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1999 World Team Tennis: Schenectady vs. Delaware
by Christopher Gerby
Delaware Smash at Schenectady County Electrics
Schenectady, New York
July 21, 1999

The arrival of tennis legend Martina Navratilova was, in some ways, a significant boost for the Schenectady County Electrics. With Navratilova on the roster, ticket prices doubled and attendance more than doubled, probably making the 1999 season a much needed financial success for the franchise. On the court, however, the aging lefty's presence had been less beneficial. After a solid 4-2 start, the Electrics had lost three matches in a row and fallen out of playoff contention. Heading into their final home match of the season, Martina and company were faced with an uphill task against the Delaware Smash, who had beaten them the previous night in Wilmington.

Although she hasn't brought her best tennis to the Electrics, Navratilova doesn't seem to have upset the team chemistry. Doubles specialist Louise Pleming was on hand for the match, even though she's been "riding the pine" ever since the 18-time Grand Slam champion took her place in the starting lineup. Addressing the crowd before the match, Electrics general manager (and tireless supporter) Nitty Singh said that the members of this year's squad were all chosen because they're "great people -- the tennis came second." The sentiment actually rang true, as the '99 Electrics are an upbeat group who've bonded with each other and gone out of their way to make time for the fans.

The nice feelings continued when the mayor of Schenectady presented Martina Navratilova Martina Navratilova with a key to the city. After that ceremony, Samantha Smith -- generally the quiet player on the team -- was called on to make what turned out to be a surprisingly funny speech of her own. Smith recalled finding out she'd be playing for the New York team this season and assuming that meant New York City. Instead she wound up in Schenectady, which she graciously called "a great little town with really, really friendly people." Smith went on to relate another misunderstanding. Upon hearing that Martina would be on the team with her, Smith thought the Martina in question was Hingis. "Great," she recalled thinking to herself, "We won't lose a match." Navratilova got up and playfully pretended to hit Samantha over the head with the plaque she'd just received. Sam finished by thanking each of her teammates one by one, including "Louise Pleming, for giving me an appreciation of the music of Tom Jones."

1st Set: Women's Doubles -- Navratilova/Smith vs. McNeil/Osterloh

In the land of World Team Tennis, youth may not be king. The Delaware Smash put together a veteran lineup which came into Wednesday evening with an impressive record of 7 wins and 2 losses. Jim Grabb and Patrick McEnroe -- two of the best doubles players of the late '80s and early '90s -- lead the way, while Mary Joe Fernandez and Lori McNeil have a combined 29 years of professional experience to draw upon. Fernandez was absent for this match, however, so 21-year-old whipper-snapper Lilia Osterloh took her place. McNeil and Osterloh got off to a shaky start in the opening set. Samantha Smith dropped just one point in her opening service game to hand Schenectady a 1-0 lead.

Martina Navratilova is not the player she was 15, 10, or even 5 years ago, but she's still Lori McNeil very competitive and very fit. In fact, Navratilova appeared to be in better condition than McNeil. After a fairly impressive comeback in 1998, Lori has been sliding back down the WTA Tour rankings and -- at age 35 -- is most likely nearing the end of her career. She made some uncharacteristic volley errors in the second game of the match, which she lost by sending a defensive lob just long. Navratilova, however, failed to capitalize on the early lead. "God, I rushed that," she chided herself after a double fault midway through the third game. A winning backhand from Osterloh completed the break of Navratilova's serve.

The Electrics broke right back for a 3-1 lead, but Smith made it four breaks in a row, botching an overhead at 30-40 to lose her serve. McNeil opened the sixth game with a double fault and ended it by punching a backhand volley into the net. McNeil and Osterloh trailed 4-2 and still had not held serve. Navratilova refused to give them an opportunity to right that. She came to life in the seventh game, volleying well and holding at love to wrap up a 5-2 victory. It wasn't a terribly pretty set for Schenectady, but it looked good on the scoreboard. OVERALL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 5, DELAWARE 2

2nd Set: Men's Singles -- Geoff Grant vs. Patrick McEnroe

At his best, John McEnroe used to (and sometimes still does) wow fans with racquet Patrick McEnroe wizardry, winning points with a brand of touch and creativity that simply can't be taught. His younger brother Patrick, on the other hand, has always been a grinder. He plays a steady baseline game and simply tries to outwork his opponents. Still best known for (and least fond of hearing about) the five-set classic he lost to Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open, "Pat Mac" now spends the majority of his time in the broadcast booth, doing top notch work for CBS and ESPN. Semi-retired from competitive tennis, he even turned down a wild card entry into last year's US Open, selflessly declaring that he wasn't playing well enough to deserve it.

Geoff Grant, on the other hand, is still very much an active player. He's fared quite well in his two seasons of Team Tennis, but looked out of sorts as the men's singles set got underway. Cries of "You're the man, Geoff!" from team DJ/announcer "Dr. Sound" didn't even seem to help. McEnroe calmly moved the ball around the court while Grant's powerful two-handed strokes flew wide, long, and into the net. After breaking serve for a 2-0 lead, the veteran surprised everyone with two aces in a row. McEnroe jokingly showed off his right bicep, but Dr. Sound didn't miss a beat, replying with a sound bite of Shania Twain singing, "that don't impress me much."

Indisputably impressive was the 4-0 lead McEnroe quickly jumped out to, giving Delaware a 6-5 edge in the overall score. Grant started to find the range, though. He broke serve in a close sixth game and then held at 15, getting to 2-4 with an ace. Early in the seventh game, McEnroe motioned for a ball, but teammate Jim Grabb sprung out of his chair, apparently assuming that Patrick had called him over for a mid-game strategy session. Grabb had to sheepishly scurry back to his chair when he figured out what was going on. McEnroe was pushed to deuce, which in Team Tennis immediately brings up a winner-take-all "game point." It was a big chance for Grant, but a good serve set up an easy volley, which McEnroe knocked off to win the set 5-2. OVERALL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 7, DELAWARE 7.

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

Ten years ago, Jim Grabb and Patrick McEnroe teamed up to win the French Open doubles championship. Of course, ten years can be a lifetime on the pro tennis circuit. Grabb remains a ubiquitous presence on the ATP Tour (he managed to play 35 & Over doubles AND regular doubles at Wimbledon this year), but he and McEnroe could hardly be considered overwhelming favorites against the younger Geoff Grant and T.J. Middleton. They play together on the tour and have been an imposing tandem for the Electrics.

The set opened with a genuinely incredible rally, all four players contributing to a series of drop shots, lobs, smashes, and volleys which finally ended on a Middleton winner. At 40-0, a Middleton serve was ruled a fault even though Grant claimed, "that was inside the line!" Dr. Sound played some accusatory Perry Mason music, but McEnroe shrugged his shoulders in mock innocence. Unfazed, Middleton delivered an unreturnable second serve to hold at love. The Electrics ran their streak to seven consecutive points before Grabb powered home a service winner of his own. "Yeah! Big serve, Jim!", hollered Delaware coach Brad Dancer, but the momentum was short-lived. Grabb served a double fault to go down 0-2.

A solid hold from Grant made it 3-0. McEnroe was annoyed by his inability to hit a good first serve in the fourth game ("Serve OVER the net," he instructed himself), but he held for 1-3. Middleton briefly got in a 15-30 hole on his serve, but he and Grant won the next three points to take a commanding 4-1 lead in the set. Grabb needed to hold serve here just make the score respectable. Unfortunately for Delware, Grant drilled a forehand winner down the line to take a 15-40 lead, yelling "Yes!" as it landed. Middleton then let out a "Yes!" of his own when Grabb netted a low forehand volley on set point. Youth had prevailed in this set by an unexpectedly lopsided 5-1 tally. OVERALL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 12, DELAWARE 8

Women's Singles: Samantha Smith vs. Lilia Osterloh

Following a 20-minute intermission (which included the Tom Jones song "It's Not Unusual" Lilia Osterloh being played for Louise Pleming), Lilia Osterloh took the court to see if she could stem the Schenectady tide. Osterloh won the NCAA singles championship as a Stanford freshman in 1997 and promptly turned pro. She got off to a rather slow start in the big leagues, but showed improvement early in the '99 season, upsetting Lisa Raymond on her way to the Oklahoma City semifinals. Lilia's one to watch -- she's been chosen to represent the United States in this summer's Pan-Am Games.

Sam Smith has been consistently inconsistent for the Electrics. Smith's every set of singles seems to follow the same pattern: she plays one or two good, aggressive games; she then goes into a defensive shell, losing long rallies and looking discouraged; then she plays well again. Wednesday evening was no different. Smith pushed a backhand long on game point to lose serve, but broke right back, evening the set at 1. Osterloh hit a very nice running forehand winner (her momentum carrying her all the way past the net post) to open the third game, but Smith reeled off four straight points to hold for 2-1. Osterloh answered with a hold of her own, keeping Smith pinned to the baseline with fluid groundstrokes.

Smith nailed three service winners in a hold for 3-2, then added a service break for a 4-2 lead. Sporting a pink headband and a long ponytail, Osterloh got her rhythm back in the seventh game, sprinting out to a 0-40 advantage. The Brit held her nerve, though, and three points later had a set point. Smith was called for a foot fault, but impressively followed that up with a clutch service winner to claim the set 5-2. Osterloh had her moments, but Smith did a better job of keeping the ball in play and extended her team's lead. OVERALL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 17, DELAWARE 10.

5th Set -- Mixed Doubles: Middleton/Navratilova vs. McEnroe/McNeil

A sore shoulder (which he had iced during the fourth set) kept Jim Grabb on the bench, so Patrick McEnroe the Smash would hope to come from behind with a Mac Attack, pairing Patrick McEnroe with Lori McNeil for the mixed doubles. They wasted no time, breaking T.J. Middleton's serve for a 1-0 lead. "That's it, baby!", McEnroe shouted as the game-ending error floated past him. As the Stanford alumnus stepped to the line to serve, Dr. Sound played Jack Nicholson's unmistakable "Heeeere's Johnny!" from the film "The Shining". "Sorry, wrong brother," the DJ quipped. It was a lame attempt at humor, not appreciated by Patrick. "Pretty original," the less heralded McEnroe brother quietly muttered. He fought off one break point in that game, but a sharply angled backhand volley winner from Navratilova knotted the set at 1 game apiece.

The second spectacular rally of the set ended in a defensive lob from Lori McNeil's racquet landing just long of the baseline. The Smash lost that game, but McNeil held easily for 2-2. At deuce in Middleton's service game, Navratilova blew a routine volley. She dropped her racquet and buried her head in her arms. The Electrics broke right back, though, punishing McEnroe's serve for 3-3. Navratilova netted another fairly easy volley in the seventh game and groaned. "What is the matter with me?", she wondered aloud. After logging three sets on the bench, the 42-year-old was looking her age. McNeil ripped a forehand winner on game point, breaking Martina's serve and taking a 4-3 lead.

McNeil was the only player on court whose serve hadn't been broken in the 5th set, but Navratilova aimed to change that. At 15-30, the Czech-turned-American hit a winning service return and clenched her fist. The Smash battled back to deuce, but Navratilova won the game with an airborne volley that would have made Suzanne Lenglen proud. Next up was a 9-point tiebreak. If the Electrics won it, the match was theirs. If the Smash won it, they could try for a miracle comeback in overtime. Martina netted a reflex volley on the first point of the 'breaker. It was a bad omen -- the Electrics quickly found themselves in a 4-2 hole. On set point, McEnroe aimed a volley right at Navratilova, who blocked it back into the net. Delaware had won the set, but still trailed 21-15 in the overall score.

Martina Navratilova Chair umpire Candy Pantano struggled to explain the overtime rule. "When Delaware wins enough games to tie the score..." she began. McEnroe nodded approvingly and said, "When, not if. When." He seemed quite sure that he and McNeil could reel off six consecutive games and send the match into a "super-tiebreaker." The confidence looked well-founded when he held at love, narrowing the overall lead to 21-16. The Electrics went up 40-15 in the following game, though, presenting them with a match point. A good serve by Navratilova set up a winning overhead by Middleton, ending overtime and giving the Electrics a convincing victory. Martina Navratilova celebrated with an impersonation of Brandi Chastain, whipping off her shirt to reveal a sports bra. FINAL SCORE: SCHENECTADY 22, DELAWARE 16

For the fifth time in six home matches, the 1999 Schenectady County Electrics sent the fans home happy. Even though the quality of play wasn't always high, most would agree that seeing Navratilova and McEnroe show some flashes of their old form was worth the price of admission. Afterwards, Martina accomodated dozens of autograph seekers and Sam Smith threw frisbees to the spectators. Their boss, Nitty Singh, was a good sport in victory. She thanked the Delaware Smash for coming and wished them luck in their pursuit of the league championship.