Laser Powered.

The Springfield Lasers are one of World TeamTennis’ longest-running franchises. How has the team from the league’s smallest market stayed in business for 17 years? It’s all thanks to a small but dedicated group of businesses, workers and volunteers who make July a big month for tennis in the Ozarks.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Bari Bates and Dan Oshinsky
published July 24, 2012

Lindsay Davenport is almost here. It’s about 4:30 p.m. on a Monday in July, another 100-degree scorcher in a summer where 100-degree scorchers are becoming routine. Davenport is in Springfield to play some tennis.

There are only a few dozen people on the grounds, but there will be a nice crowd on hand tonight at the Cooper Tennis Complex, probably about a thousand fans in all. This is the biggest night of the season at Cooper. Davenport’s the biggest name coming through here all year.

Everyone coming to watch tonight’s match — the Orange County Breakers vs. the Springfield Lasers, the seventh match in what’s been to this point a winless season for the home team — knows Davenport’s name. As well they should: Davenport’s the former no. 1-ranked tennis player in the world, the winner of three Grand Slam titles and a gold medalist for the United States in the ’96 Games.

Most of the fans know the name of Springfield’s coach, J.L. Full name: John-Laffnie de Jager. J.L. was the World TeamTennis coach of the year in 2007, 2009 and 2010. He’s the captain of the South Africa Davis Cup team and the holder of seven ATP Tour doubles titles. He’s also famous to local supporters for egging on fans between points and dancing with them after matches.

Some of the other names on display tonight are less familiar, but the fans are learning. Timea Babos is a 19-year-old Hungarian with a vicious serve. Amir Weintraub’s an Israeli with a backhand that’s wickedly gorgeous.

And then there are these other names: Tom Adams. Larry Haugness. Susan Provance. Anne-Mary McGrath. Tony Loudis. Lori Hunt.

Fans don’t know these names. Fans come to Cooper for world class tennis, and they leave with signed tennis balls and trading cards. What they don’t notice in the hours between are the Toms and the Larrys and the Susans and the Anne-Marys — the ones who make match day at Cooper happen.

The team’s only got four players, but there’s a cast of dozens working behind the scenes to get everything into place for seven matches each July.

Beginning to end, Lasers season only lasts a month. But for a month, these staffers work double shifts and crazy hours. Sixty-hour weeks start to feel normal. They get tennis balls signed for fans and set up courts indoors and outdoors, just in case. They ferry teams to and from airports, and they coordinate bathroom breaks for two dozen ball kids. They deal in Ozark hospitality. Sometimes, that means catering a cashew chicken dinner for 200 guests. Sometimes, that means blasting “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” over the PA when the umpire misses a call.

For the month of July, these staffers make this limited-time-only league happen in Springfield. There isn’t another sports franchise in the Ozarks that competes at the major league level. The Lasers are it.

So for a month, this team makes Lasers season run according to schedule. Sometimes they sleep. But not often.

They work hard. And they never miss a summer.

Says longtime Lasers announcer Tony Loudis: “We live for July.”

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Devin Britton is one of the Lasers' young stars. In 2009, he made the U.S. Open -- and drew Roger Federer in the first round. (He lost.)
(Above) Devin Britton is one of the Lasers’ young stars. In 2009, he made the U.S. Open — and drew Roger Federer in the first round. (At top) Welcome to center court of the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield, Mo.

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A story. Tom Adams is 10 years old, or maybe 11, and he’s at a tennis tournament in St. Louis. Rod Laver’s playing. In his career, Laver won 20 Grand Slam titles — 11 singles, nine doubles — and Tom Adams has decided that there’s nothing more he’d like in the world than an autograph from the Aussie great.

That was all Tom needed. He came back from St. Louis with Laver’s autograph, and decided then that he, too, wanted to play tennis.

He wasn’t bad, either. He started playing with his friend, Gerry Perry. Gerry’s dad was Gerald, a former engineer for the city — and probably the best tennis player Springfield, Mo., has ever seen. Gerald once made it to the U.S. Open finals in mixed doubles.

Tom started practicing that big serve of his. “I could serve with anybody,” he says. He’d knock out 2,000 or 3,000 serves a day, big power serves, and those American twists that swerved like a big league curveball. “If I didn’t ace you, I’d put the volley away.”

In Springfield, the top players took notice. Soon he was playing on the courts with Doc Busiek, a physician who had private courts on Walnut. That’s where all the best players played.

Tom kept moving up the ranks. He played at Missouri State — he went 51-9 in singles in his career, and was an all-conference talent. He coached three years for his alma mater, and he spent seven years as the pro at the local Hickory Hills Country Club.

But then Tom injured his right hand. He couldn’t grip a racket anymore. He wanted to be on the court, but his hand wouldn’t let him.

For a time, he tried life beyond that 78-foot by 27-foot box. He oversaw operations for some IHOPs down south, and he worked as a VP for the HoneyBaked Ham Company. He wanted more. He wanted to be back out on the court.

“I’d be out there every hour I have free,” he says. “It just hurts too bad. But hey, I had my turn.”

He started thinking about coming back to Springfield. He missed those hot summer nights in the Ozarks. Then his sister, Jodie, came to him with an opportunity. Springfield’s World Team Tennis (WTT) franchise, the Lasers, needed a general manager.

Was Tom interested?

It didn’t take long for Tom to accept his sister’s offer. As the GM, Adams now works out of the Springfield-Greene County Park Board offices, a city organization that maintains local parks and various athletic facilities around the city — and also runs the Lasers. Tom Adams is likely the only professional sports general manager in America who has to wear a government-issued ID badge to work. He’s in his 12th year as GM.

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Tom Adams and Bob Belote talk with the Lasers.
Tom Adams (center, gray shirt) talks with J.L. before the Breakers match. Bob Belote is at bottom left, chatting with Lasers player Amir Weintraub.

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World TeamTennis — the WTT — is the brainchild of legendary tennis figure Billie Jean King. She’s the co-founder of the league, and still one of the faces in front of it. [1]

The league’s been going since 1974, but it’s not been without some bumps and a laundry list of teams lost, contracted, merged and failed. Last year’s Western Conference champions, the St. Louis Aces, shut down this winter. The 2008 champs, the New York Buzz, merged with the other Big Apple franchise, the Sportimes. The 2003 champs, the Delaware Buzz, are no longer playing. Also gone: the New Jersey Stars, and the Wichita Advantage, and the San Antonio Racquets, and a few dozen other franchises.

In this league, teams come and teams go. [2] Only two teams — Kansas City and Sacramento — have been around for 20 or more years. As of this season, there are eight teams — four on the East Coast, two on the West Coast and two in Missouri.

Remarkably, in the league’s smallest market, the Springfield Lasers have stayed afloat. For 17 years, the Lasers have been playing World TeamTennis.

The team itself was bought by the Cooper family, the Springfield-based distributor of plumbing supplies, and then donated to the city. The team is now run through the Springfield-Greene County Park Board.

The land the team plays on also once belonged to the Coopers. The family donated it to the city, and the new facility built on top of it — dozens of tennis courts, including a center court that sinks into the hillside — was christened Cooper Tennis Complex, in honor of the family.

The team’s ownership structure makes the Lasers an outlier in the world of pro sports. As public servants, the Lasers’ core staff has an obligation most sports staffs do not: to serve their community.

In the case of the Lasers, that means providing affordable entertainment for families. It also means using tennis as a vehicle to promote the Park Board’s facilities and offers. Springfield Lasers tennis doesn’t do much to raise Springfield’s profile nationally, but it does plenty to promote tennis locally.

Many Lasers staff members are the bureaucrats — tennis shoe-wearing bureaucrats, but bureaucrats nonetheless — who make the city go. They just also happen to run a sports franchise on the side.

The team enjoys wide support from the greater Springfield community. The team was one of the league’s first with a local TV contract — Mediacom will broadcast four games this year — and a combination of big sponsors and local donors keep the team funded.

But more than anything, Lasers staffers say, it’s the support of the Cooper family — still listed in the WTT media guide as a co-owner of the team — and the Park Board, that has kept the Lasers afloat. Supporting them are a network of hard-working government staffers, tennis lovers and volunteers.

Tony Loudis puts it this way. “It’s the devotion of a few people,” he says, “and then the devotion of a lot of people who really care about Springfield and having a professional sport. We don’t have a lot of professional sports. This is an opportunity.”

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An aside here about the league: WTT isn’t a typical pro sports league. Pro tennis players compete in two leagues: the ATP Tour, for men, and the WTA Tour, for women.

But there’s this lull in the tennis circuit, between Wimbledon in June and the U.S. Open in August. The WTT squeezes itself into that window.

The WTT season’s just one continuous sprint. Springfield opened league play on July 9. The regular season ends July 28. [3] In 19 days, the Lasers will play 14 matches.

It is an exhausting schedule, complicated by the fact that the team isn’t run by billionaire owners with private jets [4] and limitless pockets. Everything’s run through the Park Board. On team trips, it’s just the team, J.L. and the trainer, Bill Ingemi. Sometimes, an additional member of the staff will come along to watch, but not often. The players don’t travel with families or entourages.

WTT instructs teams to house players in a five-star hotel for the season, but there isn’t a five-star hotel in Springfield. The Lasers put the players up in the Doubletree off I-44 — one of the nicer hotels in Springfield — instead.

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At left, Devin Britton and Amir Weintraub celebrate a point. At right, Timea Babos, just 19 but already one of the best female players in the world.At left, Devin Britton and Amir Weintraub celebrate a point. At right, Timea Babos, just 19 but already one of the best female players in the world.

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Prep work for the season — and for a big night, like tonight’s match against Davenport and the Breakers — starts months in advance.

The league gets to work first, signing players to a letter of intent. Then comes the league draft. [5]

But Adams is excited about his draft haul for the 2012 season. The steal of the draft is Timea Babos, ranked 66th on the WTA Tour. She’s only 19, and she’s from Hungary. She won her first WTA title, the Monterrey Open, in February.

There’s Amir Weintraub, an Israeli player ranked 198th on the ATP Tour. Devin Britton is ranked 481st on the ATP Tour — but that’s up from 741st in 2011. [6]

The final member of the team, Maria Sanchez, is in just in her second season on the WTT — which is a full season more than any of her teammates have played.

Tom’s known for finding gems in the draft. His biggest coup came in 2006, when he picked Victoria Azarenka seventh in the draft. She won the WTT rookie of the year title that season, and this year, on the pro circuit, she won the Australian Open. She’s now the no. 1-ranked player in the world.

By the 4th of July, Tom is ready for the season to begin. He can’t play anymore, and he can’t teach. Lasers season is how he gives back to the tennis community that’s supported him for decades. The season’s only a few days away, and he’s eager to get 2011 off his mind. The team’s been around for 17 seasons, but last year was the team’s worst, only the second losing season in Lasers history.

Things are almost ready for opening night. Tom’s office is a basement-floor cubicle in the Park Board offices. There’s a “Championship Finalist” plaque above the radiator, and Lasers jerseys hanging up on an overhead pipe. The Lasers have been to the finals twice, and lost both times. In 2009, they were a single point away from winning it all but couldn’t close out the title. Tom cringes at the memory.

The team has official colors — purple and teal — but on match day, the team has a simpler outfit: White tops, black bottoms. WTT players don’t wear official team uniforms, though. Instead, each player’s apparel provider sends in clothes. There are a few boxes of clothes in front of Tom’s desk and a package from Israel on top of those.

The season starts in less than a week, but none of the team has arrived in Springfield yet. They’ll land a day or two before the first match, on the 9th against Kansas City, and Adams will pick them up at the airport himself and get them to the Doubletree. They’ll get there and play for the month, traveling on the league’s dime. For the Lasers staff, the season is just beginning. For the players, though, this is the mid-season interlude, the warm-up for the U.S. Open.

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Lindsay Davenport’s played at Cooper before. She came here in 2002, for Fed Cup matches, played that year against Israel. Something in Springfield made an impression on her.

“I do remember Fed Cup more specifically,” she says a few hours before the match, “because we were obsessed with the frozen custard.” [7]

Fed Cup came to Springfield, Lasers staff say, thanks to the lobbying efforts of Tom’s sister, Jodie. It remains one of Cooper’s proudest moments, and one of the biggest sporting events to ever come to Springfield. Also helping Springfield lock down the bid: Billie Jean King, who served as that year’s Fed Cup coach.

It’s a common theme with Cooper: The same people seem to pop up over and over again, supporting the growth of tennis in this city. Take Jodie Adams. She’s legendary among the tennis faithful in Springfield. She played at Missouri State, and those who saw her play rave about her game. In 1979, she was offered a wild card spot to play doubles at Wimbledon.

She turned it down. That summer, she’d been offered a job with the Park Board, and she decided she didn’t have enough vacation days left to play London’s famed tournament.

Instead, she started her work with the city, work that would last more than three decades. The whole of the Park system was hers, but tennis always had a major role in her life. She was the one spearheading the Fed Cup events, and she was the one lobbying Larry Haugness — then working at privately-owned courts in El Paso — to come run Cooper.

Last November, she retired from the job. Bob Belote, her deputy, moved into a new role as director of the Park Board — and as the Lasers ownership’s official representative to the the league. As Bob moved into a new role, so did other employees. Larry started dealing more with the league, and his staff took on some of his former duties.

At Lasers matches, no one works just a single job.

The same holds true for the Cooper facilities. When all of the questions are answered, Davenport will go back to Cooper’s conference room, which today also serves at the visitor’s locker room, and the press conference area will be broken down and turned into the VIP dining area.

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The local media asks questions at Lindsay Davenport's match day press conference. Anne-Mary McGrath stands in the back left, wearing gray.
The local media asks questions at Lindsay Davenport’s match day press conference. Anne-Mary McGrath stands in the back left, wearing gray.

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Lasers season, to hear Larry Haugness tell it, is a little like a barn raising. All available hands pitch in, even on jobs that aren’t necessarily theirs. Larry, the community tennis coordinator for the Park Board, notes that he’s already down a staffer, and another — the team’s public relations director, who also does PR for the Park Board — won’t be at Cooper for the Orange County match. She’ll be in Maryland with City Hall for a FEMA-organized event. Someone else will fill in.

But the work does get done. That’s because everyone has a job on Larry’s color-coded operations chart, pinks and greens and grays sending workers across the complex. Someone has to take the tickets, and someone has to man the pro shop, and someone has to lock up the golf carts at the end of the night. On game day, the chart knows all.

On the day of the match, setup starts at 2 p.m. By 5, everything’s in place and ready for the 7:05 p.m. start time. The scoreboard’s on, the sound system’s checked, the balls and towels and coolers are on the court. The Game Day Announcement Book is up to date, with ads from sponsors and shoutouts to be read during the match. Larry’s team has the locker rooms ready. People are starting to move a little faster now that the season’s underway.

Up above the seating bowl, there’s Susan Provance. She’s here to fill in the gaps, the little things on match day. She gets tennis balls to players to sign, helps out at booths, deals with minor emergencies. She’s the one who puts out the fires. Officially, she’s the athletics administrator for the Park Board — and Larry’s boss — but on match day, she and Larry are partners when it comes to getting things done.

She’ll look down on the court and figure out who needs help. Sometimes, she’ll grab one of her staffers, a young player, and tell him or her to take a few points off to watch the match. You need to see the way they play, she’ll say. [8]

When the match starts, she rotates through the jobs at Cooper. She makes sure her team has time to eat. She hands out flyers, organizes volunteers. She oversees everything on the grounds. When she needs to get someone’s attention, she whistles. The staff knows that sound. [9]

Lasers fans have high expectations for matches, and Susan’s the sort of person who takes pride in putting out a consistent product. “It’s a cliquish crowd,” she says. Lasers fans park in the same parking space, eat at the same tables with the same friends, sit in the same seats. They come to games with routine in mind. But Susan says her staff enjoys making that routine happen for fans. It’s all worth it, she says, for “that smile on the kid’s face.”

“I’m not going to tell you that 60-hour weeks don’t begin to wear on you, but it’s fine,” she says. “It’s fine. It is not boring. It is something new and different, and it’s exciting. In June, you’re going, Get ready, get ready, gotta hold my breath, get ready. And then July goes by in the blink of an eye. And then you go, God, that was fun.”

But there’s plenty of juggling involved once July arrives, says Anne-Mary McGrath. She’s only working on Lasers stuff a few months out of every year, but she says, “It’s one of those things that we have in the back of our mind pretty much all year.” Anne-Mary coordinates special events for the Park Board. At Lasers matches, she works with the VIPs and organizes the meet-and-greets. This year, at the end of the season, there’ll be a silent auction, with proceeds supporting J.L.’s foundation back in South Africa. [10] That’s Anne-Mary’s doing.

Anne-Mary’s thinking about making sure that every interaction a fan has with the team — from the parking lot attendant to the ticket takers to the players themselves — is a positive one. By June, she’s got all the caterers set up, and her team makes sure her VIPs get taken care of. Many of them are the people who sponsor the team and donate to the city to help fund team operations. Anne-Mary wants to keep them happy.

Lasers season is a lot of long days, but Anne-Mary tells her crew that when it comes to tough assignments, there’s only one proper response: “I can do that.”

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Susan Provance, one of the overseers at Cooper -- and the woman Larry Haugness turns to when fires need putting out.
Susan Provance, one of the overseers at Cooper — and the woman Larry Haugness turns to when fires need putting out.

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The atmosphere that seems to surround the Lasers staff is the sort that you tend to find in summer camps. They’ve all got one thing in common: a love of summer nights at Cooper. They don’t always know much about their co-workers’ lives outside of tennis, but they love seeing them on the grounds at Lasers matches. Each July, they come back and reunite with their old friends — tennis friends, they are — and put on a show for Springfield.

“The horn sounds, and we show up on July 1,” says Tony Loudis, an announcer for the Lasers. “And it’s like we’ve never left.” [11]

When it comes to putting on a show for fans, hardly anyone seems to sum it up better than Tony. He’s part of a very different kind of tennis experience, one unlike the typical tennis match. On the pro tour, there aren’t announcers or music. There’s just silence between points, and at most venues, rowdiness is frowned upon. But the WTT features plenty of noise and in-game commentary from announcers, the kind more often found on the hardwood or the gridiron.

Alongside the announcers is Cindy Jobe. She’s got a background in horticulture, and she’s been working for four years on cultural programs for the Parks Department. She’s also a music junkie. Nobody has the iTunes library that Cindy has.

That’s an important thing for Lasers matches, where there’s music played between each point. Over the course of a match, that could add up to hundreds of songs. She’s constantly readying the next song for the next pause in action, but as long as she sees the crowd getting into what she’s playing, she’s happy.

“I appreciate the role the I play,” she says. “J.L., the coach, looks at me sometimes and says, ‘Come on, I need some music. We need to get these guys pumped up.’”

At Lasers matches, there’s a noticeable give and take between the announcer’s table, the crowd and the players. In person, Lasers matches are a little bit of Wimbledon and a little bit of Branson, the logical combination of elite athletics and Ozark entertainment. For her part, Cindy says she enjoys being part of an atypical tennis experience. Hansen’s “MmmBop,” “Cotton Eye Joe,” “The Fast Food Song” — they’ll all get played during the match against the Breakers.

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Tony Loudis, center, and Cindy Jobe, two of the staff members most often heard -- but rarely seen -- at Lasers matches.
Tony Loudis, center, and Cindy Jobe, two of the staff members most often heard — but rarely seen — at Lasers matches.

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Lori Hunt can rattle off the names of all the players she’s seen come through Cooper. Roddick. Seles. Davenport. McEnroe. They’ve played on red clay courts in Paris, and they’ve played on green grass outside London, and they’ve played in the crazy Midwestern heat of Springfield. The best tennis players in the world don’t come through the Ozarks every day, but when they have, Lori’s taken notice from her perch up in Section GGG, alongside other fans in the general admissions seats.

GGG is the ball kids’ unofficial corner, she says, and for 17 years — since the Lasers’ inception — Lori’s been director of the ball kids. She’s not a city employee, just a lifelong Ozarks native with a love of tennis.

A week before opening night, Lori puts her kids, a group of two-dozen 10 to 15 year olds, through a sample match. It’s just the second training session for the ball kids. With such a short season, there isn’t much time to practice.

So Lori relies heavily on the ball kids who’ve worked previous seasons. WTT matches aren’t like standard tennis matches — there’s no love-15, no ads. Scoring is simple: The first to four wins the game. The first to five games wins the set. [12] Her ball kids learn the rules, practice rolling the ball from the nets to the rear of the court, and learn how to be invisible during matches. That’s what Lori picked up from watching the French Open on TV — ball kids should be invisible — and that’s what she preaches to her young crew.

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Lori Hunt is the director of the ball kids. A former player at Drury, she’s been working with the Lasers since the team first came to Springfield.
Lori Hunt is the director of the ball kids. A former player at Drury, she’s been working with the Lasers since the team first came to Springfield.

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It’s been a tough season to date for the Lasers. They fell at home to Kansas City to start the season, and then at New York the next night. Against the reigning champs, the Washington Kastles, the Lasers lost by two games. On July 13, the fourth match in five days, the Lasers lost in a super-tiebreaker. [13] The next night, they lost by three in Philly, and the night after, by six in Boston.

The visiting team, the Orange County Breakers, wakes up on July 16, the day of the match, in Springfield.

The Springfield Lasers wake up before dawn in Boston. They’re flying commercial, with a stop in Atlanta and just 50 minutes to change planes.

But they make their flights and make it to Cooper. By then, Davenport’s already done her interview. The VIPs are deep into a meal of Chinese food.

At 7:05 p.m., right on time, the match gets underway. J.L. chooses to lead off with mixed doubles — a much-needed change of pace, the announcing table suggests.

There’s a noticeable difference between the teams on court. The Lasers are struggling with their play, but they’ve got youth on their side. Davenport’s a dominant presence on the court — she’s 6’3”, and she’s the only one wearing black — but her game isn’t up to par. The Lasers, Babos and Britton, take the first set against her easily, 5-2. Tim Griese, at the announcers table, tries to get the crowd into the match: “When J.L. claps, everyone claps!” Turns out that J.L. stands up and claps a lot.

Women’s singles are due up in the second set, and Cindy cues “Single Ladies” as the players walk onto the court. Babos shows off that big serve that’s vaulted her into the top 100. Against Anna-Lena Groenefeld, the 27-year-old German who won the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon in 2009, Babos dominates. She’s on her feet, bouncing from toe to toe in that boxer’s shuffle. She wins the set easily, 5-0.

Tim starts going through Larry’s Game Day Announcement Book, which features ads from sponsors and shout-outs to be read during the match. Some VIP boxes are unoccupied, he says. You can move on down if you’d like! There’s an audio glitch — some wires between the announcer’s table and the TV crew get crossed — and there’s a pop on the speakers. Cindy raises her hands. Wasn’t me, she says. She’s not the A/V team. She just pushes play.

Tim relays the message to the crowd: “It is not the DJ’s fault.”

Up in GGG, Lori’s got her eyes on the master list of ball kids. She’s got 19 working tonight, and she’ll switch a group off the court after every set. A ball kid runs up to her with an emergency: “We need more 3s and 4s!” Turns out the ball kids have run out of the numbers used on the on-court scoreboards.

After Lori gets finds the numbers, she’s got new issues to deal with. Coordinating bathroom breaks is a surprisingly important part of her job.

But the big fires never come for the Lasers staff. Larry wanders around near the rim of the seating bowl, and even Susan has a few spare minutes to watch the action. On court, Weintraub tries to finish off the Breakers in the third set, but he can’t. Cindy tries to spur him on with some music — a little Bon Jovi, then some Johnny Cash. Weintraub puts huge topspin on the ball, but the Breakers knock everything back that he throws at them. He loses the set in a tiebreaker.

The crowd’s enthusiasm fades in and out over the course of the match. There are many families tonight, which is a win for the Lasers staff. The matches hardly ever last more than three hours, and the players on court switch up frequently, so there’s always something new to watch. Kids always go home with autographs or Lasers merchandise. The league’s official policy is that if you catch a ball in the stands, you keep it. The Lasers pride themselves on being family-friendly.

There are also a few longtime tennis fans at Cooper tonight, that cliquish crowd that Susan spoke of. They don’t need to be convinced of the quality of play at Cooper. This is a crowd that plays tennis often, and watches it on TV. For them, this is a treat, the yearly parade of Grand Slam winners and rising stars who swing through Springfield right at the height of tennis season. They support this team year in and year out, even though the team changes a little almost every year, and the players come from everywhere — from Asia to Eastern Europe to the West Coast. J.L., the staff likes to point out, is from South Africa, and he’s in his sixth year with the Lasers. He wouldn’t come back for a month each year and hole himself up in a Doubletree and run crazy cross-country flights if he didn’t love the tennis community here in Springfield.

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A young fan gets an autograph from the Springfield Lasers after the team’s first victory of the season.
A young fan gets an autograph from the Springfield Lasers after the team’s first victory of the season.

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Women’s doubles are up next. Tony and Tim switch off at the announcer’s table. Tony says it’s not easy coming up with in-game catchphrases — “Laser power!” is sort of an old joke around Cooper, he says — but he tosses out a few “Alrrrrrrrright Lasers!” in a voice that’s strikingly reminiscent of a certain Frosted Flakes cartoon endorser.

Babos, so strong in the second set, can’t keep it together in the fourth. She double faults on her serve and gets visibly frustrated. The announcer’s table gets a little antsy. During a break, the Breakers’ Groenefeld walks over to a big cooler filled with sports drinks. Cindy looks up.

“Can I have a beer?” she says.

“You can have water,” Groenefeld says.

“Our contract calls for beer,” Tony jokes.

Bob Belote, the new Springfield-Greene County Park Board Director and ownership representative, shows up at center court to check the supplies of water and clean towels. He’s decided that the team needs some new energy, and he’s gone to his car to grab a CD for Cindy: the new album from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

The Lasers lose the fourth set, and it’s up to Weintraub and Britton to make something happen in the fifth. Weintraub hits a seeing-eye backhand up the middle for a winner. Britton makes an easy put-away on a volley. They’re up two games.

Then things start to even up. The Breakers hold serve, then pull back to 2-2. The teams split the next two. It’s 19-15 overall. Then the Breakers break serve. It’s 4-3. Two Weintraub shots go down the middle, but long. The Breakers take the set.

But the tiebreaker goes Springfield’s way. An ace from Britton, a couple of errant volleys from the visitors, and Springfield’s got its first win of the season, a 21-17 final.

After the match, Anne-Mary sets up tables on the court. Both teams and coaches sit down and start signing autographs for kids. Davenport takes a number of pictures with fans, some of whom don’t look like they were born when Davenport was winning gold at the Atlanta Games. The crowd starts to file out.

They staff will be here until about 11, and then they’ll go home. By then, the team will already be back at the Doubletree, and Davenport will have taken her teammates to Andy’s. All things considered, Larry’s pleased with how fast the staff is getting at clean up.

Tomorrow’s a normal workday for the Lasers staff — no match tomorrow. Or Wednesday.

On Thursday, the Sacramento Capitals come to town. Another match, another double shift.

They won’t mind the extra work — not when they’ve got a front-row seat to pro tennis.

“This is cheese,” says Tony. “This is neat stuff.”

There’s something else that gets some members of the Lasers staff excited, too. They know that Lasers matches often make young fans curious about the game of tennis. Maybe one or two, they say, will decide that a career in tennis might be in their future. It happened to Tom Adams at that tournament in St. Louis. Maybe it’ll happen here, too.

And maybe — and this is a big dream, they say, but why not dream big? — those kids will even set a goal: Make the pros, and make it onto a WTT court someday.

“I like to hear kids say, ‘Hey, I wanna grow up to be a Laser,'” Larry says. “Or, ‘I want to win a Grand Slam.'”

Maybe one day, thanks to the staff behind the Lasers, a kid just learning the game at Cooper will.