Charity tennis event a smashing success

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Across all levels of sports, athletes play for championships, respect or admiration.

Tuesday at Petersen Events Center, a group of tennis icons, along with some notable friends, played for a cause.

As a part of the Mylan World Team Tennis' Smash Hits, tennis legend Billie Jean King and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Elton John, among others, took to the court as part of an effort to raise money to help combat AIDS.

While the annual event is new to the Pittsburgh area, the match Tuesday marked its 20th anniversary, a span that has seen it raise more than $10.5 million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation and various AIDS charities, including the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force. The match and VIP auction Tuesday raised roughly $1 million, the highest total in the event's history.

The event leaves behind an indelible impact in each city it visits, something that makes it even more rewarding for those involved.

"We try to go to as many different cities as possible and leave the money that we raised for that night," John said. "It's very important because if people are going to turn out and give money to see us play tennis, then it's only right that some of the money stays in the community."

The event is entering its third decade of existence, but its roots go back much further, particularly with the relationship that exists between King and John.

In 1974, King was one of the co-founders of World Team Tennis, a groundbreaking coed professional tennis league. Around the same time, King and John developed a strong friendship that continues today, part of which was based around a shared love of tennis. Even one of John's hit songs, "Philadelphia Freedom," was named in honor of the WTT team on which King played.

For the two of them, using tennis as a way to support a cause only made sense.

"I've been a big tennis fan for a long time -- I love to watch it, I love to play it and it gives me a chance to go on court and watch my idols play close up," John said.

There were many idols to watch Tuesday. There was Martina Navratilova, who John dubbed "probably the greatest women's tennis player of all time," as well as Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, the husband-and-wife duo that, combined, owns 30 Grand Slam titles.

Additionally, there were former standouts such as Andy Roddick and Mark Knowles, both of whom retired after the recent U.S. Open.

"It's good to see him out and staying connected to the game," Agassi said of Roddick. "It doesn't surprise me. He still shows that he cares."

For King, it was a chance to return to Pittsburgh, a city for which she expressed admiration dating to her days playing against the WTT's short-lived Pittsburgh Triangles.

"I loved it when I played here," King said. "The fans would be great and obnoxious -- I loved it. I like it when they are totally into it. There are great fans here in Pittsburgh."

Even with the atmosphere of goodwill and charity that surrounded the event, there was an irrepressible competitive streak from some players, particularly the event's most prominent participant.

"I don't see the point in doing anything in half measures," John said. "When I was a drug addict, I did as many drugs as possible. I'm competitive -- in my career, in life because I'm driven and want the best and I still want the best."

For those involved, though, tennis still remains the backdrop, especially for John. After spending years not getting involved in fighting AIDS, something for which John expressed great lament, his life changed when he met Ryan White, an Indiana boy who died of the disease.

John became good friends of White and his family, and developed an admiration of White for his perseverance and dignity. For John, White prompted him to act, get involved and become a better person, noting that White has "been my inspiration ever since."

Although he still regrets the years that he spent away from activism and charity, John is thankful that, along with his good friends and idols like King, he is able to make an impact while playing the game he loves in the process.

"I kept asking myself 'Where was I?' I was absent, so I had to make up for lost time," John said. "I'm still ashamed of my actions from before, but I'm trying to make that right now. When you get a second chance in life, don't waste it."

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Craig Meyer: or Twitter: @craig_a_meyer. First Published October 17, 2012 4:00 AM


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