Ranked WTA pros play in main event match at Court of Dreams Celebration of Tennis
By John Burbridge
CHARLES CITY — Down 9-3 in a tiebreaker set up to 10, Kiranpal “KP” Pannu reached into his bag of trick shots.
In the opening mixed doubles match of the Madison Keys Court of Dreams Celebration of Tennis held Friday at the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club, New Zealand native Pannu — an upcoming ATP professional who was recently the No. 1-ranked ITA Division II college player in 2019, was paired with Cincinnati native Caty McNally, a top-20 doubles player on the WTA tour.
They were facing Australia native Nathan Healey, who has three ATA doubles titles to his credit before coaching the likes of Max Purcell and Tennis Hall of Famer Lleyton Hewitt; and the celebration’s namesake Madison Keys, winner of six career WTA titles and who has been ranked as high as No. 7 in the world.
All somehow found themselves playing on a grass court in the middle of the cornfield just south of Charles City.
“It’s one of the best grass courts I’ve ever played on,” Keys said of the Alex J. Kuhn Court of Dreams, christened in memory of the son of Mark and Denise Kuhn — stewards of the homestead homegrown AILTC — lost to suicide in 2016.
“It’s just you never expect to see something like this stuck right in the middle of a cornfield.”
In the said match, Keys and Healy won the first “Fast 4” scoring set 4-2 before McNally and Pannu evened the match by winning the second set by the same score.
Keys and Healey looked as if they were going to put their stubborn foes away unceremoniously with a one-sided tiebreaker, but then Pannu changed things up with his “slice serve” and countering deep lobs with his “back-to-the net, between-the-legs” returns that he obviously has practiced to perfection — Pannu was about 20 of 20 when attempting those type of returns during the afternoon.
McNally and Pannu rallied back to tie the tiebreaker at 9-9 before Keys and Healey eventually prevailed 11-9.
The second doubles match had Keys and Pennsylvania High School state doubles champion Emma Perkins taking on McNally and Iowa High School state doubles champion Maya Mallavarapu, who will be a senior this fall at Cedar Falls HS. The Keys-Perkins tandem won the Fast 4, one-set match 4-2.
The following doubles match Perkins and Mallavarapu, respectively, paired up with Healey and Pannu. The high school girls played excellently while the pros played the crowd — Healey with his “Down Under” sense of humor and Pannu with his mustard-and-relish athleticism.
Both of the pros reached into their arsenal to bring out wooden racquets (remember those?) and even played a couple of points with racquets in both hands.
And when the pros needed a spell even though the high schoolers were carrying their teams, they called in the ball boys and ball girls — much of the latter from the Charles City girls high school team — to fill in for them.
The team of Mallavarapu-Pannu and Company won the extended Fast Four match 5-4 (10-7).
Healey and Pannu continued to ham it up in the subsequent men’s singles one-set match which Pannu won 6-1.
But when Keys and McNally took to the court for the women’s singles main event, things took a more serious tone — as one might expect in a match featuring two Grand Slam finalists — Keys as a singles player at the 2017 U.S. Open and McNally as a doubles player at the 2021 U.S. Open.
In another single-set match, Keys took a 4-1 lead before McNally shortened the gap by winning the next two games. But then Keys began to better assert herself with her pounding first serve and McNally couldn’t break it or save her own the rest of the way out to a 6-3 Keys victory.
The “Celebration of Tennis” was a simultaneous tribute to the 100th anniversary of The Championships, Wimbledon as well as the 20th anniversary of the AILTC.
The AILTC has hosted public events/tournaments before, including the Court of Dreams Classics and the Alex J. Kuhn Memorial Youth Invitational, but the “Celebration” is by far the biggest to date when it comes to spectator attendance. More than 400 fans nearly filled the mobile bleachers to capacity.
“I brought some of my friends down here, but I was a little worried about the turnout,” said Keys, who spent much of her time in between matches signing autographs — including for a whole busload of underprivileged youth players from the Minneapolis area.
“But it turned out to be great.”
Through her agent, Keys came into contact with the Kuhn family about holding an event like this to give back to the tennis community. Proceeds from the event, which also including a Junior Tennis Clinic and a Mental Health Panel chaired by Keys at the Clear Lake Athletic and Wellness Center on Thursday, are to benefit Kindness Wins, a non-profit organization that Keys co-founded with two-time Olympic gold medalist alpine skier Mikaela Shiffin and eight-time Paralympic Games medalist Oksana Masters. One of the missions of Kindness Wins is to encourage kindness through sport even in the most competitive environments.
Proceeds are also to benefit the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit with a mission to grow the game of grass tennis for youths and adults, fund kids reading programs and raise awareness about the importance of mental health.
Before her match with McNally, Keys awarded Mark and Denise Kuhn “Kindness Medals” on behalf of her organization for hosting the event.
But with a torrential rain storm the night before, the Kuhns couldn’t have done it all by themselves when it came to getting the court ready.
“We had to come and put a tarp over it and then remove about 220 pounds of water,” Mark Kuhn said. “We’re glad we had people willing to come out here late at night to help out.”
During a promotional interview with the popular podcast Cracked Racquets, who broadcasted the event, and event director Ryan Knarr, Keys joked that they wouldn’t be able to pry The Championships, Wimbledon trophy from her hands if she came to Iowa with it in her possession.
Unfortunately, the Rock Island, Illinois native had to drop out of the most-recent Championships due to an abdominal strain.
While turning McNally’s comeback challenge away with three straight aces during the aforementioned main event, it appears that Keys is back to nearly 100 percent.
“I’m going to play the rest of the tour out,” Keys said of the WTA Tour, which concludes in December with a couple of events in France. “And I would love to come back here again.”