Live professional tennis made its return on Sunday, and in West Virginia, no less. The 45th season of World TeamTennis got under way at The Greenbrier amid ideal weather and not-so-ideal conditions.
Tennis was back for the first time since it closed up shop due to the coronavirus pandemic in March. Face masks were work by fans, WTT staff, media and even the players when not the court.
Allowing fans inside the stadium was a big deal. NASCAR has been back in operation since May but without spectators, and Major League Baseball will do the same starting July 23.
Everyone was subject to temperature checks upon arriving on the grounds and again before entering the stadium. Center Court at Creekside seats 2,500, but only 500 (20 percent capacity) were permitted. Every other row of seats was covered up to promote social distancing.
"Again, if it’s safe and it’s safe for the people to get out and experience some tennis live, then I’m all for it," said Orlando Storm coach Jay Gooding. "I think it’s great. I think it’s exciting. It’s exciting for us and I think the tennis public, in general, have something to look forward to, to get out there and watch some live sports again."
Electronic line judging was used in place of line judges, and there were no ball kids. The electronic judging had its first glitch right off the bat — Springfield's Mitchell Krueger was incorrectly called for a foot fault on the second point of the day. He was allowed another first serve.
Storm player Tennys Sandgren was happy for fans to have the opportunity to get out and about.
"Do you know what it’s been like the last four months? You’ve been around," Sandgren said. "You’re just sitting in your house the whole ... time. So I get to do it in a beautiful setting now. It’s fantastic. I’m super excited to be here. There’s lots of stuff to do as far as golf, lots of other activities where you can be safe and distant. I’m just super excited to be here."
Gooding was making his debut as a World TeamTennis coach and watched his team hold off two-time reigning champion Springfield 21-18.
Each match consists of five sets — men's singles, women's singles, men's doubles, women's doubles and mixed doubles. The first to win five games wins each set, and the total number of games won determines the match winner.
Sandgren, who played Krueger in the first set, said he mostly felt good despite the lengthy layoff from competition.
"I got a little … my blood sugar felt like it dropped a little bit by the end," he said. "It’s weird to play a set, then break, set, then break, then play one more so I chugged a Gatorade at the end of that one and had an energy gel before the last game. Luckily my partner carried me there at the end. Maybe I might have a bite to eat in the middle of a match next time."
Orlando won the first three sets to take a 15-8 lead. Sandgren defeated Krueger 5-3, Jessica Pegula took down Olga Govortsova 5-2 and Sandgren teamed with James Ward to beat Robert Lindstedt and Jean-Julien Rojer 5-3.
Springfield started its comeback when Caty McNally and Hayley Carter defeated Pegula and Darija Jurak 5-3.
McNally and Lindstedt then teamed up in mixed doubles for the Lasers and dominated Sandgren and Pegula from the outset. They broke serve twice to take a 4-0 lead and pull Orlando to within 18-17.
Sandgren and Pegula won the next game to avoid a super tiebreaker, but McNally and Lindstedt took the set 5-2.
"I haven’t played much mixed doubles so I felt like technically I wasn’t very good," Sandgren said. "Where I was going with my serve, staying back wasn’t a good idea … Tried to make some adjustments at the end, (and) it worked out in our favor."
Orlando led 20-18 after the five sets before the start of extra time. Springfield had the opportunity to tie it and force a super tiebreaker if it could win two straight games.
The mixed doubles players went back to the court, and Sandgren and Pegula won the game for a 21-18 match victory.
Pegula stood out for the Storm. Playing in her first season of WTT, the Buffalo, N.Y., native was actually a replacement player for Danielle Collins.
In her singles victory, Pegula broke Govortsova twice and allowed just one point total in those two games en route to a 4-1 lead. Govortsova was replaced by McNally, who held serve before Pegula served out the set.
"I was really excited to get Jessica in there and, you know, she plays pretty fast as it is," Gooding said. "I told her, ‘Don’t change anything. Just go out there, every point matters so there’s no time to waste and get after it.’"
In the second match of the day, the Chicago Smash made its WTT debut a success with a 24-18 (1-0 extended time) victory over the Vegas Rollers.
The regular season will run every day through July 30. The semifinals will be played Aug. 1, followed by the championship match on Aug. 2.
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