Buzz Battle Downstate Rivals (Again) for Eastern Conference Supremacy
by Christopher Gerby

The New York Buzz continue to be the cardiac kids of World Team Tennis, playing one down-to-the-wire match after another. A critical Saturday night road contest saw the Buzz trailing 18-14 heading into the final set against the New York Sportimes. The red hot mixed doubles combination of Rik de Voest and Greta Arn kept hope alive with a 5-3 win, but still needed to win two straight games in overtime to force a supertiebreak. Looking back, De Voest says, "When we won the match to go 5-3 up and still had two more games to go, she was like, I'm so nervous, I wanna win so bad. She was near tears. And I was like, c'mon, just relax, hit out on the ball and just go one point at a time and we'll see where it goes."

Serving for the match in OT, Jesse Witten nearly clinched victory for the Sportimes. "They got three match points. I was already giving up. I was already crying," admits Arn. Remarkably, she and De Voest rallied to break Witten, forced the supertiebreak, and took it 7 points to 3. De Voest recalls the dramatic comeback fondly. "After we won, I think both of us took a little moment to let it all sink in, what we'd just done. It was pretty special." Arn remembers it this way: "When we won, HE start to cry!"

The win improved the Buzz's record to 6-5 and gave them a slim lead in an Eastern Conference marked by wall-to-wall parity. Only a half game back themselves, the Sportimes got an immediate shot at revenge on Sunday evening in Schenectady. Providing a big psychological boost for the Sportimes was the return of scrappy starlet Ashley Harkleroad, who'd missed their previous two matches with a rotator cuff injury. And even though his team was on the road, Sportimes coach Chuck Adams could have some good feelings about returning to Schenectady's Central Park. Thirteen years ago, on the same court, he beat Ivan Lendl en route to the singles final of the very last OTB Open tournament.

First set: men's singles -- Rik de Voest vs. Jesse Witten

Buzz coach Jolene Watanabe says Rik de Voest had his chances against Jesse Witten on Saturday. "Last night he played well against Jesse...easily he could have won 5-3 instead of losing 5-3." Nevertheless, Witten's 2-0 record over De Voest this season convinced Watanabe to get the men's singles event out of the way early. Witten made that strategy look awfully wise, winning his first two service games at love. The home DJ dropped in a couple snippets of AC/DC songs ("T.N.T." and "Thunderstruck") during the set, inadvertently providing an appropriate soundtrack for the big, burly American's percussive hitting.

Donning a pair of sunglasses to fight off the 7 o'clock glare, De Voest took care of his own serve all the way to 3-3. However, when Game 7 went to a deciding point, De Voest shanked a forehand wide. Oozing intensity, Witten threw a big punch at the air to punctuate the crucial service break. It ended quickly from there, De Voest netting a forehand return on set point to give Witten a convincing 5-3 victory. "That guy Jesse has been playing unbelievable. Like, he is playing WELL," said a duly impressed De Voest afterward. "We decided to see if we could get him a little cold and play him first, but he still came out with the goods."


Second set: women's doubles -- Arn/G Navratilova vs. Harkleroad/Sromova

Less than 24 hours after falling 5-1 against the Sportimes in women's doubles, Greta Arn and Gabriela Navratilova looked to redeem themselves. They struck first blood in Game 5, using some deftly placed returns to earn a 15-40 chance against Ashley Harkleroad. "Pebbles" was able to fend off the first break point, but her partner Hana Sromova butchered a backhand volley on the second to give the Buzz a 3-2 lead. A solid, textbook performance by Navratilova led the home team the rest of the way. On set point, Sromova was forced to hit off her back foot, missing a forehand to end it. The mercurial Lady Buzz were on their game tonight, prevailing 5-2.


Third set: men's doubles -- De Voest/Fisher vs. Pehar/Witten

While "The Star Spangled Banner" may be the only anthem sung before World Team Tennis matches, the WTT format has a way of overriding nationalism. Mirko Pehar and Jesse Witten both hail from Florida, but the enthusiastic crowd was throwing all of its support behind the South African/Australian combo of Rik de Voest and Ashley Fisher.

Pehar and Witten were aggressive, playing the I-formation in all of their service games. However, De Voest and Fisher used some quality returns to eventually break through. With Pehar facing triple break point in Game 6, Fisher laced a forehand return off the outstretched racquet of a lunging Witten. The Aussie veteran pumped his fist and proceeded to serve out a 5-2 victory at love. Played off to the celebratory strains of Van Halen's "Top Of The World," the Buzz carried a solid lead into intermission.


Fourth set: women's singles -- Greta Arn vs. Ashley Harkleroad

Saturday night, Greta Arn eked out a tiebreak victory over Hana Sromova in singles. This time around, Sromova was on the sidelines -- wolfing down popcorn, as a matter of fact. Sufficiently recovered from her rotator cuff woes, Ashley Harkleroad took the court against a foe she has owned head-to-head. A counterpunching grinder once ranked as high as 39 in the world, Harkleroad came out playing uncharacteristically aggressive tennis. Already leading 2-1, Harkleroad spanked a winning backhand pass for 0-15, ripped a forehand winner down the line for 0-40, and broke at love on an Arn double fault. Harkleroad was in such a tunnel vision zone, she didn't even realize it was time to change ends until coach/boyfriend Chuck Adams ran out to fetch her.

Continuing to rain a blitzkrieg of winners down on an increasingly frustrated Arn, Harkleroad held at love for 4-1. Cracking yet another winning return for a 15-40 edge in Game 6, Ashley hissed, "Yes!" Arn would save the first two set points, but Harkleroad wasn't about to let the game slip away. On deciding point, Harkleroad took a big swing on a forehand return. Arn's desperate, lunging reply landed wide as what remained of the Buzz's overall lead evaporated.

"She's not my favorite opponent, that's for sure," Arn said with a rueful smile after the match. The German looked visibly shaken in the immediate aftermath of the 5-1 thrashing, but there really was little she could have done against Harkleroad's blistering performance. Says Rik de Voest, "Greta was disappointed with her loss, but that girl Harkleroad -- I don't think she missed a ball!" The irrepressible De Voest wouldn't let his emotional teammate dwell for long. "Greta was like 'I can't play, I can't play.' I'm like, 'You know what, you got beaten! She beat you; accept it. Everyone can play well sometimes. You're not always gonna win.' As soon as she puts everything in perspective, which I try to do, then she's like, 'Oh yeah, (Harkleroad) did actually hit every single line and winner and didn't miss a first serve or a return.'"


Fifth set: mixed doubles -- De Voest/Arn vs. Witten/Harkleroad

With Rik de Voest and coach Jolene Watanabe having talked her off the ledge following her lopsided singles loss, Greta Arn was reinvigorated as she embarked on the final set of the evening. With first place in the Eastern Conference on the line, Arn and De Voest got through a pair of somewhat tricky service games to snare a 2-1 lead. The fervor of the crowd was kicking into overdrive, but Jesse Witten and Ashley Harkleroad were matching them with seething intensity of their own. Witten slammed his racquet down after losing a key point in Game 4. The Buzz would earn two break points there, but Witten responded, knifing a volley at Arn on the first and powering home an overhead smash on the second. Witten threw his arms into the air and stalked to the sidelines for the change of ends, dead even at 2-2.

De Voest held easily, inching the Buzz ahead to 3-2. At 15-30 on Witten's serve in Game 6, De Voest stepped around his would-be backhand to absolutely kill a forehand return. The clean winner gave the Buzz a huge 15-40 edge and De Voest, whose momentum had nearly carried him into the stands, raised a clenched fist. Rik came through yet again on the ensuing break point. He struck an athletic, Suzanne Lenglen-ish volley at Harkleroad, who could merely block the ball back into the net. De Voest and Arn had the break and a 4-2 lead.

The crowd noise continued to pick up as Greta Arn attempted to serve out the match. They roared in approval at 30-30, as Harkleroad sent a return long to bring up match point. Undeterred, Witten delivered an inside-out forehand return that caught the sideline. Now it was deuce -- a single "deciding point" that would either secure victory for the Buzz or get the Sportimes right back on serve. Arn missed her first serve. Her second landed near the back of the service box and proved too much for Harkleroad, whose forehand return landed in the net. The glamour girl from Georgia briefly pleaded her case for a fault call. No overrule was forthcoming, however, and the 5-2 result stood. For the second night in a row, mixed doubles made the difference as the New York Buzz pulled out a dramatic victory over the New York Sportimes.


The most obvious storyline emerging from the Buzz victory was Greta Arn's quick recovery from a devastating singles loss. "It was definitely hard to take, especially emotionally," Arn confessed after the match. "I'm very sensitive person. That's how I am. Something good happen, I'm crying. Something bad happening, I always cry." A well timed pep talk from Rik de Voest enabled Arn to snap out of it in time for the make-or-break mixed doubles event. "Rik always finds a way. He was just telling me the right things and I'm there," explains Arn. "He has something on his face which makes me feel good. I'm relaxed. I feel good about myself. I'm calm and suddenly I start to see on the court." I asked Greta if she'd conveyed to Rik her desire to continue their mixed doubles partnership in a Grand Slam event. "Yeah, I was talking to him. He just told me it's gonna be hard (with our rankings) to get in. I was telling him, listen, I'm next year Top 20, so be ready."

He may be a realist when it comes to teaming with Arn at a major, but De Voest fully realizes what she brings to the table in mixed doubs. "She's just a big, strong player and that's key in mixed," says the South African. "She's got great shots when she goes for them. Every now and again she gets a little nervous, a little tight. But against guys in the mixed, when she goes for it I can move all over the net and help her out and put the ball away. I think it's a pretty good combination." Meanwhile, as the DJ keeps reminding the Schenectady fans, crowd support really does play a role. "We feed off it," De Voest insists. "Playing at home definitely makes a difference. You always know there's die hard fans out there. No matter what you're doing, they're always gonna be behind you."

With three consecutive nail-biting wins coming on the heels of two heartbreaking losses, the 7-5 Buzz are prematurely aging their coach. "I don't know how many gray hairs I've gotten tonight, or actually through the whole season. All our matches have been pretty tough," says Jolene Watanabe. No player better embodies that emotional roller-coaster than Greta Arn. "Yeah, I had to have a little talk with her after the singles match. She came through. She kept her head up the whole entire time, which was good, 'cause with her, sometimes she gets a little down on herself." Arn put it a tad more bluntly, announcing, "I'm proud of myself that I put my s*** together." And with the Buzz now controlling its own destiny in the playoff chase, Greta is just as plain-spoken (albeit in broken English) about her team's odds of claiming the Eastern Conference title. "There's no reason to don't win it. Definitely."