Sportimes Face Lobsters In Bid to Climb Above .500 Mark
by Christopher Gerby

Tuesday night was Kids Night at the SEFCU Arena, with each purchaser of an adult ticket entitled to one free admission for a child 12 or under. If nothing else, this guaranteed a decent number of seats would be filled for the New York Sportimes' home match against the Boston Lobsters. It also guaranteed a decent amount of energy and noise, albeit not always at the most opportune times. To say that some of these kids were restless would be an understatement.

The Sportimes came in with a 3-3 record, good for second place in the Eastern Conference. One of those three losses had come on the road against these very same Boston Lobsters, but so had one of the three victories. New York figured to be favorites in this rubber match, as the Boston roster looks largely unimposing on paper. Eric Butorac is a crafty doubles specialist and Amir Weintraub has talent, but neither fits the definition of a game changer. Jill Craybas and Katalin Marosi, meanwhile, possess a wealth of experience...but started the night with the worst women's doubles record in the entire league. (Boston's best selling point might be its theme song: the arena DJ played "Rock Lobster" by The B-52's during player introductions.) If the Sportimes have playoff aspirations, this is the kind of match they need to win.

First set: men's doubles -- Kendrck/Witten vs. Butorac/Weintraub

Playing together for the first time in a week, Robert Kendrick and Jesse Witten looked out of sorts in the early stages of men's doubles. Already trailing 2-0, they needed to dodge a couple break points in Kendrick's hold for 1-2. Their powerful, aggressive games gradually started clicking, however, and they managed to break back (against Eric Butorac) to even the set at 3 games apiece. Following holds by Kendrick and Amir Weintraub, the set came to its conclusion: a first-to-5-points tiebreak...

  • JW serving: Kendrick grimaces as Weintraub's winning cross-court pass eludes him -- 1-0 SPORTIMES
  • JW: Weintraub mis-hits a forehand return long -- 1-1
  • EB: Good forehand by Kendrick forces a Weintraub volley error -- 2-1 SPORTIMES
  • EB: Weintraub in the middle of the action again, getting a backhand volley to dribble over the net cord -- 2-2
  • RK: Witten puts away an authoritative overhead smash -- 3-2 SPORTIMES
  • RK: Witten manages to catch the baseline with a winning forehand volley -- 4-2 SPORTIMES
  • AW: Aggressive backhand return by Kendrick just misses the corner -- 4-3 SPORTIMES
  • AW: Kendrick poaches, clinching the set with a nice forehand volley -- 5-3 SPORTIMES


    Second set: mixed doubles -- Peschke/Kendrick vs. Marosi/Butorac

    The return to health of Kveta Peschke and Robert Kendrick (who'd each been slowed by injuries last week) bodes very well for the Sportimes entering the second half of the World TeamTennis season. Aside from a few shanked returns (one of which prompted Kendrick to yell a cautionary "heads up!") they both displayed fine form in this mixed doubles set. Kendrick executed a winning volley to close out a break of Katalin Maraosi's serve for a 2-1 lead, then made another on a critical game point to surge ahead 3-1.

    Still up a break at 4-2, the Sportimes opened Game 7 by winning a tremendous, all-court, action-packed rally. Peschke celebrated by doing the cabbage patch, possibly inspired by backup teammate Abigail Spears. (Inactive for this match, Spears was periodically dancing up a storm to the DJ's between-point musical selections from her seat behind the New York bench.) Holding quadruple set point at 0-40, Peschke knocked off a very solid volley to secure the set. Time hasn't robbed these 30-somethings of their reflexes: Peschke and Kendrick owned the net in their 5-2 win.


    Third set: men's singles -- Jesse Witten vs. Amir Weintraub

    26-year-old Amir Weintraub is ranked a mere 213th on the ATP Tour and had never reached the main draw of a Grand Slam event until earlier this year in Australia. The word "journeyman" comes to mind, but Weintraub has pulled off some heroics for the Israeli Davis Cup team, including a win over Milos Raonic. He came to Albany armed with a nice serve, stylish one-handed backhand, and a cheering section (several vocal Weintraub supporters made the trip from Boston).

    In his first two service games, Jesse Witten got to deuce -- a single "deciding point" in WTT's no-ad scoring system. Neither game ended well for the man affectionately known as "Hoss." With a weak backhand error, Witten gave Weintraub the early break for 1-0. A double fault was good for a second break and a 3-0 Weintraub lead. Witten reacted to that double fault by violently throwing his racquet against the back fence, arousing the curiosity of one of the many children in attendance. "He's angry," the boy's mother explained. "Poor sportsmanship."

    Witten kept battling and finally did manage to put one crooked number in the New York column, holding for 1-4. But the big guy was having no luck whatsoever returning Weintraub's serve, so the end came swiftly. A long rally on set point ended with Witten drilling a backhand into the net. Amir Weintraub's one-sided 5-1 victory erased the Sportimes' lead in one fell swoop.


    Fourth set: women's singles -- Anna-Lena Groenefeld vs. Jill Craybas

    39-year-old Jill Craybas finally seems to be approaching the final curtain in a laudable career that includes a Wimbledon win over Serena Williams. The pride of Rhode Island has kept herself in remarkable physical condition, but now dwells near the bottom of the WTA's Top 300. Craybas did manage to scratch out a 5-4 win over Anna-Lena Groenefeld last week in Boston, but the Sportimes' mercurial German has made significant strides since then. A mostly dominating display of power tennis saw her avenge a loss to Victoria Duval on Monday night. Might a second round of revenge be in the offing here?

    Groenefeld made a statement right away, taking the first eight points of the set, good for a 2-0 lead. Craybas got on the board at 1-2, but Groenefeld didn't let up. The serve that had plagued her so much early in the season was now dialed in and devastating -- two aces in Game 4 saw Anna-Lena surge to 3-1. Craybas was game, as always, but thoroughly outgunned. Pinned to the baseline for much of Game 5, she ended it that way, pushing a defensive forehand into the net on break point.

    Every set of singles Groenefeld had played on home soil this season featured at least one mental lapse, one run of momentum-killing bad form. Not tonight. A long rally on set point ended with another forced error into the net off the racquet of Craybas. Exclaiming "come on!" as she pumped her first, Groenefeld marched to the sidelines with a huge 5-1 win in hand.


    For the second night in a row, Groenefeld feasted on a dish of revenge against a player who'd bested her earlier in the season. "You always say, don't lose twice against the same person!" Anna-Lena told me with a laugh after the match. "I played really well tonight. I'm really happy about it." Groenefeld's no longer playing singles on the WTA Tour, so I asked if the transition back into singles play for WTT has been difficult. "It's always not so easy, because I only practice doubles," she replied. "Back on the singles court, I played a few matches in Germany in the (Bundesliga) league as well, but it's always new. I'm happy that it turns out better now. It takes a little time, but it's getting better and better again."

    Fifth set: women's doubles -- Groenefeld/Peschke vs. Craybas/Marosi

    Fresh off a semifinal showing at Wimbledon, Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke have thrown down the gauntlet as the preeminent women's doubles combination in World TeamTennis. It's no accident that Sportimes coach Claude Okin schedules them for the pivotal fifth set every night -- their undefeated record thus far speaks for itself.

    Once again, Groenefeld's power meshed perfectly with Peschke's adroit net play. Extending their team's overall lead, Anna-Lena and Kveta stormed ahead 4 games to 1, making a meal of Jill Craybas' serve along the way. To their credit, Craybas and Katalin Marosi managed to fight off a match point in Game 6 (Craybas holding to 2-4) and another in Game 7. The third time was the charm, however, as Groenefeld snuck in a delicate touch volley winner to wrap up a 5-2 win and send the Albany crowd home happy.


    By winning 10 of the match's last 13 games, Anna-Lena Groenefeld earned unofficial MVP honors. After a shaky opening week, the talented 28-year-old really does appear to have turned the corner. "In the beginning of the season, I had a little trouble in my singles, but I think last night I turned it around. I played good there so I had a lot of confidence coming in today." And there's certainly no lack of confidence when she tees it up with Kveta Peschke in doubles. "I think every time we step on the court, the opponents don't really like it when they have to play us." Form found, confidence restored, Groenefeld is ready for the WTT stretch run. "We have a tough schedule, all the teams coming up, but hopefully we can keep going now and keep it up like this."