Billie Jean’s Wonderland

Saturday, July 26, 2014 /by
All Mylan World TeamTennis photos by Fred & Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA.
All Mylan World TeamTennis photos by Fred & Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the World TeamTennis finals are on Sunday, featuring the Western Conference champion Springfield Lasers hosting the formidable Washington Kastles in the battle for the King Trophy.

Welcome to the alternate tennis universe of World Team Tennis, the league founded by Billie Jean King. It’s the continuation of her nearly lifelong dream to shape tennis into a team game with a reach extending far beyond the country-club crowd that dominated the sport for so long in her formative years.

That she’s been partly successful is evident in this detail: Thanks to their upset of the San Diego Aviators, the Lasers will host the Kastles at home in the Missouri city of Springfield, starting point of Route 66 and “Queen City of the Ozarks.” That’s banjo-and-fiddle country, even if the finals will be played at the state-of-the-art Cooper Tennis Complex instead of the county fairgrounds.

World Team Tennis is about as comparable to mainstream pro tour tennis as Swiss chard is to Swiss cheese. They’re both delicious, but that’s about as far as it goes. The radical differences between an event that ends with one team beating another by the score of 21-16 (the exact score of the Kastles’ Eastern Conference semifinal win over the Philadelphia Freedoms) and one which can endwith Novak Djokovic downing Roger Federer, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 are too enormous to go into here, but consider this an official invite to jump, like Alice did, down into the rabbit hole that you can find here.

One of the great if minor ironies in play here is that I can’t really find a good history of WTT at its website. It’s a pity, because it tells a fascinating tale of how pro tennis evolved, and how WTT in particular developed into what it is now.

“What is that,” you might ask?

I’m hard pressed to give you a good answer. You certainly can look at WTT as a whimsical and perhaps even bizarre interlude in a stuffy, tradition-bound game. You can look at it as the ultimate exercise of hit-and-giggle tennis, a sort of tennis party that everyone present enjoys in a self-consciously ironic way. (“I don’t think this is tennis; how come I’m having such a good time?”)

This doesn’t mean that the players don’t try their best—not at all. They just have this small window to compete as well as have fun in a way they cannot when the stakes are, well, much higher. Fun is forbidden fruit for most pro players, which is why they really do enjoy this WTT interlude.

Lastly, you can look at WTT as an organism that reflects the weaknesses of mainstream tennis, but also its strengths. For you will never walk away from a WTT match feeling the way you did after watching Andy Murray defeat Djokovic to become the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon.

I’ve been to number of WTT matches, going all the way back to 1974, when Billie Jean helped start the league co-founded by her husband at that time, Larry King. Tennis at the time was still in the midst of the transition to professionalism. Just who would shape the game in the new “Open” era that began in 1968 was still very much up in the air. The WTT establishment took its best shot at becoming the biggest tennis game in town. To put it bluntly, the WTT lost.

Early on, the league was more tightly and credibly organized. Instead of stars helicoptering in for a quick one-night stand, they signed hefty contracts and made commitments to the budding league. The backers/franchise owners of the league saw a real opportunity to cash in on the new mania for tennis, and they were willing to let their checkbooks do the talking. They successfully recruited almost all the top players.

A number of Grand Slam champions, including Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert, missed the chance to add even more to their career haul of major titles because they decided to play WTT instead of entering the French Open. At the time, the WTT season schedule conflicted—although “warred” might be the better word—with the year’s second major. It’s no stretch to say that WTT has had a historical impact on the game, although it may not have been in the way the founders hoped.

My feeling about WTT at the time remains unchanged today: It over-reached. Unlike the Davis Cup format, which demonstrates that tennis can function as a team sport, WTT’s tear-it-down-and-start-all-over approach provided too much change, some of it of the wrong kind, too soon. In other words, the anti-establishment forces, in the long run, ended up strengthening the more traditional powers in the game.

But Billie Jean stuck with it. And while WTT long ceased to be a threat to the tournament game, it has succeeded at a few of her original aims: It’s affordable, it’s family and newcomer-friendly, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

These days, the cost of attending a major sporting event with a kid or two seems, to me, downright obscene. But the Lasers were getting 10 bucks a ticket this month for some matches, and I’d pay that any day to take a child to watch Michael Russell, Ana-Lena Groeneveld, Ross Hutchins, and others play tennis and otherwise entertain for a couple of hours.

Who knew things could seem so reasonable down the rabbit hole?


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