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What it’s like to hit with Venus Williams

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Hi-fiving our height differential. (Photo by Ben Rothenberg)

High-fiving our height differential. (Photo by Ben Rothenberg)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — When your phone rings, and the caller asks if you want to hit with seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, you don’t think about it. You say yes. I hung up the phone with a wide grin. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I don’t actually play tennis.

Then I panicked.

Eight of us — Williams, her Washington Kastles teammate Arina Rodionova, four local Charleston women, Tennis Channel host Danielle Dotzenrod and myself — split into two teams to play a set of World Team Tennis-style doubles. The match took place not on a tiny outside court but on Althea Gibson Court — the Family Circle Cup’s equivalent of a Grandstand Court — in front of a few hundred spectators earlier this week. At least, I think it was a few hundred fans. It could have been two. I had enough trouble focusing on hitting a forehand over the net let alone the peripherals.

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Luckily, I was drawn onto Williams’ team. In contrast, Williams would be counting me as a doubles partner, a woman who didn’t play tennis in high school, is at best a self-taught USTA-rated 3.0 player and who has never actually played a doubles match. Or a singles match. Unless you count the imaginary matches I play against a ball machine at a local tennis club. Sadly, I hold a 2-8 head-to-head in that matchup.

Williams and I took to the court first for four games against Rodionova and Dotzenrod. It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a court. Williams was nothing but patient and kind to me as I shanked forehands, barely made a move to ever poach the ball and sent serves sailing wildly out.

“Aim it at the umpire,” one man in an orange Adidas shirt yelled down to me as I was set to serve. “That always works for me!”

That’s one thing that struck me being down on that court. The players really can hear everything. I could hear full-on conversations between fans, bags of chips rustling. Every cough and sneeze startled me like a siren. All I could do was try to relieve my tension.

Venus showing me the proper way to toss a ball. (Photo by Ben Rothenberg)

Venus showing me the proper way to toss a ball. (Photo by Ben Rothenberg)

“What in the world have I done on this court to make you think I can aim the ball anywhere,” I yelled back. It didn’t quite get the laughs that Steffi Graf’s proposal response received, but I couldn’t help it.

What impressed me most about Williams, aside from her incredible anticipation and speed, was just how willing she was to offer advice. I can imagine situations in exhibitions for the pros to just do a casual walkthrough, shake hands with fans, maybe chat on the sidelines between points. But Williams was a fantastic coach to everyone. At one point as I was set up to serve and my toss was flying everywhere but over my head, Williams walked back to the baseline, stood behind me, took my left hand in hers and taught me how to properly toss the ball.

“Toss it higher,” she said. “Way higher. Don’t hold it here [in your palm], hold it here [moving the ball closer to my fingertips],” moving my arm up and down to simulate a smooth toss motion. As she walked back to the net, I offered a sheepish apology. “Sorry. I don’t know why it’s going everywhere. It’s downright Ivanovic-ian.”

Williams stopped in her tracks, turned to look at me with a wry grin as if to say, “Did you just say what I think you said?” and burst out laughing.

Aside from my toss going horribly wrong, my serve was a disaster, as was my forehand. In the stress of the situation — not wanting to make a fool of myself, not wanting to embarrass Williams, and, let’s face it, not wanting to hit Williams — I just could not generate any racket speed. No one watching that exhibition would know that when I play tennis with my friends I can’t help but obnoxiously gun for winners and play with blinding aggression. But in front of a crowd, that fluffy yellow orb felt like a bocce ball in my hand when I went to toss it. My Dunlop racket felt like a lead two-by-four. Swinging it at full strength felt like a futile and exhausting endeavor. It just wasn’t going to do what I wanted it to.

Classic images of Venus, Serena Williams

“Commit,” Williams said. “You’re not going to hit it if you don’t commit.”

By the latter half of the set, Williams stayed on the sidelines as I finished out the match with one of my teammates, who was incredibly skilled. Whenever I missed a forehand I found myself immediately looking to the sideline where Williams would clap and mouth, “Commit,” again and again. It never came off in a patronizing or exasperated tone, but pure encouragement and desire to see me get my best tennis out. She would make a great coach one day.

Team Williams finally won the set 6-2 thanks to the talent and prowess of my teammates and our captain. My lasting memory will be how nerve-wracking it was and how amazed I was that anyone could play a professional tennis match without wanting to bring a bucket with them on court.

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Sharing a laugh. Possibly about my lack of tan. (Photo by Ben Rothenberg)

Sharing a laugh. Possibly about my lack of tan. (Photo by Ben Rothenberg)

  • Published On Apr 05, 2013
  • 19 comments
    tennisnut
    tennisnut

    I always thought Courtney's commentary on players was way off-base...and now it makes total sense. You simply cannot judge tennis quality without actually playing the game on a half-decent level. You cannot understand spin, pace, angle.. it all looks the same to you. I know when I started playing 15 years ago, every ball looked the same to me... it is only through time on court that you can judge these things well.

    AshantiDennery
    AshantiDennery

    venus williams is a legend keep practicing courney you will get right one day.

    Party_Gator
    Party_Gator

    Awesome.  Gutsy to get out there with her.   I'm a real 4.0-4.5 and I'm pretty sure I would have forgotten how to hold a racquet.

     

    Good choice of tenniswear, too.   WTG Courtney.

    spystud
    spystud

    And we're gonna need some pics of Danielle.  She is ridiculously hot.

    Scud666
    Scud666

    So Courtney can't play tennis at all? Why do people get employed when they are not able to relate to anything about the sport? You have to be at least a club level player to understand the difficulties of the game. No wonder Courtney voices off on players with no substantiated grounds. Its hard for her to relate to the game. Not even close. None of us are, however some of us at a higher level get a better jist of the factors that come into play and in-turn have an appreciation for it.

     

    Irregardless, pretty sad how we have been mixing girl power with professional tennis at CNNSi.

    bridgepea1
    bridgepea1

    Venus is my favourite all time player and I too had the pleasure of meeting her a few years ago.  I can agree with everything that Courtney said especially Venus' patience and her charming personality.  She is a true legend and I can totally see why so many players look up to her.  That was an amazing experience and I am sure that Courtney will treasure it forever.  

    Curtos07
    Curtos07

    That had to had been a really cool experience. Getting to play along side one of the all time greats, it doesn't get any better than that. As someone who has never played tennis before, I promise you, I would had been much worse if I were in your situation. Just getting the opportunity to be part of such an event is an amazing experience that you can tell for the rest of your life. 

    spystud
    spystud

    Awesome, thanks for posting.

    Playa5.0
    Playa5.0

    Might want to look up the actually definition of an NTRP 3.0. Unwritten is the fact that you probably would have had to PLAY a singles or a doubles match. Kind of implied. Geez.

    badgeration74
    badgeration74

    Maybe now you won't be so randomly harsh to some players (Tsonga, Wozniacki) when you hand out grades. It was kind of snotty to take a swipe at Ivanovic to deflect from your own crappy serve though. You're a good writer and I want to like you more, but you really do come off like a mean girl sometimes.

    SkivvyJones
    SkivvyJones

    Eleven looks great on you! Nice piece. 

    tripletriplecombo
    tripletriplecombo

    I think all writers, commentators, fans, critics should have such an experience. If for no other reason than to know just how difficult this sport can be. And that is before you add a couple hundred or thousand people to the seats to watch every stroke.

    SingleAlley
    SingleAlley

    @Scud666 by your logic nobody should write movie reviews if they don't work in the movie industry. You pr reasoning us just ridiculous. I enjoyed reading Courtney's writing and her dedication in reporting different aspects of the sport. You just came off as a troll.

    copperth
    copperth

     @badgeration74 You could read other writers if you're not a fan of Courtney's brand of color commentary. I was skeptical when her column first appeared after years of Wertheim only here but she has quickly made a mark on this site, and there is much more content to appreciate than before. Plus you could strive to be a bit less baldly patronizing. It's easy for me to say "You didn't make any grammatical errors in your comment, and I want to like you more, but you really do come across as a judgmental dud," which I'm going to do now to make a point, but these are usually the thoughts I work in phrasing. Because it's terribly obnoxious, which, coincidentally (or ?) is what you're accusing Courtney of being.

    usable.thought
    usable.thought

     @badgeration74 I do understand what you're saying. On the other hand, when Courtney includes Venus's response to her comment ("Did you just say what I think you said?"), there is a good deal of implied irony there. Irony does not always play well in mass media - many readers do not have a taste for it, and it is easily misread (Jon Wortheim gets into trouble with readers quite a lot for this reason). Beyond that, I'd guess that a flair for irony - or snottiness, or whatever you want to call it - was one of the reasons Courtney got hired for this gig. Back when she was "C Note" writing her own private blog, she was far more irreverent than she permits herself to be now. Some of us miss that but we understand it doesn't play well on a mass media stage. 

    Scud666
    Scud666

     @SingleAlley  @Scud666 So weak. Critiquing a movie does not require workingin the movie industry or knowing how to direct movies simply because you are basing your opinion as an 'audience', the end-client. When Courtney writes an opinion piece, it is important for her to know what's going on when top players compete.  Not saying she has to be a former pro, but the fact that she barely plays tennis gets her that <-------------------> far from relating and understanding the pro world of sport.

     

    I recall once when my friend's mom thought players who served balls in the net as not having enough energy/power to do so. She wouldn't know cause she has not lifted a racket in her life. And those of us who played the sport who know it takes little to none effort to get the ball over the net, heck the fence even. Not saying Courtney would not know that, but giving you some concept on what I mean.

     

    I play competitive tennis for over 15 years so far. Not that I know everything, but you just have a better understand of what's going on the court than the layman audience. 

    usable.thought
    usable.thought

     I should add, I am green with envy (or some such color). Sounds like it was great fun & it echoes everything I've heard before about Venus being a gracious & generous person.

    EdFed
    EdFed

     @Scud666  @SingleAlley

     We are all <-------------------> far from relating to the pro game. I have played competitively for nearly 30 years, but the game I play isn't anywhere to close to the game the pros play. Try (and dream) though we might, we are not able to put ourselves in Fed's or Rafa's or Serena's shoes. We'll never know what they know or experience what they experience. That's true of you, me, Courtney, and anyone else who hasn't played pro tennis. We're all the 'layman audience' of the pro game.

     

    When it comes to pro sports and quality journalism, the 'playing experience' requirement is a canard. Red Smith didn't play pro baseball or anything approaching it, and yet, he still managed to win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Same is true of Jim Murray. As for tennis, I don't think Flink or Wertheim or Collins or Tignor ever earned a buck playing the game, but I enjoy reading their stuff. Same is true of Courtney.

     

    Insight can be gained any number of ways. Passion, dedication, and access can be just as valuable as experience. I don't know Courtney from Eve, but her commentary suggests she is passionate about tennis, is dedicated to following the game closely, and has great access to the pro game (administrators, tourneys, players, etc.). She's a good writer to boot. Those are all of the credentials she needs in my view. I suspect I'm not alone.

     

    Besides, it's not as if she traffics in instruction or strategy. She's not telling Woz how to hit a better forehand or giving Tomic tips for getting stronger mentally. She may point out that Woz's forehand is a weak stroke or that Tomic goes on walkabouts, but that kind of observation hardly requires a top 100 world ranking.