Seeking First Win, Buzz Face John McEnroe
by Christopher Gerby

This can't be what Martina Hingis had in mind when she signed up for a full season of World TeamTennis. Hitting the road after opening with a pair of tough losses in Albany, Hingis and her New York Buzz found one stroke of misfortune after another. In fact, their first road match ended in a clean sweep, as the Venus Williams-led Washington Kastles took all five sets against the Buzz.

A rematch against the Kastles would follow the very next evening at the Glens Falls Civic Center. Technically a home match for the Buzz, the match took place at the larger venue because world number one Serena Williams was scheduled to join the Kastles. Unfortunately for the fans in Glens Falls, Serena had just opted to replace Justine Henin in a big money exhibition in Belgium. Williams met her WTT obligations by flying back to the States in time to put in an appearance, but she sat the match (and the rest of her TeamTennis schedule) out, citing a foot injury reportedly suffered before the Beligan exho.

Asked about what would have been a battle with old rival Hingis, Serena was quoted as saying, "I didn't even know I was going to play her." If that's true, Williams clearly hadn't put much thought into a match she'd agreed to play months earlier. As it turned out, the Kastles didn't need her. Despite Hingis blanking singles replacement Angela Haynes 5-0, the Buzz managed to lose the overall match by a whopping eight games.

The pattern followed in Boston: Hingis thumped Coco Vandeweghe 5-0 in singles, but the Buzz dropped every other set in a 20-16 defeat. Finally, with a third crack at the Kastles, it looked as if New York would get their maiden win on the season. They took a lead into the final event, mixed doubles, only to see a rain delay force the match indoors. When action finally resumed, Washington's veteran tandem of Rennae Stubbs and Leander Paes scored a 5-3 win over Hingis and Scoville Jenkins, good for a 21-20 overall victory.

Tonight I asked a road weary Martina Hingis what time that rain-delayed match ended. "I don't remember anymore," she replied with a rueful smile. "We've just been traveling and flying and playing. I think it was something around midnight." Next up for the Buzz: some time to rest, recover, and lick their wounds? Nope, it was right back to Albany for a home match against fiery 51-year-old John McEnroe and his New York Sportimes.

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

One week after a dismal 5-2 loss to Abigail Spears on this very same court, a different Martina Hingis opened Tuesday's action. Fresh off three consecutive singles wins, the Swiss Miss had her mojo back. That much was clear right from the first game, as Hingis knocked off a couple volley winners en route to an easy hold. After Spears got on the board at 1-1, the PA announcer exhorted the crowd, "We need some enthusiasm for Martina!" The fans responded and so did Hingis, holding at 15 and breaking at love for a 3-1 edge.

John McEnroe had a few words with Spears during the changeover, but whatever wisdom he imparted couldn't help the underdog turn the tide. Hingis extended her lead to 4-1 and (following a well-served game by Spears) quickly found herself holding set points. A double fault erased the first, but Hingis knuckled down on the second. A long rally ended with Hingis forcing a Spears error. Hingis celebrated with a confident little fist pump, having given the Buzz early momentum, 5-2.

After the match, I asked Hingis if playing singles first this time around was helpful from an energy standpoint. "Oh, definitely," she responded. "We changed the strategy, because in the last matches we started with the men's singles or the doubles or something. We were always behind once I got on court."


Second set: mixed doubles -- Hingis/Jenkins vs. Spears/McEnroe

Once upon a time, Peter Fleming famously opined that the best doubles team in the world was "John McEnroe and anyone else." Around the end of the 20th Century (when she won three consecutive Australian Opens with three different partners), the best women's doubles tandem may very well have been Martina Hingis and anyone else. Both superstars are past their peak now, but the upstate New York crowd was still in for a treat when McEnroe and Hingis -- each a Grand Slam doubles champion ten times over -- squared off in the second event of the night.

As the Buzz were returning McEnroe's serve in the opening game, Hingis could be seen directing partner Scoville Jenkins where to stand. No question who the captain of that team was! Fittingly, it was Hingis who clinched that opening game by poking a volley winner into the open court. The lead was short-lived, however. Hingis dropped her own serve in Game 4 and the New York squads were level pegging at 2 games apiece.

Game 5 saw the first flash of McEnroe's legendary irritability. Preparing to serve, he caught -- out of the corner of his eye -- a spectator casually strolling to his seat. McEnroe stopped, put his hands on his hips, and waited as the umpire instructed the fan to sit down. An inability to put first serves in play did nothing to improve McEnroe's mood, but some overly ambitious returns by Jenkins found the net and bailed Johnny Mac out of trouble. He held to make it 3-2 Sportimes.

Pushed to a deciding point in Game 6, Jenkins unleashed a big service winner for 3-all. Frustration was mounting for McEnroe, who took an unusually big swing (and let out an unusually big grunt) on a rare volley winner midway through Game 7, drawing a quizzical look from Jenkins. A few points later, Mac reflexed a volley into the tape, costing Abigail Spears her serve. The Buzz had put a nose back in front at 4-3.

Now it was Martina's turn to get cranky. Serving for the set, Hingis coughed up an untimely double fault and glumly bounced her racquet. After falling behind 0-40, however, Hingis recaptured the magic that saw her roll in singles. She made four first serves in a row, the last one setting up a powerhouse overhead smash by Jenkins. It had been somewhat scratchy stuff all the way around, but the Buzz prevailed 5-3.

After the match, Hingis was asked what it was like playing mixed doubles against the temperamental lefty. "Against John, it's always fun," said Hingis. "Normally I'm on his side, in exhibitions or when I was playing Team Tennis in the past. He was my partner, so for once he was the opposition. I'm glad I beat him!"


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

Men's doubles, particularly in World TeamTennis, is the domain of big serving and quick points. The first four games of men's doubs on Tuesday were no exception, as all four players got on the board without having to grind out many extended rallies. However, Game 5 was a real test for Scoville Jenkins. A bit of luck spared him on one break point, as a McEnroe lob hit the scoreboard above the court (immediately rendering the ball dead and giving the Buzz the point). On deciding point, however, McEnroe came up with a forcing return and Jenkins stabbed a backhand wide. Things were suddenly looking up for the visiting Sportimes, who were up a break at 3-2.

McEnroe gave some long looks at the service line in Game 6, questioning calls with his eyes if not his mouth. "That one looked good, John," a fan shouted, trying to rile him up. McEnroe held serve for 4-2 and hit a vintage, curling forehand pass in the following game. (Before long, however, he commenced scowling and barking at the nearest linesman.) Alex Domijan would save a set point in holding for 3-4, but Robert Kendrick closed the door in a hurry. Already up 40-0, Kendrick hammered home another hefty first serve, setting up an easy forehand volley winner by McEnroe. The Sportimes had their first win of the night, 5-3.


Fourth set: men's singles -- Alex Domijan vs. John McEnroe

Youth versus experience contrasts don't come much starker than quiet, little known 19-year-old Alex Domijan standing across the net from the large personality and even larger accomplishments of 51-year-old living legend John McEnroe. If Domijan was overwhelmed by the occasion, however, it didn't show. The first game of their singles meeting featured the best rally I've seen in WTT this year. Domijan ran down everything McEnroe threw at him, even pulling off a spectacular behind-the-back shot. McEnroe finally prevailed with a drop volley, but the kid was making him work.

On serve at 1-1, McEnroe began a heated, running commentary with the umpire. He seemed quite serious about a series of questionable calls, but the sight of McEnroe's teammates laughing on the Sportimes bench suggested this was a bit of theater. What wasn't in question was the sorry state of Johnny Mac's serve. Back-to-back double faults put him in a 15-40 hole. He saved the first break point, but grimaced after missing his next first serve. The second serve was good, but not good enough. McEnroe pushed a forehand long, surrendering the first break of the set. 2-1 Domijan.

After an errant slice cost him Game 4, McEnroe decided he'd done enough damage to his team's fading chances. Trailing 1-3, John pulled himself out of the match and called upon Robert Kendrick to finish the set. Still relatively fresh from his strong showing in doubles, Kendrick picked up where he left off, serving bombs. Domijan was unrattled, however, and comfortably took care of his own serve.

Serving for the set at 4-3, Domijan spanked an overhead winner, inspiring teammate Scoville Jenkins to spring off the Buzz bench and wave a towel around. For a squad with an 0-6 record, the Buzz were showing a surprising amount of heart and team spirit. Kendrick managed a couple winners of his own to make the game competitive, but an unreturnable serve got Domijan to 40-30. A rally was developing on set point when the umpire overruled, calling a Kendrick forehand wide. Kendrick, McEnroe, and Sportimes coach Chuck Adams all disputed the call vociferously, but to no avail. Lanky young Alex Domijan had beaten two opponents by a combined score of 5-3.

"I wouldn't say I ran out of gas," McEnroe said after the match. "I just didn't feel like I was hitting the ball well. After playing two and a half (sets), I thought it might be better if I gave Robert a chance, 'cause he's got a bigger game. I don't know what was wrong. Nothing felt right." McEnroe was so disappointed in his own performance, he didn't know how much to read into Domijan's win. "He seems like a good kid. It's hard to say, 'cause I didn't do a whole lot, but it seems like he's got some game."


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

Now the Buzz were really cooking, taking a five game lead into arguably their strongest event, women's doubles. A seemingly impossible come-from-behind task would fall on the shoulders of Abigail Spears and partner Ashley Harkleroad, who (in the second week of her return to competitive tennis after giving birth) still isn't at 100%. Serving down 1-2 in the set, Harkleroad bore the full brunt of the Buzz attack. A good return by Martina Hingis set up a Sarah Borwell winner for 0-30. After her next return (a clean winner for 15-40), Hingis gave Borwell a very self-assured looking nod of the head. On break point, Borwell lofted a lob over Harkleroad's head. Ashley flailed at it helplessly and watched it fall in for a winner. The break gave the Buzz a 3-1 lead and a virtually insurmountable seven game advantage overall.

The end nearly came very quickly, as Hingis held for 4-1 and Spears fell behind 15-40. Abby showed some spunk, though, delivering good serves and even better net play to keep the match alive at 2-4. The Sportimes kept fighting and earned a break point opportunity against Borwell. A reflex volley by Spears landed in the net, however, and the Buzz had their fourth match point. When Borwell put in a first serve and Harkleroad steered a backhand return wide, it was all over. Just as they had a week ago, Hingis and Borwell had beaten Harkleroad and Spears 5-2. This one was much sweeter and more meaningful, though. Martina and Sarah gave each other a big hug, relieved to have closed out the New York Buzz's first victory of 2010.


"Finally! First win! It feels great, obviously," exclaimed Martina Hingis after the match. The 1-6 Buzz aren't exactly well positioned for a run at the playoffs, but the Swiss veteran feels like they can build on this result. "Over the second half of the season, we have to continue like we did tonight. Just dominate, right? We can do it!" Handily avenging last week's loss to the talent-laden Sportimes had Hingis sounding ready to take on the world. "It's not like we only beat them, we definitely dominated. Won four out of the five sets. It feels pretty good. We finally got our game together -- all of us, not just me. Everybody stepped it up."

Among those stepping it up was Alex Domijan, who got some sage advice from Hingis before stepping into the singles spotlight. "Today, against John, it's never easy to play. I just told him, you know, go out there and do your thing. Don't worry about the other side. We know that John can act up a little bit, he gets you confused." Speaking of which, what was Martina's reaction to the evening's McEnroe antics? "I've seen him a little bit around, so I know that he does these things and that's what people enjoy watching," says Hingis. "You kind of expect it from John McEnroe. It's also, I think, getting the rhythm. There's a bit of strategy behind everything."

Asked how many of the outbursts were genuine and how many were for show, a very calm and somber McEnroe admitted, "A little of both. I definitely feel like we got a couple raw deals, but ultimately I needed to play better. I wish I could blame it on the ump, but there were a couple shots I didn't make either. That didn't help. The ball was flying on me. I was having trouble seeing." With a sizable and enthusiastic crowd on hand, atmosphere wasn't to blame. "The fans were cool. I wish I'd have played better," said McEnroe. "I felt bad 'cause I sorta let the team down. Hopefully I can get my act together... I feel like I've been playing well, so to sort of lay an egg was too bad. I don't play a lot of mixed and doubles. That sorta set me off on the wrong foot."

Hingis, on the other hand, has seen a lot of doubles action lately and feels like she's making the same strides in those disciplines that she's making in singles. "In the mixed and doubles, I particularly served a lot better than in the previous matches. My all-around game kinda improved since I came on the first day. I'm pretty happy about it." With this happy warrior leading them, the Buzz refused to get down after the previous night's rain-interrupted heartbreaker in Washington. "We just flew in today and relaxed," Hingis told me. "Just got out there and we were still on fire. Hopefully we can continue (tomorrow night against Boston) in front of the home crowd."