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Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Elton John headline an evening of tennis for charity in Washington

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 11:29 PM

They did all the things weekend players do.

They high-fived after great shots, bowed to opponents' winners, plowed their share of drop shots into the net, trash-talked and, when all seemed lost, lobbed.

For stretches at American University's Bender Arena on Monday night, it was possible to forget that the tennis players having such a great time on court shared 94 major titles among them.

But then Martina Navratilova would fend off a barrage of volleys drilled straight at her, proving, at 54, that she still has the best hands in the game. Or Andre Agassi would rip a service return down the line. Or Steffi Graf, quite possibly the world's most fit 41-year-old mother of two, would take a forehand in the air and paint a sideline with it.

World TeamTennis Smash Hits, the annual charitable exhibition staged by longtime friends Billie Jean King and Elton John, was billed as "tennis that serves a cause" - that cause being the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Its 18th edition (and first in Washington) delivered handsomely, with the roughly $500,000 that was raised tipping the total funneled to the Elton John AIDS Foundation and local charities since 1993 to more than $10 million.

Monday's pre-event auction, emceed by former touring pro and Baltimore native Pam Shriver, netted $267,000, half of which will go to the Washington AIDS Partnership. While a piano bench autographed by John drew plenty of bidders, the top-selling item was an hour-long tennis lesson for two with Agassi and Graf, sold for $50,000.

But the 21/2 hours of tennis that followed - with Agassi, Graf, Navratilova, Anna Kournikova, Jan-Michael Gambill, Eric Butorac, Mark Philippoussis and Rennae Stubbs facing off in men's doubles, women's doubles, men's singles and mixed doubles - was priceless for its display of shot-making and personality.

While the rapt capacity crowd of 3,017 surely couldn't relate to the winners that Navratilova and Agassi, in particular, conjured on occasion, surely everyone who ever played doubles understood the frustration of the occasional miscue between partners.

There was a bit of that, too.

The night opened with a celebrity doubles match pitting Navratilova and John against Graf and Agassi. That foursome alone accounted for 89 major titles. But it was the Grammy-winning co-host with the discernible paunch who proved the ringer.

A longtime tennis fan and pupil, John wasn't particularly fleet around the court, but he had a knack for keeping the ball in play despite slightly unorthodox form. More than once a rally of world-class strokes among the three champions ended with John lobbing over the Graf-Agassi tandem.

Agassi was the joker and, afterward, the most generous autograph-signer.

"C'mon baby, you got this!" he yelled at Graf, his wife, during a particularly frantic exchange. And as the night unfolded, he proceeded to goad Philippoussis, who boasts one of the game's bigger serves, into blasting aces past him only to blast the serve back, more often than not.

The celebrity match didn't count toward the evening's competition, in which Team Billie Jean (Navratilova, Philippoussis, Stubbs and Butorac) defeated Team Elton, 19-15.

There was significance behind the decision to stage the event in Washington, which has an HIV infection rate 12 times the national average.

"We just don't go blindly from city to city," John said in a news conference before the match. "There is a massive problem, and that's why we're here today: To try and alleviate some of that problem."

The Washington area has an additional significance for Navratilova, who noted that it was at George Mason that she first beat Chris Evert, at a Virginia Slims tournament in 1975.

In response to a question about recent incidences of bullying of gay youth, the singer lamented what he views as a decline in political discourse since he first came to the United States in 1970, calling it "a very worrying situation."

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