Partners in prestige, the Williams sisters and the self-proclaimed World's Most Famous Arena last night attempted to use their combined cachet to offer a women's tennis exhibition meant to be quirky, fun - and useful in promotional terms.
Serena Williams and older sibling Venus did their parts, taking their assumed place in the spotlight, with Serena eventually outlasting Venus in the latest revival of their high-profile, way-beyond-family competition, 6-4, 6-3. That tug-of-war was the "championship" final of the four-player, one-night mini-tournament, which employed sharply truncated semifinals and provided a duality of purpose and meaning.
For the players - Serbian stars Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanonic unintentionally served as foils for the Williamses - it was a nothing-to-lose deal, paying $200,000 to show up, $300,000 to make the final and $400,000 to win. For the sport, it was a long-awaited return to Madison Square Garden, the Theater District of big-time competition, though the estimated crowd of 12,000 was well short of capacity.
Venus sent Jankovic packing, 6-4, before Serena chased Ivanovic, 6-3, in the one-set semifinal matches that dispensed with ad-scoring and literally served as warm-up acts to the lively Williams-Williams duel. The sisters then wrestled late into the evening, with Serena needing eight break points in the first set's ninth game before she finally could seize the first modicum of control.
With another service break in the first game of the second set, Serena generated substantial racket in the crowd that assembled to see this racket of a marketing enterprise.
Beyond the tennis action, there was a significant glitterati aspect, complete with former President Bill Clinton's star turn. There was a lengthy tribute to the Godmother of tennis, Billie Jean King, whose name graced the winner's cup. And a roll call of women's athletic pioneers, including Long Island's 2002 Olympic figure skating champion, Sarah Hughes. Plus, a reach into the future, with 750 "viewing parties" of the exhibition beamed across the nation as part of youth tennis sign-up efforts.
Clinton declared that King "has probably done more than anyone in the world to empower women and educate men," and King passed that torch of duty to the current stars.
"Girls drop out of sports twice as fast as boys do," King said before the evening's festivities. "And there's a huge pressure on body image. So anytime we send these strong, independent women out on the court, really fit, it sends a strong message for women. And men, as well."
King gushed about having women's tennis back at the Garden - which is owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday - for the first time in nine years, when the year-end tour championship tournament last appeared in Big Town.
The stage meant plenty, she said, visibility being a magnet for sponsorship, "and you can't do it without sponsors." She predicted that "everyone will come away from this with a good, warm, fuzzy feeling. Maybe they'll play more. In this nation of ours, we've got to get healthier."
Or at least somewhere nearly as healthy as the evening's participants, each called in from the warm weather - Serena, Ivanovic and Jankovic arrived from a tour event in Dubai (72 degrees) and Venus from Acapulco (84) - for this winter appearance. They represented four of 2008's five biggest winners - Serena won the U.S. Open; Venus, Wimbledon; Ivanovic, the French Open and Jankovic, the year-end No. 1 ranking. (Australian Oepn champ Maria Sharapova was unavailable because of injury.)
"I think events like this are fantastic," Venus said. "Everyone pays attention when you play at the Garden."
At least, that was the plan.