- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

The Washington Kastles finished their up-and-down season in the most scintillating of ways.

The scrappy group of tennis veterans and relative newbies completed a remarkable turnaround Sunday, topping the Springfield (Mo.) Lasers to win the World TeamTennis championship in just their second year in the league.

Before a sellout home crowd that grew more raucous as the evening went on, the Kastles won four of the match’s five events - three of them in tiebreaks - to win 23-20.

It was the Kastles’ third win in a row to cap a season that began when the team lost its first four matches. And it was finished by a redeeming performance for 21-year-old Russian Olga Puchkova, who held off three championship points against WTT female MVP Vania King to seal the win in the final set. Earlier in the season, Puchkova was benched in favor of more marquee players and admitted to struggling with her confidence.

“The team helped me, and the crowd… everyone was so supportive,” Puchkova said. “I just tried my best. I wasn’t really nervous, I just tried for every ball. And the team supported me. And no matter what I do, they all love me anyway.”

The Kastles raced to a strong start, with doubles specialists Leander Paes and Rennae Stubbs and hard-serving Scott Oudsema teaming to win each of the first three events, mounting a 15-11 lead heading into the final two women’s events. The Lasers won the women’s doubles 5-3, setting up the tense singles showdown between Puchkova and King.

After King tied the match at 20-20 and took a 4-2 lead in the set, Puchkova won three straight games, saving three match points along the way. The win earned her chants of “Ol-ga!” from the crowd and an ice-bucket shower from her teammates.

Oudsema was named finals MVP for his 5-3 victory in men’s singles and for teaming with Paes to win the men’s doubles 5-4.

“These guys reminded me of me a little bit,” said coach Murphy Jensen, who joined with his brother, Luke, to win the 1993 French Open doubles title. “They just never gave up.”

The Kastles hardly went wire-to-wire to win the title. The team started the season 0-4, rebounding to win the next five matches thanks largely to the addition of Serena Williams. But the Kastles stumbled after Williams exited to prepare for the U.S. Open.

The team lost a tense home match to the New York Sportimes that was marred by on-court incidents that resulted in fines against both teams. The Kastles followed with road losses to the Lasers and Kansas City Explorers.

But Jensen said the Kastles bonded on bus rides during that road trip, and the team returned to win their last two regular-season contests and clinch a playoff berth (albeit with the help of Nadia Petrova, the 10th-ranked player in the world, who had signed a two-match contract with the team.)

Ironically, the Kastles’ core lineup of Paes, Stubbs, Puchkova and Oudsema - the group that went 0-4 to start the season - went on to capture the title.

The championship is a boon for owner Mark Ein, who had already earned the praise of league officials for building a temporary tennis facility on a parking lot downtown each of the past two seasons and drawing sellouts at nearly every match. The league selected Kastles Stadium as the site of the championship before the season; it was a happy coincidence for Ein that the team earned a berth into it.

Ein, a venture capitalist who has invested millions of dollars into the franchise, has his sights set on growing WTT and the sport of tennis in the area.

“I have really big plans and goals for where this can go,” he said. “Not only in Washington, but I think we can set the template for where the whole league can get to. I never went into this with a one- or two-year outlook. I went in this with a long-term outlook to try and build something really special.

“And people are taking notice.”

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