Orlando – Five-time Wimbledon champ Venus Williams played. So did former U.S. Open winner Andy Roddick, current Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, and top-ranked U.S. player John Isner. But in every other respect, the Mylan WTT Smash Hits tennis event at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World was not your normal tennis tournament.
The event was hosted by tennis icon Billie Jean King, winner of 39 Grand Slam titles, and her buddy, rock legend Sir Elton John. And even though members of Team Elton and Team Billie Jean played to win, there was far more laughter than baseline grunting. On the sidelines, Mickey Mouse had to compete with local drag diva Darcel Stevens for attention.
During the celebrity Battle of the Sexes, pitting John and Roddick against Williams and Bartoli, Williams taunted her opponents by serving, successfully, from way up in the stands. When she knocked over a drink, she grabbed a microphone to make amends.
“I’m in trouble – I spilled a drink and I got yelled at,” she said. “I deeply apologize. I’m a big woman. I have big feet.”
It was the 21st Smash Hits charity fundraiser, and the first in Orlando since 1997. The annual events have raised more than $12 million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation and local charities. This year’s event at Disney World raised more than $700,000, and a big chunk will go to the Hope & Help Center of Central Florida.
But for Sir Elton, it was also redemption. An avid player with a wicked forehand, John joined Roddick to win the celebrity set 4-3. And then his team (Williams, Roddick, Robert Kendrick, and Bradenton’s Vicky Duval) trounced Team Billie Jean (Bartoli, Isner, Jean-Julien Roger and Taylor Townsend) by a commanding 24-18 score. In Smash Hits events, John now leads the ultra-competitive King 11-10.
And at a glitzy live auction prior to the tennis matches, John’s squad brought in $126,000, besting King’s $86,000. Items sold included King’s Centre Court seats for the 2014 Wimbledon ladies finals, which brought $25,000. When Bartoli offered hers up as well, they fetched another $25,000. A pair of piano benches autographed by John went for $10,000 apiece.
At a press conference, John shared why he takes time out from his busy schedule for Smash Hits and other HIV/AIDS fundraising.
“I lost something like 60 friends to AIDS,” he said. “I wasn’t there in the 80s, when I needed to be – as a gay man. But I got sober and decided to do my part. It’s hardly over, you know – people are still getting infected at alarming rates.”
John also noted that tennis was “the first sport whose players, en masse, supported those with HIV.”
King echoed her friend’s sentiments.
“Tennis has given me my life,” she said. “I love using it to give back.”