Rip-roaring success Oriole's tennis debut turns charity fest into real fun-raiser

November 28, 1990|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Evening Sun Staff

If you ever wanted to experience what it would be like to spend an evening at home with Pam Shriver, last night's First National Bank Tennis Festival was a fine opportunity.

It was like being at a private party for 10,254 of her closest friends at the Arena, where she staged a charity tennis match that raised more than $200,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Children's Hospital and the Greater Baltimore Tennis Patrons Association.

While the top draw was teen-agers Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, who put on a fierce match that Seles won, 6-4, 6-2, it was the celebrity doubles match that got things started with good humor.

The contestants were Julius Erving, Elise Burgin, Shriver and the star of the night, Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken.

Shriver and Burgin, of course, are pros in the game. NBA legend Erving, a spokesman for tennis equipment and a player not unfamiliar with charity tennis matches, can find his way around a court with ease.

But Ripken, who proved himself a brave man with a good heart, is another story.

"This tournament is growing in the social circles and people are talking about it," he said. "Being from the local area, I was starting to feel left out. So when Pam asked me, I agreed to play -- without ever having played tennis before."

He was astonishing. The match announcer teased him about having taken a crash tennis course, and advised the audience if it had any advice for Ripken, or the rest of the foursome, it should feel free to yell.

He played at the net, he ran after lobs, he got his first serve in, he tried to hit overhead smashes -- that bounced only inches above Erving's head -- and made some unorthodox circular moves not seen on many tennis courts.

"Pam told me if the ball isn't on my side, get my humph out of the way," he said. "I was just following orders.

"I was really nervous out there," he said. "I'm not ashamed to say that."

It was a whole new ballgame so to speak, with a whole new audience. People yelled things like "Strike one!"

"You can have 50,000 people screaming and yelling in a World Series atmosphere and feel completely at home, because you're in your element," said Ripken. "You're trained for it and you're completely used to it. It's fine. But take me out of that element, and put me on this court and it's completely different.

"It was a different atmosphere. It was a quiet crowd. When you're playing baseball and everyone is screaming and yelling anyway, you have the ability to not even listen to it. But it's so quiet out here. I heard someone say I made an error when I didn't hit the ball right. Yeah, I sure did hear a couple of things."

Error! That too is an unfamiliar sound to Ripken, who set a major-league record for error-free play last season.

"It was a lot of fun and I'd love to do it again," Ripken said. "But right now, I want to find Dr. J and see if I can set up a one-on-one game between him and me in my back yard."

An "Up and Down" match with Shriver and Andrea Leand teaming with wheelchair players Kevin Whelan and Ryan Martin drew a standing ovation. And the crowd stayed for the final contest of the night, a one-set doubles match with the familiar team of Shriver and Burgin taking on Seles and Capriati, who were playing together for the first time.

"It was fun," said Burgin, whose team lost 6-3. "But they hit so hard and fast, I think it took Pam and me that whole set to wake up. But the whole night was an incredible amount of fun and Monica and Jennifer handled the event very well. They put on some show."

Shriver said she believes last night's crowd was the largest ever for an indoor tennis match in Baltimore. She is probably right, given that before she started this event five years ago, indoor tennis was a rare sight in the city.

In the 1930s, there were touring events at places called the Sports Center and Carlin's Park, where Don Budge and Vinnie Richards played, and in the 1940s, the likes of Bobby Riggs and Jack Kramer played the Fifth Regiment Armory. In the 1950s, the old Coliseum on Monroe Street played host to players like Pancho Gonzales and Frank Sedgman. But none of them ever drew 10,000, nor did the pro tours that used to stop at Towson State in the 1980s.

"The crowd was unbelievable," Shriver said. "I hope tennis keeps producing the kind of stars that can keep bringing in a new show. You need an inside avenue to get to their schedules, because players don't need to play exhibitions. Sometimes, it might not be as good as this -- but I'll keep trying every year to make it this good."

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