Teen Phenom Comes To Town As Buzz Host Capitals
by Christopher Gerby

The New York Buzz's playoff hopes hit a mid-season snag on Saturday night as they lost a road match against their intra-state rival, the New York Hamptons. Their odds of bouncing right back on Monday evening looked iffy at best with the Sacramento Capitals invading the CDPHP Tennis Complex. The Capitals are a perennial WTT powerhouse who've already won five championships under the enthusiastic ownership of Lonnie Nielson. This year's Caps lineup runs the gamut from 35-year-old doubles wizard Mark Knowles to 14-year-old Michelle Larcher de Brito, an up-and-comer from Portugal.

The visitors from Sacramento looked loose and jovial as the proceedings got underway, sharing big laughs during some flubs in the pre-match introductions. The announcer referred to one of Sacramento coach Wayne Bryan's famous sons as "Bryan Bryan," thoroughly butchered the pronunciation of Elena Likhovtseva's name, and came to an abrupt halt midway through Sam Warburg's intro. If being in the unflappably gregarious presence of "Coach Wayne" wasn't enough to put the Capitals in a good mood, the pre-match festivities certainly did the trick.

First set: mixed doubles -- De Voest/Arn vs. Knowles/Likhovtseva

Three-time Grand Slam doubles champion Mark Knowles flashed some of his expertise early on, splitting Rik de Voest and Greta Arn with a down-the-middle passing shot to break De Voest's serve in the opening game. The Buzz, however, came right back, playing a very aggressive game to break Knowles for 1-1. Knowles would also face trouble in his next service game, but the Bahamian came up with some first serves when he needed them, rallying from a 15-40 deficit to hold for 3 games all.

With Greta Arn trailing 0-30 in the set's critical seventh game, Ashley Fisher ran out with a towel and gave his teammates some words of wisdom. The Aussie veteran's impromptu coaching seemed to pay off, as the Buzz rattled off four points in a row to hold for 4-3. The heavily experienced Sacramento tandem, meanwhile, refused to wilt. Elena Likhovtseva held at love, sending the first set of the night to a tiebreak...

  • RdV serving: Arn misses a tricky overhead -- 1-0 CAPITALS
  • RdV: De Voest blasts a winning smash out of the court -- 1-1
  • MK: Knowles jams Arn with a body serve -- 2-1 CAPITALS
  • MK: A double fault (well long) by Knowles puts the teams back on serve -- 2-2
  • GA: Knowles says "sorry bud" after lacing a backhand pass right at a flinching De Voest -- 3-2 CAPITALS
  • GA: Off a nice Likhovtseva return, De Voest nets a reflex volley -- 4-2 CAPITALS
  • EL: De Voest pushes a forehand volley long to end it -- 5-2 CAPITALS


    Second set: women's singles -- Greta Arn vs. Michelle Larcher de Brito

    This past March, a young lady named Michelle Larcher de Brito made the tennis world take notice. In her WTA Tour debut, the 14-year-old from Portugal came through a tense third set tiebreak to defeat veteran Meghann Shaughnessy at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne. Still just 14, Larcher de Brito has now made history as the youngest player in the history of World Team Tennis. If the kid is overawed by traveling the country and facing pros from the Top 100, it doesn't show. "She acts like she's 25," says Capitals teammate Sam Warburg. "It's unbelievable. She's very, very mature and has a great head on her shoulders." Larcher de Brito herself says, "I don't feel intimidated, really. Growing up, I always played against and trained with older girls. I'm used to it."

    Larcher de Brito got the crowd's attention right from the start of this women's singles encounter, whacking powerful groundstrokes off both wings as she held serve. She followed by earning a pair of break points in the second game, but a couple backhand errors (one forced; the other unforced) cost her as Greta Arn was able to breathe a sigh of relief at 1-1.

    It went downhill from there for the Lisbon native. Her serve, still the weakest part of her game by her own admission, fell apart as she double faulted twice en route to being broken for 1-2. Game 4 saw Larcher de Brito construct one particularly nice rally...only to end it by missing a fairly routine volley. The teen whacked the top of the net with her racquet after that, then took an angry swipe at the court upon losing the following point. When Arn held for a 3-1 lead, Wayne Bryan decided he'd seen enough. To the apparent surprise and disappointment of Larcher de Brito, she was benched in favor of Russian stalwart Elena Likhovtseva.

    The substitution, while understandable, paid no dividends. Continuing to play very solid tennis, Arn quickly broke serve for a 4-1 lead. Likhovtseva got her game in gear in time to earn a couple break chances of her own in Game 6, but neither was converted. The longest rally of the evening thus far took place on set point and ended with Likhovtseva ripping a forehand into the net. Arn had withstood two very different challenges by a combined score of 5-1.

    After the match, I asked Michelle Larcher de Brito if she thought the set might have played out in a very different way had she converted one of her break opportunities in Game 2. "Yeah, maybe I could have got my rhythm back if I carried on playing the singles," she replied. Though she looked a bit frustrated when it happened, Michelle says she didn't particularly mind getting the hook after four games. "No, not really. I was playing good, but it's OK (for Likhovtseva) to have her chance."


    Third set: men's doubles -- De Voest/Fisher vs. Knowles/Warburg

    The early fireworks in men's doubles were provided by Mark Knowles, who blew up when a delayed call turned his would-be ace into a fault. "C'mon, seriously, how late is that?" Knowles demanded of the umpire. The testy veteran would eventually hold serve for 2-2, but he and Sam Warburg were bothered all over again in Game 6. This time the call in dispute involved an Ashley Fisher return, which either floated long or caught the baseline. Knowles sure seemed certain it was the former, but he couldn't convince the umpire. Nor could he sway the house DJ, who mocked Knowles by playing the time's-a-ticking "Jeopardy" theme and inciting a chant of "Let's Go Buzz!"

    Knowles and Warburg regained their composure, taking a 40-30 lead in that same game, but the Buzz's Bad Boys weren't going away. Rik de Voest ended a nifty little exchange at the net with an overhead winner, forcing a mutual game point. Warburg missed his first serve, then popped a volley long to surrender the break. With momentum in hand and the crowd going wild, Fisher held at love to clinch a 5-2 victory.

    It was deja vu all over again for Rik de Voest, who'd teamed with Rick Leach to score a previous 5-2 win over the very same Knowles/Warburg team two seasons ago. "I have a winning record against (Knowles) in Team Tennis, but in normal doubles he kills me," De Voest said with a wry smile after the match. "Anything can happen on any given day."


    Fourth set: women's doubles -- Arn/G Navratilova vs. Larcher de Brito/Likhovtseva

    After a raucous intermission full of Buzz swag flying into the stands, the remaining events had the ring of a mere formality. However, if Sacramento's 6-game deficit was a lost cause only St. Jude would embrace, somebody forgot to tell Elena Likhovtseva and her young partner, Michelle Larcher de Brito. Having warmed up purposefully amidst the din of the intermission festivities, they came out firing when match action resumed. After holding serve easily to open the set, Likhovtseva used a nasty dipping return to break Greta Arn for a 2-0 Capitals lead.

    Larcher de Brito's not-ready-for-prime-time serve got picked apart in Game 3, but Gabriela Navratilova handed the break right back, double faulting for 1-3. The set was getting away from the Lady Buzz rapidly and the strain was beginning to show. After her attempt at a passing shot was deftly volleyed away by Likhovtseva midway through Game 5, Arn let out a blood-curdling scream. The body language across the way, meanwhile, was all positive. When Likhovtseva ripped a forehand winner down the line to make the score 4-1, coach Wayne Bryan jumped to his feet and shouted, "Big hold!"

    In an attempt to stop the bleeding at 0-30 in Game 6, Ashley Fisher (in his unofficial capacity as the team's de facto assistant coach) ran out with a towel and counseled the struggling Lady Buzz. The powwow dragged on longer than Likhovtseva thought appropriate -- she pointed at her wrist and suggested the umpire hit New York with a time violation. Arn finally broke from the huddle, served an ace, and threw her arms into the air, but the display looked more exasperated than celebratory. Three points later, Larcher de Brito knocked off a backhand volley to complete the 5-1 rout.

    Following the match, Michelle Larcher de Brito smiled broadly when I asked about her teacher/pupil relationship with Elena Likhovtseva. "Me and Elena, I think we make a pretty good team," says the youngster. "We haven't lost a doubles match yet. She's a great girl as well, so we get along quite well."


    Fifth set: men's singles -- Rik de Voest vs. Sam Warburg

    An eerie quiet fell over the CDPHP Tennis Complex as the final set of the night began. Gone was the sort of half-interested chatter that can usually be overheard during a Buzz match. Done was the hustle and bustle of patrons slipping out for snacks and beverages. Sure, the fans still made their share of noise between points, but you could hear a pin drop as soon as either player was ready to serve. A six game lead in the overall score had been reduced to just two and the attentive crowd knew this match was very much up for grabs.

    De Voest opened with a comfortable service hold, but former Stanford college star Sam Warburg was undeterred. Having learned a few things from previous encounters (including a 6-2, 6-2 loss to De Voest at a challenger event in Vancouver last year), Warburg reined in his more aggressive tendencies and made the scrappy South African work. On serve at 30-30 in Game 3, Warburg made a great, off-balance return and drew an error to bring up break point. De Voest capitulated, sending a backhand into the net. The Sacramento bench came to life and Warburg himself let loose with an intense fist pump. He tacked on a hold for 3-1, tying the overall match tally at 16 games apiece.

    The players looked evenly matched through a series of relatively long, side-to-side rallies, but increasingly it was De Voest who came out on the short end of the stick. Game 5 saw him brick a fairly routine volley for 15-30 and shrug his shoulders helplessly after netting a backhand for 30-40. Warburg choked on the initial break chance, missing a volley with a wide open court. De Voest still needed to survive the winner-take-all deuce point to hold, however. Another side-to-side rally ensued...and ended with De Voest steering a backhand wide. Warburg had the break, prompting an elated Wayne Bryan to throw his towel sky high.

    With Warburg leading 4-1 and serving for the match, the fans got very loud: chanting, shouting, urging their man to somehow stem the tide. De Voest clawed his way to a 15-30 advantage, but Warburg answered with an ace for 30-30. The longest rally of the set followed and -- like so many before it -- ended with De Voest committing an error while on the run. As he watched the passing shot sail wide, Warburg threw his whole body into a double fist pump. On match point, Warburg again forced De Voest to come up with a passing shot...with the same result. De Voest's forehand missed the sideline and Warburg claimed a clutch 5-1 victory.


    Dripping with sweat and grinning from ear to ear, Sam Warburg explained the mindset he brought into the deciding set against Rik de Voest. "It's his home court and he's got the lead, so I knew the pressure was all on him. That's kind of the way I tried to approach it," said Warburg. "I know that Rik thrives off people making mistakes. He's really fast and keeps the ball pretty deep, moves the ball around well. I was just trying to basically gain ground on him, kind of like play a chess game, rather than just throwing my pawns out in the middle and letting them get killed."

    Talk eventually turned to Warburg's precocious teammate, Michelle Larcher de Brito. "She's 14, so pretty much everything on the tennis tour is new for her. I think she's doing a great job," said the Stanford alum. "As you can see, she's got a bright future. She hits the crap out of the ball. In our (men's) singles match, there were maybe two or three balls that we were hitting that hard." As Warburg expounded on the preternatural talent and maturity of his Portuguese teammate, the topic of conversation herself walked by. "My whole interview is about you!" Warburg exclaimed. To that, Larcher de Brito modestly replied, "About me? You're the one that saved us!" In a teasing mood following the triumphant comeback, Sam claimed, "I'm telling them how bad you are and how mean you are. Nobody likes you."

    Good natured ribbing isn't all the teen phenom gets from her Sacramento peers. "They always give me the heads up, teach me what to expect," says Larcher de Brito, who's learning a lot during the WTT season. "It's gaining experience, really, because I haven't played a whole lot. Just playing in the stadiums, the crowds and everything, it's gaining a lot of experience and playing matches and different people all the time." Michelle's parents are traveling the Team Tennis circuit with her, but she's making do without Armani, her beloved husky. "My dog is back in Portugal, unfortunately. I would love to have him here."

    As for the New York Buzz, their failure to close out a 14-8 intermission lead drops them to .500 on the season. The bulk of the blame fell to fifth set anchor Rik de Voest, who accepted the goat horns with good humor. Asked how his encounter with Warburg went, De Voest sheepishly quipped, "Not according to plan!" Specifically, De Voest pointed to Warburg's ability to make him work for every point. "I've won a lot of free points on my serve the last couple of matches and he was able to return it... When he got me moving, I started to miss a couple balls." Of course, it all snowballed from there. "He started to get confidence. I think confidence is a big aspect in this shortened version of the game. If you can come out and play confident and fire up from the get go, you've got a pretty good chance of doing some damage."

    After heading back on the road for a match in Delaware tomorrow, the Buzz come right back to Schenectady for a Wednesday night marquee matchup with Pete Sampras and his Newport Beach Breakers. De Voest is eagerly anticipating his first opportunity to play against one of the game's all-time greats. "I hear it's sold out, so there's going to be a lot of people out here cheering, a great atmosphere. I just look forward to putting in a good performance against him and having a good match...and then coming off the court and saying that I played against Sampras. If I can say I played and beat him, that would be a nice bonus."

    The arrival of Sampras will mean some heady memories for De Voest and a nice windfall at the box office. Nevertheless, it will be hard to erase the impact of the defeat the Buzz snatched from the jaws of victory on Monday night. Sacramento Capitals coach Wayne Bryan summed it up charitably: "We were lucky. (The Buzz) played great tonight. We were lucky."