by Christopher Gerby
A rather small, rather subdued crowd greeted the Schenectady County Electrics as they opened the 2000 World Team Tennis season against the visiting New York Hamptons. This is the inaugural campaign of the Hamptons, helmed by player/owner Patrick McEnroe. Until Jim Courier joins the lineup for four matches later this month, the Hamptons' all-American roster is comprised of doubles specialist Jonathan Stark, WTA Tour veteran Erika de Lone, 15-year-old phenom-in-training Monique Viele, and McEnroe himself. The Electrics, also waiting for their marquee players (Mary Pierce and Martina Navratilova), would make do on Opening Night with South Africans Brent Haygarth and Nannie de Villiers and Australians Nicole Pratt and Michael Hill.
If you're unfamiliar witht the unique rules of World Team Tennis, here's a quick summary. 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. Lets are played and crowd noise is encouraged. The traditional deuce/ad system is not employed -- any game which goes to 40-40 is immediately decided by a single "game point". In fact, this year the scores are being called in a 1-2-3 format, rather than the traditional 15-30-40. However, I'll be writing them the conventional way, just to keep the game scores distinct from the set scores.
First set -- men's doubles: Hill/Haygarth vs. McEnroe/Stark
Umpire Tom Patterson got the evening's activities off to a shaky start, announcing that "split sides" were required for the three minute warmup before the first set. In other words, players from the same team should be on opposite sides of the net. Unbeknownst to Patterson (confused by the teams' matching white shirts), they already were on split sides. McEnroe quipped, "Do we have to explain the rules to you?" Patterson wasn't done intervening, however. When Hill struck a practice serve after time had been called, the umpire slapped him with an immediate point penalty. The 26-year-old was taken aback, but rallied from the 0-15 deficit to hold serve. Stark, Haygarth, and McEnroe followed with holds of their own for 2-2. The play was typical of 21st Century men's doubles, with very few rallies of more than three strokes.
Umpire Patterson made another error at the start of the fifth game. A Hill serve clipped off the tape and landed long for a fault. Patterson declared "official interference" because lets are played and the linesman shouldn't have made a call. Since the serve was a fault, though, the call was actually correct. Doing his best impression of his infamous older brother, McEnroe slammed his racquet and ranted. He carried on a running chat with Electrics' owner/general manager Nitty Singh throughout the fifth game, which ended on a Hill ace. Stark scored another easy hold of his own, but Haygarth was just as convincing in his service game, staking Schenectady to a 4-3 lead. The pressure was now squarely on McEnroe's shoulders. A bit rusty in his first competitive match of the year, he turned in a dodgy service game, falling behind 15-40 and pushing a backhand volley long on set point. OVERALL SCORE: ELECTRICS 5, HAMPTONS 3.
Second set -- women's singles: Nicole Pratt vs. Monique Viele
California native Monique Viele has been none-too-subtly marketed as the next Anna Kournikova. With her tanned, toned physique and disarming smile, the youngster certainly looked the part on Monday evening. (Even on her official web site, she's featured more often in swimsuits and skimpy practice court attire than formal tennis clothes.) However, whereas Kournikova has taken heat for her failure to win a WTA tournament, Viele's been struggling just to win matches on the challenger circuit. Her unpolished power game made for an interesting matchup against Schenectady County's Nicole Pratt, a scrappy 27-year-old with a fairly aggressive all-court game.
The most impressive part of Viele's game at this juncture is her high octane first serve. After falling behind 30-40, she battled back to close out the set's first game with a blazing service winner. Pratt matched her with a more comfortable hold for 1-1. The next two games also went with serve, Viele's deep groundstrokes challenging Pratt but often flying long of the baseline. At 30-30 in Game 5, Pratt flipped a cross-court forehand winner and pumped her fist. The momentum was short-lived, however, as Viele held her nerve and got to 3-2. Pratt then had little trouble holding for 3-3. Viele was showing a surprising inclination to charge the net, but too many of her volleys were weakly popped up, making the leggy teen a sitting duck for accurate Pratt passing shots.
Another tough hold for Monique and another easy hold for Nicole made the score 4-4, setting up a nine-point tiebreaker. The first to five points would claim the set and give her team quite a morale boost. It quickly looked like it wouldn't be Viele. Three errant groundstrokes and a double fault dropped her to 0-4 in the 'breaker. (Disc jockey "Dr. Sound," who plays various music clips and sound effects over the PA system between points, hit Viele with a snippet of Britney Spears's "Oops! I Did It Again" after the double fault.) Viele blasted an unreturnable serve for 1-4, but it was too little too late. Despite the words of encouragement being shouted to her from the New York bench, Viele steered a backhand wide on the second set point to wrap up a 5-1 tiebreak win for Pratt. The Aussie hadn't been able to show off her usual brand of flashy athleticism, but playing defensively was good enough to squeak out a win over her inexperienced, error-prone opponent. OVERALL SCORE: ELECTRICS 10, HAMPTONS 7
Third set -- mixed doubles: De Villiers/Haygarth vs. De Lone/Stark
The mixed doubles set was low on famous names, but crucial to the Hamptons if they wanted to get back in the match. They got off to a good start here, earning a break point against Haygarth's serve. Stark converted it, handcuffing Haygarth with a sharp, dipping return. Although his singles career is in its waning stages, "Starky" (as McEnroe called him) is still dangerous on a doubles court. The Stanford alumnus rocketed an ace to consolidate the break and earn a 2-0 lead. De Villiers made her first major impression of the night in the third game, arguing over a serve which had been ruled a fault. "Dr. Sound" backed her up with an umpire-mocking "Three Blind Mice" soundbite, prompting Nannie to smile and applaud with her racquet. She ultimately held for 1-2, but De Lone hit a couple great reflex volleys in taking a 3-1 lead. The men did their part in the next two games, Haygarth holding for 2-3 and Stark overcoming a pair of double faults to grab a 4-2 lead for New York.
At 30-15 in the following game, De Villiers passed Stark with a brilliantly angled backhand volley winner. Jonathan gave Nannie a look of disbelief as the crowd broke into its biggest ovation thus far. "Dr. Sound" celebrated with part of the old Hall & Oates tune "Maneater," which had De Villiers in stitches. After the match, I asked the Team Tennis rookie what she thought of the DJ's antics. "Oh, it's nice. I couldn't stop laughing when they played that song, that `she's a maneater.' It was so funny, because when I saw Stark's face when I hit that volley, he just absolutely thought `Yeah, right, do that again.' And then when I walked back, I heard the music, but I didn't realize what they were playing. And suddenly I heard that `she's a maneater' and I'm going, `Oh my God, that is so appropriate'... It really makes it interesting. And, funny enough, when you're on the court, you don't really hear the music in between points, but when you're sitting on the side, you hear everything... It's so much better than just sitting there watching boring tennis." Despite Nannie's heroics in Game 7, however, it was she who netted a return on set point to give De Lone and Stark a 5-3 victory in the set. OVERALL SCORE: ELECTRICS 13, HAMPTONS 12
Fourth set -- men's singles: Michael Hill vs. Jonathan Stark
While the quality of World Team Tennis rosters has improved a bit over the past several years, top notch male singles players remain absent from the equation. The Electrics and Hamptons were forced to go with low-ranked journeymen Hill and Stark, respectively. As in the Pratt-Viele matchup, the Hamptons once again had a streaky net rusher dictating play. Hill went about winning his service games in low-key fashion while Stark was all over the map, following ugly double faults with sterling volley winners. The games went with serve to 3-3, when two more Stark double faults gave the home team an opening. "Starky" closed that door, however, finishing the game with an ace and a gracefully executed high backhand volley. Hill held easily for 4-4, but finally crumbled in the tiebreaker. Michael fell behind 4 points to 2 and surrendered the very first set point, double faulting to give Stark a 5-2 victory in the 'breaker and a 5-4 win of the set. OVERALL SCORE: ELECTRICS 17, HAMPTONS 17
Fifth set -- women's doubles: De Villiers/Pratt vs. De Lone/Viele
Confusing as Team Tennis rules can be, the climax of the Schenectady vs. New York match could hardly be more simple. If Nannie de Villiers and Nicole Pratt could win the fifth set, the home team would emerge victorious on the night. Likewise, Erika de Lone and Monique Viele could give McEnroe's Hamptons their first win with a triumph in the women's doubles. New York struck first blood, Pratt losing her serve with a volley error on break point. However, she and De Villiers immediately broke Viele at love for 1-1. De Villiers and De Lone matched holds for 2-2 and Pratt found trouble again in Game 5. At 30-30, Viele got a lucky, lightly struck forehand winner (one of those "stick out the racquet and hope" deals) to bring up a break point. De Lone converted it decisively with a winning return to claim a 3-2 lead. Once again, though, young Viele couldn't rise to the occasion under fifth set pressure. She double faulted on game point, evening the set once again at 3 games apiece.
Schenectady trailed 0-30 in the following game, but De Villiers battled back to hold for 4-3. De Lone shone in Game 8, winning it with a drop volley. With the set tied at 4 and the match tied at 21, a winner-take-all tiebreaker would end things one way or another. De Villiers took the first point with a forceful volley, but lost the second by popping a half-volley over the baseline. De Lone seemed to cement her status as the best player on the court in this set when she ripped a swinging backhand volley to go ahead 2-1. However, Pratt responded with three winning forehand volleys in a row, giving the Electrics a crowd-pleasing 4-2 lead. Viele staved off elimination with her own winning forehand volley, clenching her fist positively at 3-4 in the tiebreak. Somewhat surprisingly, it was the more experienced De Lone who then ended the match by dumping a backhand volley in the net. After nearly three hours of play, Schenectady County had eked out a win by the narrowest of margins. FINAL SCORE: ELECTRICS 22, HAMPTONS 21
One could describe it as a heartbreaking loss for New York, but Patrick McEnroe seemed relatively upbeat as he answered a few questions before departing. "I've always loved Team Tennis -- the format, seeing men and women in the same night, the team aspect, the cameraderie, and the fun... It was a great first match, exciting down to the end." He also sounded some hopeful notes about Monique Viele's future. "She hits the ball pretty well. She's competitive; she's feisty, which I like. She just needs to play more, learn a little bit more, how to play doubles, things like that. I like her attitude and I think she's gonna be good for us this season." Nannie de Villiers had a more nuanced, cautionary take on the Viele question. "They are really sort of throwing her in the deep end. I mean, they make way too much publicity about her and I think she would have probably had an easier time coping with it if they'd just given her maybe two years of playing tournaments, getting used to it, and then started the press and sort of like vamping her up... She's got a great serve, actually, and if she can just connect her balls right, then she'll be good." Overall, Nannie said, "It was a good match. I think we were very evenly matched and we were just lucky to pull through at the end."