1974: The World Team Tennis experiment begins

by: Steve Tignor | April 23, 2015

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.

The year was 1975 and Ion Tiriac had just been notified that he would be spending his summer in something called the Hoosier State, where he would play for the Indiana Loves of World Team Tennis. It was a long way from Tiriac’s native Transylvania. The Vampyric One, perhaps after scratching his curly hair and smoothing down his mutton chops a few times, had one question: “What is Indiana?”

Count Dracula, living and working in the Midwest? Only that most radical of sporting inventions, World Team Tennis, could have made it thinkable. Tennis in the ’70s had traveled farther and wider than it had ever traveled before, but nothing was farther out than this beyond-ambitious brainchild of Billie Jean King and her husband, Larry.

WTT’s first and most famous incarnation lasted from 1974 to ’78. The “foible-filled five-year life of a delightful sexual aberration called World Team Tennis,” was how Bud Collins described that early run. At the time, its lack of financial success seemed to prove that the staid old sport could stand only so much modernization. Forty years later, it’s starting to look as if WTT was simply ahead of its time.

Billie Jean King loved tennis, but she thought that its rules, its customs, and its presentation all served to alienate the mainstream sports fan. With that in mind, WTT did away with as many of the game’s sacred traditions as it could without having to actually change the name of the sport. The league, which staged its matches in arenas rather than old-line tennis clubs, wanted to lift the game into the ranks of today’s major U.S. team sports.

Matches were reduced to single sets, and deuce games were thrown out in favor of no-ad, all in the name of fast-paced entertainment. Coaches could substitute a new player in when the starter was having an off night. Each quadrant of the court came with its own color, and the lines dividing them vanished. Even the customary post-match handshake was abolished. Fans were encouraged to make noise whenever and however they wanted, and the players razzed their opponents from the bench. In Philadelphia, each time the Freedoms won a game, a blue Liberty Bell gonged for the home team. Chuckle if you want, but how many other sports franchises have had a No. 1 song written in their honor?

It was a through-the-looking-glass experience for everyone, as some of the world’s most famous athletes took up temporary residence in the U.S. heartland. Vitas Gerulaitis gave steely Pittsburgh a jolt of Studio 54 glamour, while Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert spurned Paris to spend springtime in Cleveland and Phoenix, respectively. A Russian team called the Soviets “become a sort of curiosity act for American audiences,” according to British writer Richard Evans, “especially in the Midwest, where they still think communists have a horn growing out of each nostril.” When the Soviets came to town, one opposing owner contemplated replacing the string net with a metal one—a symbolic Iron Curtain.

It was hardly a surprise when Jimmy Connors of the Baltimore Banners leaped into the stands to go after a heckler one evening, or when Ilie Nastase of the L.A. Strings turned himself into a demented master of ceremonies on a nightly basis. But anyone who knew tennis had to be shocked to hear mild old Ken Rosewall of the Pittsburgh Triangles admit, “I’ve found myself clapping for other team’s double faults.” The Aussie gentleman, Collins wrote, “looked like he was confessing to an ax murder.”

One husband-coach, Clark Graebner, had his wife-player, Carole, shipped to another team for a younger woman. Fortunately, that divorce of sorts was karmically balanced by the marriage between Kerry Melville and Grover Reid, fellow members of the Boston Lobsters. When the two were traded to different teams, Melville refused to play until they were reunited. The Lobsters duly brought them back together, and they’re still married today.

As those last two examples show, WTT was also revolutionary by team-sport standards. Men and women played, practiced, and traveled together for the entirety of its 40-match season. This led to a leveling of many of the familiar hierarchies we see at tennis tournaments. Men and women contributed equally to the team’s final score, and the result of the mixed doubles meant as much as the men’s singles. A man could be, and sometimes was, traded for a woman. As the 70s progressed, the star power of the ladies—Evert, King, Navratilova, Goolagong, Wade—began to eclipse that of the men.

WTT was, as Evans described it, “One-two-three-four-bam-bam-and-thank-you-Mam” tennis. While the veteran journalist was initially skeptical, he had to concede that “the average of three hours it took to decide a WTT match provided a perfect evening’s entertainment for the kind of sports fan who would not normally have gone near a traditional tennis tournament.”

World Team Tennis in the ’70s may sound like a cross between pro wrestling and Slap Shot, but it put a serious scare into the game’s old guard when it arrived. The French Open, in particular, felt the heat from across the Atlantic. The tournament banned Connors for joining WTT in 1974, while Evert, a Roland Garros all-timer, skipped the event three times in her prime to stay Stateside. There was good money, good guaranteed money, to be made in team tennis. To the ILTF and the French Tennis Federation, King’s league looked like the coup de grâce in the American Empire’s six-year struggle to wrest the game from it Old World leaders.

They were wrong. WTT struggled to draw the crowds needed to pay those star salaries, and it couldn't recover when its biggest backer, L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, sold the three franchises he owned. The traditionalists, and the Grand Slams in particular, survived the team-game assault, but the competition from WTT only made them stronger. Which top player, let alone a clay-court great, would think of giving the French Open a pass today?

Yet as time has passed, it has become increasingly clear that World Team Tennis was more than just a noble experiment or a relic from the boundary-defying sexual revolution. The league, which was restarted in 1985 and still runs each summer, offered obvious advantages over the tours: The players had regular salaries and built-in practice partners, while tennis was covered on a daily basis in the sports sections of major U.S. newspapers.

More recently, developments in the game have begun to turn it, ever so slowly, back in the direction that World Team Tennis has mapped out for so long. Equal pay is the rule at the Grand Slams now, something that perhaps only King thought was possible in the ’70s. A top male player, Andy Murray, has jumped the invisible net and hired a female coach, something that has been a feature of WTT since the beginning. And last fall, the men and women hit the road together in Asia for a team exhibition tour called the International Premier Tennis League. The players’ combined celebrity power lit up social media and made many wonder if there was room for more team play on tour.

Ion Tiriac will probably never make it back to Indiana, but the game may finally be catching up with Billie Jean King.

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