Mylan World TeamTennis celebrates its 40th birthday this year. For more on WTT, including this season's schedule, click here.
Many players come to think of their Mylan World TeamTennis teammates as family. For Anastasia Rodionova, it was family that brought her back into the Mylan WTT fold.
The Russian-born Australian hadn’t participated in the professional team tennis league in nearly five years when sister Arina was drafted to play for the Washington Kastles. Winning the 2011 Female Rookie of the Year, the younger Rodionova capped the league’s first-ever unbeaten season with Washington’s second-ever King Trophy.
“I sat on the bench and I just came to watch my sister play, but I told her and [Kastles owner] Mark Ein that if I’m ever going to be back playing WTT, that’s the only team I’m going to be playing for!” Rodionova reminisced with wtt.com this spring.
“The atmosphere was great; I think that first match was actually sold out, and the fans were amazing. But it’s not only about the crowd; it’s also how players interact with each other and you really have that team environment on the bench. That felt really good and I wanted to try it myself.
“And there I was, one year later playing with my sister on the team!”
Rodionova joined the Kastles in 2012, matching the high bar set by her sister to help earn a second straight 16-0 season. The team’s winning streak came to an end the following year, but not before Washington won a 34th straight match, a record-breaking feat that placed them just ahead of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
Though her sister has since left the team, Rodionova has had the opportunity to shine alongside some of the best players in the game, including Venus Williams and Martina Hingis.
“It was a little bit scary at the beginning, but both girls are great and it’s very easy to communicate with them. They’re very different players. Venus has a big serve and I can do things at the net, just finish the point. With Martina it’s a little bit different game plan. But they’re both great champions and they know the game inside out.
“So my job is easy there: they tell me what to do and I do it!”
The Kastles are in the hunt for a fifth consecutive King Trophy, but their days of uninterrupted dominance came to a sudden halt last season when they lost a surprising 24-10 regular season match to the Springfield Lasers. Without a regular partner, Rodionova could sense a hitch in the team’s typically seamless rhythm.
“It’s not easy when you have a new member coming into the team. Shelby [Rogers] played her first match in Springfield, and we’d never played doubles together before. So that was really tough to start straight away, playing your best.”
Primed for revenge, the full Kastles roster put in extensive preparation ahead of the Finals Weekend, and turned the tables on Springfield to earn the four-peat in Missouri.
“We got there two days in advance and we practiced in those conditions. During the season, we didn’t have the opportunity to actually practice on those courts before the match. So I think that made a difference for us.”
It was a season of great upheaval for the otherwise unflappable Kastles. The team began 2014 having to bid farewell to their home stadium at The Wharf, moving to the Smith Center at George Washington University.
“When we played by The Wharf and we had the helicopters flying, there was always a very nice sunset during the matches, which was really nice. But indoors is a very different atmosphere; it’s louder, it feels like the fans can be more engaged. It actually felt like it was more fun to be indoors, because the crowd can really get into the match.”
The eventual victory was bittersweet, as it marked the retirement of 2012 Male MVP and 2013 Finals MVP Bobby Reynolds. Rodionova played with Reynolds through three seasons, and got emotional when asked how the team might replace its most valuable player.
“I don’t know, it’s really tough to talk about Bobby. He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever met; he found a way to get along with every single person on the team. He was really helpful in difficult situations when some of us were really tired and cranky, he’s always positive and trying to find the way to help people. I think he was definitely one of the most important members on the team.”
Forced to soldier on without Reynolds, coach Murphy Jensen has enlisted Serena Williams and Sam Querrey to join Kastles stalwarts in Rodionova, Williams, Hingis, Leander Paes, and newcomers like Denis Kudla and Madison Brengle. The Aussie is confident that the slightly revamped line-up will yield more success.
“It’s going to be tough to find a second Bobby but hopefully we’ll work it out and find a way to win.”
Jensen serves as equally important glue for the team; his famous personality keeps the players relaxed through the season’s more stressful moments, gathering them around in the locker room to watch viral videos on his phone and giving some rather hilarious advice.
“We had to drive quite a bit from the hotel to the venue or from one city to another,” Rodionova explained. “For some reason Murphy kept saying all three weeks, ‘Don’t get T-Boned!’ But only during the season! He didn’t care if we got t-boned after the season; the most important thing for him? Don’t get t-boned during the season!”
With fond memories, a funny coach, and a formidable fan base, Anastasia Rodionova is set to continue holding court for the Washington Kastles.