Four Wimbledon Champions On Court as World TeamTennis Returns to Albany
by Christopher Gerby

After sixteen seasons, the Capital District's franchise in World TeamTennis (variously known through the years as the New York OTBzz, Schenectady County Electrics, and finally New York Buzz) is no more...sort of. Officially, the upstate Buzz merged with the downstate New York Sportimes, but it's not quite an even partnership. The Sportimes retained their name and logo and continue to play most of their home matches on Randall's Island. The two exceptions are scheduled back to back this week at the SEFCU Arena in Albany.

The only member of the 2010 Buzz to be folded into the Sportimes this season is former world number one Martina Hingis. After teaming up with Lindsay Davenport to dominate the Legends Doubles event at Wimbledon, Hingis continued her winning ways with the Sportimes. Martina played in nine of the team's first eleven matches, prevailing in singles every time. The winning streak saw her drop a mere total of 15 games in those nine singles sets. "The Swiss Miss" may be 30 years old and three years removed from the end of her WTA Tour career, but there was no question she came back to Albany in great shape and fine form.

Three members of the visiting Kansas City Explorers left this year's Wimbledon Championships with glittering hardware of their own. Identical twins Bob and Mike Bryan picked up their eleventh Grand Slam men's doubles title (their second at the All England Club), while Kveta Peschke finally broke through for her first Slam, teaming with Katarina Srebotnik to win the women's doubles. Peschke now shares the WTA's number one doubles ranking, just as the Bryans rank atop the ATP standings. Not a bad roster for the World TeamTennis format, in which doubles play comprises three of the five events. Plus the Explorers had a secret weapon en route for women's singles...but more on her later.

First set: men's doubles -- Parrott/Witten vs. Bryan/Bryan

It didn't take long for Bob and Mike Bryan to demonstrate why they're the winningest doubles team in history. At 1-1, 40-30, Jesse Witten appeared to be cruising to a service hold when Mike ripped a winning return to force deuce, which in WTT is a single sudden death point. That scoring quirk comes with a "receivers' choice" aspect and the Bryans elected to have Mike make the return again. (Mike, the right-handed twin, is arguably more solid -- but less explosive -- than his southpaw brother.) He made another forcing return, this one right at the feet of Witten, who meekly blocked a volley back into the net. The Bryans had drawn first blood, breaking for a 2-1 lead.

Games went with serve from there to 4-3, at which point Mike Bryan served for the set. To their credit, Witten and 2009 US Open mixed doubles champion Travis Parrott battled back, taking a 15-40 edge against Mike's serve. The Bryans saved the first two break points, but another one of those tricky winner-take-all deuce points remained. The burly Witten took the return for the Sportimes and made the most of it, letting out a celebratory growl as he guided a backhand winner down the line. Just like that, Parrott and Witten had drawn even with the Bryans. The set would now come down to a first-to-five-points tiebreak.

  • TP serving: Mike Bryan powers home an overhead smash, good for an early mini-break -- 1-0 EXPLORERS
  • TP: Witten knocks off a smash of his own -- 1-1
  • BB: Bob Bryan swings an ace out wide -- 2-1 EXPLORERS
  • BB: Long rally sees Bob make some tough, awkward volleys before dinking one over for a winner -- 3-1 EXPLORERS
  • JW: Big, roundhouse forehand winner by Witten -- 3-2 EXPLORERS
  • JW: Witten's serve sets up a winning backhand volley by Parrott -- 3-3
  • MB: A high quality exchange ends on a down note, as Witten nets a smash -- 4-3 EXPLORERS
  • MB: Mike clinches it with a service winner -- 5-3 EXPLORERS

    While ostensibly there to cheer for the Sportimes, the Albany crowd had no quarrel with the Bryan brothers, giving them a rousing ovation when they immediately punctuated their win of the night's opening set with one of their patented airborne chest bumps.


    Second set: women's doubles -- Hingis/O'Brien vs. Brengle/Peschke

    Taking to the court for her first of three events, Martina Hingis quickly established ownership of the net, making one crisp volley after another. After breaking Madison Brengle's serve in the very first game, Hingis and British partner Katie O'Brien sprinted to a 3-1 lead.

    Midway through Game 5, Hingis nearly grazed the overhead scoreboard with a towering lob. The ball finally came back to earth around the baseline and Kveta Peschke promptly sent it long of the other baseline, her forehand error bringing up a break point for the Sportimes. The ensuing rally ended with a Peschke volley being called out. The 36-year-old Czech expressed her displeasure with the umpire, but the call stood. Brengle had dropped serve again, giving the Sportimes a commanding 4-1 lead. Four points later, another volley error by the uncharactertistically erratic Peschke made it official: a 5-1 rout for the Sportimes.


    Third set: men's singles -- Jesse Witten vs. Ricardo Mello

    Zaftig journeyman Jesse Witten nearly gave up his professional tennis aspirations before a surprising run to the third round of the US Open (where he managed to take a set off Novak Djokovic) resucitated his career. Brazilian lefty Ricardo Mello broke back into the world's Top 100 last season after griding for years in the minor league wilderness. Both are decent players with compelling storylines. On an evening dominated by the world renowned likes of Martina Hingis and the Bryan twins, however, their men's singles bout was an afterthought. "It's actually very good Pinot Grigio," observed one spectator, toting a cup of wine and stopping to chat with friends as she casually made her way back to her seat while Witten and Mello toiled behind her.

    Rallies were brief as the players exchanged an opening quartet of holds. Witten's forehand went terribly awry in Game 5: three errors off that wing prompted him to drop serve and slam his racquet in frustration. Mello held for 4-2 and earned set points in Game 7 as he continued to target the Witten forehand. That's when a funny thing happened. Witten reeled off three straight points to hold serve...then won four more consecutively to break a suddenly error-prone Mello at love. Just like he'd done in doubles, Witten had come back from the brink to force a tiebreak.

  • JW serving: Witten opens the 'breaker with a forehand winner -- 1-0 SPORTIMES
  • JW: Mello loses his ninth consecutive point by sending a backhand long -- 2-0 SPORTIMES
  • RM: Witten's forehand is ruled long on a close, late call -- 2-1 SPORTIMES
  • RM: Unable to handle a nice Mello kick serve, Witten buries his return in the net -- 2-2
  • JW: Side-to-side rally culminates in a Mello backhand error -- 3-2 SPORTIMES
  • JW: Another unforced backhand error into the net for Mello brings up set point -- 4-2 SPORTIMES
  • RM: Mello's collapse is complete after he sends a second serve long for a double fault -- 5-2 SPORTIMES


    Fourth set: mixed doubles -- Hingis/Parrott vs. Peschke/B Bryan

    The quartet contesting the evening's fourth event know a thing or two about playing with a partner: an astonishing total of 29 Grand Slam doubles titles line their trophy cases. All of them have won majors in mixed doubles save Kveta Peschke, who's been a two-time major finalist in that discipline. Expectations were set high and the players delivered, with a series of snappy, efficient service holds going by in a virtual blur. Hingis had a slight bobble in her initial service game, but survived the critical deuce point when Parrott blasted a winning overhead smash. After everyone had held twice, they proceeded to the tiebreak.

  • BB serving: Bryan's vaunted lefty serve proves unreturnable -- 1-0 EXPLORERS
  • BB: Winning forehand volley by Peschke -- 2-0 EXPLORERS
  • TP: Parrott knifes a volley at Peschke, whose reply finds the net -- 2-1 EXPLORERS
  • TP: After coughing up a double fault, Parrott whacks a ball off the scoreboard -- 3-1 EXPLORERS
  • KP: Untimely double fault by Peschke -- 3-2 EXPLORERS
  • KP: Peschke manages to double fault again and bounces her racquet -- 3-3
  • MH: Hingis lets out a squeal as Bryan's forehand pass sails past her for a winner -- 4-3 EXPLORERS
  • MH: Hingis saves set point (and earns one) with a clutch service winner -- 4-4
  • MH: The winner-take-all deciding point is lost by Peschke, who sends a backhand return wide -- 5-4 SPORTIMES


    Fifth set: women's singles -- Martina Hingis vs. Jarmila Gajdosova

    World TeamTennis tends to play a bit fast and loose with its rules and regulations. For instance, the Bryan brothers count as a single person who can be taken with one pick in the annual WTT "player draft." And if a team wants to use six different players in one night when the standard active roster is four...well, apparently that's OK. Taking full advantage of that loophole were the Kansas City Explorers, who'd put in an emergency call to a star from their recent past. Jarmila Gajdosova was the WTT female MVP in 2010, leading the Explorers to the league championship. She wasn't originally scheduled to play any Team Tennis this time around, but here she was, dramatically arriving on court just as the mixed doubles was about to get underway.

    Wait a minute -- hadn't Gajdosova just played a doubles final the previous day...way off in Bad Gastein, Austria? Indeed she had. As she explained to me after the match, Jarka's journey was enough to make Planes, Trains, and Automobiles look like a leisurely Sunday stroll to Grandma's house. "I drove to Vienna for four hours. I had a flight at 2 o'clock in the morning; arrived at 5 in Istanbul. Drove home. Packed. Went back to the airport. Flew for thirteen hours. I was stuck two hours at customs. Drove here for four hours, then came pretty much two minutes before the mixed started, then I went on court." Wow.

    After about a three minute warmup, Gajdosova was thrown in against the red hot Martina Hingis. Understandably, Jarka could barely keep the ball in play during the first few games. Hingis held at 15, broke at love, and held at 15. She led 3-0 and her Sportimes now had a seemingly insurmountable eight game cushion in the overall match score. Gajdosova began finding the range, however, showing off the powerful game that has her currently ranked in the WTA's top 30. The Slovakian-born Aussie held at love to get on the board at 1-3.

    Gajdosova crushed some returns to go up 15-40 on the Hingis serve in Game 5. On break point, she scrambled up to a short ball and pulverized a forehand winner, sending a message as she got back on serve at 2-3. Hingis broke right back to lead 4-2, but it was still Gajdosova doing much of the dictating: nearly every point ended with either a winner or error off her racquet.

    Hingis was within two points of the finish line at 4-2, 30-all, but another monster return by Gajdosova gave Kansas City break point. Finally showing some cracks in her steady game, Hingis committed a wild forehand error. Gajdosova was still alive, back on serve at 3-4. The crafty 30-year-old seemed to be rushing now. Hingis committed three unforced errors in Game 8, concluding with a poor drop shot that fluttered into the net to force yet another tiebreak. It's never quite over until it's over in WTT -- a win by Gajdosova in the 'breaker would send the match to overtime...

  • MH serving: Hingis starts well with an unreturnable serve -- 1-0 SPORTIMES
  • MH: The first mini-break comes courtsey of a Hingis double fault -- 1-1
  • JG: Hingis gives her racquet a little bounce after misfiring on a forehand -- 2-1 EXPLORERS
  • JG: Backhand winner laced down the line by Gajdosova -- 3-1 EXPLORERS
  • MH: Gajdosova absolutely smokes a forehand return down the line for a clean winner -- 4-1 EXPLORERS
  • MH: Hingis fights off the first set point with a cross-court forehand winner into the corner -- 4-2 EXPLORERS
  • JG: Gajdosova overcooks a forehand, sending it long -- 4-3 EXPLORERS
  • JG: Nervous looking backhand steered wide by Gajdosova -- 4-4
  • JG: Third set point is not the charm for Gajdosova, who drills a forehand long -- 5-4 SPORTIMES


    Knowing that last ball was out before it even hit the court, Martina Hingis hopped in the air and exclaimed, "Yes!" Despite sturdy opposition from the talented last minute substitute, Hingis had kept her WTT singles winning streak alive. Hingis struggled through a difficult season as she tried to carry the overmatched New York Buzz last summer, but was downright effusive speaking after the match about her 2011 run with the Sportimes. "I had a different strategy coming into it this year. I played a lot more tennis, playing Legends and everything, had a better preparation this year. I also didn't get myself in a bad position where I was tired or everything was about me. I have a great team this year and we've started off well. Kinda trying to keep that winning spirit going."

    Cheers from a near-sellout crowd (not always the case in her Albany matches last year) also helped, according to Martina. "It was amazing! Great crowd, great support. We feel like we're the home team and it's great to see so many people." Hingis was also gracious in acknowledging the strange circumstances Jarmila Gajdosova endured en route to the match. "She's number 30 in the world, but I know she had a tough time coming in. She flew in from Europe, so I thought I had to keep her out there, keep her running."

    Gajdosova's return to the Explorers came on such short notice, she didn't even have a jersey with her name on the back, playing in a simple Lacoste shirt instead. "We kind of decided a little bit late, but I wanted to come and help and the team wanted me to come, so I got on the first flight I could and here I am," Jarka told me after the match. Albany proved to be a long way from Bad Gastein, literally and figuratively. "I was playing on clay outside and here I am on the indoor very slow court," replied Gajdosova when I asked if it took a few games to find her rhythm. "It's been kind of hard with the lighting as well -- it wasn't very bright here, so it took me a while to pick it up. Loose strings don't help much, either, but I think it was pretty good still. Martina plays well, so I knew it wasn't going to be easy either way, even if I was ready to play."

    Gajdosova and Hingis were both born in Slovakia and Martina has long been one of Jarka's favorites. "I knew Martina. I used to follow her and watch her, obviously, and I know her from the tour as well. I've spent a lot of time watching how she plays. She was always a favorite and she's a lovely girl. It's always nice to catch up and it was great to finally play against her, because I never got the chance." Though a bit woozy from her travels, Gajdosova came away impressed after her first on-court encounter with Hingis. "As you saw, she still has the shots. She still moves well and has great hands. She was number one for a reason."

    Taking time to answer some questions while participating in a post-match autograph session for kids, Mike Bryan struck similar notes about Hingis. "She's fun to watch. She's a legend of the game. She does everything well and could obviously still be out there on the tour playing. She didn't miss too many balls tonight. She was hitting some lines. She's a clutch player. When she needed it, she played some good tennis. It was fun to watch her, but hopefully we won't have to play against her (again) anytime soon."

    SEFCU Arena was reportedly under consideration as a site for the recent Davis Cup quarterfinal the Bryan brothers ultimately played in Austin, Texas. World TeamTennis may not hold the same kind of significance, but the Bryans made it to upstate New York after all and Mike says they enjoyed the visit. "We had a great time. The crowd was fantastic. Everyone was into the match and I thought the tennis was really high level. Unfortunately, our team didn't win, but we had a great time in Albany and hopefully we'll be back."