The ability to draw top names has enabled World TeamTennis to find a unique niche.
By Lisa Dillman, Times Staff Writer
Martina Navratilova? Check.
Martina Hingis? Check.
Boris Becker? Check.
Patrick Rafter? Check.
Billie Jean King has done an admirable job this year, whittling down her shopping list — or you could call it a wish list — for the entity occupying a special place in her heart, World TeamTennis.
In one fell swoop, signing the publicity-shy Steffi Graf to play one match this summer in Houston, the list was essentially down to one.
So, who is left? Name the most prominent player never to take part in the funky, no-ad world of TeamTennis.
"The only one probably is Sampras," said King, the league's co-founder.
That would be Pete Sampras, winner of a record 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and resolutely retired. "But we haven't given up on him yet," added Ilana Kloss, the chief executive and commissioner of WTT.
King initially grumbled at the question, noting the league's long list of marquee players, saying, "We've got 17 good ones…." But his non-participation probably says more about Sampras' famous reluctance than a commentary on the league.
Kloss considered the litany of Hall of Famers who've played in the league an impressive alumni group.
"We are planning to do a 30-year reunion at the U.S. Open and as we were going down the list of everybody that played, it really is pretty much everybody who is anyone in the sport," she said.
"From Rod Laver to Evonne Goolagong, to Jimmy [Connors] to Chris [Evert] to Ilie [Nastase]. In the past few years, it would have been [only] Pete [not playing] and hopefully we can get him."
The days of Laver, Evert and Connors were the league's pinnacle in the '70s. Back then, King and her team inspired the lyrics of singer Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom."
Things are different now. It's hard to imagine Radiohead or Green Day writing a song about the St. Louis Aces or the Boston Lobsters. Niches aren't easy to find in the crowded sports landscape. But you can find WTT tucked into a small window of the packed summer tennis calendar, nestling in the period after Wimbledon and preceding the heart of the North American hard-court professional season leading into the U.S. Open.
The three-week regular-season schedule started July 4 and runs through July 24. Teams are Boston, Delaware, Hartford, Houston, Kansas City, New York Buzz, New York Sportimes, Newport Beach, Philadelphia, Sacramento, St. Louis, and Springfield.
One sign of progress is the increase in franchise fees. In the '80s, franchise fees were $35,000. They have increased to $100,000, according to league officials. And the league will feature eight hours of programming on ESPN2, plus the addition of instant replay. That will allow the challenge of line calls in certain matches.
"A lot of us are very excited to see John McEnroe take on Hawk-Eye," Kloss said. " … I've said this for a long time, but I think WTT is the best think tank that the sport of tennis could ever have. [Tennis] has been slow to adapt some of the things that have worked in TeamTennis."
Teams consist of two men, two women and a coach. There are men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles and mixed doubles. Matches consist of five sets, plus overtime. But sets in WTT aren't like the ones at conventional tennis tournaments. Sets are won by the first team to reach five games, not six, and the scoring is no-ad. If the set is tied, 4-4, then a nine-point tiebreaker is played.
Team rosters are fluid. Players can vary dramatically from match to match.
Maria Sharapova will be playing in one match on July 23 for the Newport Beach Breakers, who play at the Palisades Tennis Club in Newport Beach. Navratilova, who lost to Hingis on Thursday night, 5-0, is appearing in six of Boston's 14 matches.
"What we really believe in is the three generations playing," King said. "If you look at the rosters, you'll see young people, current players in their 20s, and you'll see the twilighters, like the Beckers, the Navratilovas and McEnroes…. That way, three generations can relate to these three generations, as far as names and ages."
Graf spans several eras, having played against Navratilova, Anna Kournikova and Hingis on the tour.
Her "season" will consist of one match Tuesday in Houston. The Houston Wranglers will be playing host to the Sacramento Capitals and Kournikova. But Graf vs. Kournikova is not a certainty because Kournikova did not play singles the other night against the Breakers, only doubles and mixed doubles.
Kournikova has not played on the WTA Tour since 2003, and Graf retired in 1999. Graf has played exhibitions in rare circumstances since then. Her participation was one of the reasons that owners Jim and Linda McIngvale, who also run an ATP Tour clay-court in Houston, acquired a WTT franchise in Houston.
Graf earned their admiration when she was in Houston for a WTA event in the mid-'90s, according to Perry Rogers, the agent for Graf and her husband Andre Agassi. They had arranged for a promotional event at an area school and Graf showed up, looking sharp in a dress and high heels.
The problem was that a net was up and lines were painted. Children were ready to play tennis.
"She kicked off her shoes and said, 'Let's go,' " Rogers said. "The McIngvales said [of Graf], 'These are the kind of people we want to be around.' "
The WTT budget makes it more affordable for potential owners than running a WTA or ATP event.
Director Bob Kramer of the Mercedes-Benz Cup at UCLA said his player payout was about $1 million, a combination of appearance fees and tournament prize money.
Nitty Singh, who owns the New York Buzz franchise in Schenectady, ran well regarded men's and women's lower-level events for years and said her budget in the last year was about $1.1 million for the combined tournaments as opposed to $350,000 for World TeamTennis.
Singh said the most she has paid for a player commitment was $50,000. Contracts with individual players are negotiated by the league. The range for roster players is usually $1,500 to $15,000 a week, officials said, with marquee players — such as Sharapova, Graf and Lindsay Davenport — being paid per night, at a significantly higher rate. The total in salaries, including bonus money, is $2 million this summer, said a WTT representative.