PNC shows lighter side

The Baltimore Sun

Early in the the first set of the 23rd PNC Tennis Classic last night, the sport's megastar, Serena Williams, had a ball bounce off her head from a ricochet off the baseline wall. The world's No. 1 player flashed a smile after briefly feigning dizziness, and the fans laughed with her.

It was that kind of night at 1st Mariner Arena, with Williams and her opponent, Elena Dementieva, putting on a polite exhibition for an adoring crowd that welcomed the opportunity to be in the presence of a superstar while at the same time contributing to a worthy cause.

"We're here to have fun," Williams said before the match. "We're not going to take it Grand Slam final serious, but at the same time, we want to give the people a great show."

Judging by the loud response from the crowd throughout the evening, Williams gave the people exactly that, despite losing the match, 6-4, 6-4.

If last year's event featuring tennis' clown prince Andy Roddick was a yuk-fest, then this year's event, which raised $150,000 for the Baltimore Community Foundation, was a love-fest.

Throughout the evening, Williams, who made her debut here 15 years ago as a 10-year-old playing doubles with her sister Venus against the Ripken brothers, traded ground strokes with her opponent while the crowd showed its support between points. Dementieva, clad in a pink one-piece and sporting the trademark long, blond ponytail that is a favorite among Russian players, was happy to play along.

Occasionally, each player would uncork a blistering forehand down the line to the delight of the crowd. The shots served as a reminder that, although the players were clearly treating this as an exhibition, there was a reason people came out to see them.

"Baltimore is not a tennis destination, so it's a great opportunity for people here to come and watch two great tennis players," Dememtieva said. "I'm proud to be a part of it."

This was the first time the event has managed to attract two top-four players. Of course, Williams transcends tennis - and sports, for that matter - and she was clearly the main attraction for the announced crowd of 7,231.

But there was plenty of love to go around.

Before their match, Williams and Dementieva stood by as Mayor Sheila Dixon, cheered on by the crowd as the arena speakers played the song, "Oh Sheila," presented tournament host Pam Shriver with a key to the city, recognizing Shriver's efforts over the past 23 years to give back to the area she grew up in.

"We realized that Pam had received citations from various mayors but never the key to the city," said Dixon, who offered up the ceremonial first serve.

The crowd also went crazy for Orioles Garrett Olsen and Adam Jones, who teamed with Williams and Dementieva in a doubles match.

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