Li Na, Martina dazzle in the WTA Finals opening

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(AFP photo)

SINGAPORE — Prior to the very first session here at the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Finals — featuring the beauteous Ana Ivanovic versus the best, Serena Williams — there were two important moments last Monday.

The Legends. Yes, four of them played one pro-set (up to 8) of tennis. Martina Navratilova and Marion Bartoli teamed up against Tracy Austin and Iva Majoli.

The Singapore Indoor Stadium, which houses the WTA Finals this October 20 to 26, is not as giant-sized as the MOA Arena or Smart Araneta Coliseum in Manila. Capacity-wise, it only seats 12,000. It’s cozy and comfortable. All the seats are cushioned. The airconditioning is far, far colder than Cebu Coliseum’s. At the center stood one rectangle: the tennis court, colored purple since this is an all-women’s tournament.

As the legends entered, the entire arena turned dark. Then, all lights focused on the court. They installed giant projectors to illuminate the rectangle, showing not just a spectrum of colors but actual images — yes, a mammoth TV screen on the tennis court! Amazing technology.

The legendary star? Who else but Martina Navratilova. Already 58 years old, she can still volley like a teenager and drive that forehand up the middle like a WTA pro. She is the holder of the most extraordinary of statistics in Tennisdom: In Grand Slam events, she owns 18 singles trophies, 31 women’s doubles titles, and 10 mixed doubles crowns. She’s won these year-ending WTA Finals a whopping eight times.

Here in Singapore, like she is received everywhere around the globe, Martina is revered. As evidence of her athleticism despite nearing “senior citizenship (age 60),” in one point she sprinted back from near the net to the backcourt to retrieve a lob then, two shots later, scuttled her feet to smack a forehand down-the-line winner. The crowd roared in applause. Two points later, she calmly ends the game with an ace. Trademark Navratilova.

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(Getty Images)

The Legends exhibition was fun because all four of them were having fun. Towards the end of the set, the announcer enters the court and speaks to Iva Majoli, reprimanding her for being coached. Her “coach?” Her little daughter, seated nearby, who gave her mom some words of support. It was all for laughs and entertainment. We were entertained and the score, with Navratilova-Bartoli defeating Majoli-Austin, 8-5, was not as important as the crowd’s delight.

By 7 p.m., it was another showcase. This time, the greatest Asian female player of all time was to be recognized.

Li Na, who rose to become world No. 2 last February but shockingly retired from pro tennis recently due to chronic knee problems, was being honored. Wearing a dazzling long black dress, a tribute was organized for the 32-year-old Chinese star, who won the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open. Had Li Na not retired, she was to have been part of the WTA Finals Singapore and would have stolen the glamour from the likes of Serena and Maria. Sayang. But still, it was terrific to see her.

Laser lights sprinkled as fireworks erupted inside the coliseum. Drum sets thumped. As the boys and girls banged their drums, lights were emitted from their shirts. Smoke machines exhaled fog. Us The Duo, the husband-and-wife band of Michael and Carissa Rae Alvarado, sang a few songs to excite the Singaporean audience.

Then, in an unprecedented moment, after making the ceremonial serve to start the WTA Finals (the first time the Asia-Pacific has hosted these games), guess what: Li Na rallied! Yes, wearing 4-inch high heels, she swung forehands and backhands with the Under-16 winner of the Future Stars program. The thousands gathered inside the Singapore arena exploded in cheers.

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