By Andy J. Gordon
The most popular and highest paid female professional tennis player in the world brought some of her friends to UCLA for a tennis exhibition. Maria Sharapova is the fourth ranked player in the world, but her global popularity exceeds her tennis exploits. She put together a fun and competitive tennis exhibition called Maria Sharapova & Friends, presented by Porsche. It took place on December 12 and 13, 2015 at the tennis center on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles.
Maria Sharapova is the world’s highest-paid female athlete for the 11th straight year and her list of corporate sponsors reads like a who’s who of blue-chip international companies. With this pedigree, it was pretty easy for her to put together her first ever tennis event. With the help of her management team at IMG, Sharapova gathered some of her corporate partners (Porsche, Head, TAG Heuer, Nike), fellow tennis pros and a few celebrity friends to put on the event. Tennis Channel broadcast a few of the matches live. A portion of the proceeds went to the Maria Sharapova Foundation which raises money for underprivileged children around the world.
The Los Angeles area has been without a professional tennis event since the demise of the Farmers Classic in 2012. Since then, Angelinos have had to trek out to the desert for the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells to get their pro tennis fix. Sharapova hopes that another professional tour event in Los Angeles will be put on the schedule, but until then, the exhibition that she put together this weekend will have to satisfy the demands of Los Angeles tennis fans.
There was some excellent tennis over the course of the event. Sharapova and Mardy Fish faced Laura Robsen and Andy Roddick in an entertaining mixed doubles match. Fish just announced his retirement earlier in the year and still has the skills to compete on tour. He joked that he walked to the event since he lives so close to the UCLA campus. Robsen is a popular British star who is coming back from a few injuries that have delayed her rise in the rankings. Roddick is a former World No. 1 and US Open Champion who retired from the tour in 2012. He also spends a lot of time in LA. Sharapova and Fish won the mixed doubles battle.
Fish and Roddick also played a tight singles match that featured some booming serves, aggressive baseline rallies and good-natured dialog across the net. Fish won the close match 12-10 in a third set super tie-breaker. He also allegedly earned a free dinner in his friendly bet with Roddick over the outcome of the match.
Sharapova played a singles match against rising American star, 18th ranked Madison Keys. Both players hit hard, flat ground strokes and competed like it was a tour event. The crowd enjoyed the action on court, but seemed to know the outcome in advance – after all, it would be foolish for Keys to beat Sharapova at her premier, fund-raising event. As expected, Sharapova won in a deciding super tie-breaker 6-7, 6-1, 11-9.
The last match of the Saturday session was a pro-celebrity mixed doubles challenge with a twist. It became a battle of the sexes as Sharapova partnered with her talk show hosting, comedic buddy, Chelsea Handler. They faced Roddick and funny man Will Arnett. All four players were miked for the match and the dialog was way better than the tennis. Handler clearly has some tennis training while Arnett appeared to have practiced his one-liners instead of his groundstrokes. The evening grew chilly as the fans shivered in the stands and laughed along with the players with every missed shot.
Sundays matches featured mixed doubles with Sharapova partnering with World No. 6 Kei Nishikori against Laura Robsen and World No. 26 Jack Sock. Sock and Nishikori also played a highly competitive singles match. The Sunday session was cut short due to some high winds and rain, but the fans in attendance enjoyed seeing the pros in action.
Maria Sharapova should be commended for putting together a fun and competitive tennis event. Although just an exhibition, the level of play was excellent and the entertainment value was high. It is a shame that Los Angeles no longer has a professional tour level event. There is strong interest locally among fans to bring the tour back to LA. With many potential sponsors as well as the Tennis Channel based in the area, hopefully a professional event will return to LA. Until then we are thankful to Sharapova for bringing great tennis to the area and expect her event to be even more entertaining next year.
All photos courtesy and ©copyright Andy J. Gordon 2015