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Tennis Greats Gather for Reunion; Celebrating the Life of Arthur Ashe; America's Rising Tennis Star; Grand Slam Champion's Passion for Song

Aired September 19, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



PAT CASH, CNN HOST (voice-over): There was no shortage of grand slam champions in 2013. From the hot, hard court in Melbourne, to the red clay in Paris to the green lawns of Wimbledon, a total of six different champions. But in New York, experience ruled the day as Rafa Nadal and Serena Williams won their second slams of the season.

CASH: We're looking back at the final grand slam of the year.

CASH (voice-over): Coming up on the show, Rafa Nadal and Serena Williams net big wins at the U.S. Open. The former world number ones descend on New York City. We've got your backstage pass for the event that reunited Borg and McEnroe, Connors and Lendl, Rafa, Roger and Roddick.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not the worst player in most rooms I go into, but tonight, I probably am.

CASH (voice-over): And still to come.


CASH (voice-over): A grand slam champ sings her way into stardom.

CASH: World number one versus world number two, it's the kind of thing tour organizers savor, Serena Williams versus Victoria Azarenka and Novak Djokovic versus Rafa Nadal. Well, when all was said and done, it was Serena and Rafa.


CASH (voice-over): The wait paid off for eager fans, hoping for an autograph from Rafa Nadal. The newly crowned U.S. Open champion proved that his delicate knees were strong enough to beat world number one, Novak Djokovic.

RAFAEL NADAL, TENNIS PRO: It's (inaudible) when you are coming back after the low moments, (inaudible) more special, more emotional.

CASH (voice-over): When OPEN COURT caught up with Nadal on a family vacation in February, he was cautiously optimistic about his return to the tour.

NADAL: I still have some pain in the knee. So I need more time to be 100 percent content that everything will be right, will be perfect. I will be able to compete at my 100 percent.

CASH (voice-over): Since that day in the sun in Mexico, The Matador has won nearly a dozen titles. Now he's closing in on the number one spot.

NADAL: I think all my career there was a kid I was at heart I punch it every day with the highest intensity possible. And when I was a kid, I had my goals and my uncle told me that, you know, let me practice every day with a lot of pressure, a lot of intensity. And because of that, probably today of days, I have in me a lot to love and the passion for the game is still the same.


CASH: Serena Williams won her fifth U.S. Open title . At the age of 31, doesn't look to be slowing down any time soon. Here's Rachel Nichols.


RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: (Inaudible) through this year. How are you playing like a 20-year old?

SERENA WILLIAMS, TENNIS PRO: Oh, I just feel like I just go for broke now and I really am focused again on what I want to do and just goals and, you know, I'm just having a lot of fun out there. And everyone's like 31. I'm like, oh, 31 is old. But that doesn't seem like me. You know, I seem like, you know, I don't act it, either. So maybe there's something to do with it.

NICHOLS: Former President Clinton, was at your finals match. I know you met him back when you were 17 years old. Is he like a groupie now or what are we talking here?

WILLIAMS: Well, President Clinton is a great guy. He's just -- he loves tennis. Like every time -- he wasn't here last year and I asked him, you weren't here last year, were you? He said he was working.

NICHOLS: You told him to get his priorities straight. (Inaudible).


WILLIAMS: Exactly. Stop working. Come to the U.S. Open.

NICHOLS: A lot of people out there might not realize that you might not have been at this tournament at all. You might not have been here at all. You had blood clots in your lungs. You had to be rushed into emergency surgery.

WILLIAMS: Being in the emergency room and being in the hospital for all that time and just not knowing if I would ever pick up a racquet again and just not even caring, just wanting to be healthy, I think that was a tough time for me. It was the toughest thing I've been through in my life.

One thing kept happening after another, from the blood clots in both of my lungs; I lost part of my lung. I had to retrain. My lungs -- I don't have two full lungs anymore. And then you go through the stage of why is all this happening to you. It was really 11 months of hell. But you know, I got through that and now I feel like, you know, now, when I'm on that court and I'm facing opponents, I feel like I've faced so many tougher opponents, that this is just fun now.

NICHOLS: We know the influence you had in tennis. But when you think about beyond tennis, where do you think you've changed the game the most? Where do you think you've influenced people the most?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think women's sports and women's athletics and everyone has come such a long way, it's OK to be strong and to be powerful and to be beautiful and to love who you are. You can stand up to anyone. And you can be proud of who you are and where you come from and be a positive, awesome girl.

NICHOLS: And for yourself? Tiger Woods has been pretty open about the fact that one of his biggest goals is to beat Jack Nicklaus' record of majors.

You are facing down Steffi Graf's record of 22 grand slams singles titles.

WILLIAMS: Well, the players are getting so tough now. And 22 is a lot, especially from 17. So I don't know. I just really just want to take it one at a time. And I don't know what happens next. So I'm just going to keep playing tennis and hopefully keep winning.



CASH: There was a special event on the sidelines of the U.S. Open this year that has never been attempted before. The idea was to reunite all the world number ones from the past four decades, including this guy here. And as Don Riddell reports, it was a tennis fan's dream come true.



ANDY RODDICK, TENNIS PRO: I mean it when I say it's an honor to be the worst player in this room, honestly.


DON RIDDELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The former world number one, Andy Roddick, had his work cut out for him at this gala event in New York City. How often would you find Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl on one side of the stage, and Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on the other?

The current and previous number ones from the past 40 years were invited to this first-ever ATP Heritage Reunion.

JOHN MCENROE, TENNIS PRO: We had many battles. These guys to my left and right, I didn't know I'd be sitting or could be able to sit so close to Ivan and Jimmy.


MCENROE: After all these years. And I'm sure they felt the same -- they feel the same way.


MCENROE: And that's what makes number one so special.

RIDDELL (voice-over): It was a gala event with an exclusive guest list, just 25 names, ranging from Ilie Nastase, who was the first world number one 40 years ago, to the man who's currently on top, Novak Djokovic.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC, TENNIS PRO: It means the world to me, this sport has given me so much an opportunity to be able to travel the world. And at the end of the day, I love it. I love it with all my heart.

RIDDELL (voice-over): Roger Federer has spent a record-setting 302 weeks at number one. His ranking has slipped in 2013, but just a year ago, he reclaimed the top spot after winning his 17th grand slam title.

ROGER FEDERER, TENNIS PRO: I was extremely proud last year because it was also a goal I set myself. I said it out loud; I didn't just keep it for myself. I said, oh, I'm surprised I'm world number one. I really pushed for it and all the sacrifices were worth it. And what I got in return was unbelievable. I could enjoy it as a dad with my kids, with my - - with my wife, with my team. It was one of the greatest achievements of my career.

RIDDELL (voice-over): Federer took time out to pose with players and fans, and he told us who he was looking forward to seeing.

FEDERER: Bjorn Borg, probably. I don't see him very often. And when I see him, you know, I just am kind of emotional about it. I just think he's a legend of the game. (Inaudible) more mythical, the whole thing around him and I'm -- and I'm hopeful to run into him.

RIDDELL (voice-over): It was a special night where the tennis heroes of today met the men who inspired their careers, all sharing one stage and standing still just long enough to be part of history.

CASH (voice-over): We've made it easy for you to see photos from this special event. Log on to our OPEN COURT Facebook page so you can see photos of your favorite world number ones.

Still to come on OPEN COURT, 20 years after his passing, Arthur Ashe's widow tells James Blake how she's making sure the tennis great's legacy lives on.




CASH: Welcome back to OPEN COURT. I'm here at the Arthur Ashe Exhibition, which is a fitting tribute to a great player and humanitarian. Arthur was an inspiration both on and off the court. And one such person he inspired was former top 10 player James Blake. We thought it fitting that James sit down with Jeanne Ashe to talk about Arthur's legacy.



JAMES BLAKE, TENNIS PRO: How does it make you feel to know Michelle Obama would come and be a part of Arthur Ashe Kids Day and have done this before?

JEANNE MOUFOUSSAMY-ASHE, ARTHUR ASHE'S WIDOW: It was such an honor to have Michelle Obama, Ms. Obama, here to participate in Arthur Ashe Kids Day and she brought her two daughters. So it was a great honor, but not just to have her here but to watch her have such a good time.

BLAKE: How do you think Arthur would feel about the state of African- American tennis right now and where it's headed?

MOUFOUSSAMY-ASHE: Well, I think Arthur would be very pleased. I think that he would also feel we have a long way to go. But individuals like yourself do so much to promote the game of tennis in our communities that Venus and Serena, so proud of what they are both doing now.

Venus has her challenges, yet she's moving her life forward and still stays very involved in the game of tennis, doing whatever she can.

Serena has been, I think, a top form, not just in her tennis, but as a person during this particular U.S. Open. So I think watching the growth of our community in the game of tennis today has been something I think Arthur would be very proud of. But I think that he would, if he were here today, continue to promote the game of tennis on a grassroots level in our community.

BLAKE: On a personal note, my first year playing here in the qualifying was the year this stadium was being built and so I remember playing on the outer court and hearing the noise of all the construction and to think that I then got to play so many matches in it, at that time I really had no idea where my career was going to go, if I was going to ever be able to play in here.

And it just reminds me every time, first of all, where I came from, when I was playing in the qualifying in the doubles back then, and then to go in there and think about what Arthur did for the sport, it gives me a little bit of a pause before I step on the court every time, just to think about how exciting it was to be a part of that and to be on that court. And it's great to hear that you come to the matches.

MOUFOUSSAMY-ASHE: Absolutely. I mean, I remember sitting in the Louis Armstrong Stadium, cheering Arthur on. And then, you know, later we would watch matches together.

So I -- yes, this is -- this is another home for me, as it is -- as it is for you.

BLAKE: You're an inspiration. Arthur's an inspiration and it's -- we're all proud to learn from you as tennis players and, as you said, to hopefully make it not just tennis players who are inspired, that anyone can walk through that Hall of Science (ph) and learn about Arthur's life.

MOUFOUSSAMY-ASHE: The Arthur Ashe Learning Center is responsible for putting the inspirational tour together at the Hall of Science. And we're hoping that it will tour to other cities. That's our goal. But the biggest goal is to really find a permanent home. It's been a creative labor of love for me personally, having collected a lot of the information about Arthur's life, memorabilia, archiving a lot of his work.

BLAKE: Yes. Thank you for sitting down and just talking to me at all. I appreciate it and I've been a fan and I learned so much from Arthur as a kid.

MOUFOUSSAMY-ASHE: Oh, that's nice. That's really great, James. Well, thank you. Thanks for doing the interview.

BLAKE: My pleasure.

MOUFOUSSAMY-ASHE: Great to sit and chat with you.


CASH: Well, it's lovely to see Jeanne Ashe again.

Well, throughout the U.S. Open there's been lots of talk about the next generation of American superstars. Sloan Stevens has kept in much of that buzz. But as Mark McKay reports, is a teenager called Taylor Townsend who's anxious to make a name for herself.



MARK MCKAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Taylor Townsend is 17 years old and she's already achieved what no American woman has in 30 years. Last year she was the top junior tennis player in the world.

TAYLOR TOWNSEND, 2012 NUMBER ONE JR. TENNIS PLAYER: I'm so proud of myself. And it was actually a goal that I set. And it was something that I just said I'm just going to set, try to reach for the highest aim.

MCKAY (voice-over): Taylor was honored at an ITF event in Paris alongside her childhood idol.

TAYLOR TOWNSEND: Being in the same room as some of these people was unbelievable.

MCKAY (voice-over): It was the perfect night. Taylor Townsend was the belle of the ball, shoulder to shoulder with the players she aspired to as a kid.

TAYLOR TOWNSEND: I just remember the Williams sisters because they were doing so well at such a young and my sister also plays tennis. And so they were really a huge inspiration for my sister and I growing up.

So we kind of pushed each other in trying to help each other get to a certain level and we played together growing up and kind of developed together and we've had equal opportunities. So it was nice to have someone there just like them. So they were a huge inspiration for us.

MCKAY (voice-over): And it's not just Taylor who's drawn on the Williams sisters' legend. Her mother knows just who to call for advice on looking after a young tennis sensation.

SHELIA TOWNSEND, TAYLOR TOWNSEND'S MOTHER: I really try to reach out to people who have been where I'm trying to go. You know, the Williams family, I mean, not just Venus and Serena but their mom and dad, they've been a tremendous help and helping me to understand kind of how to navigate through the waters.

MCKAY (voice-over): Born in Chicago, her parents made it clear that sport would be her real chance of success.

TAYLOR TOWNSEND: Well, my parents knew when they said, "We're not paying for college. So you need to pick a sport and play it so we're not paying, because we're not paying for school."


TAYLOR TOWNSEND: So I mean my mom kind of pushed us toward tennis and I really loved it. My sister really loved it. And I still love it to this day.

MCKAY (voice-over): And only a year ago the big time could not have seemed further away. In 2012 it was reported that the USTA (ph) refused to pay Townsend's travel expenses to the U.S. Open due to concerns over her fitness.

TAYLOR TOWNSEND: I mean, there were tears, but I mean, for any girl there are tears, really. But it was -- I'm fine now, really. The good thing is that we forgive and forget.

SHELIA TOWNSEND: I always try to take a negative and flip it into a positive. And I told her, "Look, tennis is an individual sport. They're individual body types. Venus and Serena have two totally different body types. I mean, you can look at every player out here and they probably aren't five of them that look alike. So don't assimilate; don't try to assimilate. Embrace who or what you are."

MCKAY (voice-over): Now it's rather different. Brands like Nike and Prince have already embraced Taylor Townsend.

TAYLOR TOWNSEND: First autograph card.

MCKAY (voice-over): They'll be watching closely as the talented left- hander navigates her way from the juniors to the WTA tour.


CASH: Still to come on OPEN COURT, take me out to the ballgame. I pay a visit to the New York Nets after the break.




CASH: Some of the top names in the tennis world are Major League Baseball fans. The Bryan (ph) brothers...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's all you right now.

CASH (voice-over): -- Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter and Kim Clijsters. Each clearly know their way around home plate.

CASH: Well, this is the first time I've been inside the New York Nets ballpark. I must say it's pretty impressive.

A couple of weeks ago two-time grand slam doubles champion Vania King paid the Nets a visit. And as it turned out, it was pitch perfect.



CASH (voice-over): The U.S. Open is a busy time for any tennis star, but this year Vania King received an invitation that she couldn't refuse.

VANIA KING, TENNIS PRO: Excited, yes, but very nervous.


CASH (voice-over): The New York Nets wanted Vania to take time out of her hectic U.S. Open singles and doubles schedule and sing the National Anthem.


KING: I'm just trying to stay relaxed, kind of like a tennis match, staying relaxed, as calm as possible. It's much shorter than a tennis match, so I just want to do well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please welcome Vania King.



KING: People always ask me like if I want to go on "American Idol" or if I want to try to pursue it after. And I don't know, because right now, tennis is my job. I have expectation and pressure with that and right now singing is just a love of mine. So for now, I want to keep it that way.


CASH (voice-over): Singing has always provided Vania with a release as she tours the world on the tennis circuit.

Admits her enthusiasm can get the better of her.

KING: Sometimes I have long days and I get back to the hotel late. There are a few times where I started singing and then just suddenly got caught up in it and then was singing for like an hour and then I get a phone call from the front desk. And usually they're -- usually they're a bit perplexed, you know. They're like, "Somebody's been worried that there's somebody singing," because they don't get it much, you know.

CASH (voice-over): Her need to sing is explained perhaps because tennis has never come easy to her.

KING: Tennis has always -- it's always been a bumpy road for me. It never came easily in terms of the love of the game. I never chose it as a career. Coming from like an Asian American background, it's a lot to do with discipline and honor and family.

So I struggled a lot with forming my own identity.

CASH (voice-over): That struggle has been rewarded with grand slam success.

KING: Winning Wimbledon was the most exciting definitely. I mean, I was in shock for like three weeks. I couldn't believe it because it was just so sudden, like we weren't seeded. Obviously nobody expected it.

CASH (voice-over): She followed up her stunning Wimbledon doubles win with a second grand slam crown right here at the U.S. Open.

This year she came up short in the early rounds, but she will always have a special memory of New York 2013.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, Vania King.


CASH: Well, that's all we have for this Big Apple edition of OPEN COURT. If you want to read more about Arthur Ashe, log on to our website at COURT. Next month we'll be headed to Kuala Lumpur for the Asian circuit. Until then, it's goodbye from New York.