1999 World Team Tennis: Schenectady vs. Idaho
by Christopher Gerby
Idaho Sneakers at Schenectady County Electrics
Schenectady, New York
July 11, 1999
After unceremoniously opening their first
homestand of the 1999 World Team Tennis season in the
morgue-like atmosphere of the Tri-City Racquet Club, the
Schenectady County Electrics settled into the friendly
confines of Central Park. With no rain
in the forecast, they were free to play Sunday's match in their
usual outdoor stadium. Home court DJ "Dr. Sound" was even
on hand, playing music after virtually every point and
egging the crowd on to support the Electrics. The
incessant music is part of WTT's contrived "fan-friendly"
approach. The players tolerate the music; Electrics'
doubles specialist Louise Pleming actually seems to enjoy
it. A few times on Sunday she could be spotted grooving,
singing along, and "playing" her racquet like a guitar.
The Idaho Sneakers may be the youngest team in the league, but thus far they
had been the best. Their 3-0
start included a 25-16 win over the Electrics in Boise
earlier in the week. That victory came without Wimbledon
semifinalist Mirjana Lucic, who was expected to make the
Sneakers even stronger as they carried that perfect record
into Schenectady. If the Electrics were intimidated, though,
it didn't show. Before the match got underway, Geoff Grant
and Louise Pleming informed the Sneakers that they were
sitting on the home team's side of the court and convinced
them to move.
1st Set -- Women's Doubles: Pleming/Smith
Still just 17 years old, Mirjana Lucic has already been a Grand Slam doubles
champion (teaming with
Martina Hingis to win the '98 Australian Open). However,
her partner here was baby-faced American Brie Rippner, who's
gradually making a name for herself on the women's tour
but isn't known for doubles prowess. The combination looked
a little green in the first game, in which Samantha Smith
of the Electrics dropped only one service point. Lucic was
schizophrenic in the second game, hitting an ace and two
costly double faults (the second on game point) to put the
Sneakers down an early break at 2-0.
Louise Pleming played very well in the third
game, holding at love. Pleming has a unique service motion
-- it starts with her leaning down and pulling the racquet
back high over her head -- but it's pretty effective. She
and Smith quickly added to their lead, going up 4-0 when
Rippner double faulted on break point. Since scoring in
Team Tennis is cumulative, Smith and Pleming surely knew
that a 5-0 sweep of the first set would be of major service
to their team. It almost looked like it wouldn't happen, as
Smith double faulted twice on the way from 40-0 to 40-40. Lucic's
backhand return on the winner-take-all game point landed
just long of the baseline, however, giving a surprisingly
handy 5-0 set to the Schenectady County Electrics. Pleming and
Smith have become quite the combination, winning ten of their
last eleven games!
2nd Set -- Men's Singles: Geoff Grant vs.
The Bryan twins -- a pair of 21-year-old budding tennis stars -- look exactly
alike, dress exactly
alike when they play, and even have the same short hairdo.
However, two things set Bob Bryan apart from identical brother
Mike: he's left-handed and is the better singles player
of the two. In fact, Bob was the NCAA singles champion in
1998 (when he and Mike also led Stanford to the team title).
Nonetheless, he is a doubles specialist and was only able
to narrowly defeat Schenectady's Geoff Grant in a tiebreak
when they faced each other earlier in the week.
Bryan trailed 30-40 in the opening game of
the men's singles set, but got to game point with an ace.
He then won game point when Grant buried a forehand approach
shot in the net. Grant's two-handed groundstrokes were
sloppy in the second game, as he surrendered a break at 15.
Bryan kept his roll going, taking a 3-0 lead with a love
hold and then jumping out 0-30 on Grant's serve. The
redhead wasn't going away, though. He let out a positive
shout after ripping a backhand cross-court winner to end
Bryan's consecutive points streak at eight. Grant drilled
an ace on the next point and eventually held for 1-3.
"It's just one break," he said after arriving at the
Schenectady bench for the brief changeover. "Yeah, one
break," head coach Gerry Cuva agreed.
This is Cuva's first season as the Schenectady
coach. He seems to be taking former coach Inder Singh's
approach...which is seemingly to just sit there and stay
out of the players' way. Probably for the best, since that
style earned Singh the '98 Coach of the Year award. At the
other end of the coaching spectrum is Idaho's head man,
Wayne Bryan, stern father of the twins. Wayne has a
reputation for illegally coaching his sons during their
ATP Tour matches. Coaching is allowed in World Team Tennis,
but I guess the covert tactics are too deeply
ingrained for him to abandon. Throughout the second set, Wayne
Bryan cupped his mouth as he gave Bob instructions in a
sort of whispered shout. He also resorted to the kinds of
signals you might see from a baseball coach, crossing his arms
in various ways.
Grant was still working hard and grunting
loudly, but Bryan held at 15 to take a commanding 4-1
lead in the set. Bob looked to the Idaho bench and pumped his
fist. He said "Come on, let's go!" to himself when a game
point against Grant's serve gave him an opportunity to
close out the set. However, Grant swung an ace out wide to
survive at 2-4. A ball nearly hit chair umpire Candy
Pantano in the seventh game ("Almost got her," joked T.J.
Middleton from Schenectady's bench), which otherwise saw Grant
finding the range on his groundstrokes. The final point of
that game was a great all-court rally, ending with Bryan
at the net and Grant whipping a passing shot by him to
complete a crucial service break. Looking very pumped up
now, Grant powered home another ace in holding at love to
even the set at 4-4. The tables had completely turned.
According to this season's Team Tennis rules,
a 9-point tiebreak is played once
the set reaches 4-all.
Bryan served the first two points and won them, Grant
served the next two and won them, and Bryan zipped through
two more service points of his own to lead 4-2. Grant was
now facing double set point, but -- thanks to WTT's
unconventional scoring -- the last three points would be
on his serve. An easy smash narrowed the gap to 4-3. A
two-handed forehand winner made it 4-4. The following
point would end the set one way or the other, so both
players gave their absolute all. Hitting his second
defensive lob of the rally, Bob Bryan slipped and fell,
leaving the court open for Grant to put away a winning
smash. "That is HUGE!," Pleming exclaimed after giving the
jubilant Grant a big hug. OVERALL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 10,
3rd Set -- Men's Doubles: Grant/Middleton
After a very successful college career, Bob
and Mike Bryan quickly made their way through the professional
challenger ranks and are now #14 in the ATP Tour doubles
team rankings. They also give more "bang for your buck"
than just about anybody else in tennis. Any pair of identical twins
playing together would be a crowd-drawing curiosity, but
the Bryans really do put on an entertaining show. They
exuberantly hop around the court, engaging in
high fives and chest bumps like a clean-cut version of the
Jensen Brothers. They knocked off Schenectady's pair of
Geoff Grant and T.J. Middleton 5-2 on Wedenesday and looked
to repeat that effort here.
The first four games of the set were one by
the servers. The Bryans were characterstically energetic
and vocal -- enough so that Middleton decided to do a
good-natured impression of them, yelping after a few of
the successful points in his service game. After Grant and
the southpaw Bryan held serve again for 3-3, the action
got serious. Middleton thumped an ace on his way to holding
for a 4-3 advantage. The eighth game featured a couple
sterling rallies, with the Bryans side by side at the net
hitting reflex volleys and the Electrics duo testing them
with passing shots. Grant and Middleton forced a game
point, but Grant's netted return sent the set into
a decisive tiebreak.
The very first point of the 'breaker went
against Grant's serve. The Bryans solidified that
mini-break, taking a 3-1 lead to the changeover. Middleton
won a couple service points for 3-3, but Mike Bryan now
had an opportunity to serve for the set. Momentum switched
immediately to Schenectady's side when Bob Bryan got
jammed on a volley, netting it to go down 3-4. Grant
couldn't handle Mike's serve on the next point, however,
squaring things again at 4 points all. With the set on
the line, Bob Bryan ended matters with authority,
putting away a winning overehead to clinch the tiebreak
and set by the same 5-4 score. He leapt high into the air,
did an awkwardly executed chest bump with his brother, and
then embraced his other teammates. OVERALL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 14,
The third set was followed by a 20-minute
intermission. The stands emptied, with the concession
stand and bathrooms serving as popular destinations. Most
of the players also headed off court, but Mirjana Lucic
stuck around to practice with her coach, Joey Giuliano.
After a rough stretch of losses, injuries, illness, and
family turmoil, Lucic credits "Joey G" with turning her career
around. He's made so much of an impact on Lucic that she presumably
got the OK for him to sit on the Idaho bench during the
4th Set -- Women's Singles: Samantha Smith
vs. Mirjana Lucic
After the intermission, Lucic promptly showed
off one of the bigger serves on the women's tour, holding
at 30 to open the fourth set. Not to be outdone, British
journeywoman Samantha Smith responded with a love hold,
winning the last two points with an ace and a forehand
winner down the line. Lucic had all kinds of trouble with
her service toss in the third game. It was floating behind
her, but she kept hitting it (rather than catching it and
starting over). That resulted in a double fault and a
15-40 deficit, but Lucic dug out to hold for a 2-1 lead.
Smith then played a solid, confident game to knot up the set at
2 games each.
Lucic got a fluke ace in the fifth game when
one of her serves hit the tape and trickled over the net,
falling to the court before Smith could even react. (Yes,
Virginia, they do play the lets in World Team Tennis.)
Lucic smiled at her good fortune and came back with a "real"
service winner to secure a 3-2 lead. Smith hit two aces
and an impeccable drop volley in holding for 3-3. "Am I
doing alright?", she happily asked the crowd. Lucic's
serve went off the boil again in the following game, with
two consecutive double faults dragging her down to 15-40.
The Croatian dug herself out of trouble again, though,
aboslutely lacing some forehands to win the next three
points and take a 4-3 lead.
Lucic is just emerging from a rough childhood and thankfully seems to have a
healthy support system around her now. The Idaho players
and coaches were shouting words of encouragement to her
throughout the set. "Come on, sport! Come on, first point!"
is what Giuliano yelled as the eighth game began. Mirjana did
win that first point and a couple more to grab a 30-40
lead. On set point, Lucic's powerful groundstrokes
sent Smith backwards and set up an easy sitter forehand. The
Bryan twins and Brie Rippner rose to their feet before
Lucic even hit the ball. When she pounded it cross-court to
win the set 5-3, they literally sprinted out to hug Lucic, who
grinned from ear to ear. Over on the other side of the
net, Sam Smith said "Sorry, guys" to her teammates, who
nonetheless still had the overall lead. OVERALL SCORE:
SCHENECTADY 17, IDAHO 14
5th Set -- Mixed Doubles: Middleton/Pleming
vs. M Bryan/Rippner
Whereas Geoff Grant and Samantha Smith are the
Electrics who've played high-profile matches in
Grand Slam tournaments, T.J. Middleton and Louise Pleming
are the role players. They're becoming fan favorites in
their own right, though, and actually harken back to two
members of the inaugural Schenectady roster. Like Rachel
Jensen in 1995, Pleming is the team's designated extrovert.
She's done some TV commentary back home in Australia and
it's no wonder. Talkative and quick-witted, she seems
very comfortable around her teammates and the fans.
Middleton, meanwhile, is like Dave Randall (who logged
four years as a member of the New York OTBzz) -- a "regular
Joe" who's not the least bit spectacular but plays very,
very good doubles and never looks nervous.
Leading by just three points heading into this
final set, the pressure was on Middleton and Pleming to
play well. They did -- particularly Pleming, who closed
out the first game with a high forehand volley winner and
Game 3 with a well-placed ace. The set was still on serve
at 2-1 when Rippner took her turn. Clearly unnerved by a
foot fault call early in the fourth game, Rippner coughed
up a double fault on break point, handing the home team a
3-1 lead. Middleton dominated Game 5, smacking an ace and
shouting "Yeah!" as he knocked off a smash to hold for 4-1.
The Sneakers were just one game away from defeat, but Mike
Bryan calmly held at love, ending the very short game with
"Let's go, Rip! Get aggressive out there!", Giuliano
urged Rippner. For a guy who's
associated with the team, "Joey G" sure was helpful.
The 19-year-old responded with a pair of sizzling service return
winners as she and Bryan broke Pleming to get back on serve at 4-3.
The Aussie redeemed herself in the opening point of Game
8, charging forward to flick away a nifty volley winner.
The only problem: her racquet crossed over the net, which
is a no-no, even in Team Tennis. Umpire Candy Pantano
didn't notice the infraction, however. Giuliano and all
three Bryans argued to no avail. Idaho won the next
point, but Schenectady went up 15-30 when a Middleton
volley hit Mike Bryan in the butt. Mike picked up the ball,
whirled around, and took a few quick steps forward as if he was
going to charge after Middleton.
After that moment of levity, the Sneakers
regained control, taking a 40-30 lead. Bryan then netted a low
forehand volley and stuck the ball in his mouth for a few
seconds before spitting it out. His strategy of usually
hitting to Pleming was paying dividends, though. On the
tension-filled game point, Louise put a lunging volley into
the net. Having seen their teammates battle back from a
1-4 deficit to tie the fifth set score, Bob Bryan and Mirjana
Lucic excitedly ran out onto the court. There was still
much work to be done, though. Up next was a fifth set
tiebreak which would either win the match for Schenectady
or force overtime.
The 5th set tiebreak opened with Rippner
driving a forehand into the net
and blurting out a
displeased "No!". An unforced error from Pleming made it
1-1. Mike Bryan came up with one very bad forehand error and one
very good volley winner to even the 'breaker at 2. Pleming
double faulted for 2-3, but she recorded a volley
winner for 3-3 (prompting Geoff Grant to spring off his
chair and start waving a towel). The crowd and players
were definitely into it at this point. Rippner threw in
another double fault to go down 3-4 and give Schenectady
its second match point. Mike Bryan successfully ran down
a Middleton smash, but Peming countered with with another
smash. She hit it right at a flat-footed Rippner, whose
forehand reply sailed long. The crowd erupted (sort of)
as the underdog Electrics had won the tiebreak and the
match. OVERALL FINAL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 22, IDAHO 18
For the second time in three nights, the
Schenectady County Electrics avenged a previous loss.
Now at 2-2, they're likely to be in pretty good shape
when Jana Novotna and then Martina Navratilova join the team
for a few matches. The Sneakers, meanwhile, were largely
responsible for Sunday night's match being such an
exciting, spirited affair. "Dr. Sound" even asked the
crowd to give Idaho a round of applause and played Willie
Nelson's "On The Road Again" in their honor. A bad first
set had cost the Sneakers dearly, but they
looked relatively happy as they signed autographs and
posed for pictures.