September 16, 2012 - World TeamTennis (WTT) - Washington Kastles
She'd been there before -- the pressure of a perfect season and a historic winning streak squarely on her shoulders against her team's fiercest rival.
And just as she did in Albany on July 21st, Venus Williams willed the Washington Kastles to another nail-biting victory over the New York Sportimes.
The third-year Kastle broke a 14-14 tie by winning women's singles over Ashley Harkleroad 5-1, the same set score that sparked the largest comeback in Kastles history when Williams defeated Martina Hingis during the regular season.
Williams' victory over Harkleroad clinched the Eastern Conference Championship match 19-15 and sent the Kastles into the WTT Finals for the third time in four years.
The Kastles will seek to add to their 2009 and 2011 WTT titles when they meet the Sacramento Capitals this afternoon at 3:30 pm live on NBC Sports Network.
NBC Sports Network is available on all major cable and satellite providers in the Greater Washington area, with channels on DIRECTV (603), DISH Network (159), Verizon Fios (90 / 590), Comcast (226 / 848) and RCN (382 / 691) .
If you're one of the hundreds of Kastles fans who made the trip to Charleston, you are encouraged to wear RED to today's match. We want to paint the Family Circle Tennis Center in Kastles colors just as we did on Saturday night.
Washington's third Eastern Conference title didn't come easy. It was a see-saw affair that saw set scores of 5-2, 2-5, 5-2, 2-5, 5-1.
The match was tied through two sets before reigning WTT Male MVP Bobby Reynolds came through with clutch serving to defeat Jesse Witten 5-2 in men's singles.
The Sportimes quickly rebounded to even the match at 14-14 when Ashley Harkleroad and Kveta Peschke won women's doubles 5-2.
With the match tied and only women's singles remaining, the four-time Olympic gold medalist Williams dropped the first game on her serve before raising her tennis to another level to sweep the rest of the set 5-1, capping the Kastles' 31st consecutive victory.
The Kastles are now one win away from completing a second consecutive 16-0 season, which would also draw them within one of the longest winning streak in major U.S. pro sports history. The Los Angeles Lakers won 33 straight NBA games in 1971-72.
MD - Paes/Reynolds (WAS) def. Kendrick/McEnroe (NYS) 5-2
The strong returning of Reynolds and incomparable net play of Leander Paes allowed the Kastles to build an early lead against the Sportimes.
After three holds to start the match, the Kastles appeared poised to pounce on the serve of Hall-of-Famer John McEnroe. Paes hit a pair of volley winners to give the Kastles three break points.
The left-handed McEnroe saved the first two with his unique southpaw serve. But on the third, Reynolds nailed three straight shots at the American legend, the last of which flew long off of McEnroe's racquet, giving the Kastles a 3-1 lead.
After Reynolds held at love for 4-1, the Kastles earned two set points on Robert Kendrick's serve. Kendrick erased both with back-to-back service winners, forcing Paes to serve out the set at 4-2.
Kendrick, who exchanged body blows with Paes during an unforgettable 2009 Kastles vs. Sportimes match, forced a 3-all point on Paes' serve with a picturesque top spin lob winner.
With momentum on Kendrick's racquet, the Sportimes elected for McEnroe to take the return at 3-all. Before the point was even played, it appeared to be a questionable decision. When McEnroe bricked a second serve return to clinch the set 5-2 for the Kastles, it puzzled even further.
Washington swept all four men's doubles sets it played against New York this season.
Washington leads 5-2.
MXD - Peschke/Kendrick (NYS) def. Williams/Paes (WAS) 5-2
McEnroe started the mixed doubles set alongside Peschke, who was substituting for Hingis after the Swiss withdrew on Wednesday due to personal reasons.
But with the score tied at 2-2 and the teams changing sides of the court, Sportimes Coach Chuck Adams elected to replace McEnroe with Kendrick.
Adams effectively atoned for the Sportimes' bad choice at the end of the first set, because Kendrick took over in mixed doubles.
After holding for 3-2, he nailed a forehand return winner to set the Sportimes up with break point on Paes' serve. Kendrick converted with another rapid forehand directed at Williams, who popped her volley long.
Peschke followed up by serving out the set for a 5-2 New York win, tying the match score at 7-7.
Washington is tied with New York 7-7.
MS - Reynolds (WAS) def. Witten (NYS) 5-2
Time and again in the men's singles set, Reynolds faced trouble on his serve against longtime adversary Witten.
And time and again, the Kastles closer dug himself out of a hole by exposing Witten's movement, especially towards his weaker backhand side.
In each of his first two service games, Reynolds rallied form 0-2 down to hold. He broke Witten in the Sportime's opening service game, but after failing to convert break points in the fourth game, Reynolds was back in trouble at 3-1 in the set and 2-3 in the game.
Witten had finally earned his first break points of the set, but Reynolds denied him each time with deep and flat service winners into the Sportime's body to take a 4-1 lead.
After Witten hit an ace to make the score 4-2 in favor of Reynolds, the reigning WTT Male MVP faced a 3-all point. Win it and he'd clinch the set for Washington. Lose it and he'd be back on serve with the big-hitting Witten.
As he'd done throughout the set, Reynolds avoided adversity with a strong first serve, setting himself up for a first-ball forehand winner and giving Washington a three-game lead going into halftime.
Washington leads 12-9.
WD - Harkleroad/Peschke (NYS) def. Rodionova/Williams (WAS) 5-2
In a set that featured a pair of former World No. 1s in doubles (Williams and Peschke) and a current Top 25 doubles player (Anastasia Rodionova ), the set began with three straight breaks. It was the unheralded Harkleroad who became the first player to hold serve, giving New York a 3-1 lead.
Rodionova responded in the next game with two backhand volley winners to help Williams hold for 2-3. But Harkleroad countered with two volley winners of her own on Peschke's serve to make the score 4-2 in favor of the Sportimes.
A backhand error by Rodionova in the following game allowed the Sportimes to win women's doubles 5-2 and tie the match once again, meaning the Eastern Conference title would come down to women's singles.
Washington is tied with New York 14-14.
WS - Williams (WAS) def. Harkleroad (NYS) 5-1
Entering the final set, it had been a rough night for Williams, who looked flat overall in 5-2 losses in mixed and women's doubles.
Things weren't looking much better when Williams double-faulted twice to gift the first game of women's singles to Harkleroad. That gave New York its first lead of the evening 15-14.
Slowly but surely, however, Williams got her groove back. She began moving Harkleroad from side to side behind the baseline, breaking back with a down-the-line backhand winner.
With the volume of her grunting and intensity of her shots clearly rising, Williams held for 2-1 with an ace down the service tee. As Williams' play improved, Harkleroad showed signs of discouragement, acknowledging that the prospects of her leading the Sportimes to a win were dimming.
As she did in saving four match points against Hingis during the regular season, Williams would not miss during the fourth game against Harkleroad, forcing four forehand errors and breaking her countrywoman to take a 3-1 lead.
Two aces and a service winner allowed Williams to open up a 4-1 advantage, and when she blasted a forehand return past Harkleroad on match point in the following game, Williams put a quick end to a match that appeared destined for a dramatic finish.
The Kastles are now 9-0 all-time with Venus Williams in their lineup. To get win No. 10 with Williams, Washington will need to defeat a dangerous Sacramento squad live on NBC Sports Network today at 3:30 pm.
Washington wins 19-15.
Kastles vs. Capitals WTT Finals Preview
Watch Championship Live on NBC Sports Network at 3:30 pm!
Washington Kastles (15-0) vs. Sacramento Capitals (8-7)
World TeamTennis Finals
Family Circle Tennis Center - Charleston, SC
Sunday, September 16, 2012 at 3:30 pm
All-Time: Kastles lead Capitals 3-2
Last Meeting: Kastles def. Sportimes 21-19 in OT on July 18, 2012
Television and Internet Coverage
Live Broadcast: NBC Sports Network
Live Scoring: WashingtonKastles.com
Real-Time Analysis: Facebook, Twitter
Everything that the Washington Kastles have accomplished the last two seasons comes full circle tonight in Charleston, S.C.
A victory against the Sacramento Capitals in the WTT Finals would give Washington its 32nd straight victory, third King Trophy and an unprecedented second consecutive perfect season.
But to cement their status as one of the most dominant dynasties in professional sports, the Kastles must overcome the most successful franchise in World TeamTennis history.
The Capitals enter confidently in their quest for a seventh world championship overall, having swept all five sets against the Orange County Breakers on Friday in the Western Conference Championship match.
It's a considerably different Capitals lineup than the one that pushed Washington to overtime at Kastles Stadium on July 18th.
Gone is Sam Querrey, representing the U.S. against Spain in Davis Cup this weekend. But Coach Wayne Bryan has brought a pair of talented singles players with him to Charleston: World No. 37 Kevin Anderson and World No. 88 CoCo Vandeweghe.
The Kastles counter with their own all-star lineup led by US Open doubles finalist Leander Paes, WTT Male MVP Bobby Reynolds and four-time Olympic gold medalist Venus Williams .
Sensational match-ups await in all five sets, and with live television coverage nationwide, the stakes in the showdown are even higher.
If you're unable to be attend today's historic match, be sure to tune in to NBC Sports Network beginning at 3:30 pm for coverage of first serve through championship point.
NBC Sports Network is available on all major cable and satellite providers in the Greater Washington area, with channels on DIRECTV (603), DISH Network (159), Verizon Fios (90 / 590), Comcast (226 / 848) and RCN (382 / 691).
The Kastles also have you covered online with live scoring available at WashingtonKastles.com and real-time analysis on Facebook and Twitter.
If you're one of the hundreds of Kastles fans who made the trip to Charleston, you are encouraged to wear RED to today's match. We want to paint the Family Circle Tennis Center in Kastles colors.
MS: Bobby Reynolds (WAS) vs. Kevin Anderson (SAC)
WS: Venus Williams (WAS) vs. CoCo Vandeweghe (SAC)
MD: Reynolds/Leander Paes (WAS) vs. Anderson/Mark Knowles (SAC)
WD: Williams/Anastasia Rodionova (WAS) vs. Asia Muhammad/Yasmin Schnack (SAC)
MXD: Williams/Paes (WAS) vs. Schnack/Knowles (SAC)
SET BY SET
Reynolds will face his biggest test of the season -- literally -- when he meets the 6-foot-8 Anderson today. They have split two meetings on the ATP Challenger Tour, but their last match came way back in February 2010. Anderson is a much-improved player since then, rising nearly 100 spots in the ATP World Tour rankings. But Reynolds has a history of chopping tall trees down to size. In 2012 alone, the Kastles closer defeated 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic in Houston and 6-foot-9 John Isner in Sydney.
Vandeweghe is no stranger to playing against the Kastles. As a Boston Lobster, she twice defeated Washington wild card Victoria Azarenka in 2010 and was a point away from upsetting Serena Williams in 2011. But the Kastles are a perfect 9-0 all-time when their lineup includes Venus Williams, who has brought her 'A' game to the WTT court in 2012. This will be the first-career meeting between Venus and Vandeweghe, who lost 6-1, 6-1 to Serena August 28th in the US Open first round.
Anderson and Mark Knowles have played five sets together this season, none better than their 5-1 win against the Breakers on Friday. But Paes and Reynolds are a major upgrade from John-Patrick Smith and Travis Parrott. The Kastles' dynamic duo is 22-5 during Washington's winning streak, including three wins in as many meetings with the former World No. 1 Knowles. Paes and Coach Murphy Jensen are the only current Kastles who were part of Washington's 2009 and 2011 championship teams.
On paper, this set appears to favor the Kastles most heavily this evening. Venus has won 13 Grand Slam women's doubles titles and Anastasia Rodionova is currently ranked 22nd in the world. None of the Sacramento women -- Vandeweghe, Yasmin Schnack and Asia Muhammad -- has ever been ranked in the Top 100 of the WTA doubles rankings. But stranger things have happened in World TeamTennis, and Schnack showed that she's a shot-maker in the making on July 18th in DC.
Coach Bryan of the Capitals made a strategic move to start mixed doubles on Friday with the stronger-serving Anderson and Vandeweghe. After each of those players held once, Bryan replaced them with the more doubles-inclined duet of Knowles and Schnack. The result was a 5-4 win for Sacramento. Expect Bryan to follow that trend tonight. Don't expect Coach Jensen of the Kastles to do the same. The Kastles have not made a single in-match substitution during their historic 31-match winning streak.
KEY FOR THE KASTLES - ONLY THE STRONG SURVIVE
The Kastles appear to have a clear edge in experience, with 28 Grand Slam doubles titles between Paes and Williams.
But Coach Bryan is the father of arguably the greatest doubles team in tennis history: Bob and Mike Bryan. He's seen Paes play nearly 40 times against his sons, and it's safe to say he knows a thing or two about Williams' game as well.
He'll have his Capitals ready for battle, just as Coach Jensen will keep the Kastles focused on every game as if it's their last.
When Washington and Sacramento met on July 18th, the Capitals won three out of five sets and held a two-game lead at halftime.
But a 5-0 women's singles win by Rodionova -- the first three games against Muhammad and the final two against Schnack -- gave the Kastles the lead for good.
Williams and Vandeweghe are expected to meet in women's singles tonight, which could prove just as crucial as it did in DC.
The future Hall-of-Famer Williams showed in saving four match points against New York on July 21st that Washington's winning streak means the world to her.
Whether her team wins a third title and the streak reaches a third season may ultimately fall on her shoulders.
NBC Sports Network will air the WTT Finals live beginning at 3:30 pm this afternoon.