The Washington Kastles completed a historic second consecutive undefeated season by defeating the Sacramento Capitals 20-19 in a dramatic, back-and-forth WTT Finals in Charleston, S.C.
No team in 35 years of World TeamTennis had ever completed a perfect season until the Kastles improbably went 16-0 in 2011. And no one, not even those on the Washington roster, could have ever imagined that the second perfect season would come the very next year from the very same team.
Before making history, the 2012 Kastles found themselves tied with their opponents entering the final set for the second straight night.
And just as she did in the Eastern Conference Championship match on Saturday, Venus Williams won women’s singles to clinch the Kastles’ victory.
Washington has now won seven matches by one game during its historic 32-match winning streak, far and away the longest in WTT history.
The Kastles overcame a spirited effort from a Capitals squad that took an early lead when World No. 35 Kevin Anderson defeated reigning WTT Male MVP Bobby Reynolds 5-3 in men’s singles.
Williams and Anastasia Rodionova rebounded with a 5-1 win in women’s doubles, but the Kastles’ lead disappeared as Anderson and Mark Knowles upset Reynolds and World No. 5 doubles player Leander Paes 5-2 in men’s doubles.
Down by a game going into the fourth set, Paes and Williams won mixed doubles 5-4 to tie the match at 15-15.
That left Williams and World No. 87 CoCo Vandeweghe of the Capitals to battle in a winner-take-all women’s singles set.
Vandeweghe took the upper hand early, breaking Williams to claim a 3-2 lead. But Williams broke right back for 3-3.
After service holds by both players to even the set at 4-4, the match, the season, the championship and the Kastles’ unbeaten run would all come down to a tiebreaker up to 5 points.
Williams faced an immediate 0-2 deficit after losing the first two points on her serve. But when Vandeweghe barely missed on a backhand down the line on the third point, Williams began a run of five consecutive points to win the tiebreaker 5-2 and cement history for the Kastles.
As Vandeweghe’s final forehand flew long, Williams’ teammates stormed the court to celebrate with the four-time Olympic gold medalist — Paes and Reynolds lifting the 6-foot-1 Williams on their shoulders as hundreds of Kastles fans who made the trip to Charleston cheered from the stands.
Sensational as the Kastles’ perfect season was in 2011, their encore in 2012 was even more surreal.
Washington won five of its 16 matches this season after entering the final set either tied or trailing. In the most dramatic finish of the summer, Williams overcame a six-game deficit on the road against New York on July 21st, saving four match points to spark the largest comeback in franchise history.
The Kastles remained perfect in the absence of Paes, Rodionova and Williams for the final four matches of the regular season, when all three players were preparing for the London Olympics. The leadership of Reynolds and Coach Murphy Jensen helped substitutes Treat Huey and Edina Gallovits-Hall and wild card Raquel Kops-Jones fit right in with the Kastles culture.
Then came WTT Finals Weekend, during which the Kastles encountered fifth-set deficits of 15-14 against the Sportimes and 18-17 against the Capitals. Neither lead lasted for the underdogs as Williams rallied behind the support of her teammates on the bench and her legions of red-shirted supporters in the stands.
The Kastles have now captured WTT championships in 2009, 2011 and 2012. They will return to action in the national’s capital next summer.
MS – Anderson (SAC) def. Reynolds (WAS) 5-3
It was always going to be an uphill battle for Reynolds to get a good look at the intimidating serve of the 6-foot-8 Anderson. As it turned out, Anderson did not face a single break point in the set, hitting unreturnable serves almost at will.
But despite dropping men’s singles 5-3, Reynolds made major contributions to the Kastles’ championship win.
He saved six of the seven break points he faced on his own serve to prevent Anderson from running away with the set, winning a pair of pivotal games that kept the Kastles in the match early.
Those service holds by Reynolds — at 1-3 and 2-4 in the set — also allowed Williams the opportunity to close the match out in the fifth set — a role Reynolds had grown accustomed to during the Kastles’ winning streak.
After breaking in the opening game and holding his serve with ease throughout, Anderson earned a 3-all deciding point at 3-1 in the set that would have allowed him to serve for the set in the very next game. Reynolds responded by converting the 3-all point with a flat service winner down the tee.
In Reynolds’ next service game at 2-4, the hole was even deeper. The third-year Kastle lost the first three points of the game to give Anderson four set points. Again, Reynolds rallied from behind and saved all four, winning one memorable rally with a reflex volley followed by a leaping overhead winner.
Though Anderson won the set in the next game, Reynolds returned to the bench to high fives from each of his teammates, who were well aware that a 5-3 loss was a lot better than a 5-1 loss.
Sacramento leads 5-3.
WD – Rodionova/Williams (WAS) def. Muhammad/Schnack (SAC) 5-1
It was clear that Asia Muhammad and Yasmin Schnack of the Capitals were in big trouble when Muhammad sliced a backhand into the back of Schnack’s head in the opening game of the women’s doubles set.
One point later, Rodionova broke Muhammad’s serve with a forehand volley winner, which Williams followed with a love service hold for 2-0. After holds by Schnack and Rodionova, Muhammad found herself in trouble again on serve. Instinctive play from Rodionova allowed the Kastles to break Muhammad a second time for 4-1.
On one point during the fifth game, Muhammad appeared to pass Williams at the net, only to see Rodionova race to retrieve the shot and draw an error from Schnack. That set the Kastles up with break point, which they converted when Rodionova blasted a forehand return off Schnack’s outstretched frame.
Down 1-4, the Capitals made one final push on Williams’ serve. But Washington saved one break point when Rodionova hit a forehand volley winner, and then clinched the victory on a 3-all point thanks to a punishing Williams service winner into Schnack’s body.
Washington leads 8-6.
MD – Anderson/Knowles (SAC) def. Paes/Reynolds (WAS) 5-2
For only the second time in 2012, and sixth time during the Kastles’ 32-match winning streak, Reynolds and Paes did not win the men’s doubles set.
That’s because nobody inside the Family Circle Tennis Center stood a chance at returning the red-hot Anderson’s serve, and Knowles played more like the current World No. 1 than a former World No. 1.
After holds by Reynolds and Anderson to start the set, Paes was on pace for an easy hold himself, taking a 3-0 lead in the game at 1-1 in the set.
But the Capitals bounced back to win the next four points, breaking Paes when the Indian made a rare error at the net by over-hitting a volley long.
Washington could have broken right back when they took a 3-1 lead on Knowles’ serve in the next game. The Bahamian, however, fought off all three break points that he faced. On the 3-all point, Paes lunged left like he was going to intercept a volley, but stopped, freezing Reynolds and allowing Knowles to hit a game-saving forehand volley winner.
Had the Kastles gone on to lose the WTT Finals, they would have looked back at those seven game points that they did not convert as missed opportunities to extend their lead.
With Sacramento ahead 3-1 in the set, Reynolds held, as did Anderson, to give the Capitals a 4-2 lead and tie the match at 10-10.
A Paes hold in the next game would have prevented the Kastles from trailing at halftime. But Knowles gave his team set point with a forehand volley winner, and the Capitals converted when Reynolds netted a volley.
Sacramento leads 11-10.
MXD – Paes/Williams (WAS) def. Knowles/Vandeweghe (SAC) 5-4(1)
Capitals Coach Wayne Bryan started mixed doubles with Anderson in the lineup to capitalize on the South African’s power in the first game. But for the first time in the match, the Kastles got a look at Anderson’s serve, earning a pair of break points.
Anderson erased both with service winners, ending the evening a perfect 7-of-7 in service holds. With the Capitals ahead 1-0 in mixed doubles, the four-time Grand Slam doubles champion Knowles substituted in for Anderson and played the remainder of the set.
The Capitals opened up a 13-10 lead in the match by breaking Paes in the second game, as Knowles and Vandeweghe both targeted Williams with heavy pace at the net.
Momentum was quickly slipping away from the Kastles, and the next game would prove to be one of the most crucial in the match. Vandeweghe fought back from 0-3 on her serve to 3-all. If the Capitals were to win the next point, Sacramento would jump in front 3-0 in the set and 14-10 in the match.
But the Kastles did not allow that to happen, breaking Vandeweghe when Williams dipped a low forehand that forced Knowles into a volley error.
The set stayed on serve from that moment all the way to a tiebreaker. After Paes hit a pair of winners to spark Washington to a 4-1 lead in the tiebreaker, Williams finished the set with a passing shot that bounced off the net and past a startled Knowles.
By winning the mixed doubles tiebreaker, Washington drew even with Sacramento, meaning that the WTT Championship would be decided by one final set: Williams vs. Vandeweghe.
Washington is tied with Sacramento 15-15.
WS – Williams (WAS) def. Vandeweghe (SAC) 5-4(2)
The Kastles stood one set from their second straight perfect season and third WTT title.
Meeting for the very first time, Williams and Vandeweghe battled with big serves and deep strokes, each forcing errors with penetrating groundstrokes that hovered close to the baseline.
After four quick holds to start the set, it was Vandeweghe who struck first at 2-2, blasting a forehand return winner on the first point of the game, and then benefiting from three backhand errors off of Williams’ racquet to break the Kastle for a 3-2 lead.
Sensing a loss in Williams’ confidence, Coach Jensen called a timeout to help his player regroup. The pause also allowed the Kastles bench and fans to get on their feet for the woman who had already won pressure-filled fifth sets in the regular and postseason to preserve Washington’s perfect season.
Williams responded accordingly, blasting a down-the-line forehand winner to earn break point and converting for 3-3 in the set when Vandeweghe sprayed a forehand long.
When Williams held for 4-3, she brought the Kastles within one game of the championship. At 2-2 on Vandeweghe’s serve in the next game, Williams was only two points away. However, a backhand error by Williams and a service winner by Vandeweghe created the most dramatic conclusion imaginable for an already tense-as-can-be final.
One tiebreaker up to 5 for all the marbles.
Williams lost both points on her serve to start the tiebreaker, prompting Coach Jensen to use another timeout.
Again, the break worked wonders.
In the longest rally of the set, Williams refused to miss from the baseline down 2-0 in the tiebreak, prompting Vandeweghe to go for broke on a down-the-line backhand.
There was no chance for Williams to retrieve the shot, and both teams jumped off their benches to celebrate when it landed.
The Capitals thought the shot was good for a winner, but it was actually just out for an error.
It was the kind of rally that counts for more than one point, because Vandeweghe was still clearly thinking about the backhand that might have been when she double-faulted to 2-2, and then netted a forehand to give Williams a 3-2 lead.
Williams set the Kastles up with three championship points by cracking a service winner down the tee for 4-2. She and Washington completed a storybook second perfect season on Championship Point No. 1 when Vandeweghe misfired on a forehand long.
As she did during the regular season in Albany, where she won eight of nine games against Martina Hingis to stun the Sportimes, Williams celebrated the Washington win with as much pure and uninhibited emotion as she did during her five runs to the Wimbledon singles title.
So, too, did her teammates, who sprinted to the middle of the court almost as quickly as Vandeweghe’s shot landed beyond the baseline. Paes and Reynolds lifted the 6-foot-1 Williams on their shoulders while the pro-Kastles contingent in the crowd celebrated.
Hundreds of more Kastles fans took to Twitter to commemorate the moment, interrupting a social media day typically reserved for NFL football to salute tennis perfection.
Winning 15 of Washington’s 20 games on Sunday, Williams was named the WTT Finals Most Valuable Player. The Kastles are now 10-0 all-time in matches with Williams in the lineup.
Washington wins 20-19.