As you know I have an obsession with alternative football leagues, and I’ll gladly own up to it. If I hear about a fledgling gridiron circuit, my Spidey senses start to tingle and I want to learn all I can about it.
But really, my love for outside the box sports goes beyond football; I laud most all attempts to present common events in uncommon ways.
That being said, World Team Tennis is one of my all-time favorite alternative to the ordinary. The league was a great idea when it was formed on March 14, 1973, and it’s still a great idea today.
“The concept is solid for a number of reasons,” Philadelphia franchise owner Dick Butera told Associated Press during a 1973 interview. “Tennis is the only sport where people of all age groups can really identify with the game because everyone can play it.
“In 1965, there were five million people playing tennis. In 1972, there were 12 million.”
First, some background.
As a tweenager in the early 1970s I played quite a bit of tennis. I was never great at it, but I was adequate – and being adequate was enough to convince me to play as often as I could and get a bit more serious when I hit my teens.
By 1974 I was already a big fan of Jimmy Connors and Billie Jean King, but if there was any tennis match on TV I was down for watching it.
Enter World Team Tennis (co-founded by King and her husband at the time, Larry) which began play in the summer of 1974 with 16 franchises.
The Baltimore Banners, Boston Lobsters, New York Sets and Philadelphia Freedoms comprised the Atlantic Section; the Cleveland Nets, Detroit Loves, Pittsburgh Triangles and Toronto-Buffalo Royals were in the Central Section; the Minnesota Buckskins, Chicago Aces, Florida Flamingos and Houston EZ Riders populated the Gulf Plains Section; and the Denver Racquets, Golden Gaters, Hawaii Leis and Los Angeles Strings made up the Pacific Section.
Connors played for Baltimore and King starred for Philadelphia, but there were plenty of other big names who signed up for the league like Evonne Goolagong, Ken Rosewall, Rosemary Casals and John Newcomb.
The format of the competition – whose regular season extended over a three month period – was quite simple but revolutionary in that men and women were equal partners on a team. At the start of the inaugural season a game featured two sets of men’s singles, two sets of women’s singles, and two sets of mixed doubles. Scoring was cumulative and each set had to be won by a two-game margin but there was no advantage point.
(Since matches were running too long the format was soon changed to one set each of men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles).
Individual stars had a chance to shine in a mixed-gender team setting, which I really enjoyed. Throw in some cool, multi-colored courts and I thought World Team Tennis was a can’t-miss proposition. I was even hoping it would become so elaborate that in coming years it would expand internationally, possibly featuring a French team with a clay home court and a British squad that played on grass.
However, by 1978 it had undergone several franchise shifts, had trouble hiring and keeping top players, and interest among fans was waning, so it closed up shop.
It returned in 1981 as Team Tennis and reverted back to the original World Team Tennis brand in 1992.
The color-coded courts and novelty of the league are both gone, but I’m glad to see the league play on. Over the years participants have included Andre Agassi, Lindsay Davenport, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras, Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams.
Although a WTT “season” is now basically a three-week tournament each year, it’s something I always look forward to watching.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the 2020 home of all nine WTT franchises will be The Greenbrier at White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. Play begins on July 12 and runs through August 2, and state health guidelines dictate that up to 500 fans can attend each match.
This year’s lineup features the Chicago Smash, New York Empire, Orange County Breakers, Orlando Storm, Philadelphia Freedoms, San Diego Aviators, Springfield Lasers, Vegas Rollers and Washington Kastles.
“Our player rosters are the strongest we’ve ever fielded for a WTT season and include players with multiple Grand Slam titles,” WTT CEO Carlos Silva said in a statement. “We have a sampling of current stars like Sloane Stephens, Sofia Kenin, Vegas Rollers teammates Sam Querrey and Mike and Bob Bryan, as well as a look at tennis’ future impact players with Brandon Nakashima and Caty McNally as well as tennis greats like Kim Clijsters and Mardy Fish.
“Tennis fans are starving to see some great action on the courts and that’s what we plan to deliver all season.”
Kenin is the defending Australian Open champion, while the Bryans are the sport’s all-time winningest doubles team. Although the one-site format will make for a different experience, I welcome the return of World Team Tennis.
It’s nice to know that after all these years a terrific alternative sports league is still giving me a summer viewing alternative.