By Peter Schwartz
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For the New York Empire, their inaugural season in World Team Tennis did not go very well as they stumbled to a record of 2-10 and a last-place finish in 2016.
As they prepare for 2017, the Empire will feature a different look in many ways, including a new home court, new marquee players and a new leader on the bench.
“I’m very excited,” new Empire head coach Gigi Fernandez said. “I haven’t coached professionally since 2005, so I’m really excited to be on the court and help out.”
Fernandez, an International Tennis Hall of Famer and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, is currently the only female coach in World Team Tennis. She takes over for Patrick McEnroe, who coached the Empire during their initial season.
Fernandez said she has her sights set on better results in 2017.
“I like to win, so hopefully we’ll have an exciting season for New York tennis fans,” said Fernandez, a native of Puerto Rico.
During their inaugural season, the Empire played their home matches at historic Forest Hills Stadium in what was a nostalgic return of tennis to the iconic former home of the US Open. This year, the Empire will relocate to Court 17 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
With nearby Arthur Ashe Stadium serving as a backdrop, local tennis fans will be treated to an up-close-and-personal connection to the players at affordable family prices.
“It’s a really exciting format and very fan friendly,” Fernandez said. “There’s a lot of crowd interaction and you can really get close to the players, which you can’t really do at major tour events. You do get close. Court 17 is very intimate. There will be music out there and it will be a fun atmosphere.”
With the Empire moving to Flushing Meadows, it connects World Team Tennis, founded by Billie Jean King, to the National Tennis Center, which is named after the tennis legend. Fernandez, who has known King for many years, said she is thrilled for the opportunity to be a part of this historic scenario.
“Yeah, it’s pretty exciting and very inspiring,” Fernandez said. “Billie Jean King has meant so much to all women athletes. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to coach this team.”
WTT is entering its 42nd campaign, with the season running from July 16 to Aug. 2. The matches are comprised of five sets, including one set each of men’s and women’s singles as well as men’s and women’s doubles and mixed doubles. Teams get one point for each game won and the overall match scoring in cumulative. Fernandez, who once played World Team Tennis, said she is ready for the challenge and the unique format that the fans will enjoy.
“I think it’s great that men and women play together,” said Fernandez, who won 17 Grand Slam doubles titles during her career.
“I love that it’s never over. Even if you’re losing, you can still catch up, so it never gets boring. With World Team Tennis, the team that is losing can always come back,” she said.
Empire general manager Michelle Cope has started to put together an impressive squad for 2017, with John Isner, Eugenie Bouchard, and Mardy Fish taken in the league’s Marquee Draft.
“The thing with these players is that you don’t really have to work with them,” Fernandez said. “You just have to let them be. I’m just really there to facilitate what they need.”
Fish, a longtime member of the U.S. Davis Cup team, will play almost all the singles matches, while Isner, a winner of 10 singles titles on the ATP World Tour, will play a couple of singles matches. Meanwhile Bouchard, a native of Montreal, will certainly bring a lot of attention to the Empire during the couple of matches she is expected to take part in.
Bouchard, who reached a career high of No. 5 in the rankings on the WTA Tour in October 2014, reached the third round of the Australian Open this year. But she garnered more attention for a Super Bowl bet she lost with a fan on Twitter. When the Patriots rallied to beat the Falcons, Bouchard made good on the wager by agreeing to go on a date with the fan. A second date was schedule, so could there be a third at an Empire match?
“I don’t know,” Fernandez said. “We’ll see what she has up her sleeve.”
With Bouchard, Fish, and Isner signed, sealed and delivered, the Empire are off to a good start in shaping their roster ahead of the March 14 WTT Draft.
“We’re building this team,” Fernandez said. “We have good players this year and we’re looking forward to the draft in a couple of weeks and being able to talk about the full team.”
With their second WTT season fast approaching, the Empire will feature plenty of fresh faces when they step onto Court 17 at the National Tennis Center. The pieces, led by new head coach Fernandez as well as some marquee players, are falling into place with the hopes of improved results on the court.
Don’t forget to follow Pete on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @gigifernandez and @nyempiretennis