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Former AC Milan and Italy captain Paolo Maldini made a short but sweet professional tennis debut in the Aspria Tennis Cup on Tuesday evening.
The legendary defender, who turned 49 on Monday, played in the doubles with coach and friend Stefano Landonio in the ATP Challenger event. The pair lost 6-1, 6-1 to Dutchman David Pel and Pole Tomasz Bednarek on clay in the event at the Aspria Harbour Club in Milan.
The iconic five-times Champions League winner and Landonio, 46, qualified via a wild card. Since retiring from football in May 2009, Maldini has maintained his fitness with five-a-side matches, boxing and tennis.
Being a world class athlete obviously has its benefits when it comes to switching sports, but few expected Maldini to be appearing in an ATP tournament.
His progress became a worldwide sensation and onlookers were excited and curious to see him in action with the small, fuzzy yellow ball as opposed to the big white version, a kilometre away from his second home, the San Siro Stadium.
As soon as the ex-Rossoneri skipper arrived at the club he was given a warm welcome and inundated by photograph and autograph requests by three generations of locals.
There were glimpses of his class and famous composure as he posed happily for every selfie and gave a pre-match interview in perfect English, in which he said ‘tennis is a passion for me, I don’t think it will become anything more serious. I played football professionally for many years.’
The softly spoken superstar seemed almost embarrassed by the fuss at times. On Centre Court, the only one at the club with LED advertising boards, he wore a fluorescent orange Roger Federer-branded shirt with white shorts and socks. Maldini had said before the match the Swiss was his favourite player.
There were an estimated 1,000 spectators, including another Milanese football icon, former Inter and Italy captain Giuseppe Bergomi. A huge cheer went up when Maldini was announced on to the court.
The veteran of four World Cups looked mean and lean, in fantastic shape for his age. His partner, Stefano Landonio, wore bright yellow top which displayed a slight paunch, normal for a 46 year old.
The Italians’ opponents were a lot younger. Bednarek is 35 and the gigantic Pel is only 25. Six foot five inch tall Dutchman Pel generated real power in his serving, reaching 190km/h at one point. The highest Maldini managed was 149.
The underdogs won the first point and experts and casual observers alike wondered if a miracle was on the cards. But Bednarek and particularly the broad-shouldered, rangy Pel had too much or their opponents, winning 6-1, 6-1 inside 42 minutes.
Pel said ‘It was amazing to play against him, it was a bit strange, distracting at first, but we knew we were much better. He was good but not at our level. It was fun, but we were professional. It was a great experience.’
Maldini looked every part the professional sportsman due to his agility, poise, grace and reflexes, but at times lacked a bit of tennis know-how, underhitting the ball or selecting the wrong shot. Cristian Sonzogni, tennis writer for the Gazzetta dello Sport said ‘Paolo is used to playing on faster courts, the clay didn’t quite suit him.’
Italian tennis legends Adriano Panatta, Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta don’t need to worry about Maldini overshadowing their exploits. But the adored ex-defender was everything you’d expect: graceful, whole-hearted and classy.
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