Handling Roddick's big serve for a good cause
TAMPA - On a Monday night of exhibition tennis at the St. Pete Times Forum, the most courageous participant was a hockey player. Between matches at the Tampa Tennis Classic, Lightning left winger Stephane Veilleux tried to return the serve of Andy Roddick. Jim Courier, formerly the world's No. 1-ranked tennis player and the event's host, offered this sensible advice: "Get out of the way!"Roddick's serve, after all, was once clocked at a record 155 mph. But Veilleux did pretty well, returning three of Roddick's five serves, at least one in self-defense. "I'm pretty proud of myself," said Veilleux, a former junior tennis player and huge Roddick fan who attended Wimbledon last summer. There was palpable tension backstage as Veilleux did a pre-match interview - with Lightning teammate Vinny Lecavalier capturing it on his video recorder. "If this doesn't work out," Veilleux said, "I'm challenging Andy to some pingpong." It was that kind of night - big serves, nifty shots, world-class players, good-natured entertainment. The real tennis happens later this week. That's when Monday night's marquee players head to Key Biscayne for the Sony Ericsson Open, a big event on the ATP Tour. Monday night was about giving back. Roddick and Blake - along with professional women's players Victoria Azarenka and Vera Zvonareva - were the headliners in the event that sent all its net proceeds to Raymond James Courier's Kids. The youth tennis initiative supports the First Serve tennis program at St. Petersburg's Bartlett Park. Two Courier's Kids participants - Jerica Coley, 18, and Jeremy Koch, 15 - took center stage in the opener, mixing it up in a doubles match with Courier and Rennae Stubbs. The intensity ratcheted up a bit during Azarenka-Zvonareva, then Roddick-Blake, probably because the players saw their matches as valuable warm-up time heading into Key Biscayne. Roddick's serve was an obvious highlight. "It's like a fastball pitcher who's hitting the corners," Courier said. "When Andy is on, you just stand back and watch." Roddick, who has been in the season-ending top 10 rankings for eight straight years, could be excused for being a little weary. He came into Tampa off his 7-6, 7-6 loss to Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic in Sunday's tournament final at Indian Wells, Calif. "I can't thank these players enough for donating their time and helping out with our cause," Courier said. "This is a little different than a tour event, but sometimes, it gets very intense. Mostly, though, it's meant to be fairly light-hearted, a chance to see the players in a different light."
Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.