by Pete Bodo
The other day, I was in the mood to catch some World TeamTennis again, which is a nice aspect of this job. I don’t have to call in sick. I don’t have to skulk around with one eye over my shoulder, lest I bump into a colleague from the office in front of the movie theater. Hail, up and going to a WTT match shows a certain kind of, well, initiative, even.
Anyway, I had never been to the Sportime club and tennis stadium, the facility out on Randall’s Island, where the WTT New York Sportimes play (on this evening, they hosted their notional rivals, the New York Buzz). After all, the facility is semi-officially the second home to John McEnroe, who’s going to run his new tennis academy out there. That was another good reason to go.
Unfortunately, there’s a powerful reason not to go out to Randall’s Island for the typical Manhattan resident, no matter how alluring the event, which is that you basically can’t get there from Manhattan unless you have a car. I’m not sure how the people who developed Randall’s Island pulled that off, given New York’s vast subway, bus and even ferry infrastructure.
Well, I had the truck in town and El Jon Wertheim has access to a car so we decided to take the kids out with us. I can only imagine the uproar I’d cause showing up at Wimbledon with my seven year-old to tow (“Seven and five-eights,” my son Luke would correct me, if he were reading this). But hey, this is WTT; Billie Jean King herself, founder of WTT, would have wanted it this way.
I scooped Luke up at his day camp in the late afternoon and we drove straight out to Randall's Island. Thus, my boy got his first taste of the incredibly dumb questions we ink-stained wretches can lob at tennis players, because he sat alongside me for the “pre-match” pressers with McEnroe, Kim Clijsters, and Martina Hingis. I only had to elbow him and hiss, “Stop kicking the chair!” 34 times.
Luke has met John in the streets of Manhattan, as our paths sometimes cross as we walk our kids to school. But Luke had never experienced McEnroe in his press-conference-surly mode. What's that crack about "scaring the children?"
“Why is he so grumpy?” Luke whispered. He followed up with, “Is that really John McEnroe? Daddy, is he bald? He looks different. Does he have any children my age? Do you think he likes me. . .”And so forth. I almost wished he'd put those questions to McEnroe, instead of me. It would have been one heck of a press conference.
The pressers didn’t yield much. Once again, John gave his spiel about the new academy, about his own New York background, and how he wanted to replicate something like his own, positive developmental experience (at the long-gone Harry Hopman Tennis Academy, in nearby Port Washington). Modest results already were evident, for the Sportimes clubhouse/indoor court complex, was a hive of activity from the moment we arrived. They’d been holding tryouts for McEnroe’s academy all day, and the place was awash in watch-fob replicas of Serena and Kim, Rafa and Andy. The snack bar couldn’t churn out the hot dogs and smoothies fast enough.
The Sportime facility is well-designed in a severe, clean, functional way, and it sits like a Costco outlet amid a sprawling layout of baseball diamonds and other athletic fields. It isn’t all that different from the way Nick Bollettieri’s academy originally looked, and perhaps one day it will become a comparable, full-service athletic village.
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of team or league tennis, and the European model (in which highly-ranked ATP and WTA pros compete on behalf of whichever tennis club signs the check) has shown that it can work. Hence I always ask the same question at WTT sponsored pressers: Is there a place in tennis for city-based team tennis?
McEnroe: "It would be good to have but I don’t know how likely it is. Nobody even cares about Davis Cup. We know leagues can work, but it has to have a few weeks, all to itself on the calendar. Meanwhile, I guess people will just continue to come out and enjoy events like this.”
Clijsters: "I would like it. And I know Billie Jean is talking to the guy who organized my recent exhibition in Belgium about bringing WTT to Europe. I played WTT the first time because I heard the others in the locker room talking about how much fun it was. The players love it.”
Hingis: "Every time go to play, I just enjoy it. It’s different. I don’t miss the grind of the tour, the travel and all that. I loved it at 17, but it’s different at 30. In team tennis, you’re never alone. You travel together, always have someone to hit with. If someone’s not doing well, the other people can lift her. On the other hand, sometimes you wish you had more control of what you can do to make the team win.”
Truth be told, I can’t report much on the tennis because I didn’t see a whole lot of it. It’s just that with three comparably-aged kids on hand and all manner of wicked stimulations for them, from a free-ranging giant mascot (“Tennis the Menace”) to t-shirt giveaways, dancing girls, etc. etc., even a veteran tennis reporter is easily distracted.
“Daddy, let’s go get some French fries!” Luke said, during the showcase set featuring McEnroe and promising U.S. youngster Alex Domijan of the New York Buzz.
“You already had three orders, and this is an important match.”
“But I’m starving. . . can we, please? Please!”
Good grief. But it was great fun watching the kids indulge their natural urge to go crazy, something nobody of any age gets to do at a tennis match except on certain Davis Cup occasions. Goaded by the announcer, the kids screamed their heads off. They chased the mascot. They stomped the aluminum bleachers until the lights in the heels of Luke’s “Ironman” shoes short-circuited. For some reason, Ben Wertheim and Luke took special pleasure in calling down to various passers-by, “Yo, what up?”
When did our kids go all hip-hop on us, I wondered?
My favorite moment occurred when a lucky spectator go to go on court during “halftime” to try to win a brand-new Acura automobile. Standing at the baseline (barefoot, for some odd reason, despite the fact that he was dressed in a nice brown leisure suit), he had one chance to bat a ball across the net at a target about the size of a placemat, situated near the service T. The guy came within a foot. What a pity. I could only imagine the look on his wife’s face when he got home that night.
"Honey, I stripped the plates and left the Camry at the WTT match parking lot. Let’s go for a ride in our new Acura!”“What ??????”
I have to give the experience a solid A, but with an asterisk, because it wasn't predominantly about the tennis. You blanch. But so what? It's not just about the tennis at Wimbledon, either.
In fact, while I’ve dozed through plenty of tennis matches in the press box at major tournaments around the world, this is the first time I can recall going to a tournament featuring the likes of Hingis, McEnroe, and Clijsters and barely even keeping track of the action despite sitting right there in the bleachers.
I saw numerous balls being hit, of course but not much of what was going on out there really registered, or seemed terribly critical. That's partly because of the format, although there's a lot to be said for the "every game counts" nature of WTT scoring.
There was just so much other stuff going on, starting with the kids (Caution: if you don't have kids and take tennis ultra-seriously, WTT may not be your game of choice) that the tennis was a little like the best kind of background music in a restaurant or bar. You can pay as much—or little—attention to it as you wish.
I didn't pay very much. I'm sure that’s partly because I’m a little jaded. I need to see Clijsters and some journeywoman go at it tooth-and-nail in a one-set no-ad format like I need a hole in the head.
But in spite of that, at one point during the McEnroe-Domijan singles portion, I turned to Jon, smiling, “It’s still a pleasure to watch this guy. There really isn’t anyone else even remotely like him, is there?”
The tennis was there, to be observed as closely—or casually—as you wished.
The kids had to go to sleep, camp the next day and all that. So we left before the end (The Sportimes beat their cross-town rivals, the Buzz, 22-17, although neither of them can get cross-town from Randall's Island anyway).
On the way home, Luke rubbed his eyes and asked: “Do you think John McEnroe likes me?”“Yes, I do. That Lendl fella is the one he has it in for.”