Playoffs On The Line As Buzz Host Smash
by Christopher Gerby

The New York Buzz's attempts to clinch a playoff spot on the road were derailed on Tuesday night, largely due to a familiar face from the team's recent past. Mild-mannered Julie Ditty -- who played for the Buzz last season, but now toils for the Boston Lobsters -- came back to haunt her old squad in a major way. Ditty won all three of her sets: 5-3 in singles, 5-2 in doubles, and a 5-1 nightcap in mixed doubles. When the dust settled, the Lobsters had trounced the Buzz by a count of 23 to 14. "We came out a little flat after a long journey," Rik de Voest admits.

But hey, what fun would it have been to book a playoff spot prior to Wednesday's curtain closer? Typical of a Buzz season marked by dramatic, nail-biting finishes, the finale was an absolute must win. They started the night tied for second place in the Eastern Conference, their 7-6 record equal to that of the visiting Delaware Smash. A win for either team would mean a spot in the World Team Tennis semifinals. The losing team, on the other hand, would go away empty-handed.

Unfortunately for the Smash, they couldn't count on ex-Buzz standout (and three-time Grand Slam doubles champion) Liezel Huber to emulate Julie Ditty by exacting revenge on her former team. Huber was nowhere to be seen when the match got underway, her flight from Houston having been delayed by technical problems. With mixed and women's doubles due up first, Huber's late arrival (she wouldn't get to Central Park until the end of the fourth set) was a devastating blow. At least Liezel had a reasonable excuse. She was sworn in as an American citizen this morning, making her eligible to represent the United States in everything from the US Open to Fed Cup and beyond. "That's why they swore me in today, because I'd like to play Olympic Games, so that's why they put the rush in," Huber told me after the match.

First set: mixed doubles -- De Voest/Arn vs. Haggard/Haynes

With the postseason at stake, both teams came out firing in the evening's opening set. Rik de Voest's emphatic putaways at the net helped the Buzz avoid any break point danger en route to a 3-2 lead. The lefty/lefty combination of Chris Haggard and Angela Haynes was also unblemished on serve until Game 6. Haggard squandered a 30-0 lead, falling behind 30-40 before saving the first break point with a winning smash. The "deciding points" that end deuce games immediately in WTT's no-ad scoring often loom large and this was no exception. Arn made a nice, forcing backhand pass and drew an errant volley from Haggard. The Buzz had broken through and would now serve for the set at 4-2.

With the house DJ diligently whipping the crowd into a frenzy, the atmosphere was electric in the Electric City. Figuratively AND literally, as it turned out: a power surge caused the lights above the court to go out after Arn opened Game 7 with a fault. Rik de Voest asked if the disruption meant Arn would get two serves. A swift rebuke came from across the net as Haynes snarled, "No!" De Voest put his hands up in apology and replied, "I don't know. I'm just asking."

There was enough sunlight left to play on, so the match resumed -- Arn putting her second serve in play and taking the first point of Game 7. The emotional German would fall behind 30-40, but De Voest saved her by putting away a smash. Once again, it was "deciding point" time. The Buzz's unofficial assistant coach, veteran doubles specialist Ashley Fisher, ran out to huddle with his teammates, not even using the pretense of delivering a towel this time. Whatever he said must have worked: De Voest snapped off a winning volley to wrap up the set in convincing fashion, 5 games to 2.

As the sun continued to fade behind the trees in Central Park, concerned eyes turned to the banks of lights, which were still not illuminated. Chris Haggard asked the umpire how long play would continue without them and was given ten minutes as an estimate. The odd circumstances hadn't bothered Rik de Voest in the mixed, though. "It's not something that always happens, but it's exactly the same for both teams," De Voest said after the match. "The light was still good enough, so it wasn't really a factor at all."


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

A young American named Robin Stephenson played women's doubles for the Smash in their previous match, filling in because Liezel Huber couldn't reschedule her citizenship interview. Huber was expected back for the season finale, however, so there was no alternate on hand. As a result, Smash coach Mariaan de Swardt was pressed into service, just as she had been in Delaware's last visit to Schenectady. The results on that occasion had been downright painful to watch, with De Swardt hobbling around on a gimpy knee. Now both of the hefty 36-year-old knees were heavily taped -- hardly an encouraging sign for Delaware.

Unsurprisingly, De Swardt was the first player to have her serve broken in women's doubles, double faulting on a deciding point to fall behind 2-1. Navratilova came through a tight service game of her own to hold for 3-1, giving the Buzz an 8-3 lead overall. It was now nearly 8 PM and Angela Haynes was expressing misgivings about playing in the fading light. The umpire insisted they play on, but -- in a nice bit of sportsmanship -- Ashley Fisher of the Buzz intervened. Realizing that such an important match shouldn't continue in these conditions, Fisher told the umpire, "There's a reason why we use lights."

The match was suspended...but only for a few minutes. The lights came back on and the Buzz resumed their drubbing of the Smash, breaking Haynes for a 4-1 lead. Arn played a terrible service game of her own and was broken at love for 4-2, but there still wasn't much hope for the shorthanded Smash in this event. At 30-30 in Game 7, De Swardt pushed a volley long to bring up set point. A nifty four-player volley war ensued and was won by Arn.

His enthusiasm not flagging in the least, the DJ bellowed, "Greta, Gabriela, come out and take a bow!" Navratilova demurred, but Arn stepped back out and waved to the crowd with her racquet, basking in the afterglow of the team's second straight 5-2 win. Of course, Liezel Huber's absence had played a major role. Asking Mariaan de Swardt to fill in for her at this point is almost like expecting Pat Riley to suit up and put his surgically repaired hip to the test when Dwyane Wade's unavailable for the Miami Heat.


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

Lest you think the prospects couldn't get any worse for the Delaware Smash, consider this. Lester Cook and Chris Haggard had already gone 0 for 2 this season against Rik de Voest and Ashley Fisher...who, oh by the way, have the best men's doubles record in the entire league. The Smash continued to put on a brave face, though. Early in this set, Angela Haynes shouted "Let's go, guys!" from the Delaware sidelines. Mariaan de Swardt chimed in, "Right here, come on!" With the set on serve at 2-1 in New York's favor, Haynes ran out to give her teammates a further pep talk. She came back laughing and informed De Swardt, "I told 'em they look hot." Already trailing by seven games in the overall tally, now was apparently not the time for highly cerebral strategy sessions.

Hot or not, Haggard still couldn't win a service game. After making a stab volley to go up 30-40 in Game 4, Fisher powered home a smash to break Haggard for 3-1. This really was a comprehensive, inspired performance by the men of the Buzz, who'd formed an impenetrable wall at the net. Cook would get the Smash back on the board by holding for 2-4, but the set would be lost if he and Haggard couldn't break Fisher. They came close, forcing Game 7 to a deciding point. The Buzz, however, simply were not losing those critical points tonight. Fisher made a decent enough second serve and De Voest spanked away the first volley, securing yet another 5-2 victory for the home team.


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

On the wrong side of a burgeoning blowout, Angela Haynes grew increasingly frustrated by the officiating. After having her serve broken in the very first game of women's singles, she issued an exasperated "thank you" to a linesperson who called a fault against Greta Arn in Game 2. Haynes battled back with a hold for 1-2, but Arn cracked an ace en route to a 3-1 lead.

When the umpire had to correct two consecutive blown calls early in Game 5, Haynes came totally unglued. Both rulings ultimately went in Angie's favor, but the feisty southpaw was none too pleased that so many questionable calls were coming from one particular area of the court. "Is that the same person?" Haynes fumed. "You're f***in' kidding me, dude. Can't see a g**damn thing." The very next point saw Haynes drill a forehand winner and scream, "COME ON!" at the top of her lungs.

Unfortunately for the Smash, Haynes wouldn't continue to channel her anger in a positive way. Facing a break point in Game 5, she badly missed a forehand and threw her racquet in disgust. Mariaan de Swardt tried to calm Haynes down, instructing her to "play the ball," but there was no turning back now. After blowing one set point with a double fault, Arn registered her 5-1 rout with a service winner. Liezel Huber, jogging out onto the court before the fifth set in her Smash jersey and a pair of track pants, had to feel awfully disheartened when she glanced at the scoreboard.


Fifth set: men's singles -- Rik de Voest vs. Chris Haggard

The drama-soaked feast of win-or-go-home tension expected before the match had failed to materialize. What remained took on the air of a jubilant coronation. Bows were being taken, free frisbees were sailing into the stands, and the outcome was in little doubt. Rather than bail to beat the traffic, the Schenectady fans hung around to salute their team and watch its first postseason berth since 2002 become official.

Rik de Voest kept the momentum alive, whipping a cross-court forehand winner on a deciding point to break Lester Cook for 2-0. Cook would eventually hold for 1-3, but Game 5 saw him throw his racquet at the ball in desperation as yet another De Voest winner sailed by. Subsequently guiding a backhand into the corner to hold at love, Rik extended his lead to 4-1. Now the mission for Cook was simple: if he could win a mere 16 games in a row (including a tiebreak), he would keep the Delaware Smash's playoff hopes alive.

Cook got his quixotic quest off to a solid start, building a 40-30 lead in Game 6. Alas, an unreturnable De Voest forehand brought up another one of those pesky deciding points. This one was a match point...and De Voest converted it in style, lacing a forehand pass for a clean winner. Smiling broadly, De Voest thrust a victorious fist into the air and was quickly surrounded by his teammates. The 5-1 win in men's singles made it official: the New York Buzz were Eastern Conference champions.


Technically, the Buzz finished tied for first place with the Philadelphia Freedoms. However, by virtue of its winning head-to-head record against Philly in the regular season, the Buzz claim the conference title. As a result, New York will have an advantage (choosing the order of sets) when they meet the Freedoms in the WTT semifinals next weekend in Sacramento, California.

After finishing with losing records in her four previous seasons as New York's head coach, Jolene Watanabe was overjoyed. "Five years! It feels wonderful. Our guys, the whole year, have been playing solid -- great tennis every single night. We've been in every single match. Even the matches we've lost, we've been up. It's great to be rewarded by winning the Eastern Conference." The confidence Watanabe has shown all along in her plucky band of underdogs was well founded. "It's very satisfying that we drafted a solid team. Here they are, they may not be ranked top 10 in the world, but they're in the playoffs with all the big names."

The mood was decidedly different across the way. While the rest of the Delaware Smash hastily departed the court, Liezel Huber stopped to share some mixed emotions on a memorable day in her life. Wednesday morning, she was among a group of 2,400 in Houston who were sworn in as American citizens. Wednesday night, she saw her team's season end in crushing defeat. "My flight was delayed by over an hour," Huber lamented. "I got here as soon as I could. Just too bad I didn't get to play." Between her run to the Wimbledon doubles title and her citizenship activities, Huber missed more than a third of the Smash's season. "It's quite a substantial amount of matches that I missed, but I love World Team Tennis and I feel honored to play for Billie Jean King's team," says Huber. "I was so glad to come out here and support the team in the last set."

"We heard this morning there was a chance she might not come," Rik de Voest replied when I asked about Huber's delayed arrival. "We just wanted to go out and control what we could, whatever team they put on the court. We've gotta still win the matches. Obviously it was an added bonus when she wasn't able to play. I mean, it weakened their team considerably." For the record, De Voest insists the plan all along was to schedule Huber's specialty sets early in the evening. "We kind of knew that their mixed team was really strong, so we'd already discussed two or three days earlier that if we played them, we would get the mixed doubles and the women's doubles -- the two strongest for them -- out of the way early... We would have played it that way had she played."

There was plenty of credit to go around following the Buzz's comprehensive 25-8 blowout win, but it was De Voest who had the honor of closing out the match with a beautiful forehand winner. "Yeah, really nice and fitting to be able to finish it like that," says the gregarious South African. "I've been struggling kinda with my form all week. I'd won some matches, lost some matches I shouldn't have. Tonight was the first night I was like YEAH, now I'm finally playing the way I wanted to!" The entire team seems to be rounding into form now, but De Voest told me he's not getting too carried away in anticipation of the playoffs. "We don't wanna get overconfident. The other teams in the semifinals are all good teams... We have beaten (Philadelphia) twice, but that was without Lisa Raymond on their team, who's a world class doubles player on the ladies' side. We'll just take it one at a time. If we can have a sitdown as a team and try to carry that same kind of energy from tonight into the next match, I think that'll be pretty key."

Win or lose in Sacramento, the New York Buzz gave their loyal fans plenty to cheer about in 2007. Gabriela Navratilova's wide-eyed enthusiasm was as winning as her crackerjack net play. Ashley Fisher, the team's Papa Smurf figure, contributed his considerable wisdom and poise. Greta Arn wowed the spectators with her wicked serve and won their hearts by wearing her own on her sleeve. Last but not least, Rik de Voest proved infectiously upbeat, always friendly and accessible to fans and media alike. At a time when several professional sports are engulfed in unseemly scandals, I'm pleased to report that one of the good guys has led his squad to the postseason promised land.