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Underdog New York team gears up for WTT playoffs without Clijsters
Coach Luke Jensen's squad is facing off against a stacked No. 1-seeded Philadelphia squad on Saturday.
Published Aug 01, 2020
White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.—Luke Jensen is usually heard before he’s seen. The New York Empire coach is one of the loudest figures in tennis and he’s made his presence known at The Greenbrier this month, often wielding his wooden racquet like a cheer squad baton.
While it looks like he's always having a blast, Jensen has been tasked with making some tough calls. With 11 years coaching World TeamTennis and eight years at Syracuse, he's more than well-equipped to handle anything tennis tennis can throw his way.
"We built our team around character, great competitive character, great people, people that don't need a lot of supervision," Jensen says. "They're pros. They understand how to prepare and what to do. They know how to deal with adversity."
Heading into this weekend's playoffs, Jensen's roster features Neal Skupski, Jack Sock, CoCo Vandeweghe and Nicole Melichar. Kim Clijsters is absent from their lineup. New York Empire is up against the No. 1 seeded Philadelphia Freedoms in the first semifinal on Saturday at 2 p.m., while No. 2 Orlando Storm will take on No. 3 Chicago Smash at 5 p.m.
As the only team to pull off a roster switch-up, New York's journey has been unusual. Just minutes before the trade deadline on Sunday night, Jensen gave up Sabine Lisicki and Kveta Peschke for San Diego's Vandeweghe and Melichar.
CoCo Vandeweghe and Nicole Melichar have beaten Philadelphia twice in women's doubles. (Ryan Loco)
With everyone in the same location for the entire season, it made for some awkwardness.
"It was an opportunity for us to kind of upgrade where we needed it most," Jensen says. "If Clijsters was healthy throughout the season I think we probably don't make that trade. We're really happy with the people we have, but looking at what Vandeweghe brings, with Melichar brings, those are Grand Slam champions that aren't afraid of anything."
The switch meant that Peschke and Lisicki went from being in on their way to the playoffs to not in contention overnight. It wasn’t easy for them, but San Diego ended on a high note with an upset of Chicago on Thursday.
“We're just dinged up and now I look at what [San Diego] did against Philadelphia and Melichar and Vandeweghe just took it to them,” Jensen says. “When I saw that I thought this is a really good opportunity if we can make it happen.”
Melichar and Vandeweghe have been one of the best duos this summer, and on that pivotal Sunday with Jensen watching from the stands, they took out Sofia Kenin and Taylor Townsend, 5-3 with San Diego wining all three doubles sets over Philadelphia.
CoCo Vandeweghe is a former Top-10 singles player and 2018 US Open doubles champion. (Ryan Loco)
"To bring in Grand Slam champions is amazing for our team," Skupski says. "I don't personally know them but they've come into the team and they've adapted well. They're a great asset for us. I think we needed that to try to give a massive push towards making the playoffs."
San Diego was struggling to post wins, and Vandeweghe wasn’t seeing the court time she had envisioned. Getting traded gave her a huge second chance.
"I love playing singles. I wanted to play singles," Vandeweghe said. "And now I have the opportunity so I'm going to make the most of it. I played WTT before as a marquee player and I've played all three sets, so I'm very comfortable playing anywhere and everywhere."
The 28-year-old will play singles, mixed doubles and doubles on Saturday with Sock opening in doubles with Skupski and closing against Fritz in men's singles.
Kim Clijsters has spent a lot of time on the sideline alongside coach Luke Jensen. (Ryan Loco)
Vandeweghe capitalized on her chances with a 5-4 win over Kenin on Thursday night when New York and Philadelphia competed in the final regular season match. With Sock and Clijsters both benched, New York would lose 23-17. The rematch on Saturday should look a lot different.
Having Clijsters, a six-time singles and doubles Grand Slam champion and former No. 1, on the team has been a huge influence. She set the tone early by going undefeated in singles, but then injuries struck and she hasn’t played singles since July 18 or doubles since July 25. When New York managed to beat Philadelphia (a team that's lost just twice) it was with Clijsters playing both singles and mixed doubles.
The team’s been through a lot of ups and downs across the past three weeks, and one big driving factor keeping it all together is Jensen. He brings a blend of experience and exuberance to Team Awesome, and can't be missed with his booming voice and emphatic cheering—though he gets an assist from his niece Jensen, who could be the best cheerer in WTT history.
"We're going to bring every point with every mindset that we can that's positive," Jensen says. "I feel once we get into that semifinal match it's going to be just game on because all players understand it's the big money. It's the big pressure, and it's the big time."
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