Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Season preview: Capitals hope to rebound

   Since winning the last of their record six World TeamTennis titles in 2007, the Sacramento Capitals have endured trying times.
   From 1997 through 2007, Sacramento went 108-35 (.755) and won all six of their league crowns, including four in a row (1997-2000) and five in six years. Since then, however, the Capitals have gone 20-22 (.476) with one playoff appearance.
   After going 8-6 and falling in the Western Conference final at home in Roseville in 2008, the Capitals have gone 6-8 and missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
   Only once before since joining the league in 1986 had Sacramento had suffered a losing record (also 6-8 in 1991). Only three times before had the Capitals missed the playoffs.
   Not coincidentally, 2007 was Elena Likhovtseva's last full-time year on the women's tour, and Mark Knowles has played only one full-time season for the Capitals since then. Knowles missed the 2008 season because of the birth of his second child and played only four matches last year because the team "decided to make more of a (financial) investment in Vania (King) than myself," he said.
   Likhovtseva and Knowles were named to The Sacramento Bee's all-time Capitals team last year (with Lindsay Davenport and Brian MacPhie).
   Nor did it help that Sacramento native Sam Warburg, a strong singles and doubles player, retired at 26 in October 2009 after five seasons with the Capitals.
   Most crushing of all, Lonnie Nielson, the team's owner or co-owner from 2000 until early this year, was sentenced in May to seven years in prison for embezzling more than $800,000 from real estate clients.
   Bob Cook, a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings, bought 50 percent of the Capitals from Nielson in 2008 and the rest this year. Cook also promoted Matt McEvoy, then 25, from assistant general manager to general manager in March 2010.
   The Capitals will try to rebound from their woes beginning tonight, when they open their 26th season against the host St. Louis Aces.
   Sacramento's playoff chances appear much better this year than last. Knowles, a three-time WTT Male MVP formerly ranked No. 1 in the world in men's doubles, returns full-time.
   "When I talked to (management), Bob and Matt, about this season, I said, 'I really want to get back to the playoffs,' " Knowles, 39, of the Bahamas said during the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, Calif., in March. "It's really all I know with Sacramento."
   Also, Mardy Fish replaces Michael Chang as the Capitals' marquee player for one match. Fish, a 29-year-old native of Edina, Minn., living in Tampa, Fla., is ranked a career-high No. 8 in the world in men's singles. Chang, an International Tennis Hall of Famer, retired in 2003 at 31.
   Meanwhile, four of the top five women's singles players in WTT last year are not returning, at least full-time. The only exception is No. 4 Martina Hingis, a likely future Hall of Famer, of the New York Sportimes.
   Sacramento received a huge boost when Davenport, the league's reigning female MVP for the St. Louis Aces, announced this week that she's pregnant with her third child and will not play this season under doctor's orders. Another Western Conference star who's not returning is No. 3 Jarmila Gajdosova of the defending champion Kansas City Explorers. Meanwhile, the top six men's singles players return.
   Women's singles and doubles are critical in WTT's abbreviated format because it's more difficult for the powerful men to break each other's serve.
   King and Dusan Vemic return for their second season with the Capitals. Rounding out the squad is WTT and tour rookie Yasmin Schnack from the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove.
   "I like the team a lot," said Wayne Bryan, in his 10th year as the Capitals' coach. " ... Schnack has good size (5-foot-10), she's a big hitter, and she has a good volley. She'll be a big key. Other than Elena and Vania, she's the best (women's) doubles player I've had. Knowles is healthy. Vemic played singles and doubles last year. All the other teams are good as well."    
   Here's how the Capitals break down in each event:
   Men's singles -- Vemic, 35, of Serbia is flashy but inconsistent. He finished fifth among nine WTT regulars with a 54-53 (.505) record in games last season. Grade: C+.
   Women's singles -- Listed at 5-5, King is quick but can be overpowered by bigger players. A 22-year-old resident of Boynton Beach, Fla., who grew up in Long Beach, she finished sixth among 10 WTT regulars with a 50-48 (.510) mark in games last season. Against weaker competition in 2009, King placed first in singles for Springfield and earned the league's Female MVP award. Grade: B-.
   Men's doubles -- Knowles and Vemic, 35, of Serbia should form an excellent team after going 3-1 together last year. Although both have struggled this year, they have strong credentials. Knowles has won three Grand Slam men's doubles titles (2002 Australian Open, 2004 U.S. Open and 2007 French Open, all with Daniel Nestor). Vemic has reached two Grand Slam semifinals in the event (2008 French Open with Bruno Soares and 2010 Australian Open with Ivo Karlovic). Grade: A-.
   Women's doubles -- King and Schnack are close friends who complement each other well. King won the Wimbledon and U.S. Open women's doubles titles last year with Yaroslava Shvedova, and Schnack has reached three women's doubles finals in tennis' minor leagues this year. Grade: B.
   Mixed doubles -- Knowles, the 2009 Wimbledon mixed doubles champion with Anna-Lena Groenefeld, and King form perhaps the top team in the league. Grade: A.

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