First, the team.
Before a single ticket is scanned, one ball is served, or DJ Danny spins the very first song courtside at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, we need to secure a team to compete at the pace and highest level that World TeamTennis demands. So, after doing plenty of homework to prepare for last month’s draft, Aviators Coach John Lloyd put together his 2019 Aviators — a combination of seasoned talent, solid rankings, and fresh faces — ready to turn up the heat this summer when the season kicks off on July 14.
First up, Coach Lloyd knew he wanted to anchor the team with women’s doubles veteran Anna-Lena Groenefeld, who first joined the Aviators in 2018. “I’m a big fan of hers,” he says. “I think she’s a very consistent, classy person, and she’s experienced. She’s played a lot of years now and has got championship qualities with grand slams.” The choice to bring her back was, for Lloyd, “an automatic.”
He explains the importance of having a strong doubles player to secure wins for the team. With all five sets (men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles) equally weighted in the total match score, Lloyd knows a powerful singles player alone won’t win the matches for the team. “You can go for someone who’s highly ranked in singles, but if they don’t play doubles or they’re not good doubles players, you’re basically sacrificing one set for the other,” he says. “You’ve got to try and find a balance where you’re solid in both areas, and that’s what we look for.”
With Groenefeld on board to provide that solid foundation in doubles, Coach Lloyd’s next pick for the team was 24-year-old Christian Harrison. Aviators fans might recognize his last name — Christian’s older brother, Ryan, played for the Aviators during the team’s championship 2016 season, when Ryan was also named WTT Male MVP for his outstanding performance all season long. “Ryan has always spoken very highly of his brother [Christian], as a player and as a person, and also as someone who would be very competitive and a good team tennis player. So, he was always on my radar when he came available,” says Lloyd.
But it wasn’t just about what his big brother had to say. “I’ve seen Christian play quite a few times,” says Lloyd. “He’s got a very clean game.” And it’s not just how he handles himself when the ball is in play. “The thing also with team tennis is you want to get a mix of personalities and people who are going to mix well in a routine, because you’re traveling for three weeks, and you can’t afford to have any prima donnas, because it just doesn’t work. What you find, particularly as a coach, is that a lot of your energy is being diverted to one person more than the others, which you don’t want,” he says. “Christian’s very solid, and a nice guy as well. We were pleased to get him on board.” A definite bonus is that with the signing of Christian, the Aviators will also enjoy the return of Ryan to the squad for four matches this season, when fans will get to see the brothers’ doubles chemistry that took them to the third round of the 2018 U.S. Open.
Astra Sharma might be a name that’s not immediately recognized by American tennis fans, but Coach Lloyd thinks that’s all going to change after her season with the Aviators. “She was an interesting pick — a little under the radar, really,” says Lloyd. However, after some research, he knew there was more than met the eye despite Sharma’s current doubles ranking of #284. Sharma, who was a finalist at the 2019 Australian Open in mixed doubles with partner John-Patrick Smith, has proven she has some real doubles chops. That recent run, plus her college experience playing at Vanderbilt University, clinched her selection by Lloyd.
Rounding out the team’s roster lineup is Lloyd’s British countryman, Jonny O’Mara, current World No. 48 in doubles. Though Lloyd didn’t have previous experience with O’Mara, once again, he did his homework to make this pick for the team. “I know that he’s a very good returner, volleys very well, has a lot of energy on the court, and loves team situations,” says Lloyd. “He’ll fit perfectly into our team. I think he’ll play very well with Christian and he’ll be very solid in mixed doubles with Anna-Lena as well.”
Of the 2019 team as a whole, Lloyd sums it up as “a mixture of youth and experience, but I think we’ve got a good balance” to take on what he says will be a “fascinating season.” Assessing the distribution of talent throughout the league, Lloyd says this could be any team’s season to win. “It would be very difficult to separate the pack, which is fun. I think it’s going to be a very even season this year, but we fancy our chances.” And hopefully, those chances will translate into the return of the King Trophy to San Diego!