Buzz Open At Home With Big Expectations, Not Big Names
by Christopher Gerby

Major League Baseball isn't the only team sport in which small market franchises struggle to attract star players. Based in Schenectady, perennially strapped for cash, and coming off a fourth consecutive losing season, the New York Buzz remain squarely in the "have not" category. While the likes of Maria Sharapova, John McEnroe, and the Williams sisters are all scheduled to make guest appearances during the 2007 World Team Tennis campaign, none of them will be suiting up for the Buzz. Sure, the team has a Navratilova...but it's just unheralded doubles specialist Gabriela, a 30-year-old WTT rookie who's not related to you know who. The only major box office draw in Schenectady this summer figures to be Pete Sampras, who'll follow his Hall of Fame induction by leading the Newport Beach Breakers in a July 18th match against the Buzz.

New York's latest rebuilding effort may be centered around little known lunchpail types, but that doesn't mean they won't be competitive. Plucky baseliner Rik de Voest has been playing well of late, having won three rounds of qualifying to reach the main draw at Wimbledon. Ashley Fisher is a crafty veteran with a pair of ATP doubles titles to his credit. Greta Arn can boast hardware of her own, having earned the singles crown at Estoril a couple months ago. All told, returning Buzz coach Jolene Watanabe estimates this is "by far the most talented team that we've had in the five years since I came here."

The Buzz justified their coach's enthusiasm by opening the 2007 season with a 25-15 road win over the Philadelphia Freedoms. A second consecutive victory looked like a distinct possibility as the Delaware Smash came to town short-handed. Liezel Huber, a former Buzz standout who's since become the cornerstone of the Smash, was absent from Delaware's lineup on Sunday evening. Mind you, she had a very good excuse -- just a few hours earlier, Huber teamed with Cara Black to win the women's doubles championship at Wimbledon. The Buzz's DJ/announcer graciously noted Huber's accomplishment during the pre-match introductions, but would it merely be cold comfort for the Smash teammates left to solider on without her?

First set: mixed doubles -- Fisher/G Navratilova vs. Haggard/Haynes

Ashley Fisher and Gabriela Navratilova made a good early impression on the home crowd. Sharp returns and impressive volleying took them to a quick 3-0 lead over the lefty/lefty combination of Chris Haggard and Angela Haynes. The score nearly became 4-0, but Haynes saved three break points to get Delaware on the board. Suddenly the momentum shifted and Fisher's level of play came down. The Aussie missed three volleys in the subsequent game, dropping his serve and getting the Smash right back in it at 2-3.

Still on serve at 3-4, Angela Haynes was pushed to deuce...which in the no-ad scoring of Team Tennis is a single, sudden death "game point." Those deciding points tend to be huge and this one certainly fit the bill, as taking it would give New York a 5-3 win of the opening set. It wasn't meant to be, however. Taking advantage of another quirky Team Tennis rule (lets are played), Haynes got a serve to trickle off the net cord and fall in for a cheesy, fortuitous ace. The crowd groaned as the first set of the evening went to a tiebreak.

  • AF serving: Navratilova knifes an unreturnable volley -- 1-0 BUZZ
  • AF: Fisher uncorks a service winner -- 2-0 BUZZ
  • CH: Haggard calls Haynes off an overhead and puts away the smash himself -- 2-1 BUZZ
  • CH: Another winning smash, this one by Haynes -- 2-2
  • GN: Navratilova punctuates her service winner with a fist pump -- 3-2 BUZZ
  • GN: A mini-break as Navratilova's swinging forehand volley lands wide -- 3-3
  • AH: Nice rally ends on a forehand error by Haynes -- 4-3 BUZZ
  • AH: Fisher guides a winning backhand return down the line to clinch the set -- 5-3 BUZZ

    It was a rough end to the set for Angela Haynes, who couldn't put a first serve in play on either of the tiebreak's final two points. Ashley Fisher, meanwhile, felt like the set could have ended long before it got to that critical stage. "Our mixed, we could have won 5-0," said Fisher after the match. "With this system, matches can turn on a dime," he added. "If you let your concentration slip for a second, it really hurts ya."


    Second set: women's singles -- Greta Arn vs. Angela Haynes

    Rising up from the gang-infested environs of Compton, California that were once home to Serena and Venus Williams, Angela Haynes has made a smaller -- but not insignificant -- mark on the professional tennis world. Her accomplishments already include a stint in the Top 100 and being named the female MVP of World Team Tennis last summer. Coming off a nice mid-June run on the challengers circuit (winning a title and reaching a final the following week), Haynes presumably brought good form into her singles encounter with Greta Arn.

    Showing off a big, open-stance forehand and a wicked serve, Arn cruised in her first few service games. Haynes was more erratic, but matched Arn hold for hold to 3 games all. The first break point came against Haynes in Game 7, but Arn sent a backhand return wide to bring up a sudden death point. Haynes prevailed again, using a change-of-place slice backhand to force another Arn error. An opportunity lost for Arn, but she wasted no time redeeming herself. The German held at love, closing out Game 8 with three consecutive aces! That brought the Buzz bench to life, as Arn's teammates rose to their feet in unison. The entertaining battle would be settled in the evening's second tiebreak...

  • AH serving: Arn's backhand drive is called long, but overruled by the umpire, much to the chagrin of a protesting Haynes -- 1-0 BUZZ
  • AH: Possibly still rattled, Haynes hits a fall-away forehand into the net -- 2-0 BUZZ
  • GA: Arn shanks a forehand long -- 2-1 BUZZ
  • GA: Deep-hitting rally ends when Haynes whips a forehand into the corner -- 2-2
  • AH: Unreturnable serve by Haynes -- 3-2 SMASH
  • AH: A forehand from Haynes sails long -- 3-3
  • GA: Haynes is once again long with a forehand, bringing up set point -- 4-3 BUZZ
  • GA: Arn pushes a defensive forehand long -- 4-4
  • AH: Mutual set point sees a backhand return by Haynes just miss the baseline -- 5-4 BUZZ

    The tiebreak featured some sloppy play and one highly dubious decision by the umpire. (Even if the overrule was valid, the point should have been replayed, not given to New York outright.) Nonetheless, the real headline was the untouchable serving of Greta Arn. When I brought it up to Buzz coach Jolene Watanabe after the match, she exclaimed, "Oh my gosh, she serves bigger than the guys! If she keeps serving like that, she will not get broken. It's just a matter of her trying to break once or twice in the set." Ashley Fisher was similarly impressed. "She's probably got the biggest serve on the team. She's making us look bad. We've all got sore arms because we're trying to match her when we're warming up."


    Third set: men's doubles -- De Voest/Fisher vs. Cook/Haggard

    Although they'd never played together before teaming up for the Buzz this week, the pairing of Rik de Voest and Ashley Fisher may have already acquired a nickname. The stadium DJ welcomed them to the court by playing the "Cops" theme song ("bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do"), quickly followed by a snippet of P Diddy's "Bad Boys." These bad boys were very good on Sunday, firing on all cylinders from the start of the set. After a pair of routine holds got them to 2-1, a forcing Fisher return set up a winning De Voest volley to break Chris Haggard for 3-1. Lester Cook cranked up a pair of aces in holding for 2-4, but the damage had already been done. Fisher held at love, serving out a routine 5-2 win.

    "I think we combine pretty well together," Fisher surmised after the match. "We're both solid players, ya know, do everything well. He helps me out on my serve; he's very active at the net. We both make a lot of balls and put pressure on the other team's serves." De Voest echoed his fellow Bad Boy's sentiments. "Ashley's a top doubles player and we've played against each other a couple times, so we know how we play... Communication's key in doubles and we're able to communicate pretty well together because we know each other pretty well. I think we complement each other's games pretty well, too."


    Fourth set: women's doubles -- Arn/G Navratilova vs. De Swardt/Haynes

    There was a period in the 1990's during which Brenda Schultz-McCarthy and Mariaan de Swardt possessed arguably the two biggest serves in women's tennis. Schultz-McCarthy came out of retirement last year, surprisingly embarking on a full-fledged comeback, but it's highly unlikely fellow 36-year-old De Swardt will follow her lead. While the Smash's hefty coach did take the court here, it was only as an emergency replacement for the otherwise occupied Liezel Huber. Huddling with a pair of trainers during the intermission that followed the third set, De Swardt had her left knee taped and looked apprehensive at best.

    The first six games of women's doubles went with serve, the only break points being a pair against De Swardt. She managed to fend them off, but looked like a mere shell of the woman who blasted her way to two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. Unable to maintain any pop on her serve, she mostly spun in puffballs and hoped for the best. That approach would cost her in Game 7, as the Buzz broke at 15 for a 4-3 lead. Gabriela Navratilova struggled to serve it out for New York, however, and Game 8 ended in spectacular fashion. The deciding point was the best of the night, with Arn making three consecutive gets before De Swardt finally managed to thump away an overhead smash. Once again, a set would have to be settled via tiebreak...

  • AH serving: A wild backhand error sails off the racquet of Haynes -- 1-0 BUZZ
  • AH: De Swardt nets a lunging stab volley -- 2-0 BUZZ
  • GA: Arn gets a lucky ace to crawl over the tape and raises her hand in apology -- 3-0 BUZZ
  • GA: Navratilova smacks a winning backhand volley to earn a fistful of set points -- 4-0 BUZZ
  • MdS: An armsy, painful-to-watch double fault by De Swardt ends it -- 5-0 BUZZ

    Mariaan de Swardt slowly made her way to the sidelines, buried her face in a towel, and kept her barking left knee elevated. "Coming off the bench is not an easy task," remarked the PA announcer, attempting to console Delaware's ailing player/coach. De Swardt did well to keep her team in the set, but Liezel Huber's absence most certainly had been felt.


    Fifth set: men's singles -- Rik de Voest vs. Lester Cook

    A mini-exodus from the stands followed the fourth set, as a number of Buzz fans assumed the home squad's six-game lead was insurmountable. After Rik de Voest sprinted out to a 3-1 lead, still more spectators bailed to beat the traffic. Those who stayed witnessed a nifty comeback by Lester Cook. The young American used some flashy athleticism and smooth groundstrokes to break right back for 2-3 and eventually force -- you guessed it -- a tiebreak. By winning it, Cook could send the match to overtime and keep his team's slim hopes alive...

  • RdV serving: De Voest opens with a double fault -- 1-0 SMASH
  • RdV: A backhand sails on Cook, who says "no way" before it even lands -- 1-1
  • LC: Cook is way too casual on a forehand volley, dumping it in the net -- 2-1 SMASH
  • LC: Redemption comes in the form of an ace down the T -- 2-2
  • RdV: Grunting throughout the rally, Cook finally buries a forehand in the net -- 3-2 BUZZ
  • RdV: De Voest steers a forehand wide -- 3-3
  • LC: Cook goes airborne to put away a smash -- 4-3 SMASH
  • LC: Cook rips a backhand winner and executes a jumping fist pump -- 5-3 SMASH


    When the trailing team wins the final set of a WTT match, play continues until the leading team wins a game or the overall score becomes tied. Winning five straight games would be a tall order for Cook, but at least the opening game of the overtime would be on his serve. After going up 40-30, however, Cook coughed up a pair of forehand errors, the second coming on match point. Just like that, his valiant effort came up short and the Buzz secured a win in their home opener.


    Ironically, the only set the Buzz surrendered on Sunday was one their coach went in expecting to win. "We thought the men's singles was one of their weaker spots," said Jolene Watanabe, explaining why she entrusted the fifth set anchor position to Rik de Voest. "Actually, Lester played very well tonight; very few unforced errors and came out swingin'. It's a good thing we had a big lead going into the last set." For his part, De Voest knew he could have done a more convincing job of sealing the deal. "The small things that go on in your brain kind of affect the rhythm of the match. I struggled to adjust to that in my singles. I wasn't completely happy with the way I played out there, but I was glad that I was able to come away with the win at the end."

    The Buzz will gladly take the victory, which improves their record to 2-0. However, one can't help but wonder how things might have turned out had Liezel Huber been available for the Smash. "That's huge," says Ashley Fisher. "That's their best player, one of the best players in the league. She just won Wimbledon. Luck plays a role, just when you play the teams and who's playing." Fisher didn't know what to expect when he first signed on with the Buzz, but he's got a good feeling about this quietly solid lineup. "I'd never met the girls or seen them play. Having said that, I kinda kept my eyes on their results over the last few months and saw Greta do well in tournaments, so I felt like we had a pretty good team. I'm looking forward to the season."