Rally Like It's 1999: Serena and Martina Renew Classic Rivalry
by Christopher Gerby

Nine and a half years after they last met in a WTA Tour event, Serena Williams and Martina Hingis were set to square off again. This time it was in the long running summer exhibition series known as World TeamTennis, with Serena leading her undefeated Washington Kastles into Albany to face the Eastern Conference's second place team, Martina's New York Sportimes. Hingis, who expressed surprise that it's been nearly a decade since she last met her famous foe, had a strategy in mind. "Get a lot of balls back, make her work for it. I feel comfortable about my game and I'm pretty much on a winning streak. Hopefully I can get as many games I can. I think every game's going to be important against the Kastles. They're the best team right now, but hopefully we can give them a good fight."

For the second night in a row, the arrival of Martina's singles opponent was delayed by travel snafus. On Monday, it was Jarmila Gajdosova getting to the SEFCU Arena mid-match after roughly 24 hours in transit from Europe. On Tuesday, it took Williams practically that long to make the trip from Tampa, Florida. One flight scrapped by a mechanical issue and another stuck on a runway for four hours due to bad weather meant the 13-time Grand Slam singles champion would be cutting it close. How close? She set foot in the arena at 7:46 PM...for a match that had been scheduled to start at 7:30. Fortunately, the capacity crowd was patient and gave Serena a rousing welcome when the pre-match introductions finally commenced at 7:54.

First set: mixed doubles -- Hingis/Parrott vs. Williams/Paes

No shortage of major champions on hand here. Even if Rennae Stubbs had taken the place of Serena Williams (which was Washington's contingency plan), all four players involved in the evening's opening event would be Grand Slam mixed doubles champions. Despite a dearth of practice time, Williams opted to play...and promptly fell behind, as Martina Hingis and Travis Parrott sprinted to an early 3-0 lead. The vaunted Williams serve needed little warming up, however, as she held convincingly to get the Kastles on the board at 1-3.

Two double faults by Parrott in Game 5 proved costly as Williams and Leander Paes broke the American to get back on serve. Game 6 also went Washington's way. It ended on a stab backhand volley winner by Williams that inspired Paes to give her an "I'm not worthy" bow. Three games in a row for the visitors put them dead even at 3-all.

Finally, in the seventh game, both teams were playing well simultanteously. It ended with all four players getting involved in a scintillating rally, ultimately won by Parrott with a big overhead smash. The crowd responded with its biggest ovation of the set, but would be on pins and needles soon enough. Another hold from Williams knotted the set again at 4-4 and forced a first-to-five-points tiebreak...

  • TP serving: Parrott opens with a service winner -- 1-0 SPORTIMES
  • TP: "Come on!" bellows Parott after another unreturnable serve -- 2-0 SPORTIMES
  • LP: Nice pass by Hingis forces Paes to miss a backhand volley -- 3-0 SPORTIMES
  • LP: Parrott's forehand return lands just barely wide -- 3-1 SPORTIMES
  • MH: Nicely angled backhand volley winner by Hingis -- 4-1 SPORTIMES
  • MH: Paes hits a sizzling backhand at Hingis, who nevertheless makes a winning volley and pumps her fist -- 5-1 SPORTIMES

    Not a bad showing from the fresh-off-the-plane Williams, but it was Hingis who delivered the clutch slots late to prevail in the first of their three Tuesday night battles.


    Second set: women's doubles -- Hingis/O'Brien vs. Stubbs/Williams

    Rennae Stubbs owns 60 career WTA doubles titles. Her partner Serena Williams has 20. Martina Hingis owns 37. Her partner Katie O'Brien has...an entertaining Twitter feed. Yes, the likable Brit was the weak link here, made all too apparent when she littered her opening service game with two double faults and a backhand error. Stubbs and Williams broke her there for a 2-0 lead. With Serena serving bombs, that was all the cushion the Kastles would need. O'Brien redeemed herself somewhat in holding for 2-4, but Stubbs then stepped to the line and quickly closed out a 5-2 victory.


    Third set: men's singles -- Jesse Witten vs. Bobby Reynolds

    Arina Rodionova has been a stalwart member of the Kastles throughout their unbeaten 2011 campaign, but there's no room for her in the lineup when Serena Williams suits up. However, the charismatic Russian was far from idle on Tuesday. She balanced a racquet on her head during the pre-match practice session, played it like a guitar between sets, and busted out quite a few dance moves over the course of the evening. In her most useful role, Rodionova served as the personal towel girl for teammate Bobby Reynolds. She ran out to him after every four points or so throughout his singles encounter with Jesse Witten.

    Fired up and freed from the worries of accumulating perspiration, Reynolds took an impressive 3-1 lead. Witten held for 2-3 and made his opponent work in a tightly contested sixth game, but Reynolds saved himself with an athletic volley on game point. Rodionova was still making eager trips with the towel, Serena was fiddling with a cell phone, and all appeared at peace for the Kastles, who now led the overall match score 13 to 9.

    But wait! If the outcome of this set was a forgone conclusion, somebody forgot to inform Witten. The big guy started really getting his teeth into some good rallies, winning eight of the next ten points. The last of those points was a backhand into the tape by Reynolds, securing the first service break for Witten and sending the set to a tiebreak.

  • JW serving: Witten opens with an unreturnable serve -- 1-0 SPORTIMES
  • JW: Witten keeps his momentum going by uncorking another service winner -- 2-0 SPORTIMES
  • BR: Witten digs out a tough ball on the baseline and returns it for a highlight reel winner -- 3-0 SPORTIMES
  • BR: Reynolds gets on the board when a Witten backhand clips the tape and floats wide -- 3-1 SPORTIMES
  • JW: Witten punctuates a service winner with a cry of "yes!" -- 4-1 SPORTIMES
  • JW: "Could have gone either way," hedges the umpire when Witten disputes a double fault call -- 4-2 SPORTIMES
  • BR: Reynolds goes airborne to knock off a winning volley, saving the second set point -- 4-3 SPORTIMES
  • BR: Service winner by Reynolds brings up a mutual set point -- 4-4
  • BR: The packed house erupts in delight after a backhand error by Reynolds ends it -- 5-4 SPORTIMES


    Fourth set: women's singles -- Martina Hingis vs. Serena Williams

    The marquee matchup of the night didn't get underway until 10:09 PM, by which point some of the spectators had already gone home. What did they miss? Early on, it looked like a carbon copy of the last few Serena-Martina meetings on the WTA Tour. The pure power of Williams was putting Hingis on the defensive time and time again. The last point of the second game was indicative: Hingis forced to take a hand off the racquet and make a desperate one-handed backhand stab which sailed long. That clinched a break for Williams, who led 2-0.

    The next two games, on the other hand, looked like the hopeful scenario Hingis had painted. A suddenly sloppy Williams gave away the service break in short order, squealing as an unforced backhand error cut her lead to 2-1. Another error off Serena's backhand wing (this one into the net) ended the following game, a routine Hingis hold for 2-all. An exchange of holds followed to make it 3-3.

    Her groundstrokes were a bit all over the place, but Williams was still serving big and she quickly nudged ahead 4-3. Game 8 opened with Serena drilling a passing shot past Hingis, who sportingly applauded with her racquet. Much the same a few points later, as a dipping pass handcuffed the Swiss, making it 30-40 and bringing up set point. The battle of Martina's steady guile versus Serena's explosive power ended as it began: Williams overwhelmed Hingis with a big forehand down the line to take the set 5 games to 3.

    "It's a short set," Hingis reasoned after the match. "I felt like I played really well, but some of those passing shots! It was pretty good tennis, right?" The victorious Williams was also more or less pleased with how their much anticipated duel turned out. "I love playing Martina, so it's good," Williams told the assembled media. "She's such a good player and more than anything she's a great pratice for me, coming up to these tournaments that I have coming up."


    Fifth set: men's doubles -- Parrott/Witten vs. Paes/Reynolds

    The crowd was really thinning out now, but the outcome of the match remained in doubt. Leander Paes and Bobby Reynolds came in with the best men's doubles record in the league, but it was Paes who was the first player to drop serve. Travis Parrott did the damage, guiding a forehand winner down the line and pumping his fist as the Sportimes went up 3-1. The following game ended with an action-packed rally which saw Parrott and Witten hold firm at the net. They now led 4 games to 1 and had tied the overall match score at 19 apiece.

    Serena Williams won two of her three battles with Martina Hingis, but could New York's men win the war? What was left of the crowd would find out soon enough. After Reynolds held at love, Parrott served it out for the Sportimes. Authoritatively knifing a backhand volley on set point, Parrott celebrated a 5-2 upset win.


    Great stuff from Parrott and Jesse Witten, but their work was far from done. When a WTT match is dead even after the five sets have been completed, the players from that final set continue on in a supertiebreak. The first team to seven points would win the match. For the Sportimes, it would mean clinching a playoff berth. For the 11-0 Kastles (already safely assured of a playoff spot), it would mean keeping their perfect record unblemished. If body language and team unity counted for anything, the Kastles appeared to have the edge. Arina Rodionova, Rennae Stubbs, and coach Murphy Jensen were all out on court with Paes and Reynolds -- the five bouncing on their toes in unison as if they were heading into a boxing ring together. Across the net, Parrott and Witten stood stoically by themselves and waited for action to resume...

  • TP serving: Four-player rally ends with Paes blocking a backhand volley into the net -- 1-0 SPORTIMES
  • TP: The first mini-break comes as Parrott fails to dig out a low forehand volley -- 1-1
  • BR: Paes makes one of his patented flying volley winners and pumps his fist -- 2-1 KASTLES
  • BR: Deft backhand volley winner by Paes -- 3-1 KASTLES
  • JW: Reynolds can't run down a well angled Parrott volley -- 3-2 KASTLES
  • JW: Parrott is a virtual wall at the net, making a nice volley and a winning smash -- 3-3
  • LP: The teams are back on serve after Reynolds pushes a backhand volley wide -- 4-3 SPORTIMES
  • LP: Paes throws an ace out wide -- 4-4
  • JW: Witten goes up for a tricky overhead, but misses it wide -- 5-4 KASTLES
  • JW: Paes rifles a forehand at Parrott, whose reflex volley lands long -- 6-4 KASTLES
  • BR: On match point, Reynolds comes in behind his serve...and pushes a forehand volley long -- 6-5 KASTLES
  • BR: Witten makes a good return of a first serve and Paes nets a lunging volley -- 6-6

    20 games all. 6 points all. The entire match came down to a single sudden death point. With receivers' choice, the Sportimes opted to have Witten take the return again. He put the ball in play, but was soon at the mercy of flashy veteran Leander Paes. The Indian angled a volley in the direction of Witten, whose desperate reply sailed out. Utterly enraged at the narrow defeat, Witten threw his racquet clear over to the other side of the court. Make it a perfect 12-0 for the Washington Kastles, escaping by the skin of their teeth.


    Serena Williams of the triumphant Kastles looked rather subdued for most of the night, but insists, "I love playing and I really enjoyed myself out there tonight." Assessing her own performance as "a little off," she concluded, "I made a lot of errors, but came through." 11 months off the tour following foot surgery have sent Williams all the way down to 172 in the world rankings, but she aims to rectify that by playing three WTA events before the US Open. "I'm just thinking about my next tournament in Stanford. I have to do a lot of improving."

    Meanwhile, a bitter pill to swallow for the Sportimes, whose spirited comeback fell just barely short. I asked Martina Hingis about coming so close against the best team in the league. "It's coming down to one point, right?" she replied. "Plus they had Serena on the team, so hopefully tomorrow (when the teams meet again at Randall's Island) we have another chance. For us, it's big, because if we would have won tonight or tomorrow, we'll make the playoffs. Last chance tomorrow. Win or lose." With a twinkle in her eye, Hingis added, "I prefer winning."