The New York Empire lost their third match out of four to start the World Team Tennis season, dropping a 22-15 decision to the Orange County Breakers. The visitors picked up their first win of the season by jumping out to a quick lead, winning the first two sets and never looking back.
The threat of severe thunderstorms threw the location of the match in doubt. With the Cary Leeds Center not having any indoor courts, the possibility arose of the contest being moved to the indoor arena of the former New York Sportimes on Randall's Island in Manhattan.
Orange County comes east to pick up first win of the season
The match went off at Cary Leeds and the Empire were boosted by the presence of 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, making her only appearance of the season. She was called into action right away with Neal Skupski in mixed doubles against the Breakers duo of Andreja Klepac and Luke Bambridge.
The Slovenian and Brit were nearly flawless as they controlled the set from start to finish, New York head coach Luke Jensen substituting Ulises Blanch for Skupski. Bambridge used a strong serve on set point which got little resistance from the 20-year old to get Orange County off to a bright start.
2017 World TeamTennis Female MVP Nicole Gibbs as next up in women's singles for coach Rick Leach's team as she faced off with Stephens in the second set. The world number eight was not at her best, but battled Gibbs through the entire set, the underdog taking it 5-3 to extend the Breakers' lead to 10-4.
The match was looking like it could be a runaway as the third set got underway with men's singles. James Ward got off to a flying start against Blanch, winning the first two games only to see the WTT rookie storm back winning five games on the trot, his powerful serve firing home four aces to cut the Orange County lead to 12-9.
Stephens returned for the fourth set to partner Kirsten Flipkens in women's doubles against Klepac and Gibbs. Again, the set was closely contested, but the Breakers prevailed, a sizzling crosscourt forehand winner giving Orange County their second 5-3 set of the night and 17-12 advantage.
The final set was men's doubles as Ward and Bambridge squared off with Skupski and Blanch. The Empire needed to win the set to force extended play, but once again the Breakers did just enough, Bambridge throwing down another big serve on match point to secure a 5-3 fifth set.
Jensen, Stephens talk after loss to Breakers
"We had a lot of setbacks", Jensen said following the match. "Sloane came in from some challenging situations. We came in from challenging situations. Orange County came in from some challenging situations. You've got to pick it up and find another gear, find another way."
Blanch won his first set in World TeamTennis with his comeback over Ward and the Empire coach continued to rave about his rookie: "I told him to make positive adjustments, move your feet and rip the ball as hard as you can every single time.
"It's a challenging thing when you come in with all the pressure on you", Jensen said of Stephens. "You're the US Open champion. You're the elite player. You're the marquee player. Honestly, I thought she made really nice adjustments. I thought what she did in the doubles was fantastic.
"That was the difference maker for our team. She was the x-factor. She drove the concept of 'let's try as hard as we could."
New York is next in action Friday at home to the Washington Kastles. Jensen's brother Murphy is the long-time coach of the six-time champions: "I'm excited. He's the reason i'm coaching. He's enjoyed every year of World TeamTennis as a coach. We loved playing as a team for all the different franchises.
"We've been talking trash back and forth since this came about in March. It's all getting on and him bringing in Venus (Williams) just adds to the mix."
The first-year head man hopes to mold the Empire the same way his brother has with the Kastles: "I've spoken to Murphy over the years how to draft character, how to draft enthusiasm, how to draft talent. If you look at our team, it's not the record we want, but the team is pointing in the right direction."
Stephens enjoyed her return to New York: "it was great. It was so fun. We had a good night. We were happy the rain held off. I had a great time with the team."
She complimented the facility in its first year of hosting World TeamTennis: "It's amazing. It's my second time here. You have so many kids playing. It's such a great enviornment."
She added "it's always nice to get the competitive juices flowing" as she prepares for the summer hard court season leading into the year's final major. "Get out there and play so I was really pleased with tonight. It was nice to get back into the swing of things."