By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009
World TeamTennis isn't for purists, as Sunday's league championship made abundantly clear.
With the league's title at stake, the host Washington Kastles and Springfield (Mo.) Lasers played some riveting tennis in downtown Washington, where spectators' cheers drowned out the blare of passing sirens and honking horns.
Along the way to awarding the King Cup, a cheerleader was sidelined after being drilled by a serve, and the women's doubles set was disrupted by a drop-to-the-knee marriage proposal in the grandstands that turned the momentum in the Lasers' favor.
Amid such distractions, the Kastles won the league title, 23-20, with their most erratic player, Olga Puchkova, fending off three championship points and upsetting the league's most valuable player, Vania King, in singles to clinch it in a tiebreak.
Puchkova was hoisted aloft by her teammates as the crowd chanted, "Olga! Olga!" And she and team owner Mark Ein, who assembled the championship roster in two quick seasons, were rewarded with an icy Gatorade drenching.
"It's such a dream come true to be able to win this in front of our home crowd," said Ein, a Bethesda native. "And in the end, for Olga to pull it out with her coach and teammates and the crowd behind her, just shows why TeamTennis is so fantastic."
But the feel-good outcome for the home team was nearly spoiled by the proposal, which hadn't been authorized by the league or team but occurred when a courtside emcee handed his microphone to the groom-to-be. The Kastles women's doubles team led 3-1 at the time, and a bewildered Rennae Stubbs was forced to wait several minutes before serving.
The delay snapped the Kastles' surge, and Stubbs and Puchkova proceeded to lose the set, 3-5.
That only heightened the pressure on Puchkova, who had the responsibility of closing the match against King, who boasts the league's best winning percentage.
But with the crowd behind her, Puchkova kept her double faults and nerves in check.
The Lasers were banking on the opposite.
As the higher ranked team, the Lasers got to choose the order of play and saved their strength, women's singles, for last in case the match went into overtime.
World TeamTennis takes bold liberties with the sport's traditional rules and spirit.
Games last only four points, for starters, and serves that trip over the net cord are in play. The contribution of men and women count equally, but a team's performance in doubles is weighted a bit more -- with women's doubles, men's doubles and mixed doubles accounting for three of the five sets that comprise a match.
Not only do teammates cheer for one another, but crowd participation is encouraged. It took a few sets before Sunday's near capacity crowd of 3,000 realized they could be as vocal as Kastles Coach Murphy Jensen, who bellowed, "Play with intensity!" "This is your point!" "Stay solid!" and "DO something with the ball," as the occasion warranted.
It worked in the Kastles' favor as the match ground on, with NFL Hall of Famer Darrell Green among the more demonstrative, waving a "Refuse to Lose" sign on key points.