Serena, Azarenka put rivalry aside in playful MSG exhibition
NEW YORK -- This Showdown included marriage proposals and Redfoo dancing to "Party Rock." A bit of tennis, too.
The venue -- Madison Square Garden, the World's Most Famous Arena -- was fit for this rivalry, as some call it, No. 1 vs. No. 2 in women's tennis, even if the event -- the BNP Paribas Showdown, an exhibition -- called for more giggles than shrieks.
Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka were the hors d'oeuvre for the ESPN2 telecast of No. 5 Rafael Nadal and No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro. Nadal played his first hard-court match since his comeback from a knee injury and lost 7-6 (4), 6-4 to the Argentine, but it was most definitely ladies' night.
Williams won 6-4, 6-3 (she's 3-0 at the Garden, also winning an exhibition here over big sister Venus in 2009). It doesn't count in Williams and Azarenka's head to head (led 12-2 by Williams), not on this blue court quickly put down on top of the Knicks' hardwood after their 99-93 loss to the Heat on Sunday afternoon.
Celebs showed -- tennis enthusiasts Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor as well as U.S. Olympic figure skating medalists Nancy Kerrigan and Sarah Hughes. Stiller was called onto the court by Nadal to play doubles against Del Potro and a young girl.
The four professional players shared the Knicks' locker room beforehand. The 6-foot-6 Del Potro beelined for the locker of countryman Pablo Prigioni (3.4 points per game), ESPN's Chris Fowler said. Del Potro put on the best Big Apple performance by an Argentine since Lionel Messi's hat trick against Brazil at MetLife Stadium in June, but perhaps Nadal was looking ahead to the Real Madrid-Manchester United Champions League match Tuesday afternoon. Oh, Indian Wells, too.
Williams and Azarenka showed no signs of the injuries they cited in pulling out of the Dubai Championships on back to back days two weeks ago (Williams' back, Azarenka's foot). Their play was so crisp, one fan yelled, "that shot was sexy and I know it," timed exceptionally during a between-points silence, drawing laughs.
The match didn't really get interesting until 3-all in the second, when Azarenka called in relief in the form of the former LMFAO rocker Redfoo. He's at the very least a tennis enthusiast, Azarenka's moral support, but reportedly much more than that to the Belarusian. His YouTube Valentine's Harlem Shake video attests to that.
Redfoo came out from the first couple rows, impossible to miss in a neon green shirt and his own racket, and stared across the net at the most intimidating player in WTA history. He prepared to serve.
"Foot fault," the chair umpire cried before Redfoo could rear back. Williams, who famously exploded hearing those words in this city four years ago, pointed and laughed. Redfoo needed four serves to get the ball in play. He couldn't take a point off the 15-time Grand Slam champion, and Azarenka tagged back in for some left-handed points.
Some minutes later Azarenka ripped a backhand into the net on match point. Patrick McEnroe handled the on-court interview, where Williams, soaked in sarcasm, analyzed Redfoo's game.
"It's a big serve," she told an announced crowd of 15,984 (MSG looked about 90 percent full). "I'm sure he usually gets it in when he plays."
The night's real news came in the ensuing press conference.
Azarenka and Williams waxed about the rivalry and how much they love New York (fashion week, shopping and American Idiot, the musical, Williams, a Green Day lover, listed).
Then Azarenka dropped a line that put their fierce competition in context.
"We're about to come out with a duet, karaoke," she said. "That would definitely be something new for the women's game."
What song? Rihanna's "Stay," currently seventh on the Billboard Hot 100, Williams said.
"I'm studying the piano chorus," Azarenka said, then looked to her left. "And she's going to sing."
Would Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova have shared a mic? Monica Seles and Steffi Graf? Martina Hingis, announced as part of the 2013 Hall of Fame class Monday, and either Williams sister?
We're not even sure this is a rivalry. Williams had won 10 straight until Azarenka took the Doha final in February, two days after Williams had snatched Azarenka's No. 1 ranking.
Azarenka flies to California for the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, perhaps the biggest tournament outside the four majors. She could face American Sloane Stephens, 19, in the round of 16, a rematch of their Australian Open semifinal.
Williams will miss Indian Wells for the 12th straight year. "Boycott," as her Wikipedia performance timeline describes it, is apropos.
So this was as close as the two would get until at least the Sony Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., if they make the final at the end of March. They exchanged compliments, smiles and were all-around ladylike. Of course, both said it's all different when it's not an exhibition. Monday was a one-night-only Broadway show, on the court at least. But off of it?
Azarenka went to last weekend's Academy Awards and credited Williams for giving her tips on which parties to attend.
Williams was asked by one reporter about Nadal reportedly making $1.5 million for appearing at this event.
"I'm getting three," she said, straight faced. "Vika's getting 3.5."