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By Tennis Now | Sunday, August 2, 2020

Coco Vandeweghe

CoCo Vandeweghe zapped a return winner off the baseline clinching the New York Empire's first World TeamTennis title with a dramatic comeback over the Chicago Smash.

Photo credit: World TeamTennis

CoCo Vandeweghe lit up the baseline to push the New York Empire across the finish line in a thriller.

Battling through extended play, Vandeweghe and partner Nicole Melichar fought back to force a match super tiebreaker with the World TeamTennis championship on the line today.

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The entire three-week, 66-match World TeamTennis season came down to one point with Sloane Stephens serving behind her partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

Vandeweghe, who lost the women's singles match to Stephens earlier today, read the serve stepped in and blasted a forehand return right off the baseline dropping to her knees in excitement after clinching the New York Empire's 21-20 comeback triumph over the Chicago Smash at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

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.”

In one of the most pulsating championship climaxes in the league's 45-year history, the Empire earned their first World TeamTennis Championship in history and set off an eruption from players who swarmed Vandeweghe in joyous group hug on the blue hard court.

“I didn’t want to tell Coco to go line, because I know her instincts, but I felt that Bethanie 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, Melichar said. "It was just incredible.”

The Empire have cause for celebration.

The epic comeback win comes with a half-million dollar reward: Empire players will share the King Trophy and split $500,000 in bonus money. 

The win completes a wild weekend for New York, which knocked off top-seeded Philadelphia Freedoms in yesterday's semifinals on the strength of doubles wins from Vandeweghe and Melichar and a mixed doubles triumph from Vandeweghe and Jack Sock.

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.”

Sock was torching forehands helping in the opening set today sparking New York to charge out to the early break in men's doubles.

Pressuring Rajeev Ram's serve with dipping returns, the Empire broke again on a Ram double fault to take the opening men's doubles set 5-2.

A soaring Sock threw down a smash from behind the service line that pierced the middle sealing the Empire's 5-4 mixed doubles win over Ram and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who partnered Sock to the 2016 Olympic mixed doubles gold medal defeating Ram and Venus Williams at the Rio Olympic Games.

Chicago trailed 10-6 entering men's singles when WTT debutant Brandon Nakashima came up big to turn the final upside down.

Facing former Top 10 singles player Sock, Nakashima shrewdly played he big-hitting American's fierce forehand wing. Nakashima stretched Sock wide to the forehand wing then attacked his backhand rolling through a shutout set with a sniper's shotmaking skill and superb command.

Nakashima dished out a bagel stamping the Smash to an 11-10 lead heading into women's singles, which shaped up as a battle of former US Open singles champion Stephens vs. former US Open doubles champion Vandeweghe. 

Neutering Vandeweghe's power with deep topspsin counter drives, Stephens converted her lone break point closing a 5-3 win in women's singles. Chicago led 16-13 entering the final women's doubles set pitting Vandeweghe and Melichar, who were acquired by the Empire in a late-season trade, against two-time US Open mixed doubles champion Mattek-Sands and Bouchard.

On a deciding point in women's doubles, Vandeweghe unloaded a vicious rocket screaming toward Bouchard's head. The former Wimbledon finalist stuck her racquet up while ducking knocking a volley into the open court as Mattek-Sands held for a 2-1 lead lifting the Smash to an 18-14 overall advantage.

The Empire broke Mattek-Sands in the seventh game. Melichar stepped up to serve for the final set—and shot at extended play—but the Smash stormed back. A couple of double faults from Melichar and a pair of twisting forehand returns from Mattek-Sands helped Chicago break back.

Melichar slid a serve down the middle sealing the women's doubles, 5-4, to force extended play with Chicago leading 20-18.

New York needed to win two games in a row to force a 13-point match super point tiebreaker and extend its shot to lift the King trophy.

Bidding to join the 1991 L.A. Strings and 2001 Philadelphia Freedoms as the third expansion franchise to win the WTT championship, Chicago made a move before the supertiebreaker. Coach Kamau Murray substituted Sloane Stephens, who he coached to the 2017 US Open crown, for former Wimbledon finalist Bouchard.

Stephens pierced the middlw with a backhand volley putting the Smash up 5-3—two points from the title and a half a million dollar bonus money.

Melichar answered at net with an overhead and a poked volley pulling the Empire even at 5-5 with three serves going to Chicago.

Vandeweghe blocked a high volley for championship point. Stephens slashed an ace down the middle for 6-6.

The King Trophy all came down to one point. Vandeweghe read a body serve and blistered the baseline with a forehand return wrapping the Emptire's epic comeback and crazy 2020 season.

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


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