Tennis stars feel charitable at Petersen Events Center celebrity match

Bob Cohn
| Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, 10:26 p.m.

Elton John was determined to show his competitive as well as charitable side.

Which he did, quite colorfully.

The pop legend known as Sir Elton since his 1998 knighthood played Petersen Events Center on Tuesday night. But this brand of showtime was tennis, not music, as the traveling fundraiser, World TeamTennis Smash Hits, made its first visit here.

After a high-priced dinner and silent auction for the glitterati, it was Team Elton against Team Billie — as in pioneering tennis legend Billie Jean King — in a WTT-format exhibition match featuring past stars and promising youngsters.

John and King's friendship, going back nearly 40 years, led to regular gigs as co-hosts of an annual event benefiting the Elton John AIDS Foundation and local charities. Here, it was the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force. With local drug company Mylan as a first-time sponsor in Smash Hits' 20th year, the take was a record $1 million.

Wearing blue-tinted shades, John noted beforehand that he led the series against King, 10-9, and had a strong, experienced squad.

“I think the total age of the team is 613,” he said. “And that's just me and Martina.”

That would be Martina Navratilova, who many consider to be the finest women's tennis player ever. She turns 56 on Thursday. John is 65.

John and Navratilova played in the opening “celebrity exhibition” mixed doubles against married ex-stars Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, and John said he would go all-out.

“I don't see the point of doing anything in your life at half-measures,” he said, building to the punch line. “I mean, when I was a drug addict, I did as many drugs as I could.”

He wasn't finished.

“At the end of the day when you lose, you shake hands,” he said. “And then punch the guy in the ...” He uttered a bawdy word.

It was all in good fun — lots of clowning and showmanship and a few show-off shots — for a good cause before 4,718. Smash Hits has now raised about $11.5 million.

John, minus the glasses, wielded a passable racquet (if his body didn't always respond). Martina's still got it, carrying her team to victory in an entertaining match.

In a competitive mixed doubles, Andy Roddick teamed with Navratilova and gutted it out against Agassi-Graf with a sprained ankle he said he received “wrestling bears.” Recently retired, Roddick got a fishing rod and golf clubs among other parting gifts.

The chatty Roddick, after one flubbed shot, turned to the crowd and moaned, “I'm sorry, I'll do better.” Later he said to his opponents, “Oh, God, I'm glad to see you guys haven't changed.” He also flipped and kicked his racquet, all in one move.

It still worked out: Martina and Roddick won the set for Team Elton.

Roddick, who is 30, then beat the 41-year-old Agassi in the concluding men's singles set — but not by enough — and Team Billie Jean hung on to win the match and even the two-decade series at 10.

The rest of the cast included Mark Knowles, Christiana McHale, Taylor Townsend, Jan-Michael Gambill and Samantha Crawford.

King reminisced fondly about her days in the WTT, which she helped found, playing with the Philadelphia Freedom (not coincidentally the title of an Elton John hit) against the long-gone Pittsburgh Triangles.

“The fans were great, obnoxious,” she laughed. “I loved ‘em.”

King also gave a shout-out to Steelers Hall of Famer Franco Harris, who, along with former tennis player/pin-up girl Anna Kournikova, served as “coaches” of the celebrity mixed doubles teams.

“I looked up his records and I'm like, ‘Oh my god,' King raved about Harris. “We both had our careers in the (1970s).”

Many still remember.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reachedat or 412-320-7810.

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