An Amazing Cup of Coco: The Empire Strikes Back

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Photo by Getty Images

A WTT Championship for the Ages and an Interview with WTT CEO Carlos Silva

Bill Simons

After five months of a pandemic, four months of do-or-die planning, and three weeks of play, the nine teams in the 45th season of World TeamTennis had played 66 matches and 330 sets. And the entire championship came down to, not just one tiebreaker, and not just a single point. It all came down to a single stroke.

“The air is thick,” explained CBS commentator Katrina Adams. “Coco Vandeweghe loves to be the star.” No kidding.

Never mind that the San Diego resident had just joined the Empire in a trade at season’s end. Never mind that the Empire had lost in last year’s final, that their four-Slam champion Kim Clijsters was sidelined and that today they’d squandered a sweet early lead when the Chicago Smash’s secret weapon, 18-year-old Brandon Nikashima, blew away two-time doubles Slam champ Jack Sock 5-0 to give Chicago a 10-9 lead.

Sure, Chicago is known for Mrs. O’Leary’s cow that once set the town on fire. Today a very different Kamau (that would be Chicago Smash coach Kamau Murray) had his team on fire. Thanks to Sloane Stephens, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Genie Bouchard, the Smash proceeded to a championship point. They seemed poised to become just the third expansion team in WTT history to win. But they could not convert the one championship point they had.

In some sports you can run out the clock. WTT is exactly the opposite. Its brilliant, inventive and complicated (thank-God-I-have-a-Ph.D.-in-math) scoring system squeezes out every ounce of excitement from tennis. Today baseball’s walk-off home run, football’s Hail Mary, and a basketball buzzer-beater were all neatly wrapped into one shot that only Hawkeye could tell was a winner.

The two teams from the biggest and third biggest cities in the US, with a total population of over 27 million people, brought the attention of the tennis world to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia – population 2,398.

The most exciting match of the COVID era went from regular play to extended play, and then to a super tiebreaker.

Photo by World TeamTennis

That’s when Coco stepped up. Yes, thanks to Coco Gauff, she had long ago given up the honor of being the most beloved Coco in the game. But Vandeweghe, the former No. 9, two-time Slam semi-finalist and Fed Cup star, has grit – and great athletic genes. Yes, just last year, Vandeweghe was coming back from a devastating foot injury. Now, encouraged by her high-octane coach Luke Jensen, she stared as Sloane Stephens served. Then she tapped into her inner Novak Djokovic and unleashed the most clutch shot of the year, a blistering down-the-line forehand return that caught the back quarter of the baseline. In a brave flash, the Billie Jean King Cup, thanks to the Empire’s 21-20 win, would be headed to New York. Then again, much of tennis will shortly be heading for the Big Apple. In the next 42 days it will host both the Western and Southern Open and the US Open.

The Smash are a wonderful team with a roster packed with appealing players. But somehow it struck a chord when the Empire struck back. Granted, a West Virginia tennis happening won’t shift the mindset of a world capital that was at the epicenter of a plague and divided by issues relating to racial injustice. But on this day WTT served up something sweet: an amazing cup of Coco.

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To capture the magic of the moment, Inside Tennis spoke with the much celebrated WTT CEO, Carlos Silva

Inside Tennis: When COVID-19 was first raging and it was clear you couldn’t have your standard season in nine cities, could you have ever imagined that the tennis world would be looking at one single shot to determine the King Cup?

Carlos Silva: It’s so incredible, I’m still tingling. The emotions in that match were astonishing. The Empire wins the first two sets, then Nakashima comes in lights-out against an admittedly fatigued Jack Sock and wins 5-0. That flips the match. And Chicago has Bethanie Mattek-Sands with Genie Bouchard – you can’t really bet against them. Then lo and behold, when the match gets into a super tiebreak, what determines the winning shot? Hawkeye. Imagine if there’d been a linesperson. There would have been an over-the-top controversy of whether that ball was in or out and who would win the entire season! I haven’t yet settled down. I feel so lucky. We worked so hard and everything worked out. It feels great.

It reminds me of James Blake’s forehand against Agassi late at night just going out or Djokovic’s cross-court return of serve against Federer.

It’s got to go down as one of the greatest moments in tennis. That was as good as it gets. We’ve all watched a lot of great Wimbledons and US Opens, but this was just a great moment for tennis, with incredible players – and Coco’s return was in by just a quarter of a ball. 

In some sports, you can really play out the clock. But in World TeamTennis, that is known for its innovations, you can’t just walk away.  The scoring system requires you to nail the win with total certainty.

It’s funny because I was telling Billie Jean that the WTT format held up again. Coco and Nicole Melichar were just clawing back and fighting. I still have nightmares from when I was in the 12-and-Unders and having to play that infamous nine-point tiebreaker where it’s 4-4 and it’s a single point to win it. And if you’ve got a second serve, you sure as hell don’t want to double fault. 

Everyone played a great tiebreaker. Sloane played a couple of insanely great points. To Coco’s credit, she went for the home run ball, literally. And she made it on the line. I put it up there with any walk-off home run or buzzer beater. She literally hit a walk-off forehand. 

It hurts for Chicago – I hate to see their pain. But this was great sport, and we haven’t had sport in so long. I’m just so proud that we brought great sport back to the world. That just makes me feel so lucky.

Let’s face it, in this COVID era there have been so many efforts, from the Balkans to Berlin and Florida and Georgia, to play tennis. But today for Americans there was a certain realness, an intensity, even though there were only about 500 fans in the seats.

These players wanted to win so bad. The Empire [unsuccessfully] tried to call a late timeout in order to freeze the Smash’s players but they said, “You can’t do that.” That’s sport – you try to freeze kickers. Sloane was substituted in late and she was grinding and lunging for balls. World TeamTennis is great. If anyone wants to challenge me on that, if someone wants to say it’s an exhibition, they can come talk to me, because that’s pro tennis at the highest level. I really hope the ATP and WTA understand. And if they don’t, they don’t understand tennis. 

What does it mean to have a Hall of Famer like Kim Clijsters with her four Slams on one end, ball-girling and coaching, and on the other end there is a newbie, an 18-year-old kid nobody has heard of kicking the butt of two-time Slam winner Jack Sock?

You are going to see Brandon Nakashima for a long time. That kid has a great head on his shoulders. But how about Clijsters, who wanted to play so bad, but was injured. She was cheering, running after balls, coaching them up. She won that championship with everybody. She won all six of her regular season matches to get them there. She deserves the crown just as much as anyone. That makes me feel so happy.

So many prominent tennis coaches are pretty stoic. For years the WTT had Murphy Jenson and now you have his brother Luke, the Empire coach, who told his team to “Lead the league in fun.”

Murphy was incredible for the Kastles for so many years. I have a little bit of energy too. I love hanging out with him, I love thinking about how to grow this with those guys. All the coaches are great and Luke was incredible today. Kamau was incredible, he was so positive, too. He’s such a positive soul. That’s what we need right now, good positive people who understand why tennis is the greatest sport. It’s given me so much and I think it gave so many people so much today. And thanks to CBS for delaying the PGA Championships by ten minutes to stay to the end.

Today two teams that represent America’s first and third biggest cities, that have a combined population of over 27 million, were featured from a little West Virginia mountain village with a population of 2,398.

How incredible is that? Even the small number of fans on hand were really cheering – it felt like thousands. It was like I was at the US Open. I was down in the tunnel with BJK and the trophy and she said, “You gotta be kidding me! This is amazing!” and how many championships has she seen? 

Credit to everyone. Sometimes you get lucky, but I also believe you get lucky when you work hard and you plan. That’s what happened today.

Chicago coach Kamau Murray is both a man of great depth and a wonderful representative of his city and urban America.

I didn’t know Kamau before this season, but now I know him so well. We spent a lot of time together. I love his positive attitude, that he’s down for Chicago. And that’s another testament to what WTT is about: it’s for everybody. It was founded on equality, and obviously it’s what BJK believes in but it’s what I believe in, too. I’m half Puerto Rican and half Greek and I get to be the CEO of World TeamTennis. That’s as good as it gets. I was so happy I got to spend so much time with Kamau and all the players and coaches. It was one big team pulling this off – that’s why it was a success. 

There was such great entertainment value with the on-court coaching and cheering. Would you like to see that on the tour?

One hundred per cent – this whole notion of no coaching is silly. Tennis is a sport. Pick a sport – volleyball, baseball – there are coaches. Coaches make us all great. It’s okay to have coaching. And we all know, coaching already happens. So let there be coaching. Coaches aren’t hitting the ball. If there’s a silver lining to this pandemic, it’s seeing the players be coaches on every single point. It was amazing. We will never not have it. All the players felt more like a team.

And what about next year? Will the season be held in the league’s nine different cities?

The good thing about this year is that it got us thinking. We may do things differently, whether it’s having the season on one site or having a kind of hybrid.

Either way, congratulations on what you’ve done.

 

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