This story first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine. Click Here to read the full digital edition.
The 2020 World TeamTennis season was a model for success after hosting a month-long bubble at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia last summer. Featuring nine teams and hundreds of league personnel who all committed to making the bubble work, the season was completed with no positive COVID-19 cases. In the end, it was the New York Empire that hoisted its first King Trophy in thrilling fashion over the Chicago Smash.
“We all had a great meeting at the beginning of the season and I said that we were all on one team,” said WTT CEO Carlos Silva. “The staff, the production crew, the players, the coaches, we all had to pull together if we were going to get through it. Of course someone’s got to lose and win in sport, but even in that case, I think everyone feels they were part of the WTT team...I think every single person, including all the players, were very diligent to make sure that we could get through the season. I feel very blessed and lucky that we did it.”
Long Island Tennis Magazine sat down with New York Empire head coach Luke Jensen to discuss last year’s league and team success, as well as look ahead to the 2021 WTT season.
What was life like for you and your team in the bubble?
There was some strong leadership that decided that we’re doing it, and it starts with our CEO Carlos Silva. There was so much attention to detail, with everybody. The communication was fantastic. You had to have two negative tests before even entering the bubble and so everybody was always on their toes. All coaches, players and personnel knew what our role was, and everyone did a great job. There is going to be one team that wins and the rest lose, but we can all win by making sure this works and being a model for how it can be done. We played pretty much every day. They resurfaced some local public courts to be used for practice courts. There was a lot of engagement with the 500-1,000 fans that could come and watch. A total buy in by the league, the players, the personnel and the leadership, and we knew what it was going to take to grind. You practiced, worked out, golfed, went four-wheeling, skeet shooting, horseback riding, etc. There were so many activities to do when not playing tennis. So if you could just lock into this mindset of playing your match, training, and recovery, it was going to be fine. It was a massive team effort by everybody to not screw it up. No one in the bubble tested positive so it was definitely a win.
What was your role as head coach in terms of making sure your team was ready to play?
To me, you’re dealing with professionals competing for big money, so you had to make sure the players were ready. So if Sabine Lisicki wants 15 balls fed to her backhand on the sideline so she can work on her running backhand, you’re there for her with a bucket of balls ready. If Jack Sock wants to practice his volleys, you’re there. Whatever it is. You know there patterns, you know what they like and don’t like. So my job was to make sure they felt ready so they could mentally lock in. WTT is a sprint, because of the scoring and short sets, everything happens so fast. The way we drafted and brought in players was strategic. To me, when you have experienced veterans, you don’t have to do a lot, you just have to make sure when they do need something, you’re there for them. And I think it helped, being a former player, both on the tour and in WTT, to understand the format, the pressures, and the speed of it.
How impactful was having a multiple-time Grand Slam champion and former #1 like Kim Clijsters on the team?
She was using WTT as a springboard for her comeback to the tour. And before she got hurt, she was beating everybody. She beat Sloane [Stephens], [Sofia] Kenin, [Danielle] Collins. A lot of these players grew up watching her and dreaming of being the next Clijsters. That matters. It was a huge asset for us because she brought her entire fitness team and her personal coach. She left her kids and family back at home so she could concentrate on her tennis for the first week. It was all business, and that really helped us. Especially considering we added new elements to the team, we made trades, and of course, there were injuries. We called her our Team Mom. If I wasn’t pushing the right buttons, they’d go to her. On that exciting play, the last point of the championship, with $500,000 on the line, I go in there first and the team comes in to talk to [Coco] Vandewghe and [Nicole] Melichar. Who was the last one talking to them before the point? It’s Team Mom. It’s Clijsters giving them one last pep talk. It was such a huge assed to have Kim Clijsters ask the final word in and just encouraging Coco to go for it.
How do you build off of last year’s success, both as a league and as a team?
As a league we are looking at the old model we had. We got so much coverage media-wise, and it was such a big win to put together four straight matches a day for weeks at a time with some of the sport’s biggest stars. We haven’t finalized everything yet. In terms of our team, these pros grind it out year-round, every practice, every tournament, every win and loss, and so I want our team to just have more fun than everyone else. Coco and Melichar go back to the San Diego Aviators. I’m trying to work out an opportunity to get those players back. We don’t know if Kim will be back. And it’s an Olympic year once again, so how does that come into play? So we’ll see how everything works out, but our goal is to once again bring in veterans that are not afraid to have a lot of fun.
The 2021 WTT season is set to begin on July 11 and run through July 25. Stay tuned to LITennisMag.com for news and updates regarding WTT and the New York Empire.