Ailing Sportimes and Freedoms Do Battle in Albany
by Christopher Gerby

Following a much ballyhooed season opener featuring star attraction Andy Roddick, the New York Sportimes were due for a bit of a letdown as they returned to action in Albany on Friday night. Attendance was relatively sparse and none of the local newspapers sent a reporter (leaving yours truly as the evening's scribe of record). Understandably, World TeamTennis devotes heavy promotion to big names like Roddick who make select appearances during the season, but lower profile matches like this one count just as much in the standings.

Adding injury to insult, both the 2-2 Sportimes and 0-3 Philadelphia Freedoms came in banged up. Would-be everyday women's singles player Jessica Pegula and marquee player Sloane Stephens withdrew from World TeamTennis shortly before the season began, forcing the Freedoms to scramble. After Maria Sanchez (for two matches) and Alison Riske (for one) filled in on an emergency basis, the Freedoms tabbed 17-year-old Team Tennis rookie Victoria Duval to shoulder the women's singles load for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Kevta Peschke of the Sportimes is playing at less than 100% and Robert Kendrick isn't playing at all, temporarily out of the lineup with an injury of his own. Kentucky native (and five-time All-American at the University of Kentucky) Eric Quigley flew in to take Kendrick's place...and was pressed into duty in the night's opening event.

First set: men's doubles -- Quigley/Witten vs. Groth/Kerr

Eric Quigley made a good early impression in his WTT debut, digging out of a 15-40 hole (hitting an ace along the way) to hold serve in the opening game. However, his partner Jesse Witten wasn't as fortunate, dropping serve as Sam Groth knifed away a volley to break for a 2-1 Philadelphia lead. Groth and fellow Aussie Jordan Kerr quickly consolidated the break and extended their edge to 4-2.

Another rough service game for Witten put the Sportimes on the brink of relative disaster, already facing a pair of set points in Game 7. But Witten saved the first with an ace and Quigley staved off the second with a winning backhand volley. As Quigley raised a clenched fist and grinned broadly, you could sense the brand new doubles partnership starting to gel. Alas, the fast paced format of World TeamTennis leaves little room for an adustment period. Quigley and Witten failed to put many returns in play as Jordan Kerr decisively served out the Freedoms' 5-3 victory.


Eric Quigley hadn't made his Sportimes debut under ideal circumstances. "He just got in today. We had to find a sub last minute. He landed at 3 o'clock," Jesse Witten told me after the match." Far from throwing his fill-in partner under the bus, Witten added, "He played great! I didn't serve my best today, had a little trouble. We had our chances."

Second set: women's singles -- Anna-Lena Groenefeld vs. Victoria Duval

Youth versus experience was the theme in set two. Though she's now a doubles specialist, 28-year-old Anna-Lena Groenefeld has a WTA Tour singles title to her credit and a career high ranking of 14th in the world. 17-year-old Victoria Duval, meanwhile, is just getting her feet wet. Her greatest claim to fame was winning the USTA 18-and-Under Nationals last summer. That earned her wild card entry into the US Open, where she became the last player to lose to a retirement-bound Kim Clijsters.

Much as it had in her previous home match on Tuesday, Groenefeld's serve was giving her all kinds of difficulty. Two double faults in the opening game practically handed a break to Duval on a silver platter. Nevertheless, once she managed to put the ball in play, Groenefeld was clearly dictating the action, pinning Duval behind the baseline with punishing groundstrokes. Groenefeld would reel off four consecutive games, making Duval look every bit the World TeamTennis debutante.

When Duval sprayed a particularly wild forehand error early in Game 6, it appeared the ending would be swift and inevitable. Undaunted, Liezel Huber let out an encouraging cry of "Come on, Vicky!" from the Freedoms bench. And when Duval battled her way to game point, the Freedoms called a timeout, sending Samuel Groth out to counsel the young American. Whatever he said must have done the trick -- Duval laced a forehand winner down the line to hold for 2-4.

When Duval claimed a service break, narrowing the margin to 3-4, the Freedoms rose to their feet in unison. Liezel Huber even broke into an impromptu dance. Across the way, Groenefeld slammed a ball in anger. The Freedoms continued bouncing on their toes in front of the Philly bench throughout Game 8, while Groenefeld's teammates remained seated and stoic. An inspired Duval held at love, taking some serious momentum into the set-deciding tiebreak...

  • ALG serving: Groenefeld buries a forehand in the net -- 1-0 FREEDOMS
  • ALG: Groenefeld's forehand clips the tape and flutters wide -- 2-0 FREEDOMS
  • VD: Groenefeld snaps her 8-point losing streak, ending a good rally with a forheand winner -- 2-1 FREEDOMS
  • VD: Backhand winner down the line for Groenefeld -- 2-2
  • ALG: A point finally goes with serve as Duval's backhand is just long -- 3-2 SPORTIMES
  • ALG: Duval catches the baseline with a clutch forehand -- 3-3
  • VD: Duval earns a set point by a lacing a cross-court backhand into the corner -- 4-3 FREEDOMS
  • VD: Groenefeld sends a forehand long to end it -- 5-3 SPORTIMES

    Upon completing her comeback from a 1-4 deficit, Victoria Duval was immediately mobbed by giddy teammates. She'd been overpowered and seemingly outclassed in the first half of the set, but steadied her nerves and turned the tide with a little help from her new friends.


    Third set: men's singles -- Jesse Witten vs. Samuel Groth

    "THWACK!" There's a distinctive sound made when Sam Groth unleashes a first serve. It's a miniature sonic boom, amplified when he's playing indoors. The Aussie may not be a household name, but that rocket of a serve has made tennis history. Playing at a challenger event in Busan last year, Groth had a serve measured at an eye-popping 163.4 miles per hour, shattering Ivo Karlovic's previous record by more than seven MPH. Whether or not you trust the radar guns used in South Korea, there's no denying Groth's serve is a thing of beauty and raw power. (For the record, the ATP Tour confirmed that the Busan challenger "was using approved equipment" and that "other data gathered appeared within a normal range.")

    Unsurprisingly. Groth recorded aces in each of his first two service games. He also pulled off one nifty behind-the-back shot, but couldn't make much of an impression in his first two return games. (Jesse Witten's serve, it must be noted, is no slouch.) As they switched sides, the Melbourne native looked plenty relaxed...and just to make him feel even more at a home, the arena DJ played a slice of Men at Work's "Down Under" during the changeover.

    After Witten held for 3-2, Groth resumed his laser show. Ace for 30-0. Ace for 40-0. "Jesse, wear a helmet!" one fan quipped as an exasperated Witten backed all the way up to the fence to return Groth's next delivery. He did get the return in play this time, but Groth cleverly executed a drop shot. Making a hopeless dash from the back of the court, Witten chuckled and gave his opponent a thumbs up as the ball bounced twice.

    Game 7 produced, at long last, a pair of break points. Witten came up with a pair of first serves when he needed them, however, and nosed back ahead at 4-3. Just as quickly as Groth had seemed to be in the ascendancy, the pendulum swung back. Groth opened Game 8 with back-to-back double faults and groaned "come on" when an errant forehand gave Witten quadruple set point at 0-40. Groth staved off the first break chance, but faltered on the second, steering a backhand wide. The vaunted Groth serve having proved slightly vulernable after all, Witten capped his 5-3 victory with a celebratory fist pump.


    After the match, I asked Witten where Groth's serve ranks among the biggest he's faced. "He's got the record, right? Isn't it the biggest? It's the biggest to me. It's a tough serve. If he's hittin' it in, you can't do anything. You've gotta guess and just try to make a couple plays, get lucky."

    Fourth set: mixed doubles -- Groenefeld/Witten vs. Huber/Groth

    If revenge was on Samuel Groth's mind, he didn't have long to wait. Set 4 saw Groth and Witten throwing howitzers at each other all over again. This time it was Witten who blinked first. With the Freedoms up 1-0, 30-30, Witten missed one volley, then gagged another on break point. Jesse launched a ball far into the unoccupied upper reaches of the stands, incurring a "ball abuse" warning for his trouble.

    7-time Grand Slam doubles champion Liezel Huber tacked on a love hold and the Freedoms were off to the races. Another mighty Groth ace clinched Game 5, giving Philadelphia a 4-1 lead in the set and a 17-13 advantage overall. Witten continued to come unglued, casting a suspcious glance at the overhead lights after double faulting early in Game 6. After squadering set points in singles, Groth needed only one here. The Aussie spanked a winning backhand overhead, breaking Witten's serve and securing a 5-1 win after just 17 minutes of mixed doubles.


    Fifth set: women's doubles -- Groenefeld/Peschke vs. Duval/Huber

    "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose"...and trailing the Freedoms by 5 games meant Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke had little to lose as they ran the anchor leg for New York. The reigning Brussels Open doubles champions came out swinging from the hips against the first-time pairing of Victoria Duval and Liezel Huber. Groenefeld raised a defiant fist after holding for 1-0. Huber was swiftly broken for 2-0 and Peschke tacked on a comfortable hold for 3-0. Since there's no running out the clock in tennis (particularly in WTT, where you must win the final game, no matter how badly your opponents are trailing in the overall score), the hearty Sportime supporters still in attendance had reason to get excited.

    One fan in particular was a bit too excited, letting out a distracting whistle every time Huber or Duval served. This raised the considerable ire of Samuel Groth, who repeatedly voiced his displeasure to the umpire. "Every time! If he does it again, I'm gonna jump the fence," Groth finally theatened. Looking in the offending spectactor's direction, Groth grumbled, "Good one, mate. Good sport." I should mention here that Groth stands nearly 6 foot 5 and actually played in the rough and tumble world of professional Australian Rules Football two years ago. He is one big dude not to be trifled with, so it came as little surprise when his "jump the fence" vow caused the whistling to cease.

    Peace and quiet having been restored, Duval got the Freedoms on the board with a hold for 1-3. A surging Groenefeld blasted through a love hold for 4-1, however, putting the pressure squarely on 36-year-old WTT stalwart Liezel Huber. Already trailing 0-30, Huber saw her serve clip the tape and hop into the service box. Under Team Tennis rules, that's a live ball, eligible to be struck by either player on the returning team. Making a great heads up play, Groenefeld (who wasn't even the intended returner) swooped in and spanked a winning forehand. Two points later, the German put away a high forehand volley to wrap up the set.


    Virtual bedlam in the SEFCU Arena as Groenefeld and Peschke's 5-1 triumph sent the match into overtime. If the Freedoms could break Kveta Peschke's serve, they'd survive and win the match. If Peschke held, we'd go into a first-to-7-points supertiebreaker. Peschke wavered slightly, issuing a double fault at 40-30. The no-ad scoring meant it was now game point for the Sportimes and match point for the Freedoms. The Czech put in a good first serve this time, then watched her partner claim the game with a nifty drop volley. Looking so much more comfortable in doubles than she had in her singles loss, Anna-Lena Groenefeld vigorously shook her fist.


    The Freedoms were reeling, on the ropes, and in seemingly dire straits against the top ranked women's doubles team in the league. Veteran Liezel Huber and rookie Victoria Duval would need to get their act together in a hurry as the suddenly very dramatic match entered its final chapter: the Supertiebreaker.

  • VD serving: Groenefeld nets a low forehand volley -- 1-0 FREEDOMS
  • VD: Huber shows off her considerable doubles chops on a winning backhand volley -- 2-0 FREEDOMS
  • ALG: Groenefeld badly mis-hits a forehand wide -- 3-0 FREEDOMS
  • ALG: Peschke weakly dumps a high backhand volley into the net; the Sportimes call timeout -- 4-0 FREEDOMS
  • LH: Peschke's backhand return is barely wide; her imploring look to the umpire yields no overrule -- 5-0 FREEDOMS
  • LH: Groenefeld nets her forehand return, giving Philly a gaggle of match points -- 6-0 FREEDOMS
  • KP: Peschke staves off elimination with a forehand winner -- 6-1 FREEDOMS
  • KP: Swinging forehand volley by Peschke flies long to end it -- 7-1 FREEDOMS


    A stunning reversal of fortune as Groenefeld and Peschke, who'd led such a furious comeback, were summarily trounced at the final hurdle. After the match, Jesse Witten had nothing but praise for the vaunted women's doubles duo. "That's the team we want out there. They showed that they're the best team, they're the best doubles team. I guess we put 'em in a tough spot to have to win six games AND a tiebreaker. They did a great job. It is a little disappointing, because we definitely had the momentum and right where we wanted to be."

    Meanwhile, the spectre of injuries hangs over the Sportimes. "We're a little banged up," Witten admits. "We've got Kveta hurt and Rob hurt. We're trying to get healthier. We've got a couple days off. It's a loss, but we've got a lot more left." And the cavalry arrives on Monday, as former number 4 player in the world James Blake makes a newly scheduled appearance in the New York lineup. "That should help out, hopefully help out our injuries. If he can get us healthy, he can play all the time," says Witten. "I know James a little bit. I've practiced with him a bunch. Great guy, good teammate. We're happy to have him come fill in for us and try to get some more fans out here. We're looking forward to it. I think it'll be a good match and maybe he'll be the key to our success."