Juniors Make Splash for New York Buzz
by Joshua Rey, 28 July 2009
BOSTON - In a league that serves as a "Who's Who" of tennis each July, the New York Buzz could have been overlooked for what they weren't. No Hall of Famers or former No. 1s strengthened their roster. No journeymen or comeback kids were on their team.
Playing against some of the most decorated professionals to ever play the game, New York had no pros. But look no further for the future of American tennis than the Albany-based Buzz.
Sloane Stephens of the New York Buzz
© Julie Wrege, TennisRecruiting.net
Florida juniors Sloane Stephens and Alex Domijan wrapped up three of the most hectic weeks of their young tennis careers Wednesday when their Buzz fell to the Boston Lobsters, 20-16, in the World TeamTennis season finale. Of the 10 WTT teams, the Buzz were the only squad this season without a Grand Slam champion. They finished with a 4-10 team record.
"It was really intimidating at the beginning," said Stephens. "But then you realize that it's only for experience and you relax a little bit. We have nothing to lose because we're juniors playing against people who have actually won Grand Slams. For us, it's not that bad."
To make matters more difficult for the young Buzz, Christina McHale caught an illness at Wimbledon and Evan King suffered an eye injury after returning from England. Both were drafted by the Buzz in March, but missed the entire WTT season. With little time for the league to find permanent replacements, Stephens and Domijan played doubles all season with a merry-go-round of substitutes - all of whom were also juniors.
After pairing with Allie Will and Beatrice Capra, Stephens settled in with future Stanford Cardinal player Mallory Burdette. Domijan juggled four partners before teaming with Vanderbilt-bound Ryan Lipman for the final seven matches of the season.
On the singles court, Domijan and Stephens held their own against experienced opponents. At 6'7", the 17-year-old Domijan already possesses a powerful game, which helped him defeat American veterans Robert Kendrick, Michael Russell and Scott Oudsema. Stephens, the sixth-ranked junior girl in the world, finished the season with an 8-4 record in women's singles. Among her victims were WTA No. 107 Vania King, No. 134 Stephanie Foretz and No. 188 Abigail Spears.
When the Buzz hosted the Philadelphia Freedoms on July 9th, seven-time Slam winner Venus Williams was pitted against Stephens in women's singles. The Buzz trailed 13-11 when the 16-year-old Stephens took to the court to play a childhood hero.
The youngster outserved one of the biggest servers in women's tennis, making 68 percent of her first serves to Williams' 50 percent. In a No-Ad set to five games, Stephens proved to be the better player when the pressure was on. She saved three of four break points and won both of the winner-take-all deuces to upset Williams, 5-3, and tie the team score at 16.
"When I beat Venus, it was like, 'Oh, well. She won Wimbledon like five times. That's awesome,'" said Stephens. "But tomorrow's a new day and you have to play somebody else."
Domijan has experienced success with the Buzz
© Doug Wrege, TennisRecruiting.net
Indeed, the Buzz left Albany almost immediately to play in Kansas City one day after the "Big W," as Stephens calls it. Such is the circus-style life of a World TeamTennis player.
Stephens of Fort Lauderdale and Domijan of Gainesville each arrived in Albany after reaching the quarterfinals of the Wimbledon juniors draw. In the past year, both have enjoyed 16-match winning streaks on the ITF Junior Circuit. They also share a dislike for Randall's Island, home to Kendrick, Spears and the in-state rival New York Sportimes.
"I didn't really like playing at that place," admitted Domijan. "The court is different than any other. It's a lot quicker."
Though he beat Kendrick in Albany on July 6th, Domijan lost both his away matches against the 69th-ranked American. Stephens also struggled on the road, failing to win a game against Spears in two away meetings despite defeating the elder American inside the friendly confines of Albany's SEFCU Arena.
"We had come from indoors where we were ripping balls left and right because the courts were slower," said Stephens. "Then we got to the fast hard court and we didn't have the first shot and we were like, 'Oh God.'"
Though she's not a fan of the rainbow-colored WTT court on Randall's Island, Stephens has proven that she can play well no matter what's underneath her Nikes. Before her run on the lawns of Wimbledon, she reached the semifinals at Roland Garros and won titles at an ITF Grade A event on clay in Italy and a Grade 1 hard-court tournament in California.
Domijan is no one-surface wonder either. His lone final at the professional level came on clay at an ATP Futures event last June and he straight-setted French Open champion Daniel Berta in the Round of 16 at Wimbledon. Since December 2007, Domijan has defeated five junior Grand Slam champions, including reigning Australian Open champion Yuki Bhambri and US Open champion Grigor Dimitrov. But winning a junior slam isn't atop the American's immediate goals.
"I'd like to do well in a Challenger and maybe win a Future," said Domijan.
Success is about where the similarities end between Domijan and Stephens. The soft-spoken Domijan is naturally shy off court and rarely shows his emotions on it. His game is built around a big serve that allows him to shorten points.
Stephens is already a show(wo)man at 16. With music blaring onto the court during breaks in the action Wednesday, Stephens danced to Nelly's "Hot in Herre" and sang along with Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall". But when the ball was in play, Stephens was all business, grinding out long rallies in her singles match and pummeling passing shots during doubles.
A lot of nights she's been the driving force, playing three matches where Alex might play two," said Roger Smith, head coach of the Buzz and a national coach with the USTA. "Just the ability to let one set go - whether you win or lose - and get ready for the next set, then let that go and get ready for the third set."
"Stephens proved her coach right Wednesday. Teaming with Domijan in mixed doubles to open the evening, she showed no regard for the serve of Boston's James Auckland, pummeling a backhand return winner in the opening game. But after Auckland held, Domijan made a series of volley errors to drop serve and was replaced by Lipman shortly thereafter. One break was enough for Auckland and Raquel Kops-Jones to take the event.
Immediately following mixed doubles, Stephens faced Foretz in women's singles. But any questions about the teen's mental and physical toughness were quickly put to rest. On the very first point of the event, Stephens moved her 28-year-old opponent back-and-forth for about a minute until Foretz finally caved with a forehand into the net.
Before the Frenchwoman knew it, she was down a break, 2-0. Stephens followed a flat first serve with a short-angled cross-court forehand winner to take a 3-0 lead. She nearly ran Foretz off the court with another sharp, top spin forehand for a 4-0 advantage.
After dropping the mixed doubles 5-2, Stephens evened the encounter with a down-the-line backhand passing shot to win women's singles by the same score. She improved to 3-0 against Foretz on the season.
"I know what she's capable of doing and I see it every day," said Smith, who also coached Stephens during the 2008 Junior Fed Cup. "My goal has always been to get her to play more consistently with a certain level, and if she does that, the sky's the limit."
In men's singles, Domijan faced retired American pro Jan-Michael Gambill for the fourth time during the WTT season. Gambill won their previous three encounters.
"I'm going to try to react to his serve a little bit better and make him hit more balls in his service games," Domijan said prior to Wednesday's meeting.
Unfortunately for Domijan, Gambill pounded serves and pounced on short balls like it was 1999. Gambill won all eight points when he made his first serve, while Domijan lost three game points in both of his own service games. A 5-0 win for Gambill made him 4-0 against his young countryman.
That put Stephens in familiar territory, needing to win women's doubles with Burdette to give the Buzz a chance to end the season victorious. As she did in singles, Stephens started strongly. She broke Foretz's serve by dismissing a down-the-line forehand return winner past Kops-Jones at the net. Serving at 2-0, Stephens hit the same shot with the same result, leading one fan sitting behind press row to ask, "What's her name?"
The Boston faithful were silenced when Stephens belted a backhand return winner to break Kops-Jones and give the Buzz a 4-0 lead. The Lobsters rallied to reclaim three games before a Burdette return drew the error that claimed the event for New York, 5-3. Stephens and Burdette improved to 5-4 on the season, including wins over Rennae Stubbs, a former world No. 1 in doubles, and Martina Navratilova, a 31-time Grand Slam doubles champion.
Stephens was happy to reunite with Burdette, whom she partnered to the 2008 US Open girls' doubles final. They trained together for three years under Nick Saviano in Sunrise, Fla.
"I kind of know what she's going to do," said Stephens. "We play good doublers together so it's worked out well."
"In the evening's final event, Domijan played men's doubles with Lipman, who lifted the tall teen's spirit with his quick hands at the net and vocal support between points. Facing four break points at 2-3, Domijan made four consecutive first serves to dig the Buzz out of trouble. Then, down 0-2 in a tiebreaker, Domijan put away forehand volleys on back-to-back points. The shots that he missed in mixed, he made in men's doubles.
"From the first match to the last match tonight, there's been a major improvement," said Coach Smith. "Through the ups and downs, they just want to get better."
The experience of Gambill, Auckland and the Lobsters won out when they clinched men's doubles and the match in a tiebreaker, 5-4.
Neither Domijan nor Stephens was sure if their experience playing against professionals would impact their decisions to go pro or follow Lipman and Burdette to college. Domijan credited the faster-and-louder format of TeamTennis with helping him get off to quicker starts in matches and get used to playing in front of rowdy crowds. Stephens wouldn't reveal what she's learned about herself since her first WTT match July 6th.
"I can't really tell you because it's a secret," she said with a smile. "I'm going to use it as a strong force over the next couple years. Hopefully what I've learned - a key ingredient - will help me along the way."
One thing Stephens isn't ashamed to admit is that this was a summer she will remember fondly.
"It's been an interesting three weeks that we went through as a team," she said. "Maybe tonight's our last match but we'll look back and say that we did enjoy it and it was a great experience."
Sloane, are you going to turn pro?