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Beyond the Baseline

What it's like to hit with Venus Williams

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)

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