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1999 World Team Tennis: Schenectady vs. Sacramento
by Christopher Gerby
Sacramento Capitals at Schenectady County Electrics
Schenectady, New York
July 9, 1999

1999 represents a new beginning of sorts for World Team Tennis in upstate New York. The local WTT franchise, the New York OTBzz, fared very well on the court in '98, posting an 11-3 regular season record -- the best in the entire league. It was not a financially successful campaign, however, and OTB chose not to stay on as the team's sponsor. Just when it looked like the franchise might fold, the Schenectady County legislature voted to take over as title sponsor on a one-year trial basis. So this summer will be a crucial one for the team, rechristened the Schenctady County Electrics in the off-season.

Schenectady's roster has seen a near-total overhaul. Hard-hitting Boston native 1999 Schenectady County Electrics Geoff Grant is the lone holdover, joined for now by T.J. Middleton, Samantha Smith, and Louise Pleming. Attendance should pick up in the second half of the season, when superstars Jana Novotna and Martina Navratilova briefly join the roster (for one and two matches, respectively -- not at the same time). The squad has a "no name" quality for the time being, though, and seems a tad shorthanded. The Electrics got off to a rough start, losing a pair of matches on the road.

"I think we'll be tough to beat at home," general manager Nitty Singh optimistically suggested as her team prepared to meet the defending champion Sacramento Capitals, who had trounced Schenectady 22-10 earlier in the week. "Home" for the Electrics is supposed to be Schenectady's Central Park. However, with a 50% chance of rain in the forecast, the match was abruptly moved to the indoor courts at the (not especially nearby) Tri-City Racquet Club. This turn of events caused your intrepid reporter to miss the first set. The lack of advance warning apparently rankled the area's TV networks as well. "Over the years, the stream of information from our local tennis club has been poor," groused one sports anchor in his on-air report.

Fortunately for the fans, admission to the racquet club was free. The bad news: the site is not really equipped to host professional tennis. Seating was hard to come by, to say the least. Most spectators watched the action from an adjacent court, either standing or sitting right on the court surface (a safe distance away from the action). The Central Park sound system (which broadcasts music and a chatty announcer during the local WTT matches) usually helps inspire a circus-like atmosphere, but of course it was absent. There was no scoreboard and the ceiling was low enough that it nearly disrupted a few lobs. This all made for an interesting experience, but did nothing to detract from WTT's rinky dink, minor league image.

Alas, the show must go on. Here's a quick refresher course in the unique rules (endorsed by league founder Billie Jean King) of World Team Tennis. WTT matches consist of five sets: men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles, and mixed doubles. The first team to win five games wins the set. Scoring is cumulative: the team which wins the most games (not necessarily the most sets) prevails. The traditional deuce/ad system is not employed -- any game which goes to 40-40 is immediately decided by a single "game point". Lets are played and crowd noise is encouraged. Granted, that last "rule" hardly came into play on Friday night in the almost morgue-like confines of the racquet club.

Elena Likhovtseva and Jessica Steck I wasn't there to see it, but Pleming and Smith staked the Electrics to an early lead. They recorded a surprisingly easy win in the women's doubles set, trouncing Elena Likhovtseva and Jessica Steck 5 games to 1. The very fact that Likhovtseva and Steck were representing Sacramento brings up one of the problems undermining World Team Tennis -- the high level of roster turnover from year to year. The Capitals are technically the league's defending champions, but the women who contributed to that success are gone. Lindsay Davenport and Corina Morariu, who played for the Capitals in '98, have since gone on to share a Wimbledon title, but they won't be playing Team Tennis this year.

2nd Set -- Men's Singles: Geoff Grant vs. Richey Reneberg

A pair of Americans did battle in the second set. 27-year-old Geoff Grant has become a fan favorite at the U.S. Open with his scrappy tenacity, but he brought a mediocre ATP Tour ranking of #137 into Friday night's contest. Ranked even lower -- thanks in large part to some injury woes -- is Sacramento's Richey Reneberg. Geoff Grant Richey Reneberg There was a time when Reneberg was uncomfortable being known as one of the sport's "elder statesmen," but he's probably getting used to it by now. He'll turn 34 in the fall. Never a particularly hard hitter, Richey more than ever needs to get by on experienced savvy and touch around the net. By winning three matches to qualify for Wimbledon's singles draw last month, he proved that he can still get the job done.

Grant came out swinging right from the outset, but his two-fisted groundstrokes (Grant is one of very few players on the men's circuit who hit their forehand with two hands on the racquet) were more powerful than accurate. He squandered an early break point with a forehand into the net and lost the game on another error. Grant held easily to even the set at 1, but Reneberg quickly closed out a love hold of his own with a nifty backhand volley. Grant was pushed to 30-30 in the set's fourth game, but immediately smacked two aces in a row to hold for 2-2. That display drew a cheer from Louise Pleming, who was clearly getting into the team spirit. She made her presence felt from the sidelines on a number of occasions, shouting things like "Come on, Geoff!", "Yeah, baby!", and "Right here, mate!" in her Aussie accent.

Reneberg had to stare down another game point before holding for 3-2. Grant rolled through an impressive hold for 3-3, recording another ace, a forehand winner, and a service winner in the process. The redhead was dictating play from the baseline, but still couldn't quite sneak out a break against Reneberg, who was excelling on the big points. Geoff pushed Richey to deuce ("game point") again in the seventh game, but was denied by an ace. A couple minutes later, Grant was suddenly facing a pair of set points, but he gamely fought them off to force a tiebreak at 4 games all.

The tiebreak at 4-4 (instead of the traditional 6-6 or the old WTT approach, 5-5) is a new rule this season. Requiring only 5 games to win a set is another Billie Jean King approach to making matches shorter. Such rule changes are usually suggested as a means to make the sport more TV-friendly...but World Team Tennis is almost never televised, causing one to wonder why WTT matches needed to be truncated in the first place. The notion that what tennis fans really want is less tennis strikes me as a rather depressing mindset.

For what it's worth, the tiebreak here was relatively one-sided. World Team Tennis uses a 9-point tiebreak -- the first player to 5 (not 7) wins it. Grant was therefore in very good shape after winning the first four points. Reneberg hit a nice service winner for 1-4 and got to 2-4 when a running, lunging, one-handed forehand from Grant found the net. The third set point was the charm, however. Reneberg steered a backhand wide, giving Grant the 'breaker 5 points to 2 and the set 5 games to 4. OVERALL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 10, SACRAMENTO 5

3rd Set -- Men's Doubles: Grant/Middleton vs. MacPhie/Reneberg

The conventional wisdom is that men's doubles has become a display of pure power, dominated by serves and virtually free from eclectic rallies. Friday night's set...would do little to dispel that view. The points were quick, the games were brief, and service breaks were not in abundance. Geoff Grant held his serve convincingly to open the set. Brian "The Hammer" MacPhie was not to be outdone, drilling two aces in a row to wrap up a hold for 1-1. MacPhie is a stocky lefty with a rocket serve and, frankly, not much else. He looked rather annoyed trying to deal with the ball girls and ball boys who, perhaps because this was the Electrics' first home game of the season, were something less than a well-oiled machine.

MacPhie and Reneberg weren't communicating much, but it was the Schenectady duo that got its signals crossed most vividly. At 15-0 in T.J. Middleton's opening service game, Reneberg blocked back a delicate return. As it floated through the air, Middleton and Grant both called "you!" instead of going after the ball. It naturally fell in for a clean winner, but Middleton rallied to hold for 2-1. Reneberg thumped a pair of aces and an overhead smash on his way to 2-2. Grant and MacPhie each held at love, making it 3-3. Grant was the star of the seventh game, impressively putting away tough overheads to win the first two points. After the second, Middleton put his arm around Grant, pointed to him, and nodded approvingly. Grant bowed and got a big (or at least as big as could be expected) round of applause.

Middleton and Grant took that game for a 4-3 lead, but Reneberg issued another love hold for 4-4, bringing up the night's second tiebreak. The first three points of the 'breaker went with serve, but Grant's forehand return winner of a MacPhie serve put Schenectady ahead 3-1. An untimely Middleton double fault narrowed the gap to 3-2, but Grant went airborne for a big smash and a 4-2 lead. Fortunately for Sacramento, Reneberg was in a groove on his serve. The next two points were on the veteran's racquet and he won them both for 4-4. On the winner-take-all set point, MacPhie drilled a volley at Middleton, who bunted it back into the net. With a 5-4 win in men's doubles, the Capitals finally had some momentum. OVERALL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 14, SACRAMENTO 10.

4th Set -- Women's Singles: Elena Likhovtseva vs. Samantha Smith

Jessica Steck's night was already essentially over. Elena Likhovtseva would be handling the women's singles and mixed doubles duty for Sacramento, so the young South African (who actually beat Anna Kournikova once when they were both still juniors) briefly departed after the third set to grab a snack. I didn't get a good enough look at the food to know what it was, but Steck was chowing down on something for much of the fourth set. While she was away, Sacramento coach Scott Davis (the former ATP Tour doubles specialist) hit with Likhovtseva to warm her up for the singles set.

Elena looked to have a fairly easy assignment. Ranked #20 in the world, she'd posted a 5-0 whitewash of Schenectady's Samantha Smith just three nights ago. Smith is the short-haired serve-and-volleyer from England best known for the shocking win she scored over Conchita Martinez at Wimbledon last year. The ranking points from that fourth round effort have dropped off the WTA Tour computer, though, leaving Smith at #172 and maybe dashing some hopes among the Brits (who've not had a Top 20 player to call their own since Jo Durie's day). Sporting a small brace on her left ankle and a headband, Smith surprisingly broke Likhovtseva at 15 to win the set's opening game.

Smith got down 15-40 on her serve, but fought back to deuce. The game point was a strange one -- a Smith backhand was called long but overruled by the chair umpire, who declared, "Game Schenectady." Likhovtseva immediately pleaded, "No no no" and was backed up by her coach. Giving the umpire a little lesson in the rules of tennis, Scott Davis correctly argued that Likhovtseva had a play on the ball and could have hit a good reply if the "out" call had not been made. To his credit, the umpire realized his mistake and the game point was replayed. It worked out no better for Likhovtseva the second time -- she hit an errant service return and unhappily bounced her racquet, now trailing 2-0.

The rail thin Russian got her bearings in the next game. At 30-30, Smith hit a drop volley, but Likhovtseva ran it down and sent a backhand winner up the line. She then tried a drop shot of her own, which bounced twice for a winner and got her on the board at 1-2. Likhovtseva played another solid game to break for 2-all and battled her way out of a 0-40 deficit to hold for 3-2. Smith evened the set at 3-3 and once again got to game point on Likhovtseva's serve. However, a cross-court forehand on that crucial point wrong-footed Smith, who muttered "Oh no" as it whizzed past for a winner.

Smith flirted with trouble in the set's eighth game, repeatedly serving to Likhovtseva's solid backhand, but eventually held for 4-4. The night's most stylistically intriguing matchup would therefore end in another tiebreak. The 'breaker was a good little microcosm of the set itself -- Likhovtseva leaning into graceful groundstrokes and Smith trying to chip/charge her way into the net. The Brit got up a mini-break at 2-1 and looked to go up 3-1 when she stuck an overhead that appeared to catch the baseline. It was ruled out, however, inciting Geoff Grant to loudly ask the umpire, "How can you not see that?"

Smith recovered, putting away a smash for 3-2. She then pushed a volley wide for 3-3. A long rally on the seventh point ended on an unforced Likhovtseva error -- Smith clenched her fist as the ball sailed long. Set point in hand, Samantha caressed a drop volley winner to claim the tiebreak 5 points to 3. Having extended her team's lead by winning the fourth set, she triumphantly lobbed a ball to the smallish-but-appreciative crowd. OVERALL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 19, SACRAMENTO 14

5th Set -- Mixed Doubles: Middleton/Pleming vs. MacPhie/Likhovtseva

"It's never over" is the rallying cry behind one of WTT's other scoring quirks. If the trailing team wins the fifth set, the match continues until they tie the overall score or lose a game. So, even with a five point deficit, the Capitals had a semi-reasonable shot at coming from behind. However, Electrics doubles specialists Louise Pleming and T.J. Middleton were gunning to end matters right here. They won each of their initial service games, while Elena Likhovtseva and Brian MacPhie did likewise for Sacramento. The men were unyielding again in the following pair of games -- Middleton ended his hold for 3-2 with a service winner and a MacPhie ace closed out his hold for 3-3.

Pleming hit a nice reflex volley winner in the seventh game, which she and Louise Pleming Middleton won to take a 4-3 lead. The Australian then made a pair of sterling volleys in the first point of Game 8, clipping Likhovtseva with the second to go ahead 0-15. "Who needs Novotna when we've got Pleming?", Grant good-naturedly bellowed from the Schenectady bench. The last few points of that game were ugly. Likhovtseva netted an easy forehand volley to go down 15-30, Middleton bricked a volley of his own for 30-30, and MacPhie gagged on a bad volley error for 30-40. Facing match point, Elena Likhovtseva -- a usually consistent player who looked out of sorts for most of the evening -- punched a backhand volley wide of the sideline. There would be no comeback, as the Electrics won the fifth set 5-3. FINAL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 24, SACRAMENTO 17

The members of the victorious Schenectady County Electrics graciously stuck around long after the match's completion, signing autographs and posing for pictures. T.J. Middleton and Louise Pleming were especially affable, going out of their way to personally thank individual fans for showing up to support the team. "If you keep coming out, we'll make sure to keep winning," vowed Pleming. "We may not be the best, but we'll fight 'til we die."