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The Star Attraction

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Will Ferrell© Getty ImagesActor and comedian Will Ferrell considers himself a huge tennis fan.

Former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob takes an insider’s look at celebrities’ love affair with tennis as A-listers including Dustin Hoffman, Justin Timberlake and Kate Winslet flock to the courts.

I have had the pleasure of witnessing multiple Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman’s obsessions with tennis. When I first moved to LA I went to a Lakers game and was sitting with some friends when all of a sudden Dustin walked up to me, extended his hand and told me he was a huge tennis fan, loved watching me play, and asked if I would come by his house to play with him sometime. I was in complete shock for numerous reasons: mainly because it was hard for me to comprehend that one of the best actors of all-time knew who I was. Sure enough, my phone rang the next day and a friendship was immediately formed.

A frequent participant in celebrity tennis events for the past few decades, Dustin has also been a fixture at the LA Tennis Open (where he would cheer me on courtside) and US Open in years past. Hoffman enjoys tennis so much that he actually built one of the only clay courts in Los Angeles – an immaculately kept and beautifully set court in the back of his property at his home in Brentwood. He even hired a tennis pro to come over every morning to make sure his game stayed sharp and hired a screenwriter to help come up with a unique tennis-based script so that he could combine two of his greatest passions: tennis and movies. The screenwriter spent the night on my couch watching the epic US Open quarter-final match in 2001 between Sampras and Agassi, picking my brain for possible movie plots. I’ve been fortunate enough to play on his private court in preparation for Roland Garros with current and former ATP World Tour professionals like Taylor Dent and Andre Agassi, who also used to prepare for his Roland Garros campaigns on the court christened by “Rain Man.” Dustin would sit in the umpire’s chair riveted by the tennis, only moving out of the chair to act as a defacto ball boy!

The ATP World Tour is in the midst of one of its most exciting and compelling periods – a fact that has not been lost on many of the world’s most popular athletes and entertainers. Everyone from Owen Wilson, Donald Trump, Regis Philbin, Christie Brinkley, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Tiger Woods has been seen flocking to tennis courts and tournaments around the world to witness one of the most challenging sports in the world.

Celebrity tennis seemingly reached its peak in the mid-1980s with numerous events featuring the world’s elite both playing tennis with, and mingling among, professional tennis players. Top tennis players possessed the allure and status of rock stars. Yet today, with countless A-listers frequenting ATP World Tour events and Grand Slams at every available opportunity, once again this same level of mutual admiration is being reached.

The evolution of sporting events morphing into overall entertainment destinations is a necessity of the current state of the sport’s business model. Tennis tournaments are no longer just about what goes on between the lines. They are now opportunities for socialising and networking with numerous opportunities to see and, better yet, to be seen. Nobody recognises that better than other athletes and entertainers, which is why their acknowledgement and appreciation of the sport of tennis is so validating.  

I was commentating the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, this year and I couldn’t turn my head without feeling like I was dining at the IVY in Beverly Hills, that’s how many celebrities were around the event! 

One night, before Rafael Nadal was about to play what ended up being an epic match in which he saved numerous match points against David Nalbandian, I ran into Jim Caviezal in the player’s restaurant. Caviezal played college basketball before making it big in the movie business, most notably portraying Jesus Christ in the blockbuster film, The Passion of The Christ. As the match stretched into a third set, we engaged in an extended conversation about his day at the tournament. He was practically jumping out of his chair describing how much fun he had watching and meeting some of the players. He spent some time with Novak Djokovic and came away from the experience amazed by the spirit and compassion of one of our top players. 

At the same event Kate Walsh, the actress who starred in Grey’s Anatomy before getting her own spin-off show, Private Practice, came into the TV booth. We discussed her fascination with Nadal, how she loved playing tennis, and what a fun form of exercise it was. Ironically, she was sitting right next to the incomparably funny Will Ferrell, with whom she starred in the movie Kicking and Screaming. Ferrell is a HUGE tennis fan. He plays often and shows up at tennis tournaments all over the world. I actually had the pleasure of participating in a celebrity match against him earlier in the year in which he played with seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander against Rainn Wilson, the star from The Office, and me. 

Rainn also considers himself “a huge tennis fan”. He has been playing regularly for about eight years, mostly on public courts around Los Angeles, and has a regular Saturday morning doubles match, which he describes as, “competition between chubby 40 year olds, which is the highlight of his week”. Rainn went as far as requesting that his Emmy nomination for “Best Supporting Actor” be determined by a tennis match, reasoning that he knows he can, “kick Neil Patrick Harris’s butt!” Seriously, Will and Rainn could single-handedly bring celebrity tennis to network television with their non-stop entertaining banter and skills on the court.

One of the most enticing aspects of the ATP World Tour for other athletes and entertainers is the incomparable access the tennis world bestows on them. As a result, many have developed friendships based on their mutual admiration. Andy Roddick, for example, is a devoted fan of The Office and, after meeting Rainn, accepted an invitation to go to the set and watch a taping of the show. Rainn and Andy keep in touch while they are both traveling with Rainn often sending encouraging messages via Twitter.

One of the most common places for celebrities and professional tennis players to meet is at celebrity tennis events like the one run by Chris Evert which, over the past few years, has drawn stars such as Chevy Chase, Billy Crystal, Matthew Perry, Scott Foley, and Gavin Rossdale. Chase, a long-time fan of tennis (as demonstrated in the memorable scene on the tennis courts of Riviera Country Club in his movie Fletch), might be one of the funniest celebrity tennis players, but actor Foley and Rossdale, former lead singer for the rock band Bush, are two of the best players.

Rossdale, now omnipresent in gossip magazines for his marriage to and beautiful children with pop star, Gwen Stefani, is probably the most obsessed tennis enthusiast in Hollywood. While he has one of the best voices on the planet, his favorite place to be is on the tennis court, preferably the one he has at his house in Los Angeles. Rossdale tries to play 5-6 days a week and considers tennis a very difficult sport. “I like the nature of the one-on-one, gladiator-style type competition. Tennis is like kung fu, the balance of power and agility, finding the right time to strike. It is the ultimate mind and body workout.” He even hits with Roger Federer, whom he has become very good friends with, and is often a fixture at Roger’s biggest matches, whether in the friend’s box during the Wimbledon final or at the BNP Paribas Open, one of his favorite events to attend.

Foley, best known from his role on the hit TV show Felicity and for playing “Bob Brown” on the hit CBS show The Unit, is also tennis-obsessed. He has been playing tennis since he was five years old and now frequently plays on the public courts in Rustic Canyon, Santa Monica. Foley credits tennis with bonding his family. “Some of my favourite childhood memories come from playing tennis with my family. We moved around a lot when I was young because of my father’s work and we relied a lot on each other and tennis was a big part of that. My dream is to play doubles with Yannick Noah or Bjorn Borg, then I can die a happy man!”

Tennis lovers, however, aren’t solely members of the entertainment world. Sergio Garcia, the No. 6 ranked golfer in the world, for example, is also an avid tennis player and spectator. Probably best known in the tennis world for dating former Sony Ericsson WTA Tour World No. 1 Martina Hingis, Sergio is a friend of many tour players including compatriots Nadal, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Fernando Verdasco, and Carlos Moya. He says, “I try to play as much as possible, and it is a great way to disconnect from golf. I have been to all the Grand Slams, and the [ATP World Tour] Masters 1000 events in Madrid, Miami and Indian Wells.  There are a lot of similarities between golf and tennis, like needing great hand-eye coordination, the way you swing through the ball, and the dedication needed to be successful. That is one of the reasons why so many good tennis players can play golf so well.”

Just as the appreciation of tennis is not confined by profession, neither is it confined by gender. Olympic champion swimmer Dara Torres, for one, has also been a participant in the Chris Evert Celebrity event and, she “loves how athletic and challenging tennis is”. Torres has made headlines for being able to compete at the highest level at an age when most elite athletes have long retired and she attributes some of her remarkable fitness to her playing of tennis. “Tennis is a fantastic source of cross-training, all the running and upper body work. Plus, it is fun. I love it.” Torres attended the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami this year and hopes to also attend the US Open again where she will be trying to catch a glimpse of her favourite player: Nadal. As she says, “I love watching Nadal because he is HOT!”

Whether playing or watching, tennis is back on the radar of the Hollywood elite. As a former player turned broadcaster, it always warms my heart to see and hear about people that love the sport that I have derived so much enjoyment out of. However, it is particularly endearing to see that the people I look up to on the big screen are as in awe of and inspired by tennis as I am by their seemingly larger-than-life careers.

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