Slumping Buzz Play Host To Pete Sampras
by Christopher Gerby

After getting off to an encouraging 4-2 start, the New York Buzz have been finding ways to lose. Monday night saw them blow a 6-game lead heading into the final two sets against the Sacramento Capitals. Tuesday night's road match in Delaware was more of the same: a 15-9 lead after three sets was erased with 5-2 losses in both women's doubles and mixed doubles. The mixed pairing of Ashley Fisher and Greta Arn still had a chance to redeem itself in the match-deciding supertiebreak...but fell short 7 points to 4 against Chris Haggard and Liezel Huber of the Smash. In devastating fashion, the Buzz had dropped to 4-5 overall and lost important ground in WTT's tightly bunched Eastern Conference.

The good news for the Buzz: they could count on a sellout crowd for Wednesday night's match against the Newport Beach Breakers. Even with tickets priced at $49 and $39, the stadium in Central Park was completely sold out a week in advance for the long awaited return of Pete Sampras. Back in 1988, Sampras played at the very same Schenectady venue, reaching the semifinals of the OTB Open as a gangly 16-year-old wild card. "It was a big deal back then," Sampras reflected during a pre-match press conference. "Played Tim Mayotte, the first guy in the Top 10 I played. I took a set off him. I was ecstatic. So I'm looking forward to playing, seeing the old court, seeing the center court. This was where it started."

With a packed house and a 14-time Grand Slam champion in town, spirits remained high even as the start of the match was delayed by a full 30 minutes. Buzz doubles specialist Gabriela Navratilova looked particularly giddy. While her teammates remained behind in their trailer, Navratilova was courtside for Pistol Pete's entire pre-match warmup. She clowned around with Czech buddy (and Newport Beach opponent) Michaela Pastikova; played with a pair of inflatable "thundersticks" (the kind you see banged together by fans of Paradorn Srichaphan and the Anaheim Angels); and even posed for a picture with Sampras himself. In the presence of a legend, had the Buzz been reduced to mere groupies? Perhaps not, but they clearly weren't the main attraction. As a matter of fact, I overheard one fan ask, upon arriving, "Who's on our team?"

First set: men's doubles -- De Voest/Fisher vs. Leach/Sampras

Between them, Pete Sampras and venerable doubles specialist Rick Leach own a whopping 23 Grand Slam titles. Therefore, you could excuse Rik de Voest for getting the evening off to an awfully nervous looking start, having his serve broken at love in the opening game. Game 2 featured vintage stuff from Sampras: a winning drop volley, a lovely backhand overhead, a heavy forehand winner, and finally an unreturnable serve to hold for 2-0. Ashley Fisher managed to get the home team on the board in Game 3, but Leach held at love to make it 3-1 Breakers.

Sampras continued to shine in Game 5, clocking brutal service returns. He did, however, take offense to a bit of heckling. I didn't hear the comment in question, but it prompted Sampras to glare into the stands and ask, "Who said that? You think you're funny, huh?" Pete got right back to business on break point, ripping a return at Fisher, who helplessly blocked a volley long. Newport Beach now had a double break advantage...and Sampras rubbed salt in the wound by launching an ace to open Game 6. The combination of power from Sampras and touch from Leach was simply too much. Leach made a nifty drop volley on set point to end it, 5-1 for the visitors.

After the match, I asked Rik de Voest what his nerves were like coming out for that first encounter with Sampras. "I didn't feel nervous, but probably was. I came out and things just happened a little faster than what I thought they would happen. They played well. Pete came out and ripped, didn't miss a return. That's -- I won't say a weakness, but it's not one of his strengths and he was just playing unbelievable. His partner Rick Leach was helping him out. They just came out and were on fire."


Second set: men's singles -- Rik de Voest vs. Pete Sampras

For the first time since his emotional induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Pete Sampras stepped to the line for a set of singles action. When the umpire announced "Serving for Newport, Pete Sampras" a roar came from the crowd and didn't die down until the 35-year-old had already thrown an ace down the T for 15-0. Having settled down considerably since the doubles, however, Rik de Voest came to play. He scrapped his way to an early break chance at 30-40...only to see Sampras unleash back-to-back service winners to hold for 1-0.

After comfortably holding his own serve, De Voest had another little window of opportunity at 15-30 in Game 3. Again, the vaunted Sampras serve prevailed: ace + service winner + service winner = 2-1. There was little De Voest could do against that, but he was being spurred on by the crowd's energy and playing some impressive tennis. He uncorked an ace of his own to complete a hold for 2-2, then laced some sizzling down-the-line winners to send Game 5 to a winner-take-all game point. As he has so often in his life, Sampras came up with a tough second serve under pressure, forcing an error for 3-2. De Voest bounced back quickly, holding to 3-all.

You'd think one of the game's all-time greats would treat a World Team Tennis match like a light-hearted exhibition, but Sampras was looking downright irritable at times. He disputed several line calls during this set and objected (reasonably so) to some screechy feedback coming from the DJ booth. Most annoying of all to Pete had to be the state of his backhand volley, which went haywire in Game 7. He sent one wide for 15-30, netted another for 30-40, and immediately bricked a third on break point. De Voest had suddenly broken through for a 4-3 lead. To the delight of a raucous, generally pro-Buzz crowd, Rik stormed home from there. After Sampras missed a forehand return on set point, De Voest turned to the hearty fans on the scoreboard side and raised a triumphant fist. The affable journeyman had upset the legend, 5-3.

"This format's always a little tricky for me -- I'm a slow starter," said Sampras afterward. "It goes pretty quick. I missed an easy backhand volley there and that was it. And he played well. I thought he played very well." De Voest was equally complimentary when I inquired about his famous opponent. "The serve is still unbelievable. He's still got a GREAT serve and it was coming through so fast. I was, like, wow, that's quick. But I did manage to have a look at some of his second serves and I was happy with that and happy with the way I played. I was just trying to play my game and not focus too much on who I was playing."


Third set: women's doubles -- Arn/G Navratilova vs. Albanese/Pastikova

A clever bit of scheduling by Buzz coach Jolene Watanabe meant the night's main attraction was finished early, putting the focus back on the home squad for the remaining three events. First up was a rather odd set of women's doubles. Greta Arn was the only player hitting even remotely big serves, but return points were nonetheless hard to come by. Lauren Albanese faced the only break point and saved herself with a forehand winner. After all four women had held twice, the set was decided in a tiebreak...

  • GA serving: Arn opens with a double fault (into the net) -- 1-0 BREAKERS
  • GA: Forced to scramble, Arn nets a backhand on the run -- 2-0 BREAKERS
  • MP: Arn's nightmare continues as she nets a forehand return -- 3-0 BREAKERS
  • MP: Albanese nearly takes poor Greta Arn's head off with a swinging volley winner -- 4-0 BREAKERS
  • GN: Upon ripping a forehand down the line to clinch the set, Albanese exclaims, "yes!" -- 5-0 BREAKERS

    It was a terrible ending to an otherwise evenly matched set for Greta Arn. When I caught up with her after the match, she expressed guarded optimism about how her Team Tennis partnership with Gabriela Navratilova has come along. "She's a good doubles player. Actually, we (haven't played) that much together. It's only about these three weeks. It's working out, it's working out. It's not bad."


    The intermission following the third set was particularly eventful this time around. A gentleman named Dan O'Brien had paid $2,500 for the right to play a hit-and-giggle tiebreak against Pete Sampras. Rich Becker, sports anchor for the local Fox affiliate, did the announcing and managed to get in a few good natured digs at Sampras. "That looked like a Happy Gilmore serve, where you run up to hit it," quipped Becker. Thinking the comment had come from the house DJ, Sampras rifled a pair of balls at the DJ's booth. It brought to mind the incident that got Anastassia Rodionova disqualified from a tournament in Cincinnati this week. Pete's aim was better, but he avoided punishment, as his retaliation was (one hopes) all in good fun.

    The festivities continued with live, charitable auctions of a match-worn Sampras jersey (going for $1,050) and racquet (fetching an even $2,000). Buzz owner Nitty Singh capped it all off by declaring this "the greatest night in our franchise" and calling Sampras "the greatest tennis player in history." Sampras humbly clarified that he's merely "one of the greatest" and harkened back to 1988 by facetiously (?) saying, "I owe it all to Nitty for giving me that wild card." Sampras went on to thank the capacity crowd for turning out and concluded, "Maybe I'll be back next year."

    Fourth set: women's singles -- Greta Arn vs. Michaela Pastikova

    To their credit, the fans stuck around to support the Buzz when play finally resumed. After falling apart at the end of women's doubles, Greta Arn was a woman on a mission. She broke serve to open this set and carried that advantage to 4-2 with some big serves and a slew of backhand winners. All told, it was less than inspiring stuff from Michaela Pastikova of the Breakers, whose sporadic net approaches proved futile time and again. At 30-30 in Game 7, Arn spanked a winning backhand pass and pumped her fist. If she could break here and close out the set, the overall match score would be tied. And break Arn did, sneaking in to knock off a backhand volley. With a big smile on her face, the 5-2 victor shouted "come on!" and got a round of high fives from her teammates.

    Flagging Greta Arn down for a one-on-one interview after the match, I came to understand why the local press hasn't been counting on the German to fill up any notebooks. A bit of a communication gap emerged as Arn would basically seize upon a couple key words from my question and give a fairly general answer. Perhaps due to this language barrier, her recap of the singles win over Michaela Pastikova reads a bit blunter than Greta probably intended. "I know her; I know my opponent. I can't lose against her. I know how she's playing and I know how to beat her."


    Fifth set: mixed doubles -- De Voest/Arn vs. Leach/Pastikova

    The New York Buzz, spectacular chokers in their previous two matches, were suddenly in the midst of an inspired comeback. The fans were getting involved and the spectre of Pete Sampras no longer loomed. (Pete hit the showers after the intermission and didn't return until this final set was already well underway.) After the other three players on court opened with service holds, Michaela Pastikova was pushed to a mutual game point on her shaky serve. The ensuing rally ended with Rik de Voest going airborne to knife away a winning forehand volley. A key break in hand, the Buzz led 3-1 in the set and 18-16 overall.

    Running on pure adrenaline, De Voest smacked a pair of aces en route to a 4-1 lead. After De Voest whipped a forehand pass into the corner for a 0-30 edge against Rick Leach in Game 6, victory was just two points away. An equally inspired Arn crushed a return right at Pastikova, who netted her defensive volley to bring up a fistful of match points. Making ample use of the thundersticks they'd been provided on the way in, the fans brought the noise level to its absolute peak. De Voest responded, throwing a perfect lob over Leach's head on match point. The semi-retired 42-year-old gamely scampered to the corner to track it down, but all he could do was flick a backhand reply into the net. With that, De Voest and Arn wrapped up a blistering 5-1 rout that sent the fans home happy.


    It was definitely a satisfying conclusion for Greta Arn, who sees a bright future for herself and Rik de Voest. "I wish, I hope that maybe we can play at a Grand Slam together. We are a great team, I think." The electric atmosphere created by the sellout crowd played a role, according to Arn. "I love it! The more people I have, the better I'm playing." Her mixed doubles partner echoed those sentiments. "With packed stands, people cheering for us, that was awesome," says Rik de Voest. "I think Greta and I, we kind of fed off the positive energy from each other and the team was great supporting us." After blowing leads two nights in a row, coming from behind was especially sweet. "Yeah, we managed to come through. A much needed win after the two previous losses, which were kind of tough mentally," admits De Voest. "I think it was good character from the team overall, just to keep fighting, winning every game that we could."

    On the flip side of the ledger was Pete Sampras, who'd come back to Schenectady with victory in mind. "I'm still very competitive. This is not Wimbledon, but it's still real tennis. I still wanna win; I still wanna play well. These people came out and paid good money to see me play well. My game isn't quite like it used to be, so I have to deal with that." Assessing his performance in singles, Sampras said, "I hit great shots and served well for the most part tonight, but I wasn't quite good enough there at the end."

    Although Sampras dismissed talk of a full-fledged comeback prior to the match, Rik de Voest told me the Hall of Famer could still be very competitive on the ATP Tour. "With that serve, on a fast court, he's gonna hold serve 90% of the time. If you looked at some of those forehands that he hit, I was like, wow. I hit a good shot of my toes, I look up and the ball's come back at twice the speed past me. He's still definitely got some shots in there. It's just the level of consistency kind of goes. Pete was always able to lift his game at the right times and if he had to come back and play at a big tournament, you never know."

    The evening was a rousing success by any measure for the Buzz, who evened their record at 5-5 and now find themselves just half a game out of first place in the Eastern Conference. Coincidentally, the conference leading New York Hamptons will be the next team to invade the Buzz's home court on Sunday, July 22nd.