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Published: Wednesday, 7/23/2008

Unisex tennis tournament to put players on equal footing

ASSOCIATED PRESS

LOS ANGELES - Imagine Roger Federer playing one of the Williams sisters. Or Rafael Nadal facing Maria Sharapova.

Tennis promoter Steve Bellamy envisions such matchups one day, although he'll go with less dynamic pairings for now. On Aug. 3, he'll stage what's believed to be the first tournament involving world-ranked men and women going head to head.

The one-day competition in suburban Pacific Palisades comes with several big rules changes: no overhand serve, second serves or lets. All serving is drop-hit and struck from below the waist.

"About 40 percent of the points in tennis are won on the serve or the return," said Bellamy, founder of The Tennis Channel. "Basically, half the points are over before they even start. Men dominate women in tennis mainly because of the serve, so this concept neutralizes that advantage."

Bellamy said Vince Spadea, Justin Gimelstob, Derrick Rostagno and Alexandra Stevenson are among those expected to play.

Spadea is ranked No. 70 and Stevenson No. 204; Rostagno and Gimelstob are no longer on the tour.

The Battle of the Sexes approach recalls the 1973 showdown between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. King, at the top of her game, won easily against her long retired opponent.

Stevenson reached the semifinals at Wimbledon as an 18-year-old unknown in 1999 before losing to Lindsay Davenport.

"The only reason I would do this is to win," she said. "I think it will be fun. I've done this kind of thing before, but it hasn't been in a tournament format. Women can compete and beat men serving underhand off the ground. I think fans like watching men and women play. Hopefully this will be something new and fun and interesting."

Stevenson, once ranked among the top 20, is coming back from a shoulder injury. Rostagno, ranked as high as 13th in the early 1990s, is now a 42-year-old lawyer. He said removing the serve as a weapon is a great equalizer.

"I think this is a great way to have a tournament," he said. "It's something tennis can use, a way to focus on an aspect of tennis that many people consider to be more entertaining - longer rallies."

Gimelstob comes to this mixed-gender event carrying some baggage. He made sexist remarks about Anna Kournikova and other female players on a radio program last month. The U.S. Tennis Association responded by scrapping his part in TV commercials touting the U.S. Open Series.

Gimelstob, who is on the ATP board, has since apologized and was suspended one match without pay by World Team Tennis. Bellamy said the event will have a 32-player draw, and should be completed in about three hours. He said a committee will examine the qualifications of every entrant and choose the top 28. The other four will come from a qualifier earlier in the day that's open to the public.

The format will be similar to table tennis, with the winner being the first to reach 21 points and each player serving five points before service alternates.



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