Sportimes Open 2013 Home Campaign Against Roddick's Lasers
by Christopher Gerby

To some extent, the Albany area lost its World TeamTennis franchise two years ago when the local New York Buzz merged with the downstate New York Sportimes. After all, the Sportimes retained its team name, logo, white-on-black uniform, and several of its veteran players. However, the 2013 WTT schedule actually shakes out to the Capital Region's advantage. This season, the Sportimes play their first five (of seven) home matches at the Buzz's old stomping grounds, the SEFCU Arena on the campus of the University at Albany. A pair of road losses left the Sportimes with an 0-2 record entering the evening, but the arena was still nearly filled to its 1,800-seat capacity. No doubt many in attendance were there to see the visiting Springfield Lasers' marquee name, former world number one Andy Roddick.

First set: men's doubles -- Kendrick/Witten vs. Roddick/Rojer

During his ATP Tour career, Andy Roddick was known to crack self-deprecatingly wise about his somewhat rudimentary doubles skills. However, being paired up with current Top 15 doubles specialist Jean-Julian Rojer figured to give him an edge over semi-retired Robert Kendrick and burly journeyman Jesse Witten. And it was the Lasers who drew first blood, breaking Kendrick's serve in the night's very first game.

When Witten double faulted to open Game 3, already trailing 0-2, Sportimes coach Claude Okin called for a timeout. This new wrinkle in the World TeamTennis rules seems to serve mainly as an excuse for a couple ballboys to hold aloft "Geico Timeout" signs, traffic cop style. Roddick playfully relieved one of the boys of that duty, waving the sign around himself. In his seventh season as a WTT player -- and first as a league investor -- Andy knows that showmanship is half the battle in Team Tennis. "I try to encourage all of the players to be a lot more interactive, make it fun, make it a show," he said in a news conference before the match.

Witten rallied to get the Sportimes on the board, but a second break of the struggling Kendrick put Springfield ahead 4-1. Roddick nearly served out a routine win of the set, but at deuce (a single, winner-take-all "game point" in WTT's no-ad scoring) he awkwardly struck a forehand into the net. The Lasers earned a second set point in Game 7, but Witten escaped, jamming Rojer with a clutch body serve. Game 8 featured yet another deuce situation: mutual break point for the Sportimes and set point for the Lasers. Witten delivered again, rifling a forehand pass at Rojer, who meekly reflexed a volley into the net. Somewhat improbably, the Sportimes had squeaked out three tight games in a row. The set would come down to a first-to-five-points tiebreak...

  • RK serving: Best rally of the set ends with Roddick ripping a forehand winner down the line -- 1-0 LASERS
  • RK: Kendrick dumps a low backhand volley into the net -- 2-0 LASERS
  • AR: Blistering service winner from Roddick -- 3-0 LASERS
  • AR: Rojer skillfully puts away a winning forehand volley -- 4-0 LASERS
  • JW: Witten follows his serve in, but pushes a tricky forehand volley wide -- 5-0 LASERS

    After nearly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Roddick and Rojer had gotten back in sync for a dominant tiebreak win. After the set, a little girl was escorted on court to interview Roddick. The hard hitting topics ranged from his favorite color to his favorite food. "Chips and salsa," Andy responded to the latter. "Is that a food?"


    Second set: mixed doubles -- Peschke/Kendrick vs. Kleybanova/Rojer

    In February 2011, talented Russian Alisa Kleybanova broke into the Top 20 in the WTA rankings. All signs pointed to even bigger things on the horizon for the then 21-year-old. Mere months later, she was fighting for her life. Diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Kleybanova took a leave of absence from professional tennis, unsure if she'd ever return. Thankfully, by early 2012 cancer treatments proved successful. A strikingly thinner Kleybanova felt well enough to enter a tournament in Miami, where she reached the second round. However, she quickly aborted the comeback attempt, choosing to go back into training until she'd regained more of her old strength.

    Flash forward to the summer of 2013. Looking like her old self, a healthy Kleybanova is battling back through the WTA ranks the hard way, playing events on the minor league challenger circuit. In her first competitive event in over a year, Kleybanova won eight consecutive matches, storming through qualifying to win the $10,000 challenger in Landisville, Pennsylvania. She backed up that result by reaching another $10k final in Buffalo and the quarterfinals of a $50,000 event in Sacramento. The next stage of Kleybanova's comeback: a full slate of World TeamTennis matches.

    While she is striking the ball well, signs of rust remain. Kleybanova surrendered the first service break in mixed doubles, coughing up a pair of double faults and ending the game with a forehand error. The 2-1 New York lead didn't hold up long. Kveta Peschke was broken for 2-2, Jean-Julian Rojer held for 3-2, and Robert Kendrick made a complete mess of Game 6. "Kendo" double faulted twice and missed a routine overhead on break point, promptly lobbing his racquet skyward in disgust. Claude Okin had seen enough: Kendrick was sent to the bench and had ice applied to his right forearm while Jesse Witten came on as his substitute.

    The lineup switch paid immediate dividends. Witten played well in Game 7, a second break of Kleybanova. Peschke faced a set point in Game 8, but staved it off with a good first serve. Deja vu all over again for the Sportimes: another late rally forcing a tiebreak...

  • JRJ serving: Rojer opens the 'breaker with an ace -- 1-0 LASERS
  • JRJ: Kleybanova manages a rueful smile after her swinging volley misses badly -- 1-1
  • JW: Good first serve by Witten sets up an easy overhead smash for Peschke -- 2-1 SPORTIMES
  • JW: Peschke's defensive lob hits the overhead scoreboard (which is out of play, even in WTT) -- 2-2
  • AK: Rojer's lunging backhand volley deflects wide -- 3-2 SPORTIMES
  • AK: Kleybanova falters again, driving a forehand well long -- 4-2 SPORTIMES
  • KP: On his team's first set point, Witten reflexes a volley into the net -- 4-3 SPORTIMES
  • KP: Very skillful backhand overhead by Witten draws a desperate, lunging error from Kleybanova -- 5-3 SPORTIMES

    Surely just happy to be playing competitive tennis again, Alisa Kleybanova maintained a good attitude throughout the mixed doubles. Her less than sharp play cost the Lasers, however, and brought the home team right back into the match.


    Third set: men's singles -- Jesse Witten vs. Andy Roddick

    Born less than two months apart, Andy Roddick and Jesse Witten came up through the American tennis developmental system together. Of course, they wound up on divergent paths: Roddick becoming a Grand Slam champion and marrying a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model; Witten topping out at a career high ranking of 163. What they still have in a common is a booming first serve. The sheer dominance of that stroke made for a matchup that was -- at least initially -- fairly one-dimensional and monotonous.

    Alisa Kleybanova could be seen stifling a yawn on the Springfield bench as Witten powered through the set's seventh consecutive service hold, edging ahead of Roddick at 4-3. As the Sportimes took their second timeout, the arena DJ attempted to jump start the subdued atmosphere by playing the call-and-response chorus of "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Alas, the vast majority of the crowd responded to the Baha Men novelty hit with bemused silence. (Ironic, given that UAlbany's mascot is the Great Dane.) "That's the weakest attempt I've ever heard," Roddick chided the audience. "Apparently nobody let the dogs out."

    Roddick let his racquet do the barking in Game 8, holding at love to necessitate -- you guessed it -- a tiebreak...

  • JW serving: Witten thumps an ace down the T -- 1-0 SPORTIMES
  • JW: Witten overcooks a forehand -- 1-1
  • AR: Stab backhand volley by Roddick draws a running forehand error from Witten -- 2-1 LASERS
  • AR: Virtual carbon copy of the previous point, but this time Witten's forehand is good -- 2-2
  • JW: Long rally ends on Witten's cross-court forehand winner -- 3-2 SPORTIMES
  • JW: Witten hands the mini-break back, steering a forheand wide -- 3-3
  • AR: Roddick's forehand is barely wide; he disputes the call to no avail -- 4-3 SPORTIMES
  • AR: Roddick saves set point with a nice drop volley backhand winner -- 4-4
  • AR: Longest point of the entire set; Witten finally ends it with a down-the-line forehand winner -- 5-4 SPORTIMES

    The first eight games may have been stultifying, but the tiebreak was a thriller. It concluded with Witten triumphantly pumping his fist and Roddick sprawled out on the court in an only slightly exaggerated display of exhaustion and despair. "It was quite the rally there," the 2003 US Open champion later said of the singles set's classic final point. "Something about me, New York and drama."


    Fourth set: women's singles -- Anna-Lena Groenefeld vs. Vania King

    Powerfully built, 5 foot 11 inch Anna-Lena Groenefeld may tower over 5'5" Vania King, but it's King who has been the more accomplished singles player in recent years. (In fact, Groenefeld no longer competes in singles on the pro tour.) While Groenefeld did secure the first service break of women's singles, rifling a forehand winner into the corner for a 3-2 lead, King soon played David to her Goliath. Two double faults and a groan-worthy backhand error were the German's undoing in Game 6 -- she slammed a ball in disgust when King broke right back for 3-all.

    Groenefeld forced a winner-take-all deuce point in Game 7, but wildly misfired on a backhand return. Serving to stay alive in the set, Groenefeld was again undone by a pair of wobbly double faults, angrily talking to herself after the second. A wild forehand error on set point made it official: King's 5-3 victory launched her Lasers into the overall match lead.


    Fifth set: women's doubles -- Groenefeld/Peschke vs. King/Kleybanova

    Earlier in the evening, Sportimes coach/owner Claude Okin commandeered a microphone and informed the crowd that July 9th was a doubly special occasion. Not only was Andy Roddick in town, but Sportimes doubles specialist Kveta Peschke was turning a "young and beautiful" 38. A cake was wheeled out for Peschke while Okin spearheaded the crowd's fairly rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday." More rousing, at any rate, than the "Who Let the Dogs Out" debacle.

    When the Sportimes broke Kleybanova's shaky serve for an early 2-0 lead (and 19-18 edge overall), it appeared Peschke would have a happy birthday indeed. However, Anna-Lena Groenefeld still hadn't solved her own serving woes. She let out an anguished scream after double faulting on game point to hand the break right back. The set was back on serve and stayed that way to 3-all.

    Game 7 couldn't have felt more pivotal as Groenefeld stepped to the line. She cracked an ace en route to a lead, but was pushed to the game point brink again when Kleybanova smacked a winning return. When she needed it most, Groenefeld put a solid first serve in play, setting up an easy smash for the birthday girl. After more than three hours, the match was tied at 21-21 and the crowd was fully engaged.

    The Albany patrons cheered wildly as the Sportimes reached match point against Vania King's serve. A long rally ensued, ending on an errant Groenefeld backhand. As so often happens in Team Tennis, the game then came down to a single deciding point. Win it and the Sportimes would claim their first victory of 2013; lose it and we'd see yet another set end in a tiebreak. Peschke took the return and sent it back with interest, drilling a forehand at the net-covering Kleybanova. The cancer survivor got a racquet on it, but pushed her volley long. 38 years young, Kveta Peschke had saved the day for the New York Sportimes.


    It was a particularly sweet victory for Jesse Witten, who'd claimed the night's biggest scalp with his singles upset over Andy Roddick. "We were both a little tired out there. I had trouble catching my breath," Witten said about the tiebreak that saw him defeat a peer who has long overshadowed him. "We're the same age. We played junior tournaments, the Florida circuit, Florida designated league tournaments for 10-and-under." With a smile, Witten admits he "bloomed a little late" compared to Roddick. "He's one of the best players of all time. He carries himself well -- win, lose, whatever." Thanks to the heroics of Witten and Peschke, the Sportimes are off the 2013 schneid. "Just wanting to come out here and compete, that's what World TeamTennis is for," said Witten. "I was just trying to get that first win."