PHILADELPHIA -- The just-completed annual pilgrimage of tennis superstars, established veterans, and yet-to-be established players through the three-week tennis grind known as World TeamTennis (WTT), return this week to their respective tournaments on the WTA and ATP tours as the American hard-court schedule kicks into gear.
Conceptualized as an off-shoot of Billie Jean King's 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Bobby Riggs, in what was coined the "Battle of the Sexes," King has parlayed her victory that September 1973 day in the Houston Astrodome into a 30-year-old league featuring some of the sport's biggest names.
King's baby squeezes itself into a three-week window on the heels of Wimbledon and the doorstep of the U.S. Open, where if the tennis greats aren't in venues in leafy suburbs like Radnor, Pa., Wilmington, Del., Avon, Conn., Newport Beach, Calif., or Mamaroneck, N.Y., they're home re-acquainting with friends and family.
The line of skeptics in 1973 was long when it came to co-ed sports, including Sports Illustrated which wondered, "how big a sporting event can it be when (President) Richard Nixon doesn't even telephone?"
WTT serves an additional role as a laboratory to try out new approaches in such a tradition-oriented sport. Many a player lands on a WTT court less than a week after Wimbledon, and the shift in environs could not be more dramatic.
"We have the mascots, we have the players sitting on the bench, visible to the crowd, and the (on-court) coaching element," said King. "We think it is very important for people to see tennis in their backyard, and we have had almost all of the greatest tennis players that ever played participating in WTT."
Names like Agassi, McEnroe, Becker, Rafter, Hingis, Navratilova, and Roddick use WTT as a means to expose adults and children from all walks of life to the sport of tennis.
"The only (star player not to have played WTT) is (Pete) Sampras and we have not given up on him yet," said WTT Commissioner and CEO, Ilana Kloss, in a league-wide conference call prior to the start of the WTT season. "We are planning to throw a 30th reunion party at the U.S. Open, and it is an impressive list of who has played in WTT."
But while the marquee names are splashed on WTT's promotional materials and the players who fill the league's intimate venues for special appearances, it is the meat-and-potatoes players on the WTA and ATP tours who playing a WTT schedule on a nearly nightly basis, develop close bonds with the local tennis buffs and return season after season.
"I just love it," said Venezuelan Milagros Sequera, who just wrapped up her third season with the Hartford FoxForce.
"You gain experience because you're playing against great players," said Sequera, who sits at 147 in singles play on the WTA Tour and is ranked 79th in doubles.
"It's a chance to have a little fun but still be competitive," said Sequera's FoxForce teammate and doubles-partner, Lisa McShea, a perennially top-50 doubles player on the WTA Tour who turns 31 in October.
For up-and-coming players, such as 18-year-old Carly Gullickson of the Philadelphia Freedoms, playing WTT offers different benefits.
"(The WTT season offers) match practice that you obviously can't get (while playing on the tour)," explained the veteran Mc Shea, who has been criss-crossing the globe since she was 16 years old. "Match practice is different than practice. (Carly's) schedule would have been to have three weeks break (following Wimbledon), so for her, it's a great warm-up prior to beginning tournament play (in August).
Gullickson also had the opportunity to get some pointers from King after a rough outing in Philadelphia. "Billie Jean King is one of the greatest tennis players ever and to have her take the time to help you improve your game is pretty amazing," said the 18-year old who is ranked in the top-100 on the WTA tour.
For King, WTT is a yearly chance to drive home her strong opinions on the role of women in sports.
"The whole point (of the Battle of the Sexes) was to change the minds and hearts of people, to change Title IX legislation," said King. "You see how much more recognition we get when we are in a men's arena, from Annika (Sorenstam) to Danica (Patrick)."
King and Kloss maintain their relenting efforts to reduce the gender disparities in sports. "From a social point of view we think it important to see women and men compete on a level playing field," said King. Their next vision is to carry the WTT concept to an international forum such as the Olympics.
"This would be the perfect format for country vs. country competition," said King. "What makes us good is that we are the niche of team co-ed competition."
Kloss concurred, saying, "It definitely would be great to have a team medal that would be shared by men and women," added Kloss.
David W. Unkle is a freelance sports writer and contributor to SLAM! Sports. His work appears on several news outlets along with hosting The Topcat Sports Show in the Philadelphia market. David can be contacted via the Show's website at http://www.topcatsports.org or email@example.com. Patrick Williams is also a freelance sports writer and frequent contributor to SLAM! Sports. Patrick can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.