Washington Kastles coach Murphy Jensen talks about this weekend's World Team Tennis playoffs like he talks about his dinner.
"If you break it down to the meat and potatoes and the salt and pepper of this thing, it's just a tennis match," he said this week. "That's what these guys need sometimes. They know the score and the situation. How about I give it some perspective?"
That attitude has worked wonders for the Kastles so far, propelling them to a 30-match winning streak that dates back to July 22, 2010. It's the second-longest winning streak by any professional sports team in American history, just six shy of the 33 straight wins recorded by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971-72.
With two wins at the playoffs in Charleston, S.C., this weekend, the Kastles will have won three of the last four WTT titles. They'll face the New York Sportimes in the Eastern Conference final on Saturday.
"Everything has come so far," Kastles owner Mark Ein said. "It's incredibly exciting, and it's frankly a little hard to believe. We're not just going for a back-to-back championship but also a second-straight perfect season. You really can't even dream that you can find yourself in this position."
Much has changed in the Kastles organization since Ein founded it in 2008. The team originally played its matches on a temporary court in a downtown parking lot and had a small, dedicated following. Today the Kastles have a beautiful stadium on the wharf in Southwest Washington where they have never lost a match. Ein said they sell out the facility, which seats about 2,600 for tennis, almost every night.
Jensen has been one of the few constants as the Kastles brand has grown. A former French Open doubles champion and Tennis Channel commentator, he had never coached a team before taking over the Kastles in 2009. He had to learn everything on the fly by reading books by basketball coach John Wooden and asking longtime Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda for advice.
The style that emerged was fun, quirky and reflected Jensen's carefree attitude towards life in general.
"We've got so many different players on this team, so many different personalities on this team," longtime Kastle Leander Paes said. "Murphy's got so much experience out there and he's got such a big heart that he blends with anybody."
Jensen constantly reminds his team to have fun out on the court in motivational speeches that Paes called "legendary." At one point last season, for example, women's singles player Arina Rodionova lamented that she couldn't find her game in a match against Martina Hingis, so Jensen told her to play with a shovel. It was just his unique way of telling Rodionova that she had to dig out of a hole, but the native Russian returned to the court confused.
"There's a language barrier. Even with the people that speak perfect English, there's a language barrier," Jensen said of his speaking tactics. "And that's okay! They don't have to understand, they just have to do it."
Moments like that have endeared Jensen to his team and built a bond that carries over onto the court. The trick to World Team Tennis is getting a group of individual athletes to buy into the concept of a team, turning an inherently selfish sport into a selfless one. Paes said the Kastles have done that, and in the process put their 30-match winning streak into perspective. As Jensen says, success is not all about results.
"At some point, the streak will come to an end, but I guarantee you that it will not be from a lack of effort," Paes said. "Someone's going to have to do some crazy, crazy stuff to get past us."
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