Billie Jean King’s vision of bringing men and women together to compete for a trophy has been carried out through Mylan World TeamTennis since 1974. Nearly 30 years later, the Springfield Lasers have taken the iconic gender-equity concept to the next level this season by building strong relationships, and now have a chance to complete the pieces of their puzzle by winning the franchise’s first King Trophy on Sunday against the Washington Kastles.
From the start, the personalities of longtime coach John-Laffnie de Jager, Rik de Voest, Vania King, Alisa Kleybanova, Jean-Julien Rojer and Andy Roddick harmonized with ease, so it’s no surprise the group credits their unity as the main reason for coming out on top in the unpredictable West. Their synchronicity shone through in Thursday’s Western Conference Championship, as the Lasers overpowered the Texas Wild to win in convincing fashion and reach the Mylan WTT Finals presented by GEICO for the fourth time.
“The whole team atmosphere and friendship off the court brings out our best performances. If you don’t have a good climate within the team, you won’t play your best,” says Kleybanova. “We just became such good friends, that it’s not only about playing tennis. I couldn’t think of anything better than that. It’s just been fantastic. That’s the reason why we’ve done so well.”
De Voest, playing his fourth season for the Lasers, echoed Kleybanova’s sentiments.
“All of our personalities are open. I think that’s the biggest thing,” De Voest states. “When you’re in each other’s kitchens for 24 hours a day, it’s good to be accommodating. We all have a good sense of humor. Alisa’s got a great personality and is so bubbly. Vania’s always smiling. Jules is cracking jokes all the time. JL, our coach, is very good at keeping the spirit alive and happy. I think that’s all part of it. We’re all out there supporting each other on and off the court.”
With de Jager, the success of his team this year began before the league’s draft in March. Working with the Lasers owners, de Jager mapped out the franchise’s ideal squad by plugging in players that fit the bill of succeeding in both team environments and challenging situations.
“The combination of these four players I thought would be a good vibe. For me, it’s about having great team spirit among the players,” says de Jager. “Sunday night, that’s going to be the key. One point can change everything for you.”
The Lasers enjoyed several highlights, as a team and individually. Among the accomplishments, Springfield became the first team to defeat the Kastles at its home venue, The Wharf, while two players picked up end-of-season accolades. Kleybanova won Mylan WTT Female Rookie of the Year and Rojer was named the Mylan WTT Male MVP.
“The funny part was coming into the season, I told myself to have a good time and enjoy myself,” says Rojer. “More than anything, I wanted to help the team win in any way I can. Of course the best way to do that is to win your own matches.
“I didn’t put a strong emphasis on trying to win the MVP. It just so happened I was on a cool team that makes you want to play and try to win for them. In hindsight, having won the award, it takes a lot of effort and you can’t really take a night off, because that might be the match that costs you. I’ve gone out and played hard for the team the whole way through.”
For Kleybanova, the Russian far exceeded her own expectations, physically and mentally. The 24-year-old is the quintessential feel-good story in tennis this year. Having defeated a rival superior to any tennis player she’s ever played in Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Kleybanova made a triumphant return to action in May by winning an ITF $10K Futures event at Landisville, Pa., saving seven match points in the semifinals en route to the title. Suiting up for her first season of Mylan WTT, the No. 1 overall roster draft pick was unsure how she would adapt to the format and innovations of the league, but passed with flying colors.
“I’m really honored to get the award. I didn’t think about any awards during the season. It’s really an amazing feeling to be at the top in my first season,” Kleybanova says. “I didn’t expect anything, because I didn’t know what I was getting into exactly. I came and decided to do my best and try to win as much as possible to help out my team. I’ve always loved being part of a team.
“It’s been a great opportunity also, to play many different events every day. With mixed, you only play four times a year at the Grand Slams. You never get 10 matches in a row. You don’t have time to test things out or learn something new. I’ve been able to improve my doubles, because no matter if you win or lose, you always have another match the next day. I played singles recently and feel like I’m getting better and more confident. My all court game has been improving. I really look forward to playing TeamTennis in the coming years.”
De Jager couldn’t be happier for Rojer and Kleybanova, but was quick to shift the focus on capping off the season with a perfect finish.
“I’m very proud of Jules and Alisa. They deserved the awards. They’ve done well for the team and themselves,” says de Jager. “The good thing is it’s not the most important thing for them. They want to the win the title. The season will not be successful unless we win the title. We’re looking forward to it and know it’s going to be tough, but we’re very excited for it.”
In being one of just two teams to beat the Kastles this year, and having Roddick return, de Voest believes his team is ready for the challenge of trying to prevent Washington from clinching a three-peat.
“We were the only team to beat them at home, so we do have that under our belt. They did beat us the last time. They are a quality team and have been for numerous years. They have some established players who have always done well for them and now they’ve brought in Martina Hingis to strengthen their lineup.
“We’re going to use our team spirit to the best of our ability. We are playing in Kastles territory, but we’ll have Roddick with us as well. He was with us when we beat them and has been supportive. Hopefully we can deliver a win for the organization.”
Rojer adds, “I think we can win. Our team knows we can do it. The Kastles play very well at home and know their court. It’s going to be tough, but we’ve done it once before and we can rest a little easier knowing we are capable of beating them in their house. I think everyone on our team has a good attitude. It’s not going to be one of those things where we step on the court intimidated.”
Four years ago, de Jager was at the helm when the Lasers squandered three match points to lose the Mylan WTT Finals to none other than the Kastles in Washington. Now, he has a chance to lead the charge at avenging the crushing defeat and would love nothing more than to bring a trophy back home to an organization that has become a family.
“For our owners, it would be unbelievable. We want to do it for them, because they’ve been so good to us,” says de Jager. “They are the nicest people and take great care of the team. You feel so bad if you lose. They are one of the oldest franchises and we have a great fan base that comes and watch us every night
“The Kastles are a good team and all of their events are strong. But it’s the same for us, so I think it will be a good matchup. All the matches can go either way. They will have more of the home crowd and they do a great job with the entertainment and atmosphere, so it will be tough. We will give it everything.”