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Charlize Theron Hits the Court With Novak Djokovic to Support Africa Outreach Project Charity

Charlize Theron is often front-row at tennis matches and fashion shows — but on Tuesday, she was on the court, playing doubles with No. 1 men’s player Novak Djokovic.

The Oscar winner hosted the 20th annual Desert Smash celebrity tennis tournament to support her charity, the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project. The organization funds community-based, locally led groups that work directly with young people in preventing gender-based violence, advocating for sexual reproductive health and rights, and providing access to higher education. For the final match, the Serbian tennis superstar made a surprise appearance, interrupting Theron’s game with ATP champion Frances Tiafoe, comedian Yvonne Orji and two-time Grand Slam winner Victoria Azarenka.

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Comedian Yvonne Orji, Victoria Azarenka, Frances Tiefoe and Charlize Theron at Desert Smash on March 5, 2024
From left: Insecure star Yvonne Orji, Victoria Azarenka, Frances Tiafoe and Charlize Theron at Desert Smash on March 5.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter before the games, Theron shared what she’s bringing to the court. “The tennis usually is amazing because they get people who can play tennis. So today might just be a hot mess, but we’ll make it work!”

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Theron certainly made it work — at least on the style front. Outfitted head-to-toe in Vuori (wearing a black long-sleeved shirt and volley skirt paired with Nike’s Court Air Zoom Lite 3 shoes), she played alongside Djokovic, who joked to a roaming Theron, “Where do you want to stand?” before serving. Theron’s reply: “I don’t know what I’m doing!”

The UN Messenger of Peace will be back in the desert for the Indian Wells Open (where Djokovic will also play) after squeezing in an appearance at the Oscars this Sunday. “I’m coming back for hopefully quarter semis and finals with my mom,” she says.

Held at the La Quinta Resort & Club on March 4 and 5, Desert Smash included its first-ever pickleball challenge on Monday with players such as Sam Asghari, Colton Underwood and Maroon 5’s James Valentine. Tuesday’s superstar players included tennis stars Casper Ruud, Donna Vekic, Ons Jabeur, Elena Rybakina, Dusan Lajovic and Hubi Hurkacz, alongside Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale, music producer and DJ Mustard. Attendees included Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz, Prison Break actor Amaury Nolasco, retired NBA player Jason Collins, tennis player Alycia Parks and DJ Irie.

The annual celebrity tennis tournament was founded and produced by Brand Innovators senior vp and co-head of sports and entertainment, Ryan Macauley. Since 2004, the event has raised over $3.6 million for charities including Playing for Change Foundation, Sophie’s Voice Foundation, Cancer for College, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Yetunde Price Resource Center.

Founded in 2007, CTAOP has expanded its efforts beyond Theron’s home country of South Africa. Theron — dubbed “African sensation!” by Tiafoe — sat down with THR to chat about why she wanted to work with Desert Smash, her nonprofit’s latest efforts and who she’s rooting for on the court.

What convinced you to work with Desert Smash this year?

When something sustains for 20 years, you have to believe that there’s something incredible there because it’s a hard thing to sustain something in this field. And the fact that they’ve been so supportive and making sure that this event is really based around philanthropy — we’re honored to be here and really honored to be able to have this stage and talk about the work that we do.

What are some recent meaningful or inspiring moments that have stood out to you in CTAOP’s work?

This is the great thing. It’s constantly there. It’s sometimes just in one person, but that’s the thing that kind of keeps you going. Change is slow, and you have to understand the ripple effect of changing one person’s life. But I would say we just recently launched a higher education youth scholarship, and we are having our first graduates. And I think that is just really incredible to remember a lot of these students when they were 14, 15, and now they’re graduates, and they’re going back into their communities, and they’re bringing all of that education, that knowledge, to serve their communities.

I think I cried like one of their parents when they were going through their graduation. So that was the last thing that definitely made me realize it takes so little to just invest a little bit more. And that’s really what we’re about — investing in young people and their health, their education, their safety.

They all come from circumstances where they’ve either lost one parent or both parents to HIV and AIDS or to addiction. Some of them are also facing not necessarily being encouraged to be their true selves because of a tradition that a culture that traditionally still struggles with the idea of being anything different than heterosexual. So a lot of them have a lot of things that they struggle with, but I think the most incredible thing is that they have no fear.

I’ve witnessed some of them speak in settings with their community leaders, which in African culture, you have to have a tremendous amount of respect toward because they’re your elders. I’ve watched some of them speak with incredible bravery around how their church should come around and see them, and how they want their community leaders to accept them and to have their community evolve, and that they love their community. It’s not necessarily encouraged speech where they’re from.

That’s what’s so inspiring, because they have been through tremendous turmoil and loss and definitely have not had the easiest lives, and yet they’re so incredibly optimistic.

Did you just meet Frances Tiafoe right now? Have you played together before? [Seconds before, Tiafoe walked by and declared Theron an “African sensation!”]

We just met right now! Oh my goodness. So it’s going to be brutal. I told him, just make sure to tell me to get out of your way. Just give me direction! I am such a fan of his talent but also of his story, [he was born in Maryland and his parents immigrated from Sierra Leone to the U.S.] I just love his story so much. In many ways, he is a representation of the children that we work with, the young people that we work with, the tenacity and just kind of taking charge of your destiny and grabbing every opportunity that you can. And I see that on the court where he plays, and I am so lucky to have him today.

How long have you been a tennis fan?

I’ve always been a fan, and I think just through my very fortunate circumstances, I was then given the opportunity to actually go to a lot of [games]. But I remember, even as a kid, always watching it on television with my mom, and she’s an avid player, a really good player. And it’s something that we just now traditionally do. I mean, we both love the sport, but it’s also become kind of a mother-daughter event. I book myself out, and it’s kind of like our Mother’s Day. We come for as much of it that we can.

I know this must be a hard question to answer, but who are some of your favorite players?

I was getting ready today, and I was like, “I just need to not say anything.” And I am so happy that so many of them have taken the time. It’s right before a really, really big tournament to take the time that a lot of people would not because they have an important thing in front of them, but it just really means a lot that they’re all here. And in general, I will say, I’m one of those people that are like, I can go and watch a match and have somebody just completely win me over in that moment. So I’m a little bit loose, and I’m like, let’s see where the wind takes me. But yeah, whereas my mom is not. She’s got her people!

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