By Pat Mitsch
When Henry Darko and Danie van den Heever walked out to their courtside bench, the bleacher-filling crowd behind them stood and roared. Then they won three straight points to start their doubles match on the stadium court inside the Life Time Athletic and Tennis at Peachtree Corners’ indoor building.
"We were pumped up," said van den Heever, a 30-year old teaching pro. "But I think we were too pumped up. I think the first point, Henry hit a big serve, then I hit a volley winner, and you’re like, ‘Hey, I hit that in the middle, it feels good! Where do you go from here?’"
You go home with a good story. Darko and van den Heever’s opponents were Bob and Mike Bryan—the 12-time Grand Slam champions and reigning No. 1 doubles team in the world.
"They turned it up," van den Heever said. "Their serves are so big."
Five doubles teams from Georgia all got a similar shot to play the Bryans on the opening night of the Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs in Norcross, Ga., on Friday. "The Battle of Georgia" exhibition featured first-to-four games exhibition matches between local players and the Olympic gold medalists.
All five opposing teams, which included teenagers and men in their 40s, fell to the winningest doubles team in the Open era—and all five walked off smiling.
"We just basically came here and had fun," said Darko, who, along with van den Heever, is a full-time teaching pro at the Winward Tennis Club in Alpharetta, Ga. "It’s not like we’re actually going to win it, so we were just trying to get some games, and we did that. So that was good."
Darko and van den Heever took two games from the Bryans in the night’s second-best showing. Two NCAA Division I college tennis players—Georgia sophomore Nathan Pasha and Georgia Tech senior Juan Spir—fell, 5-3, and could have tied the match at 4-4, until Pasha put a close-range return into the net.
"That one still hurts. I just got so excited, and it was the simplest shot. I just mishit it. I couldn’t believe it," Pasha said. "We hadn’t been practicing, because it was finals week, so we were hoping to just make some balls. But we just got out there and played well."
Julius Robberts and Jason Parker of Olde Town Athletic Club in nearby Marietta lost, 4-1, evening the 37-year old Robberts’ record with the Bryans. At the 1997 All-American Championships, while a junior at Middle Tennessee State University, Robberts and his doubles partner beat Bob and Mike, then freshmen at Stanford.
"My record’s now 1-1, I guess," Robberts said.
The Bryans also got light-hearted redemption against 41-year-old Grant Stafford, Life Time’s director of tennis. They beat Stafford and Allen Simmons, 4-0—one of two teams they defeated by that score, along with Cameron Mistr and Jordan Delass of Universal Tennis Academy in Marietta.
Stafford, however, had previously been undefeated in three matches against the brothers during his 12-year pro career.
"The idea was ‘3-0,’ and we don’t hit too many balls, now, but it was a lot of fun," Stafford said. "It went so fast. It’s first to four games, and we didn’t really get a warm-up. So when we came out, the first two games went pretty fast. Then we started getting into it. But it was a lot of fun. The guys … they’re No. 1 in the world for a reason."
"We had fun," Bob Bryan said afterward. "It was a wild format. We came into hostile territory, playing the hometown favorites, which was definitely different, because every time we play in the States we usually have the crowd on our side. So it was a little bit of a different experience, but it was a lot of fun.
"I thought they all played well. No one was too nervous, and it was good feelings all around," he added, before referring to return trip scheduled for the Emirates Airline US Open Series event in the summer of 2013. "We got to talk to the guys, and they all wished us luck, and we wished them luck with their junior programs or their college matches, and we got to meet a lot of nice people tonight. So we’re going to leave Atlanta with a smile on our face, and looking forward to coming back for the BB&T."