Serena, and Tie Break Tens, were huge hits at Madison Square Garden

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Serena Williams was the main attraction at the Tie Break Tens event in New York. (AP)

NEW YORK—Before Serena Williams even walked onto the newly-installed black tennis court at Madison Square Garden—before she dodged the tantalizing flames that shot up from makeshift canisters along the courts’ perimeter—fans caught her image from backstage on the Jumbotron.

They screamed, clapped and roared. Poor Sorana Cirstea, the 27-year-old Romanian who had to follow Williams onto the court for introductions before the start of Tie Break Tens, the innovative one-night competition. The crowd, while polite, simply had no idea who Cirstea was. New York fans can be brutal.

The same was true for Elina Svitolina, the highest ranked entrant, at No. 4 in the world, who won more tournaments than any other player on the WTA Tour in 2017 and has already captured both Brisbane and Dubai this year. Only the Americans, Serena and Venus Williams and CoCo Vandeweghe, seemed to elicit huge ovations from the 7,000-plus fans in the storied arena.

By the end of the evening, however, it was Svitolina who had captured both the imagination and the collective hearts of the crowd by bullying her way past Venus Williams, Vandeweghe and Shuai Zhang to win the competition and take home $250,000 in winner-take-all prize money.

Tie-Break Tens isn’t meant to rival the ATP or WTA tours. It’s billed as a fast-paced warm-up exhibition for big upcoming events in Indian Wells and Miami, designed to put the pressure on players by making every point count.

The eight players in the single-elimination competition were a mix of top-ranked players like Svitolina, Vandeweghe and the Williams sisters alongside the 35th-ranked Cirstea, No. 33 Zhang of China, recently retired Daniela Hantuchova (a semifinalist at the Australian Open in 2008) and 2013 Wimbledon champ Marion Bartoli, who used the event to kick-start her return to the tour following her retirement four and a half years ago.

While criterion for entry into Tie Break Tens was supposed to be a one-time world ranking in the Top 10, wild cards were granted to Zhang and Cirstea. Presumably, others were unwilling to forego their preparations in Indian Wells to travel cross-country to compete for one night.

This was the fifth Tie Break Tens since 2015 but the first one held in the United States, and only the second involving women. Past competitors (in London, Vienna, Madrid and, this past January, Melbourne), have included Andy Murray, Goran Ivanisevic, Dominic Thiem, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Maria Sharapova, Jack Sock, Stan Wawrinka and Madison Keys.

Most players, especially in the first round, played to the crowd. Vandeweghe, who went down 6-3 to Hantuchova before winning seven of the next eight points, revved the crowd up the way she did en route the 2017 US Open semifinals. She even smiled, made funny faces and grooved to the music despite losing 10-0 to an apologetic Svitolina in just six minutes in the semifinals. Her coach, Pat Cash, seated in the stands, was less amused. Vandeweghe did, however, pull out her cell phone moments later to have her picture taken with members of the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic hockey team, which were seated courtside.

Bartoli seemed to have the most fun, even though she was knocked out by Serena 10-6 in 10 minutes in the first round. At one point, the 33-year-old Frenchwoman ducked out of the way of a Serena serve. She even led the 36-year-old, 23-time Grand Slam winner 4-2, but back-to-back aces by Williams turned the tide. When she briefly prolonged the tiebreaker by successfully challenging on match point, she prayed to the tennis gods and then crumbled in joy at the outcome. One point later, she and Williams shared a huge hug at the net.

Highlights from Bartoli vs. Williams: 

Serena, competing for just the second time since giving birth to her daughter Alexis last summer (her only other appearance was a one-match exhibition loss to Jelena Ostapenko in Abu Dhabi in January) looked tepid at times and terrific at others. She led Zhang 6-3 in the semifinals only to lose four straight points. At 6-7, she hit what appeared to be an ace that was called out. A challenge proved it was in, but instead of awarding Williams the ace, the chair umpire ordered the point replayed. Instead of exploding, Williams just laughed and served another ace.           

Williams then led the 29-year-old Zhang, who has won two career titles to Williams’ 72, 9-7, one point from the final, but she couldn’t convert. Zhang won the tiebreak 13-11 when Williams netted a backhand down the line.           

“I still had a great time,” Williams effused after the loss. “I feel so lucky to be out here and I’m ready to play.”

In the final tiebreak, Svitolina wasted no time against a visibly nervous Zhang, serving an ace to go up 6-1 and another to lead 8-3. She drew Zhang into the net on the final point, only to pummel her with a huge forehand pass that Zhang barely touched before the ball ricocheted off her frame and into the net. So focused was the 23-year-old Ukrainian that she initially started toward the baseline to ready for the next point before she realized she had won and went to the net to shake her opponent’s hand. Svitolina seemed to have the attention span that all others were lacking.       

There were plenty of goofy gimmicks attached to Tie Break Tens that made it spectator-friendly. Competitors decided the serving order by doing Rock, Paper, Scissors rather than tossing a coin. The players also acted as spectators in between matches, sitting on couches in a make-believe courtside lounge and even riding nearby stationary bikes to keep warm. Music blared not in between games, but in between points, encouraging fans to dance raucously in their seats. The Kiss-Cam nabbed fans mid-point, keeping everyone laughing, and more than one non-couple good and embarrassed. 

In between matches, the U.S. women’s hockey team lined up to be honored, kissing their Olympic gold medals and posing for pictures with Serena and Venus. Television interviews were plentiful, including one with Zhang that Serena photo-bombed while blowing kisses as she rode the bike.

Throughout the night, organizers did everything within reason to both engage and distract the players. It's a delicate combination, no doubt, and one that could only work within this playing format. But it did, to the delights of the participants and patrons—and because of that, we'll see it again at future Tie Break Tens.

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