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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Dec 9, 2009

12/9/2009 12:00:00 AM

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Dec 9, 2009

Just because the season's over doesn't mean there's no tennis to be had. December is all about exhibitions baby. Exhibit A: the Vijay Armitraj Foundation's Charity Tennis Classic, which I crashed and nearly burned over the weekend.

The event, benefiting several great Indian causes, featured serious A-list talent (Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Lindsay Davenport, Tracy Austin) and tennis loving celebs (more on them in a sec) all descending on Calabasas, CA to honor living legend Rod Laver. Oh yeah, me and Rod partied. When I wasn't up to no good, that is.

Blame the big bear hug I caught early on between newly arriving Tracy Austin and Suresh from Heroes. An odd pairing I insisted on making odder by concocting a lavish backstory for the two of them. Did they meet on a pleasure cruise? On safari in South Africa? At a Bryan Bros concert? I had to corner the Hero (aka Sendhil Ramamurthy) and trick him into revealing this deepest of secrets. My plan was to ply him with booze, but I wasn't giving away my beer, so I had to trap him with my Hannibal Lecter-style cunning. It went something (okay exactly) like this:

James: You and Tracy. Bear hug. Spill it.

Suresh: Tracy and I play in the same charity tournament for multiple sclerosis research.

Well that's not sexy. Worthy, wonderful, but hardly the salaciousness I was going for. I'd have to be even more Lecter-y. Lure him into my web.

James: So, uh…what's Tracy like to play?

A true Hero

Suresh: For the most part it was me just being awestruck by her. I'm such a fan. I almost forgot to swing sometimes.

James: So she dazzled you with her smile.

Suresh: Absolutely.

James: No pigtails?

Suresh: I asked. I put in a request this year but she ignored me blatantly.

Ah, a thread to pull. Excellent. Before I moved on, I was curious what he was doing here besides stalking Tracy Austin (that's what I just turned it into this very moment). Turns out he played competitively as a kid – and spanks quite a few fellow celebs on the court, including Jamie Bamber from Battlestar Galactica. Which really is just a Comic-Con nerd's dream, isn't it?

But we're not at Comic-Con, we're at a dignified tennis event. So of course I beeline to Tracy to stir the pot.

James: Tracy, I know you and Sendhil are playing tonight and I'm trying to get him to trash talk but all he's saying is he's in awe of you.

Tracy: He's a great player. More importantly a great guy. Great with the people, and with the sponsors and all of that. He gets it. And that's what's it's about in a situation like this. It's not about who's winning, because the charity is who we want to win.

Mmhm.

James: Who won the last time you two played?

Tracy: I think I did.

Bam! Okay, playtime is over. The main event starts, and it's my girl Lindsay and Tracy taking on Sendhil and former pro Derrick Rostagno. Everything's going great, until Suresh whips a return square at Tracy (thankfully the net got in the way), at which point Tracy wails "Hey, you just finished telling that reporter you had a crush on me!"

Oh boy. My mother warned me being a scooch would come back to haunt me. I move to find some cover, only to find Elisabeth Shue square behind me. A little backstory: I interviewed The Babysitter (yeah yeah, she's an Oscar nominee, but she'll always be 80's icon Chris Parker to me) for this month's Tennis Magazine. A darn good player, she told me, among other things, that she'd love to earn a single point on the WTA tour rankings. Which amounts to a first round win in a Challenger. She hesitated to share this tidbit as she'd been burned by it in the past. "Cuckoo Hollywood Actress Thinks She Can Play Professional Tennis. In her 40s!" Or something of that ilk. Which couldn't be further from the truth. She's incredibly grounded about her goal, she's good, and really, why the hell not? Well, this is the first time I've seen her since the issue hit stands and I'm sure she's had to answer a whole bunch more questions. Was she going to lunge at me with a butcher's knife the way she lunged at Sally Field in Soapdish? (Oh I can make references to Liz's movies for DAYS.) Turns out she was just more or less mortified by the photo, which I had nothing to do with. Whew.

Message to a still-uncomfortable Elisabeth: You're awesome, your goal is awesome, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

To prove she's awesome, she proceeds to take out Victor Newman from the Young and the Restless in the next set of doubles. Don't %@# with the babysitter.

After chatting up Victor Newman (Big Fed fan), I turned around and came face to face with Greatness. The Laver. Two immediate impressions: I'm pretty sure he's followed around by harps, though I didn't see any. And for someone so widely looked up to, it feels terribly wrong to be looking so far down at him. In fairness I'm 6'3", but the guy's a smidgen. Of course his aura dwarfed everyone else there (and between me and fellow NBA players Lindsay and Pam Shriver, that's no small feat).

Behold Greatness (On the left)

Rod of course was incredibly humble about his place in the pantheon and honored to be honored tonight. But he was much more comfortable talking to me about the next generation. Players like Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Murray, who he says have busted the Fed/Nadal rivalry wide open.

"The rivalry is more than two people," he said. "Now you've got six or seven guys that are vying for a championship." In trying to get the Rocket's pick for who's going to break from the pack, he reinforced how neck-and-neck the race is with a blunt "whoever's hot at the time." One thing the Scot has going for him, "he has a lot more court sense than anybody else." He pauses. "Not as good as Federer though."

The highlight for me was hearing him utter these magic words, spoken with a sneer while discussing the WTF: "I don't agree with the Round Robin format." Bliss. To the Powers That Be, if Rod Laver says it's terrible, it's time to abort.

Overall, a fun time had by all. But especially by me. And Tracy "it doesn't matter who wins" Austin, who chased down about a dozen drop shots to scalp her Hero one more time.

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She deserves to smile

Speaking of honoring a great player, I'd like to take a moment to pay tribute to another great. This past week, former No 1 and 2-time Grand Slam champion Amelie Mauresmo retired. Being a fan of hers was at once as effortless as her feel around the net and as frustrating as watching someone with amazing feel try and play through a stroke. She never met a moment she couldn't be seized by.

Still, when she was at her best, it was nothing short of ballet. To this day, the very best match I've ever seen live was the 2005 YEC final. A career breakthrough for her, and the equivalent of tennis ecstasy for me. She wanted to be known as Amelie the tennis player, not Amelie the lesbian, and rightfully so, but you can't ignore the bravery she displayed in coming out at the Australian Open back when she was only 19 and about to play her very first slam final. Lastly, she's just one of the warmest players I've met in this whacked out business. Ironically, she shared with me she feared people might think she was cold. Far from it. Far far from it.

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Despite my best efforts, Rod Laver refuses to join twitter, but you can follow me at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa. It's almost as good.