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Allison, Sittler Take Some Swings

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

TORONTO (CP) -- Jason Allison exchanged his hockey stick for a racket and didn't look out of place during a charity tennis match Thursday.

Allison, who signed as a free agent with the Toronto Maple Leafs last week, teamed with tennis legend Chris Evert to defeat WTA veteran Monica Seles and Hockey Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler in mixed doubles on a temporary court at the base of a downtown Toronto office tower.

Allison wowed the crowd with some nifty volleys at the net.

""I have soft hands, that's what I do,"" Allison joked. ""That's the only place I'm any good, I knew where to hang out.

""I was just happy to get a few balls over the net and let my partner run around,"" added Allison, who had his best NHL season in 2000-01 when he recorded 36 goals and 59 assists in 82 games with the Boston Bruins.

In addition to playing a quick three-game match, the players also served balls into targets to raise $10,000 for the American Express Aces program, which supports grassroots tennis initiatives around the world.

American Express will also donate $150 for every ace served on the stadium and grandstand courts during next week's Rogers Cup women's tournament at the Rexall Centre. Organizers estimate about $75,000 will be raised, or about 500 aces will be served.

The cash will go towards a Tennis Canada program aimed at introducing the sport in 25 schools in four high-risk Toronto neighbourhoods as well support the organization's effort to raise the game's profile in communities across the country.

Eighty per cent of Canadians play tennis in public parks, according to Stacey Allaster, the tournament director for the Rogers Cup. She says Tennis Canada needs to do more to reach out to those players ""so that that little boy or that little girl who wants to play during those cold winter months in this country can go to that indoor club. Maybe they're not going to be Monica or Chris but they'll have an opportunity to play the sport.''

Allaster is confident Canada can become more of a force in competitive tennis but says it will take time.

""Other nations took years,"" she said. ""Belgium took 14 years but others can do it, small countries can do it.""

Seles began her career playing in a parking lot while Evert is a product of public courts.

""I think it's important to convey to the kids that you don't have to come from a family that's got all the things to start being a tennis player,"" said Seles. ""It's very simple as long as you have the will and certain things in place.""

The four celebrity players hammed it up for the several hundred fans who left their offices during lunch to take in the event.

Evert showed she has not lost her competitive edge, often giving Allison instructions on court position and ordering him to stop hitting the ball to Seles.

Canadian comedian Rick Mercer donned traditional tennis whites and sat in as the chair umpire. At one point, he joked about the Darryl Sittler pyjamas he wore as a child.

Evert, 50, won 154 singles titles and 18 Grand Slams during her illustrious career in the 1970s and '80s before retiring from the pro tour in 1989.

Seles, 31, has 53 WTA Tour singles titles on her resume along with six doubles titles. But she has been hampered by a foot injury over the past couple years and hasn't played a competitive match since a first-round loss to Nadia Petrova at the 2003 French Open.

She will be the guest of honour at the Rogers Cup, which gets underway Saturday with qualifying. Toronto is a city dear to her heart. Her first tournament after being stabbed by a fan in Germany 10 years ago was the 1995 Canadian Open at the old National Tennis Centre stadium.

""I'm so happy to be back in Toronto,"" she said. ""This tournament has meant so much to me.""


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