- Joel Drucker
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ROSEVILLE, Calif. -- You'd have to be one big-time tennis wonk to recognize Nathan Healey. The 28-year-old Australian's highest singles ranking has been 157. As has often been the case with players from that collegial nation, he's fared better in doubles, five years ago getting as high as 58th in the world. Though the players you're more familiar with are headed to ATP events in Cincinnati, Los Angeles and the Beijing Olympics, Healey's next stop is a Challenger event in Binghamton, N.Y.
But this past Sunday, Healey emerged as the hero of an unusual tennis event, one punctuated by an exceptionally casual atmosphere and a deceptive level of pressure. It was the World Team Tennis (WTT) Championship weekend, in which Healey was the man of the hour, leading the New York Buzz to a 21-18 victory over the Kansas City Explorers.
How to explain WTT? Think of it as the extension of a vision long held by Billie Jean King, who co-founded the league more than 30 years ago. The premise: Tennis would be more popular if it was played as a team sport -- most notably as a coed team. Throw in a fast-paced format -- five sets, each played to five games, with no-ad scoring. Then encourage fans to cheer as they do in other sports and pipe in intermittent music between points. The result is an environment more down-home NASCAR than orderly Wimbledon.
Sunday's final was quintessential WTT. The Allstate Stadium where it was played is located at the Westfield Galleria, a shopping center in Roseville, Calif., just east of Sacramento. The on-court temperature exceeded 90 degrees, but it was breezy, actually cooler than usual. Fans milling outside the court roamed and found free popcorn, barbecued chicken wings and, naturally, plenty of water, sunscreen and beer. It's no big deal if a few drops of any of this stuff drop on the court. At many a WTT match in Sacramento, if you arrive hours prior there's a good chance you can hit a few on the court where the match is about to take place. "We want everyone to feel welcome here," says Lonnie Nielsen, longstanding owner of the local team, the Sacramento Capitals.
From a media standpoint, WTT is exceptionally welcoming. Kansas City's top player, league MVP Rennae Stubbs, was more than willing to conduct interviews before, during and after the match.
So on the surface all seems more casual than a USTA league match. Pro players may often be uptight and self-absorbed at tournaments. During a WTT match it's a different story, as they constantly cheer on their teammates and engage in small talk with fans and even foes.
And yet for all WTT's relaxed qualities, the competition itself is far different. New York's Healey opened the day playing singles versus Kansas City's Dusan Vemic, an athletic but massively undisciplined player. Vemic was exceptionally tight early on -- which in WTT can be disastrous given the fact that every game counts in the match's overall tally. As Vemic double-faulted and overhit groundstrokes, Healey played solid attacking tennis, withstanding a couple of Vemic's running passing shots to take the set 5-3.
But the real impact of WTT's format kicked in just after New York's Yaroslava Shvedova beat Kansas City's Kveta Peschke 5-3. Trailing 10-6, Kansas City had considerable ground to make up. "Every point, every game, the whole thing matters," said an excited King following the women's singles. "You better be ready to come out strong right away."
So it was that Stubbs took the court. The 37-year-old Australian has always been a fiery competitor, but on this afternoon she knew she needed to kick-start her mates to emphatic victories. Her mixed partner Vemic, though, remained wound up from his lackluster singles play, and on more than one occasion he played balls that were clearly headed long -- and lost the point in the process. Stubbs steamed and hectored her partner, and her leadership continued into the next match as well. For it was unquestionably Stubbs' high-octane intensity and snappy forward movement that paced Kansas City's subsequent 5-3 wins in both mixed and women's doubles.
And there it was, a 16-16 tie going into the concluding men's doubles match. One set would determine the whole season. An easy volley mix from Vemic and a double-fault gave Healey and his partner Patrick Briaud the go-ahead service break. To honor Healey, the in-house speakers quickly blared out the Men at Work song, "Land Down Under." By this time, though, Briaud was virtually invisible, leaving most of the heavy lifting to Healey. With Healey serving to put New York one game away from victory, Kansas City was two points away from breaking serve and leveling the match. Healey responded magnificently, popping in two aces and a service winner. Kansas City now served down 20-18. If Kansas City could hold serve, it would be up to Briaud to close it out. If he didn't, then one tiebreak would decide it all.
But oddly enough, in one of the wackiest endings ever seen in tennis, at 3-3 in the game -- a no-ad point that would decide things one way or another -- Kansas City's Vemic pounded a put-away volley, and then, amazingly, touched the net before the ball had bounced for the second time. The umpire instantly called the point for New York, and soon enough Queen's "We Are The Champions" boomed out. The Buzz, finalists for the fourth time, had won the title and earned the King Cup. Said Healey, "It's a shame it ended like that. But we'll take it. This kind of pressure can only help me become a better competitor. It brings incredible pressure and excitement to the game."
And that, perhaps, might be WTT's best asset. It has not been easy for King and the entire league to wedge its way into the cluttered tennis calendar. Marquee players such as Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Roddick, John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova are costly and do not play in all the matches. Most teams are located in smaller cities. But somehow, WTT perseveres. In America, most of the growth at the recreational level has come in league play. While pro tournaments remain a staple, there could well continue to be room for WTT.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
While most top-tier players are competing at the Cincinnati Masters and preparing for the Olympics, others got their tennis fix by taking part in World Team Tennis -- in which rowdy, NASCAR-like fans, beer aplenty and playful banter between the players are the norm.