WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va.—While many questioned why the 2020 season of World TeamTennis was being held, organizers worked furiously behind the scenes to make history. To all who said it couldn't, or shouldn't, be done, the New York Empire held the King Cup aloft on Sunday afternoon to prove them wrong.
From May, when WTT announced the season was still on, up until the very last point of the final, the stars had to align for the No. 4-seeded New York squad to walk away with the trophy.
"I think what it really started with is we all had to be safe, we all had to be on the same team," New York coach Luke Jensen says. "Someone's going to win, eight teams are going to lose, but we have to be smart about this and have all those negative tests. It was just extraordinary showing that everybody did their part to make this work."
"It's a big relief," WTT CEO Carlos Silva says. "It was not an easy thing to do. We planned for months. Here at The Greenbrier it's been consistent, we've all been in our own little world here, and I think everyone was safe here."
All photos by Ryan Loco
All of the planning couldn't have predicted New York's wild journey to the trophy.
After Kim Clijsters went down with an ab injury, Jensen risked it all with a mid-season trade, acquiring CoCo Vandeweghe and Nicole Melichar from the San Diego Aviators. After just making it into the playoffs, the Empire backed up the move with an upset over the top-seeded Philadelphia Freedoms. Then, on Sunday, after an early lead with wins in men's doubles (Jack Sock and Neal Skupski) and mixed doubles (Sock and Vandeweghe), Sock lost 5-0 to Brandon Nakashima, flipping the momentum upside down.
It would all come down to Vandeweghe and Melichar, who have gone 12-3 together this summer. Tied at 20-20, Chicago coach Kamau Murray made the bold move to sub Sloane Stephens in for Eugenie Bouchard, with Bethanie Mattek-Sands adapting to a totally new partner for the Supertiebreaker.
During the deciding point at 6-6, Stephens served into Vandeweghe's forehand and Mattek-Sands went to poach. Stepping into it, Vandeweghe ripped a winner past both her opponents. The challenge was made, but Hawk-Eye confirmed the upset for New York (there have been on linesmen on site).
"I've never had this opportunity in WTT to do Extended Play to the Superbreaker to the super buster of the Superbreaker," Vandeweghe says. "I've never been under that kind of pressured I think ever. It was so much fun to have it on my racket to be able to control the situation. Luckily, I controlled it in the right way."
It was a long and arduous road to get to those dramatic final seconds. On July 12, when the first ball was struck at The Greenbrier, months of effort came to fruition. But once players arrived on site a few days prior is when the true work began. The key to making it to August 2 was everyone buying into the safe haven lifestyle.
"Whether it's the staff, every player, every coach, everybody in the media, when you're in the bubble, you're in the bubble and you've got to be responsible," Jensen says. "For the most part, everybody locked in and did their part and it gives a lot of hope for the US Open coming up."
"Every single person, including all the players, was very diligent to make sure that we could get through the season," Silva says. "I feel very blessed and lucky that we did it."
Instead of zipping around the country to make it to Springfield, Washington or San Diego, everyone stayed put in West Virginia. The commute from the room to the stadium was a three-minute walk, the practice courts up in the mountains were a five-minute golf-cart ride, and all other needs, like physios, meals and entertainment, were in the confines of the resort.
"I think the protocols were good," Chicago's Rajeev Ram says. "The fact that we can come out here and do our job and do what we love to to do be with our colleagues and friend and be safe is quite a pleasure and quite a treat for us."
Athletes are notoriously selfish and needy, tennis players are even more so due to the individual nature of their sport. They're used to their individual routines and have high standards. The Greenbrier, a five-star resort with nine restaurants, seven hard courts and 11,000 acres, was up to the challenge of satisfying them.
Players settled in for the long haul by bringing family members, children and even dogs. They engaged in hiking, golfing, off-roading, shooting skeet and horse riding, but stayed clear of congregating in the casino. The wholesome setting made for such a unique experience that many want to see WTT held in one site again.
"It was a nice overall experience and I wouldn't mind if it was the same format here in the future," Melichar says. "I know they did it due to COVID, but if they did that like that in the future, I would not mind at all."
Did eating the same foods get old after 20-plus days? Absolutely. Was there a desire to escape? Of course. Were the rooms old-fashioned and the beds uncomfortable? Yes. But the desire to pull it off and show the world a sports bubble can be done trumped any real complaints.
"It takes an effort from everyone from WTT staff, from the players, from the coaches, from friends coming in," Mattek-Sands says. "I think everyone did a really great job."
As the playoffs neared, spirits lifted for reasons beyond winning bonus prize money, though the final point Vandeweghe won was worth $500,000.
"It is a relief," Vandeweghe says. "We've done a good job as players to keep ourselves in here and only be around each other. I think everyone has taken responsibility for what they are supposed to do in this bubble."
COVID-19 testing was the biggest priority with every staff, media, guest and player needing to provide proof of a negative result just to show up. Then came days of stress with a second test taken on site and not everyone getting results back at the same time. It meant some participants, like Ken Skupski, Evan King and Jensen, weren't allowed on court for the first few matches.
It was awkward, but a necessary step, both to keep players safe and to show the right message to everyone watching. After passing the second test, people stopped eying each other suspiciously and nervous chatter about results diminished. The hundreds of negative test results buoyed hopes that coming here was the right decision. There was an increased sense of camaraderie that everyone had gotten through this weird and chaotic time together.
Everyone could begin to focus on tennis, which saw 66 quality, competitive matches played out with $5 million on the line. Players tried not to high five at the start, but as the bubble environment became more comfortable, physical contact returned. When Vandeweghe's final winner was struck, her team completely swarmed her. For those watching on TV and judging the presence of hugs and a lack of masks—once you've passed three COVID tests and spent weeks together from sunrise to sunset, you're going to hug your teammate after she wins you half a million dollars.
That's not to say legitimate safety protocols diminished over time. Everyone did wear masks inside the hotel where other guests roamed freely, and in the indoor stadium when not on the court. Fan interactions were limited to six-feet-apart selfies, and stadium capacity was limited to 20 percent, with groups spaced out. Post-match interviews were held off the court in a spaced out setting. Leaving the resort meant dismissal, as Danielle Collins discovered.
"It's been amazing," Sock says. "Without this, I think the tournaments coming up, whether it's this month or even in the fall, wouldn't look as good. To be able to pull this off successfully, thanks to everyone behind the scenes that have done it, obviously gives us a lot of hope for the US Open."
While it began to feel like Groundhog Day with three, sometimes four, matches per day on the same stadium with the same rosters, drama kept things interesting. Through it all, even with everything on the line, all players and staff became a united team. The sense of responsibility to make the WTT season a success extended far beyond August 2, but no one is going to forget this experience anytime soon.
"I think definitely The Greenbrier offered us something amazing," Vandeweghe says. "And I think everyone should cherish that and relish in that moment. Everyone doing their part from players to staff to everyone else involved, it's a team effort. Hopefully we can replicate it again, I don't think we can. I think The Greenbrier was something special."
For more photos, videos, results and live action from World TeamTennis, go to WTT.com.