The King Trophy came down to as dramatic a finish as you can have in World TeamTennis as one point decided the entire season with the New York Empire capturing the King Trophy over the expansion Chicago Smash, 21-20, in a Super Tiebreaker on Sunday at Center Court at Creekside at The Greenbrier in West Virginia.
It all played out in front of a live nationally-televised audience on CBS Television Network. With the match in Extended Play at 20-20 and at 6-all in the Super Tiebreaker (best of 13) the Empire’s Coco Vandeweghe ripped a Sloane Stephens serve with a forehand down the line that nicked the baseline, was reviewed by Hawk-Eye and signaled in. The Finals Female Most Valuable Player Vandeweghe embraced her partner Nicole Melichar as the rest of the Empire players and head coach Luke Jensen joined into the celebration.
“I never had this opportunity in World TeamTennis to do Extended Play, to the Super Tiebreaker to the super buster to the Super Breaker (last deciding point),” Vandeweghe said. “I mean I’ve never been under that kind of pressure, ever. It was so much fun to be on my racquet to control the situation. Luckily I controlled it in the right way. It really accentuated what World TeamTennis is; the team vibe, team energy, people picking each other up when they’re down. I had so much fun out there.”
Said Melichar: “I didn’t want to tell Coco to go line, because I know her instincts, but I felt that Bethanie (Mattel-Sands) was going to try and cross and then the second she hit it and they didn’t call an out call I was thrilled, but then the fact that they were challenging (asked to look at Hawk-Eye), we were like ‘oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no’ and then it was just pure joy. It was just incredible.”
World TeamTennis titles are nothing new for New York franchises as the New York Buzz won the King Trophy in 2008 and the New York Sportimes did the same in 2005.
“It’s just so amazing that it came down to one point,” Empire coach Luke Jensen told the crowd after accepting the King Trophy and the $500,000 winning check his team will split. “When you’re a Grand Slam champion you’ve accomplished what you wanted as a kid. That she (Coco) didn’t hesitate to take that shot is amazing. And for New York specifically. Her grandfather played for the Knicks (Ernie Vandeweghe). Her uncle played for the Knicks (Kiki)…We made the trade for her, I reached out to her to say she should play for the orange and the blue, the Knicks colors and our colors. She’s such a gamer and a winner.”
The Smash held a championship point in regulation at 4-all in the tiebreaker (best of nine) as Melichar hit a service winner that Genie Bouchard was unable to handle, giving the set to the Empire and sending the match into Extended Play, 20-18. Vandeweghe won her serve for 20-19, and the Empire pair then broke Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ serve to knot the score at 20-20.
“I’m proud of this team for the fight all year,” said Chicago Smash Coach Kamau Murray. “I made two different decisions at both the end of the regular time and the tiebreaker and we’d have been in a different position. I’m sorry to see it end this way, but they all played well … Looking ahead to next year, I think we have a good core. We’ll bring most of them back and we’ll be here (in the Finals) again.”
In Women’s Singles, 2017 US Open winner Stephens extended the Smash’s lead with a 5-3 win over Vandeweghe to make the score 16-13.
The Empire jumped out to a quick start thanks to the play of WTT Male Most Valuable Player Jack Sock as he recorded wins in Mixed Doubles with Vandeweghe and in Men’s Doubles with Neal Skupski. He then ran into a buzz-saw in the way of 18-year-old Smash rookie Brandon Nakashima, who reeled off a 5-0 win to swing the match in favor of Chicago.
“I think I would chalk that up as my worst set of the three weeks, and unfortunately it came on the most important day, as well,” Sock said. “I just kept my head up. I was able to put 10 points on the board with Neal and Coco and you can’t ask more than that.”
WTT CEO Carlos Silva still had goosebumps talking about the match an hour after the memorable conclusion. “A flip flop in the middle of the match with Nakashima coming back to win 5-0 and swing the match, you couldn’t ask for any more than that,” Silva said. “And Coco’s winning forehand was like a walk-off home run, a buzzer-beater. My heart is still pounding.”
No. 4 New York Empire def. No. 3 CHICAGO SMASH, 21-20 (EP)
Men’s Doubles: Jack Sock/Neal Skupski (Empire) def. Rajeev Ram/Brandon Nakashima (Smash), 5-2
Mixed Doubles: Sock/Coco Vandeweghe (Empire) def. Mattek-Sands/Ram (Smash), 5-4
Men’s Singles: Brandon Nakashima (Smash) def. Sock (Empire), 5-0
Women’s Singles: Sloane Stephens (Smash) def. Vandeweghe (Empire), 5-3
Women’s Doubles: Nicole Melichar/Vandeweghe (Empire) def. Genie Bouchard/Mattek-Sands (Smash), 5-4
Extended Play: Melichar/Vandeweghe (Empire) def. Bouchard/Mattek-Sands (Smash), 2-0
Super Tiebreaker: Melichar/Vandeweghe (Empire) def. Mattek-Sands/Stephens (Smash), 7-6