On a Monday night in Philadelphia, some 3,500 miles from the All England Club in London where she had just finished as runner-up, Venus Williams strode through Hagan Arena ahead of the start of her 12th Mylan World TeamTennis season.
She suddenly broke into a dance, smiling big and wide. The 2017 Wimbledon runner-up was in a good mood.
“I love it,” she said about WTT. “I love the team aspect and the opportunity to contribute. I fully believe in Billie’s concept.”
Billie, of course, is Billie Jean King, who founded the league in 1974. Earlier this year it was announced that the tennis legend would step away as majority owner for the first time, handing the reins to team owners Mark Ein (Washington Kastles) and Fred Luddy (San Diego Aviators).
Ein, who has led the Kastles to become the most successful team in WTT both on and off the court in the last decade, has big plans for what’s to come in the next few years, but not by departing from anything that King has instilled over the last four decades.
“If she would have said that she wanted completely out, then I wouldn’t have done it,” Ein said in an interview, referring to King staying on as a minority league owner, as well as a team owner of the Philadelphia Freedoms.
“This is her legacy and her vision. We need her advice and guidance. I feel very lucky that she’s going to be a part of this for a long time with us.”
Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recognizes Mark Ein and the Washington Kastles' 10th-season anniversary during halftime of a Kastles match. (Credit: CameraworkUSA)
Ein has coined the transition WTT 2.0. What does that mean, exactly? He wants to continue to innovate in what is already the most forward-thinking tennis setting in the pro game, and hopes to grow the six-team league to 16 in the next four to five years.
“I really want to grow the sport of tennis and I think we need more on-ramps and entry points for people who aren’t connected to the game,” he said. “Maybe they once followed or played tennis, but don’t anymore, or maybe they are totally new to the sport and need to be introduced.”
Ein points to the slow exit of professional events – from the ATP World Tour and WTA – over the last few decades in the U.S.
“When I was a kid there were 45 ATP and WTA events across America. Today, there are 12,” he explained.
His solution: A brighter, more energetic and (most importantly) bigger WTT. World TeamTennis would maintain its three weeks in the summer calendar – wedged between Wimbledon and the US Open – while increasing the number of teams and – subsequently – communities that it reaches.
“If parents don’t live in or can’t travel with their kids to one of those 12 tournament cities, they are never going to get the chance to have that inspirational – and aspirational – moment” in tennis, he said. “I deeply believe that if you want to grow a sport, you need a vibrant pro ecosystem in that sport.”
This match night in D.C. was the epitome of vibrant. A sellout crowd of 3,250 packed George Washington University’s Charles E. Smith Center as the crowd bellowed out Venus’ name and VIPs behind the baseline ducked from Sam Querrey’s lightning-fast serve.
Ein doesn’t think D.C. has to be the outlier. Instead, it can be the norm.
“Now that we have done it, we can give other WTT owners the playbook,” Ein said of the D.C. model. “But you need the person or group of people with the resources, avid commitment and desire to do it. I don’t think there is anything that is happening in Washington that can’t be replicated in other cities across the U.S.” As far as interested potential owners go, Ein said he’s been “inundated” with interest.
A first big challenge is finding owners that have the same passion as Ein, who wore a World TeamTennis baseball cap the previous night in Philadelphia and shouted out encouragement in his newly found dual role as team owner and league owner.
He found Venus courtside after she beat Sloane Stephens in the women’s singles set, the two chatting away freely. More stars like her are needed for the short season. Maria Sharapova’s Orange County Breakers cameos this summer were a beaming success.
Ein himself was a ball kid for the Virginia Slims professional tournament in the 1980s, held in the same arena at George Washington that the Kastles play in today. It was an experience – in which he took a week off from the ninth grade – that he is sure sparked something in him that led him to where he is today. He wants more kids to have that kind of experience. Or at least the opportunity to.
WTT co-owner and Chairman Mark Ein joins ESPN3 announcers Rennae Stubbs and Leif Shiras to talk about the league’s newest innovation, on-player microphones. (Credit: CameraworkUSA)
“What happens on the court is exciting, magical, inspiring and I think it’s great for tennis and the communities that we serve,” he said. “Our core goal is to take it to more cities across America.”
This season the biggest WTT initiative has been players wearing microphones in-match, making their on-court chatter audible for fans watching on TV at home. It’s a page that Ein borrowed from the NBA’s playbook and the players who have used the mics see the benefit for those watching along.
“In a team event, there is a lot of communication and you want to hear everything” as the fan, said doubles standout Bruno Soares. “When you have a coach on court, you’re talking a lot and they’re talking too, especially in big moments or in timeouts. People don’t have access to that otherwise. That’s fun when you can get it.”
It was Ein who was talking to Billie Jean King just off the sideline of the Kastles-Freedoms match, where Darian King was taking on Sam Querrey. Billie Jean was shouting her support at Darian. As the longtime owner of the Freedoms, she clearly has stepped away from her league owner hat and is more vocal otherwise. At least a little bit.
“Things have changed,” she joked to Ein, walking away from the court down a hallway. “I can do that now.”
Even with change, the legacy and future of the league that once belonged to Billie Jean looks to be in good hands with WTT 2.0.
SOUNDS FROM THE COURT: Watch (and listen) to the latest World TeamTennis innovation as San Diego and Philadelphia battle for a playoff spot on Tuesday, August 1, at 10pm ET on ESPN3. Players from both teams will be mic’d up with wireless microphone transmitters that capture on-court action. The technology, a first for pro tennis competition, gives fans unprecedented access into real-time strategy and discussions with players and coaches. San Diego is tied with Orange County for first with two days left in the regular season, while Philadelphia is just one match behind in third place. The top two teams from the 2017 regular season of Mylan WTT presented by GEICO advance to the Championship Finals on Saturday, August 5, in San Diego. Follow the action at www.WTT.com.
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