By Steve Pratt, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
WESTWOOD, Calif. - Defending Emirates Airline US Open Series champion Mardy Fish stretched his arms and legs and tried to get loose minutes before approaching the net and feeding balls to 25 eager local National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) youngsters, most of whom were hitting balls back to a professionally ranked player for the first time.
The occasion was an afternoon kids’ clinic to officially kick off the ninth Emirates Airline US Open Series season on the stadium court of the Farmers Classic, held on the campus of UCLA, site of the Los Angeles Series stop (July 21-29) and the same court on which Fish played in the final one year ago on his way to winning the 2011 Series title.
"Some of these kids can really play," said the 30-year-old Fish, a Southern California resident. "I’m very surprised at how well some of them hit the ball. There’s a few out here that at the very minimum can play at the high collegiate level."
Fish took time out to answer questions from the juniors, who were representing three Los Angeles NJTL sites: Jackie Tatum Harvard Park (Los Angeles), El Cariso (Sylmar) and Victoria Park (Carson).
"I just talked to them about our daily lives and what we go through and just tried to be real candid with them," Fish said.
One question posed to Fish was about his eating habits and diet. "It’s not so much the gluten as it is just eating the right things," said Fish, who famously dropped 30 pounds a few years back, propelling him into the top 10 for the first time. "For years I figured because I played tennis for a living and what we did out there on the court, I could also eat cheeseburgers and fries. You just can’t."
One of the hardest hitters on the day was one of Southern California’s top-ranked juniors, 17-year-old Kiah Gennerette of Long Beach, who said she had never hit with a top-ranked pro like Fish.
Neither had Anthony Lee, 15. "It was fun," he said. "I was a little nervous. I didn’t want to miss, but as I was hitting, I tried not to think about it, and it got easier."
He said he was planning on going to the semifinals and finals of the Farmers Classic and that Fish was now his favorite player from the U.S., still giving the nod to Roger Federer as his overall favorite.
Cameron Banks, age 10, said 2011 women’s Series champion Serena Williams was her favorite player but that Fish earned her respect. "I thought he was really talented and he has the gift of tennis and he inspires others to play tennis," she said.
Emirates Sales Manager Ted Brady was on hand representing Emirates’ Los Angeles base. "The Emirates Airline US Open Series sponsorship is just a great fit for us," said Brady, who was joined by four cabin crew members. "Just here in L.A., we have two non-stop daily flights to Dubai, and we are in all the markets where the 10 series events are being held. Here in L.A., we will have a booth for seven days and a great hospitality suite where we will serve Arabic tea."
He added, "The Emirates Racquet Return program is very important to us, and we expect the bins to be full by the end of the tournament."
On designated days during Series events this summer, a functional racquet donation will gain you admission into the tournament.
"It’s nice that they’re able to use the equipment we use and for them to use modern technology," Fish said about the racquet return program.
Brady stressed the flight attendants -- Australians Emily North, Ashliegh Copp and Johanna Coq and Anissa Elhazzat from France – were not actresses or models but actual Emirates Airline employees helping to spread the word about Emirates, as they will do at each of the tournament sites. The ladies said they were enjoying their stay and the nice weather in Los Angeles and planned to hit the Santa Monica Pier later in the evening.
The Series collectively reached a U.S. television audience of 39 million and drew more than 800,000 on-site fans in 2011. The Emirates Airline US Open Series is also supported by sponsors American Express, Chase, Citizen Watch Company, esurance, Evian and Gatorade.