Last night's "Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup" at Madison Square Garden, a detour from the tour for four prominent names in women's tennis, showed off Venus Williams' power and Kim Clijsters' comeback-from-motherhood bona fides.
But it was more a tennis demo than a competition, more a montage of movie trailers than a feature presentation, with three drastically truncated, fast-forward "matches." Two one-set semifinals, Clijsters, 7-6 (2), over Ana Ivanovic and Williams, 6-4, over Svetlana Kuznetsova, set up the best-of-three final - like the semifinals, with no-ad scoring - matching Williams' hammering against Clijsters' athleticism.
Clijsters, who won last year's U.S. Open after a two-year sabbatical, pronounced the format both "fun" and "not easy; you have to be focused from the beginning."
Certainly, for the competitors - all of them with major-tournament titles on their resumes - it was worth a brief stopover in Big Town as the pro tour switches from overseas to the States. Semifinal losers earned $200,000 apiece for slightly more than a half-hour's work, with $400,000 going to the champion and $300,000 to the runner-up.
Serena Williams, the world's top-ranked player, withdrew a week ago, citing a leg injury suffered on her way to January's Australian Open title. Ivanovic, slumping since her 2008 French Open title and now ranked 27th, was her replacement. "Serena really wanted to be here," Venus Williams said, "but I can fly the Williams flag here on my own."
The exhibition of marquee players, what old champion Martina Navratilova used to describe as "hit-and-giggle tennis," was packaged with what tennis officials called "Tennis Night in America." Watch parties at tennis facilities and community centers across the country were arranged in conjunction with youth sign-up programs.
The Garden program included a warm-up act of "future stars," with 14-year-old Sachia Vickery of Miramar, Fla., winning a lightning-round one-setter over 16-year-old Nicole Gibbs of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and the introduction of the 2010 International Tennis Hall of Fame class - the doubles teams of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde and Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva, masters' star Owen Davidson, wheelchair tennis pioneer Brad Parks and the late British tennis official Derek Hardwick.
Billie Jean King did not attend, offering her written regrets because she is recovering from recent double-knee replacement. With the Garden's upper deck closed and thousands of aqua and mauve seats visible among announced crowd of 11,702, the question was whether such gimmicky tennis, at times of high quality but severely abbreviated, has legs.