The New York Empire opened their 2019 World Team Tennis season with a 23-11 loss to the San Diego Aviators. Playing in their first season at the Cary Leeds Center in the Bronx after previously contesting their home matches on Court 17 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, New York was outplayed in all phases.
Aviators start 2019 with convincing victory, spoil Cary Leeds Center debut for Empire
While the Empire return five of seven players from last year's 2-10 squad, there have been significant changes to the franchise: Luke Jensen takes over as coach for Gigi Fernandez, who guided the team the previous three seasons.
New York also chose a change in venue, opting to play their home matches at the Cary Leeds Tennis Center in the Bronx after using Court 17 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. League rules state that the home coach gets to set the order of play and Jensen chose to lead off with women's doubles.
The Aviators' team of Christina McHale and Kaitlyn Christian faced the Empire duo of Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, the 2018 WTT Female Rookie of the Year and Kirsten Flipkens. The set proved to be no contest as McHale and Christian breezed to a 5-0 victory, the San Diego team winning seven of eight second serve points.
Next up was women's singles as Flipkens faced McHale. On the WTA Tour, the pair had never met, but it was the San Diego native, filling in for an injured Astra Sharma, who gained breaks in the third and seventh game to claim the set 5-2 and give the Aviators a 10-2 lead heading into mixed doubles.
Martinez Sanchez returned to partner Neal Skupski while San Diego coach John Lloyd called on Ryan Harrison and Christian. Again, the Aviators got off to a quick start, taking a 3-1 lead. Substitutions are allowed during the match and Jensen replaced Skupski with franchise player John Isner. Although he gave the team a spark with his serve, it wasn't enough as Harrison and Christian took the set 5-2.
Trailing 15-4, the Empire claimed their first set of the season as Isner and Skupski won the men's doubles over Harrison and Jonny O'Mara 5-3 behind one break of serve. Isner fired down a pair of aces in the set to cut the San Diego lead to 18-9 heading into the final set of the night which was men's singles.
In World TeamTennis, the team trailing heading into the fifth set can force extended play if they win the final set and the Empire were hoping to do just that with Isner facing Harrison. Ultimately, it was the Aviators' star man who claimed a 5-2 set victory to clinch a near-perfect performance for San Diego.
Lloyd, Harrison pleased with start; Jensen reflects on opener
"The team were on fire", Lloyd said following the match. "It was like one of those nights where everyone just zoned. It doesn't come together all that often where all four players play at their best, but it did for us tonight. I don't think New York played all that badly. It was just one of those nights where we played crazy tennis.
"We have four away matches on the trot and you always look at it and think if we can win minimum of two. If we get three or four, we'll be very happy, so we've started off very, very well."
"I played well. I felt good out there", added Harrison. "The girls did a great job getting us out to a quick lead. By the time I got onto the court, we had a pretty big lead. After that, it was just a matter of taking care of it and trying not to blow the lead."
Jensen's debut didn't go as he wanted, but he credited San Diego for their play: "it was really remarkable from start to finish. They played from top to bottom, the women played outstanding. Every time they needed a point, they got it. Every big point was a great swing by them.
In what will be his only appearance of the season, Jensen described the type of lift Isner gave the team; "Serving is a premium for us in this format. To throw him in there with his kind of devastating firepower was huge".
Commenting on the atmosphere at the venue, he said: "it's great. This stadium is really elite on the world stage. You can see the people are right on top of you. It's like the old Grandstand at the US Open."
He concluded by calling his debut as Empire coach fun while also stating "to have a team that's so willing to come out there even if they're losing and playing bad with their spirit. This isn't like the pro tour. You're going out there and representing a city."