CARLSBAD – They played a bit better in the clutch moments, and they came into hostile territory to vanquish a rival.
The reward for the Orange County Breakers on Saturday night was the World Team Tennis championship.
The Breakers defeated the defending champion San Diego Aviators, 22-18, for the title at the Omni La Costa Resort.
In the Breakers' third straight WTT Finals appearance, they earned payback for last year's loss in the title match to the Aviators. The title is just the second in Breakers franchise history; the first came in 2004.
The title match may have been a rematch, but the Breakers had an entirely new squad in 2017. It was a talented group that won its last five matches of the season and swept all of the World Team Tennis season awards.
Orange County performed calm under pressure. The visitors won six of the first eight 3-all game points, finishing the match with seven of 11 of the 3-all points won.
"This match was probably one of the best matches overall in World Team Tennis," said WTT Finals MVP Teymuraz Gabashvili of the Breakers. "Every set was huge quality, you know. It was so tight. I want to thank Yanina [Wickmayer] personally. She improved so much, and today she showed us her best tennis. We were happy that she gave us that lead, and then we men could finish it."
Indeed, the match started very well for the Breakers and coach Rick Leach, who was able to set the order of play as the coach of the top-seeded team. In women's singles, Wickmayer beat San Diego's Naomi Broady, 5-2.
Wickmayer, recently named World Team Tennis Female Rookie of the Year, broke Broady's serve in the set's sixth game to take a 4-2 lead. She then served the set out, with a forehand winner that clipped the right sideline on set point. Wickmayer pumped both of her fists after giving Orange County the early advantage.
The Breakers appeared headed to an even bigger lead in women's doubles. Wickmayer's service return winner helped her and WTT Female MVP Andreja Klepac break Darija Jurak's serve to earn what was at the time a 7-3 advantage for the Breakers.
But Klepac's serve was broken twice after that in the set, and the second break gave the Aviators the set with a 5-3 score. Orange County's overall lead was narrowed to 8-7.
The Breakers, though, seized back control in men's doubles. Gabashvili, the WTT Male MVP, teamed with Male Rookie of the Year Ken Skupski for a 5-2 win over the Aviators' Raven Klaasen and Rajeev Ram.
"I wasn't expecting it," Leach said. "[Klaasen and Ram] are one of the top teams in the world. On paper, we had no business winning that set, but our guys rose to the occasion. I'm just so happy the way the team improved, came together and fought hard. That's what it takes in World Team Tennis to win."
Skupski provided a highlight moment, serving at 4-2. The game went to a set point at 3-all before he suddenly ended the set with a crazy shot, a backhand volley that he hit cross-court and off the sideline. It was an unreturnable shot, and it had his partner Gabashvili making the bowing motion in admiration. The Breakers had a 13-9 lead.
"That volley was one of the best volleys I've ever seen, and that's what it took to win," Leach said. "We all had to play our best."
San Diego won the mixed doubles in a tiebreaker, 5-4 (5-3 in the 'breaker), with Klaasen and Jurak coming through over Skupski and Klepac. But the Breakers still had a 17-14 advantage headed into the final set of men's singles.
Once there, Gabashvili the two-time league MVP called "game." He beat Ram, 5-4 (5-2 in the tiebreaker), clinching the title for Orange County.
Gabashvili's service winner gave Orange County championship point, and his hard forehand return of Ram's second serve on that championship point caused Ram's shot to go wide.
"I felt very confident with Teymur on the court the last set," Leach said. "That's why I set the lineup that way, because he's so clutch. It's so difficult to win on the road … It took everybody playing great to win. I've been a part of a winning team as a player, but as a coach, I've lost three times in the finals. It means so much to me [to win tonight]."