Three greats of the game, one rising star and a current champion thrilled the Camana Bay crowd Friday night as Legends Tennis returned to the Cayman Islands.
Hundreds of sports fans packed into the purpose-built arena at Festival Green to see former champions Stefan Edberg, Pat Cash and Jimmy Connors roll back the years.
They were also treated to a glimpse of the sport’s future as current US Open champion Sloane Stephens and 17-year-old world junior champ Claire Liu showed off their skills.
Despite his advancing years, 65-year-old Connors, an eight-time Grand Slam champion widely revered as one of the greatest in history, showed he could still mix it with the younger generation.
He partnered with Stephens, in a mixed doubles match-up against Cash and Liu.
Stephens, 24, who came into the exhibition having competed in the Australian Open, showed the hard running and powerful hitting that have made her one of the rising stars of the women’s game.
At times, she found herself apologizing for blitzing winners as she struggled initially to calibrate her elite level game to the slower pace of an exhibition.
Liu, too, showed flashes of the star she could become. Cash, clad in his distinctive headband and Connors, in white trousers and a green v-neck sweater vest, took a more leisurely approach, exchanging volleys at the net.
Ultimately, it was Connors and Stephens who triumphed 6-5 in the simplified scoring system.
After the game, Connors said he had enjoyed being back in the limelight and paid tribute to his partner.
“You can see why she is US Open champion,” he said as he walked off court, shouldering his worn leather tennis bag, shaking hands and signing autographs for anyone who asked.
The veteran still uses the old-fashioned graphite racket from his days on the senior tour. The leather bag has been with him since he was dominating world tennis in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“It’s tough for me to get rid of the old things,” he said, smiling.
It was his first time in Cayman and he is sure he will be back.
“The first thing I did was call home and say next trip is to the Caymans,” he said.
Next up, Stephens beat Liu 8-3, the champion giving the young pretender a lesson in what it will take to step up to the elite level.
Liu said afterward it had been a privilege to play on the same court as a Grand Slam champion as she tunes up for her senior debut at Wimbledon this year.
Stephens had some help, however, handing over her racket at one stage to a young ball boy who drew the loudest cheers of the night, by showing off his serve and volley skills to win two points.
“I’m giving up tennis,” an amateur in the crowd, remarked, as the youngster powered a winner down the line. “He’s already better than I’ll ever be.”
The finale to the evening saw Swedish great Stefan Edberg reprise his rivalry with Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion.
As was the pattern in their pro careers, Edberg triumphed, this time 8-5.
“That was more serve and volleying than we have seen on the pro tour in the last five years,” referee and emcee Mark Knowles commented after a game which saw the pair reprise the sharp net play that distinguished their professional careers.
There was time for some fun too, with the ball boys frequently subbing in for the legends. One of them even held on to Cash’s headband.
At one point, Cash accidentally hit the ball into the crowd to squeals from the girls in the front row.
“It’s been a long time since the girls were screaming for me,” he commented, milking the attention.
After the game, the Aussie, now 52, blamed the defeat on “the sun, the wind, the ball and some close calls.”
“It was great to play against Stefan again. He was lucky, like he always is,” he joked.
The pair played against each other 10 times as professionals, with Edberg winning eight. Their first contest was on the junior tour, when Edberg was 15 and Cash was 16. “It’s great to be back on the court,”commented Edberg, paying tribute to the crowds and to the Cayman Islands.
“It doesn’t get much better than this.”