World TeamTennis: New York Empire pick up first win of the season with solid performance against Vegas Rollers
Skupski helped get the Empire off to a great start/Photo: John Lupo/VAVEL USA

The New York Empire picked up their first win of the World Team Tennis season with a 24-16 victory over the expansion Vegas Rollers at the Cary Leeds Center. New York improves to 1-1 while Vegas falls to 1-2 as they continue their five-match road trip to begin their inaugural season.

Jensen's change in order of play sparks Empire to big victory

Empire head coach Luke Jensen opted to shake up the order of play, choosing to play mixed doubles in the first set. The gamble paid off as Neal Skupski and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez dominated the Vegas duo of Matt Reid and Asia Muhammad 5-1.

Martinez Sanchez teamed up with Kirsten Flipkens for women's doubles in the second set to square off with the Rollers' team of Muhammad and Harriet Dart. The set was closely contested, but Martinez Sanchez and Flipkens edged it 5-3 to give New York a 10-4 advantage.

Flipkens and Martinez Sanchez kept the momentum for the Empire going/Photo: John Lupo/VAVEL USA
Flipkens and Martinez Sanchez kept the momentum for the Empire going/Photo: John Lupo/VAVEL USA

Looking for a spark, Vegas looked to their franchise player, New York Open champion Reilly Opelka to gain some momentum in men's singles against Ulises Blanch, New York's up-and-comer. The set was close throughout with both men showcasing their booming serves.

In the end, Opelka claimed a hard-fought third set, knocking off Blanch 5-4 to cut the Rollers' deficit to 14-9 heading into the fourth set, which was women's singles as Flipkens and Dart faced off. The Brit, who recently reached the third round at Wimbledon, appeared to be turning the match around.

After going up an early break, Dart watched as the more experienced Belgian use her outstanding net game and slice off of the ground to turn the set around. Flipkens eventually took it 5-3 to extend the Empire lead to 19-12 heading into the fifth set.

The final set was men's doubles as Skupski and Blanch met Opelka and Reid. Again, Vegas was out in front early as the American and Aussie claimed an early break lead before the Empire tandem rallied to force a tiebreaker, which they claimed 5-4 (1).

Opelka was the Rollers' best player in a losing cause/Photo: John Lupo/VAVE
Opelka was the Rollers' best player in a losing cause/Photo: John Lupo/VAVEL USA

Blanch, Jensen reflect on first win of 2019

Following the match, Blanch said "I loved it. I thought the atmosphere was great. I got used to the conditions pretty well." He added that the veterans on the team "have been very welcoming to me. It's my first year in the league. They've made me feel very comfortable."

The WTT rookie stressed the win was "very important. 0-2 would have been a litlle tougher. Really glad with the way we played. We're 1-1 and really excited to go on the road tomorrow (at Springfield)."

Jensen explained the adjustment he made: "they're not taking this like an exhibition. They want to win this thing. We loaded up with the guys. Ulises was a huge shot in the arm. To have a rookie come out and be a firebreathing dragon is a positive."

Blanch was drafted by the Empire in March. Jensen spoke of the 20-year old in glowing terms: "we knew we had a special flamethrower. He's young, he's fast, he's got a huge forehand, but most of all, he's fearless."

After being humiliated by San Diego on Sunday, the New York coach knew how important this win was: "considering how bad of a start we got off to, this is a total role reversal. They were so professional. They didn't quit, they didn't get discouraged, they knew what they had to do and they accomplished it."

Jensen concluded by talking about his feelings on picking up his first win as Empire head coach: "It's a lot of fun. Being in New York us just a different place. We've been all around the world. There's no place like New York."