The mystique of Martina Navratilova drew a large crowd to SEFCU Arena at the University at Albany Tuesday night, but the talent of Sloane Stephens kept it entertained.
Stephens, who had a week that most young tennis players can only fantasize about, helped the New York Buzz build a big early lead, and Alex Domijan closed it out with an exclamation point as the Buzz held off Navratilova and the Boston Lobsters, 21-17, in overtime.
In the span of a week, Stephens beat Venus Williams in a singles match and Navratilova in doubles competition. SEFCU Arena may not be Wimbledon, but those are impressive wins for a 16-year-old.
“It’s been a fun week,” said Stephens after the Buzz improved to 3-5 in World TeamTennis. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I beat Venus,’ and ‘Wow, I just beat Martina in doubles.’ It’s pretty awesome.”
But the main attraction Tuesday night was Hall of Famer Navratilova, who was making her fifth appearance in the Capital Region and admitted there probably will be more, because she just can’t say no to Buzz owner Nitty Singh.
Navratilova is arguably the best women’s tennis player in the history of the game, and has the numbers to back it up. She holds 167 singles titles, more than any man or woman, and has 59 career Grand Slam titles, second only to Margaret Court’s 62.
She put together what is considered the best season ever in 1983, when she posted an 86-1 record and recorded 16 wins in 17 tournaments.
Remember that year, because it was 10 years before Stephens was even born.
At 52, Navratilova may have lost a step or two, but still has the incredibly quick hands that are so vital in doubles.
“It’s good just to be get out here and compete against some of the new blood,” said Navratilova, who played mixed doubles and women’s doubles against the Buzz. “I wish I could have played better, but I just wasn’t making the shots.”
After Stephens and Domijan blitzed Navratilova and John Auckland, 5-0, in mixed doubles to begin the match, Navratilova showed off some of her old skills in women’s doubles, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Stephens and Mallory Burdette from posting a 5-3 win and push the Buzz lead to 10-3.
“She’s so fast,” said Navratilova of Stephens. “She’s a great talent, She’s got great bloodlines, which explains why she’s so fast. She’s got a great head on her shoulders, she’s got a great attitude and I think she’s going to be a very good player.”
Stephens, whose father, John, was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,168 yards for the New England Patriots in 1988, admitted she tries to play opponents like Williams and Navratilova like anyone else.
“You have to, because the matches are so short,” she said. “The person who is aggressive usually wins, so you have to stay in the match.”
Stephens also won her singles match, topping Stephanie Foretz, 5-4, with a forehand winner just minutes after a close out call got both the crowd and Buzz coach Roger Smith in a frenzy.
The Lobsters (4-5) came back to win the men’s doubles and Jan-Michael Gambill had Domijan on the ropes in men’s singles, posting a 5-3 victory to send the game into overtime with the Buzz leading, 20-17.
But the 6-foot-7 Domijan served three consecutive aces to open overtime and quickly ended the match.
“I thought it was over,” said Domijan. “I just wanted to serve out the match.”
Neither Domijan nor the muscular Gambill could handle each other’s serves during the men’s singles.
“I thought I played well. I just had one bad service game,” said Domijan. “But it’s tough when you’re playing against someone who has two first serves.”
Domijan also came up with the shot of the night, when his lunging return from the baseline sailed over the top of the scoreboard over the center of the court, never touched the lights or rafters, and landed just inches long at the opposite baseline.
The Buzz will be home again Thursday, hosting the Kansas City Explorers at 7:30.
New York Buzz 21, Boston Lobsters 17 (OT)
Mixed doubles: Sloans Stephens-Alex Domijan (NYB) def. Martina Navratilova-John Auckland, 5-0; Women’s doubles: Stephens-Mallory Burdette (NYB) def. Navratilova-Raquel Kops-Jones, 5-3; Women’s singles: Stephens (NYB) def. Stephanie Foretz, 5-4. Men’s doubles: Auckland-Jan-Michael Gambill (B) def. Domijan-Ryan Lipman, 5-2; Men’s singles: Gambill (B) def. Domijan, 5-3; Overtime: Domijan (NYB) def. Gambill, 1-0.