Kastles Top Sportimes to Reach WTT Championship

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 2009

There were no fisticuffs during Friday's rematch between the Washington Kastles and New York Sportimes.

There was no bench-clearing fracas, either, as there was when the rivals met last week.

With the Eastern Conference title at stake, both squads delivered three hours of controversy-free tennis at Kastles Stadium and a thoroughly entertaining show for the roughly 2,000 fans on hand, who cheered and hooted through every wild swing of mood and momentum.

In the end, the Kastles prevailed in overtime, clawing back from an early deficit to win, 22-19, and advance to Sunday's World Team Tennis championship, which Washington will host for the first time.

They'll face the Springfield (Mo.) Lasers, who posted a 20-19 victory over the Newport Beach Breakers on Friday night for the Western Conference championship.

"This is everything we dreamed about all year come true, right here in downtown D.C.," gushed team owner Mark Ein, who urged his players on from a courtside table with the league's co-founder, Billie Jean King, and commissioner Ilana Kloss.

By any measure, it has been an impressive second season for the Kastles, with Ein, a Bethesda native, making shrewd roster moves before the season (re-signing Serena Williams as the team's marquee player) and during the season (signing Nadia Petrova, the world's 10th-ranked player, as a wild card with two matchups remaining in the regular season to deliver the playoff berth).

Neither star was in the lineup Friday. Nor was the notoriously tempestuous John McEnroe, a key figure in last week's near brawl with the Sportimes.

Before the first ball was tossed, Kastles doubles specialist Leander Paes was recognized on-court for being named the league's most valuable male player.

Paes proceeded to prove his worth anew Friday, winning both of his sets in the five-set competition -- pairing with Rennae Stubbs to open with a 5-4 mixed-doubles victory, and then reclaiming the lead with a 5-3 victory in men's doubles with the hard-serving Scott Oudsema.

Paes and Stubbs, who share 16 Grand Slam doubles titles between them, have been the foundation of the Kastles this season. So it was hardly surprising that both "refused to lose," as has become the team's mantra under Coach Murphy Jensen, when they took the court.

But on this important night, it was the less heralded players -- Olga Puchkova and Scott Oudsema -- who landed the Kastles in Sunday's championship.

Puchkova, 21, the squad's youngest member, put the Kastles behind by losing her singles match, 5-2, and then sulked on the bench through the set that followed.

Mindful that she'd need to perk up for doubles, the team and crowd threw themselves into the task.

"Every game counts!" Paes urged Puchkova as she trudged onto court for doubles. "I want you to work hard and give us some heart!"

"I'm giving heart!" she snapped.

And together with Stubbs, she redeemed herself, energized the crowd and put the Kastles up, 18-14, heading into the final set.

It fell to Oudsema to clinch it in singles. Though he was edged by Robert Kendrick, he closed in overtime with a second-serve ace.

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