World TeamTennis brings unique twist to sport

Fred & Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA

Irina Falconi is a roster player for the Boston Lobsters and an example of the league's dedication to developing young talent.

When World TeamTennis inked a deal with Domino's Pizza in 1985, the sponsorship did more than provide an influx of cash. It also helped secure the loyalty of two young girls from Southern California.

As Venus and Serena Williams jokingly tell the story, they were lured to a World TeamTennis clinic by the free pizza, then stayed for the tennis lesson. The event, featuring former WTT commissioner Billie Jean King and held in the Los Angeles area, made an indelible impression on the sisters. Ever since they burst onto the international stage in the late '90s, they've carved out space in their busy calendars to play certain matches in WTT's brief summer schedule.

The story of Venus and Serena's relationship with World TeamTennis illustrates just one of the league's many focuses: making tennis accessible to everyone. WTT was founded in 1973 by a group including King's husband at the time, Larry. After it suspended operations in 1978, it was resuscitated by Billie Jean King in 1981. She served as commissioner until 2001, passing that title to Ilana Kloss, and still is majority owner of the league -- a pursuit that reflects her life philosophy.

"World TeamTennis is totally how Billie Jean wants the world to look," Kloss said. "Men and women, girls and boys, competing on a team with equal contribution. You're seeing gender equality on display."

A WTT match includes five sets: one each for men's singles, women's singles, men's doubles, women's doubles and mixed doubles. The scoring is cumulative, so each team is working together toward a common goal -- unheard of in the traditionally cutthroat world of top-level tennis. But beyond just the gender equality King has become famous for championing, the league helps promote other things, too. It brings world-class tennis to communities without access to it and creates a fan-friendly atmosphere in a sport known for its stuffiness.

"The amount of rowdiness, it's a much more interactive feel," said Irina Falconi, who has been ranked as high as No. 73 in the world in women's singles and will play this season for the Boston Lobsters. "For example, at Wimbledon, you never see anyone going crazy after a point or yelling, but in a World TeamTennis match, you have everything happening out there, even throughout the point. There's music playing, and after a really great point, you have an emcee. It's a lot more dynamic."

Falconi is an example of the league's ability to discover young talent and give those players a platform on which to improve. Each team has a handful of "roster" players who participate in each match, such as Falconi with the Lobsters. But teams also must be flexible for those occasions when the big-name players -- Serena and Venus or Andre Agassi and John McEnroe -- drop in for a match or two throughout the season.

Some of the league's former roster players, notably Andy Roddick and Caroline Wozniacki, have since evolved into major stars. In that way, WTT is a little like minor league baseball, providing easy and affordable access to future headliners as they're blossoming.

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Serena Williams makes time to play in WTT matches each summer and has suited up for the Washington Kastles for each of the past four seasons.

Last season, when a pregnant Lindsay Davenport pulled out of a WTT match at the last minute, league officials reached out to former USC star Maria Sanchez, who immediately got into her car and played that night's match in Orange County. Sanchez then played half of the WTT season and did well enough to catch the eye of tennis legend Chris Evert. Now, Sanchez is training part time at Evert's academy in Boca Raton, Fla.

"It's always helpful to have marquee players because they bring the fans and sponsors," Kloss said. "But at the end of the day, it's the roster players who the fans fall in love with and who keep the fans coming back match after match."

WTT's setup, which includes a packed schedule from July 9-28, guarantees players a certain number of matches in a sport in which early elimination from a regular tournament can mean a lot of competitive downtime. Players also are drawn to the team environment and to building friendships with players they might end up going out to dinner with when playing Wimbledon or the French Open.

"The tour is very single-minded in a way," Falconi said. "The team atmosphere of the WTT makes it that much more fun. It gets you out of the tour mode."

More than anything, WTT is the passion of King, and many of the top players who dedicate their time to WTT matches or clinics do so because they are indebted to all she has done for the game. As Falconi puts it: "Do I think of Billie Jean King when I think of World TeamTennis? Oh my god, yes."

The players who participate also tend to share King's view.

"We're all about access," Kloss said. "For young kids, for fans who don't get to see this kind of tennis. World TeamTennis represents co-ed competition. And we have a place in the sports landscape because tennis doesn't have many team events. As a team sport, it could really grow in America."

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