans were entertained by the intensity and prowess of Navratilova, 50, and Seles, 33.
“They can still place the ball where they want to,” said Susie Brown of Mandeville, sitting in the second row. “Their skill level is still there.”
The event raised money for American Cancer Society, the New Orleans Recreation Department and New Orleans Recovery School District.
Before the match, representatives from NORD presented the players with an official proclamation from Mayor Ray Nagin, which declared Sept. 14 as a day for honoring the tennis legends and their commitment to New Orleans.
After the match, the players donated a check to Girls First, a non-profit organization, which provides opportunities to underprivileged girls in New Orleans.
“We hoped to inspire some young kids to pick up a tennis racket,” said Seles, who won nine singles grand slams. “It is such a fun sport. Maybe in 20 years someone from this crowd will be here in our place.”
Though Navratilova, who won 18 singles grand slams, didn’t win a set Friday, the match was still entertaining and hard fought. Navratilova took a 3-1 lead in the first set, but Seles clawed back, one trademark grunt at a time. Suddenly, it was 3-3. Navratilova took the lead briefly with a blistering left-handed forehand down the left side, but Seles tied the game at 4 on an equally emphatic play. Using her two-handed backhand, another trademark, Seles’ desperation shot barely stayed in play down the right side, and Navratilova’s return went long.
Then leading 5-4, Seles made the play of the night, right after Navratilova made what seemed like what would be the play of the night. With a little magic from the old days, Navratilova gently placed the ball over the net, and the ball just sputtered off after landing in play. But Seles responded on the next serve, chasing down a ball that she seemed unlikely to get to.
Not only did she make it in time, but she also smashed the ball past her opponent. She proceeded to win the game, and the set.
Perhaps the loudest cheer of the night came in the second set, when Navratilova, down 3-0, responded with resilience and made it a surmountable 3-1 set, instead of 4-0. But Seles served the next game, and capped it off with such an emphatic serve that Navratilova could only lunge and swing at the ball, which she missed, an ace to win the point and the game. Navratilova won the next game, but Seles won the following two, clinching the victory on a two-handed backhand.
“Monica just played too well,” Navratilova said. “She’s hitting her serves so well, I had a very hard time returning the serves.”
The evening was a light and joyous night, though for Navratilova, the day began with frustration and sadness.
” I drove around today, and it’s astonishing how little has been done here,” she said. “I’m from the Czech Republic, and there was a huge flood there a few years ago. You would never know it. It was all rebuilt.
“It’s astonishing to me that we left these people behind. The insurance company has failed and the people in the government have failed.”