Hingis and Harkleroad Comebacks Converge In Albany
by Christopher Gerby

The heat wave currently gripping the Northeast sent temperatures to the brink of triple digits on Tuesday, making New York Buzz fans thankful their team plays indoors at UAlbany's SEFCU Arena. "The AC in here is nice! It's like my house," I overheard one spectator exclaim before the team's bout against the intra-state rival New York Sportimes. While the sweltering conditions outside were the talk of the town, the visiting Sportimes could claim a one woman heat wave of their own in the form of August 2008 Playboy covergirl Ashley Harkleroad.

Harkleroad's notorious foray into clothing-optional stardom hit shortly before she and Sportimes coach Chuck Adams learned they'd be having a child. Two years later, the proud mother of baby Charlie is back in fighting shape and tentatively embarking on a return to the tennis circuit. Save for a lopsided singles loss in Miami (an event Harkleroad only entered to keep the clock running on her protected ranking status), this World Team Tennis season is the first competitive tennis she's played since the summer of '08.

Likewise, Martina Hingis is still shaking off a couple years of rust as she toils for the hometown Buzz. After tiring badly and squandering a lead in singles at the end of the season opener, the 5-time Grand Slam champion would get a chance to redeem herself on Tuesday night.

First set: men's singles -- Alex Domijan vs. Robert Kendrick

Alex Domijan may be the only amateur playing World Team Tennis this season, but his 6-foot-7 frame produces a professional quality serve. Robert Kendrick is no slouch in that department, either, having once served his way to a 2-sets-to-love lead over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. Putting these two out on a relatively quick indoor court wasn't exactly a recipe for long rallies. Managing four comfortable service holds apiece, the youngster and the veteran found their way to a tiebreak.

  • AD serving: Kendrick's attempt at a down the line backhand lands wide -- 1-0 BUZZ
  • AD: Unforced error off Kendrick's forehand wing -- 2-0 BUZZ
  • RK: Domijan takes a big swing on a forehand return, but puts it in the net -- 2-1 BUZZ
  • RK: Kendrick throws a huge ace down the T -- 2-2
  • AD: Domijan delivers a forehand winner into the corner -- 3-2 BUZZ
  • AD: Kendrick sneaks in and knocks off a winning backhand volley -- 3-3
  • RK: Ugly follow-through on Kendrick's forehand produces an error -- 4-3 BUZZ
  • RK: A long-ish rally ends with Kendrick steering a forehand wide to lose the set -- 5-3 BUZZ


    Second set: women's singles -- Martina Hingis vs. Abigail Spears

    Having never finished a season ranked higher than 92 in the world in singles, journeywoman Abigail Spears seemed on paper to be no match for former world number one Martina Hingis. They don't play matches on paper, however, and the 28-year-old's fairly pedestrian resume wouldn't tell you that she possesses something of a funky throwback game. Spears has a decent serve, a versatile backhand (sometimes coming over the ball; sometimes taking one hand off to hit a slice), and a doubles specialist's willingness to finish points at the net. Maybe this wouldn't be a cakewalk after all.

    Hingis played some well-constructed points to eke out a difficult hold in the opening game, but wasn't as fortunate in Game 3. After netting a tricky volley to bring up break point, Hingis saw a defensive lob fall long as Spears broke for a 2-1 lead. Hingis challenged Spears with a beautiful, unreturnable drop shot midway through the following game, but the American was equal to the task. On the winner-take-all game point (always so important in WTT's no-ad format), Spears deftly volleyed home a winner to secure a 3-1 lead.

    Martina is a lead pipe cinch for induction in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, but she won't be bringing video of this set with her to Newport. Hingis sprayed three uncharacteristically sloppy errors in Game 5, putting Spears on the brink of a major upset. Hingis knuckled down, however, breaking at love and getting the somewhat subdued crowd involved at 2-4.

    The late stages of the set were a "one step forward, two steps back" enterprise for Hingis. At 30-all in Game 7, she lofted a spectacular lob that sailed clear over the scoreboard, narrowly missed hitting the ceiling, and fell to earth a few inches inside the baseline. Spears got the ball back, however, and earned set point by forcing a Hingis error to end the rally. Set point saw Hingis bail out with a particularly poor attempt at a drop shot. Spears ran it down with time to spare and finished off the 5-2 rout with a backhand winner.

    Just like that, Martina Hingis ran her singles record as a member of the New York Buzz to 0 and 2. Buzz coach Jay Udwadia wasn't pushing the panic button, however, as he noted the quick transition Hingis had to make after playing on the lawns of Wimbledon last week. "It's always tough flying in from overseas and trying to get used to the depth of everything: the surroundings, the courts, different balls and things like that," Udwadia explained after the match. "It's a quick format, so anything can happen. I have confidence in her. She's hitting the ball fine. She'll put it together and we're gonna have a good run here."


    Third set: men's doubles -- Domijan/Jenkins vs. Kendrick/Witten

    The first three games of this event were certainly competitive, all going to deuce and thereby coming down to a single deciding point. Unfortunately for the Buzz, those three points ended on an Alex Domijan volley error, a Robert Kendrick service winner, and a Scoville Jenkins double fault. Burly bomber Jesse Witten then added to the carnage, holding at love for a 4-0 lead. Domijan would save some face with a love hold of his own, but it was too little too late. Kendrick had no trouble serving out a 5-1 victory.


    Fourth set: mixed doubles -- Hingis/Jenkins vs. Spears/Kendrick

    Serving at 1-2 in mixed doubles, Martina Hingis bricked a backhand volley and promptly bounced her racquet. It was the first real sign of frustration expressed over her surprisingly dismal Tuesday night performance. When she threw in a double fault on the very next point, the crowd responded with a few seconds of eerie silence. It was as if nobody in the building could believe what they were seeing. Hingis would recover to rescue her service game (when Spears missed a return on deciding point), but all was not well in Buzzville.

    Robert Kendrick's big hitting and the crafty net play of Abigail Spears jelled nicely as the Sportimes broke Scoville Jenkins for a 4-2 lead. The Buzz broke right back for 3-4, but it was up to Hingis to consolidate and she had yet to snap out of her funk. The Swiss star double faulted to 15-30 and hit a very un-Hingis-like frying pan volley long for 30-40. Jenkins saved the first set point by smacking a volley into Kendrick's chest, but "Kendo" would have his revenge. On deciding point, Kendrick ripped a forehand pass at Jenkins. The ball clipped Scoville's racquet and sailed away, taking the Buzz's fading chances with it.


    Fifth set: women's doubles -- Borwell/Hingis vs. Harkleroad/Spears

    After watching from the sidelines for four sets, Sarah Borwell and Ashley Harkleroad finally stripped off their warmup jackets and took to the court. (Should I mention that Harkleroad's uniform was the only one with a plunging neckline? I suppose I just did.) Double faults flew freely in the first four games, all of which went against serve. There were also some nice returns and passing shots on offer, with Harkleroad holding up her end of the bargain in the rallies.

    Trailing 15-40 on Borwell's serve in Game 5, the Buzz decided to change things up by employing the I-formation. Taking a knee near the center service line and popping up from her crouch once the ball was in play worked wonders for Hingis -- she struck some lovely winning volleys to help Borwell rally for a 3-2 lead. It was all Lady Buzz from there, as a break of Spears and a Hingis hold gave the home team a 5-2 win.


    There's no running out the clock in World Team Tennis. If the trailing team wins the final set, the match goes into overtime. In this case, the Buzz would need to win five more games in a row to stay alive. Ashley Harkleroad and Abigail Spears, on the other hand, merely needed to win one. At 30-all in the first game of O.T., Spears reflexed a winning volley to earn match point. Harkleroad followed with a first serve that proved too much for Hingis, whose backhand return floated over the baseline.


    Just back from maternity leave, Ashley Harkleroad had the honor of serving out the Sportimes' second win of 2010. Of course, having an 8 game cushion to work with going into the final set had a way of taking the pressure off. "Thank you very much to Abby (Spears) and everybody," Harkleroad said in her delightful Southern drawl after the match. "It did take pressure off me and I'm not used to the competition and actually playing under some stress. It definitely helps to have a lead."

    The 25-year-old is still easing her way into things after the prolonged absence, but I asked if she intends to play some singles for the Sportimes this season. "I might if I feel up to it. I really have only trained for about a month, three days a week for about a month. This is really good practice for me. I have some tournaments that I'm gonna play this summer, so we'll see how that goes." With just two sets of doubles under her belt, it's too soon for the former Top 40 player to know where her game stands right now. She's cautiously optimistic, though. "Practicing with Abby, I feel pretty good. I feel really solid. We play some singles points and it's pretty even. But under stress...I don't really know how I'd perform. I'm excited to see and hopefully try it out at the end of this season."

    Harkleroad will make use of her WTA protected ranking later this summer, but doesn't see Flushing Meadows on her horizon. "I don't really think I'm gonna play the U.S. Open. I think I'm gonna play some warmup events for the U.S. Open, like Stanford, San Diego, maybe Cincinnati. I have some exhibitions this summer, good money exhibitions. I'm just gonna do that and save my Grand Slam for the Australian Open."

    Of course, the biggest challenge for Harkleroad these days doesn't involve hitting fuzzy greenish-yellow balls over a net. She's still a relatively new mother who has yet to see how well she can balance that role with the demands of a pro sports career. I asked Ashley if her experiences this summer will determine her future as a tennis player and she nodded in the affirmative. "I'm just gonna kinda see what it all entails with traveling with a baby and how I feel. I really like being a full time mom (but) I don't feel guilty leaving him right now. It's actually a nice break because when we're at home, in California, I'm all the time, full time basically... This is a nice break. My mom's helping me out -- she has the summers off because she's a schoolteacher. I'm enjoying it. I'm excited to get home tonight and see him tomorrow morning because I really haven't gotten to see him much, the last day or so. I like to be kinda full time, but maybe that'll change."

    Meanwhile, what are we to make of fellow comeback kid Martina Hingis? If the first two days of her Team Tennis season are any indication, Martina's singles game is lagging far behind her doubles. The difference isn't lost on Hingis, whose win in women's doubles gave her something to smile about after the match. "You don't have to move that much in the doubles, right? It's like one forward motion and that's always been almost like the better part of me. You have to be aggressive and go in and attack. If I can get that in my singles, that would be pretty good."

    Buzz coach Jay Udwadia concurs. "She's an amazing doubles player. Great hands, nice set of moves. She and Sarah really play well together, complement each other well. Martina's a great player, so just 'cause she loses one or two matches doesn't change that." Ashley Harkleroad also thinks Hingis will get it together soon. "She just needs a few matches under her belt. I'm sure she's gonna get better throughout the season."