WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS (West Virginia): 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens defeated reigning Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig 5-1 to help expansion franchise Chicago Smash defeat the Vegas Rollers in the kickoff of World Team Tennis’ (WTT) regular season on Sunday.

One of only a few live sports to welcome fans in North America amid the coronavirus outbreak, roaring crowds were replaced with masked, socially distanced spectators at the Greenbrier resort, where the entire three-week WTT regular season will take place.

The Smash won 24-18 over the Rollers, while the Orlando Storm took down returning champions Springfield Lasers with an overall score of 21-18.

Besides Stephens, other Grand Slam champions playing at the Greenbrier are Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Sofia Kenin and twins Bob and Mike Bryan, who have won 16 Grand Slam doubles titles together.

Standouts for the day included 28-year-old American Tennys Sandgren, who fired off five of Orlando Storm’s eight aces, with his team winning 75% of their first-serve points.

On the Chicago team, 18-year-old Brandon Nakashima took down Sam Querrey 5-3 in the men’s singles, as team-mates opted for elbow bumps over high-fives.

“At the beginning I definitely was a little bit nervous,” Nakashima said on the televised broadcast. “I just tried to stay solid on the baseline on my end.”

The event includes several safety measures designed to mitigate the potential spread of coronavirus, including COVID-19 testing for participants and regular temperature checks, with WTT letting a maximum of 500 fans inside the 2,500-person stadium.

Last month, top-ranked Novak Djokovic played in a series of exhibition matches he organised in Serbia and Croatia with fans in the stands and zero social distancing amid the pandemic. He later announced that both he and his wife had tested positive for the virus and apologised for contributing to its spread.

The WTT season started just as confirmed coronavirus cases were soaring nationally. In West Virginia alone, positive cases have doubled in the past month, including dozens of cases and three deaths linked to a church not far from the resort.

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2020