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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 1999 Idaho Sneakers 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 vs. Lucic/Rippner

Still just 17 years old, Mirjana Lucic has already been a Grand Slam doubles Mirjana Lucic 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. Bob Bryan

The Bryan twins -- a pair of 21-year-old budding tennis stars -- look exactly Mike Bryan 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 Geoff Grant 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, IDAHO 4

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

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, IDAHO 9

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 Sneakers matches.

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 Mirjana Lucic
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 an ace.

"Let's go, Rip! Get aggressive out there!", Giuliano urged Rippner. For a guy who's Brie Rippner
not officially 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 Brie Rippner and Bob Bryan
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.