Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Washington Kastles 22 at New York Empire 13 (World Team Tennis) - August 9, 2016

A few weeks ago my wife and I went to a comedy show at Forest Hills Stadium, which is famous in the sporting world as the host of the US Open Tennis Championship from 1924-77. It is an iconic old venue, and I wondered if I would ever get to see an actual tennis match there. Happily, the answer was yes, as the little-known World Team Tennis circuit is in town for the first couple of weeks in August.

Forest Hills Stadium

Before moving to the National Tennis Center in 1978, the US Open was held at the West Side Tennis Club, which constructed a stadium in 1923 as its main court. Known as Forest Hills Stadium after the neighbourhood in which the club resides, it seats over 14,000 when completely full. Now that the tournament is played at the National Tennis Center however, the stadium is used mostly for concerts, but it can still accommodate a tennis court when required.

The stadium is located just a few minutes from Forest Hills station, terminus of the R and M Lines on the subway, as well as the Long Island Railroad Station of the same name. It is built like an ancient coliseum, with tall arches serving as your main entryway. There are several numbered portals that take you up to the seating bowl (below).

Much of the stadium is closed off for the tennis, which makes sense as only about 2,000 fans showed up for this one. There are some seats with chairbacks which were $30 in advance, and bench seats at $25. There are more expensive options courtside if you are so inclined, with prices going up to $40.

The cheapest tickets at the gate were $20, which gets you on the bench facing center court (view below) with the concert stage in the background. The DecoTurf court is very colourful, though thankfully limited to these exhibitions. This is the same material that is used at the US Open.

The view below is from an area that is closed off to spectators. Note the temporary lighting set up around the bowl, when combined with the permanent lighting fixtures, it is tough to find a spot up high that has a completely unobstructed view of the court.

Limited concessions are outside the seating area and outrageously priced. I saw lobster rolls for $18 and a chicken finger basket for $14. Eat before you arrive at one of the many nearby restaurants instead.

Despite its limitations, Forest Hills Stadium is a must-see venue for any New York tennis fan simply for its place in the history of the sport. Although this season is almost over, the WTT finals will be held here on August 26, a great chance to visit. It is not clear if the sport will return in 2017, but if it does, make sure to see a game if you can.

World Team Tennis

World Team Tennis has been around in some form since 1973 except for a couple of years in 1979-80. Franchise movement is rife, as you would expect from something in which the season lasts less than a month, and the New York Empire is in their first season. There are five other teams this year, with Philadelphia, Washington, Orange County, San Diego, and (oddly) Springfield, Missouri completing the lineup.

Rules are quite different from regular tennis, with five events constituting a single match, one event for each type (men's singles and doubles, women's singles and doubles, and mixed doubles). An event is played until five games are won, with the first to four points taking a game (no advantage is played). An event at 4-4 sees a nine-point tiebreak. Games are totalled cumulatively and after five events are complete, the team with the most games is the winner. An interesting twist is extended play: if the team trailing in games wins the final set, then the match continues until the leading team wins a game or the trailing team comes back to tie. In this latter case, a 13-point super tiebreaker is played. There are other minor differences too (lets are played for example), all designed to make the game move quickly.

Each team drafts several players, though only two men and two women are selected for each match. Several marquee names play one or two matches when they are on break from the tour but most players are lower-ranked professionals.

The season is quite short, lasting just a couple of weeks, with each team playing 12 matches in that time. The top two teams will meet in the final, which, as mentioned, will be held on August 26 at this very stadium.

The Match

The visitors were four-time defending champion Washington Kastles, who have a few big names on their roster (the Bryan Brothers and Martina Hingis), of whom none were on the court tonight. New York's marquee player was Andy Roddick (below), who retired from the tour in 2012. So yeah, marquee might be overstating things a bit. Other Empire players were Neal Skupski (ranked 76th in doubles), Christina McHale (60th in singles), and Maria Irigoyen (51st in doubles), while the team is coached by Patrick McEnroe. Washington replied with Stephane Robert (58th in singles), Treat Huey (19th in doubles), Madison Brengle (49th in singles), and Andreja Klepec (29th in doubles). All of these players would be all-stars in MLB but chances are you've never heard of any of them. I certainly hadn't.

The first event featured men's doubles, and NY won that 5-4 in an exciting tiebreak. Next up came women's singles, with Brengle sweeping a careless McHale 5-0. Roddick then took on Stephane Robert in men's singles and lost 5-3, giving Washington a 14-8 cumulative advantage. That brought up halftime, during which Roddick was interviewed and said "I wish I was still good at tennis". Ha, that should spur ticket sales! Women's doubles followed and Washington again swept to make it 19-8. The match finished with mixed doubles, and New York won 5-2 to force extended play. Down 21-13, they needed to win 8 games in a row to get to the super tiebreaker, but they lost the first and Washington won 22-13.

In the end, the whole match took two-and-a-half hours, with 1:27 of that actually constituting action on the court. Each team gets 2 timeouts per event, and there is a warmup between events that adds to things. The tennis is not that bad, but the atmosphere is rather annoying with an announcer exhorting fans to cheer after nearly every point. Music is also briefly played before every serve, something that is completely unnecessary. Even the scoreboard had a noise meter. Geez, this is tennis, let's maintain some level of decorum. Despite these irritants, I might just head back there for the finals, which will likely feature the two teams from California who lead the standings at 6-2 with 4 games left. Check back to see who wins the King Trophy!



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