Cook serves main dish

NEWPORT BEACH — It was Ladies Night, and Billie Jean King and Lindsay Davenport were in the house.

But the Newport Beach Breakers' lead man was still in charge.

Lester Cook came up huge in the final set, beating St. Louis' Andrei Pavel, 5-0, in the final set as the Breakers came back for a huge 16-14 World Team Tennis win Thursday at The Tennis Club Newport Beach.

Cook came into the set ranked third in the league in men's singles, while Pavel was last – 11th out of 11 regular players in the league. The Breakers came into that final set with a 14-11 deficit, but Cook has brought them out of similar deficits before this season.

Cook had the goods Thursday night against an opponent he said he'd never faced before. He swept the set against Pavel in the match that featured former world No. 1 Davenport as a marquee player for the visiting Aces.

"I just absolutely love it," Cook said. "The team puts a lot of faith in me by putting me last like that. You know, I talk to my doubles partner Dave [Martin] and it's like every time we go out, this is why we play. This is it."

Newport Beach is now 4-4 and just a match behind first-place Sacramento and Kansas City in the Western Conference. St. Louis and Springfield join the Breakers at 4-4 as just past the halfway point of the season, all five teams are separated by a single match.

Davenport, who played for the Breakers in 2003 and '08, had mixed results. She called it a little bittersweet that she couldn't play for the Breakers this year, as she was born, raised and still lives in Orange County.

In the second set of the night, Davenport and partner Liga Dekmeijere fell to the Breakers' Marie-Eve Pelletier and Julie Ditty, 5-2. That came on the heels of a Breakers win in men's doubles, as Martin and Cook took out Pavel and Tripp Phillips.

Newport Beach was up 10-4 and appeared to be cruising. But, in a match where no set was close, the next two would go against the Breakers. A nemesis this season has been mixed doubles, and that continued to be the case Thursday.

The Breakers fell to 2-6 this year in mixed doubles sets as Pavel and Davenport beat Martin and Pelletier, 5-1. And, after Davenport blanked Pelletier in singles, 5-0, the Aces, coached by former Breaker Rick Leach (Davenport's brother-in-law) had actually grabbed a 14-11 lead.

"I've been playing three sets, and so slowly my body's gotten used to it," Davenport said. "We've been struggling in our men's and women's doubles; that's just been a problem for us all season. Mixed doubles, I think we're possibly leading the league. I've been doing well in singels, so kind of the same stuff happens to us each night. It really depends how many games we win in our men's singles, and tonight Lester played unbelievable."

Pelletier appeared frustrated after finding it difficult to trade groundstrokes with Davenport, the three-time Grand Slam champion. It was her first time playing women's singles this year for Newport Beach; Kronemann said Julie Ditty is nursing a minor wrist injury and he thought a change would be good.

The Breakers appeared frustrated, too, but Cook found a way, pumping up the crowd and himself in the process.

The final two games in the last set went to a three-all point, and Cook won both. On match point, Pavel tried to come to net off a return, but his volley went into the net and the Breakers had the match.

Cook is now first in the league in men's singles, having won 38 of 66 games (58%).

"Lester finally broke through, and the men's doubles finally broke through," Kronemann said. "… Lester reminds me a little bit of Ramon [Delgado]. They're so 'go, go, go' while the point's going on, and then when the point ends, they've got this air about them, just relaxed and easy-going. It's really interesting to watch them play. There are very few people who I've seen in my career who have been like that, Jim Courier being one of them, Ramon Delgado being unbelievable at it, and now Lester.

"My experiences in 21 years of watching Team Tennis [are] if you're within five games, you've got a pretty good chance of running the table. You break one time, and all of a sudden the guy's looking at the scoreboard going, 'What's going on, now I'm nervous.' If you haven't been in that situation, you start trying to rush things, which I think Pavel did."

The Breakers now go back on the road and continue with important Western Conference matches. They are at Kansas City (the Bryan brothers) tonight and at St. Louis Saturday night, where the Aces will again feature Davenport and also Anna Kournikova.

They have Sunday off, travel to play at Springfield on Monday and return to Newport Beach on Tuesday against the Kansas City Explorers.

The Breakers will feature marquee player Maria Sharapova for Tuesday's match. But pencil in Cook for that final set yet again.

"I think you're just looking at tradition, you get a comfortable feeling," Kronemann said of playing men's singles as the final set. "We had it for the last five years with Ramon Delgado, and we just started it this year because of the feeling that we've always had in the past.

"It's our best set. It has been, and it is again."

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