The court was a patchwork quilt of maroon, blue, green and brown rectangles, the sort of thing the Mad Hatter might have had in his backyard. Instead of the usual legions of dozing linesmen encircling the court, just four men per match did the umpiring and the calling of lines and lets. Boston Player-Coach Ion Tiriac, wounded in his Rumanian soul by what he thought was a bad call, defaulted a game, even though it was just an exhibition. World Team Tennis (WTT) was back for its second season, and it looked zanier than ever.
The occasion was an eight-team practice tournament last week at a new Houston-area resort, Walden on Lake Con-roe, with a wooden trophy called the Walden Goblet going to the winner, the New York Sets. The basic coed format was unchanged from last year: five sets of tennis—women's doubles, either men's or women's singles, men's doubles, the other singles, mixed doubles—with the team winning the most games winning the match. Substitutions are allowed, but no player can appear in more than two sets.
Last year all 16 teams lost money but finished the season, which is more than the World Football League could say. The Philadelphia Freedoms, led by Billie Jean King, lost only five matches in the regular season but were upset in the final playoff round by the Denver Racquets. From the beginning fans were encouraged to ring bells, bang on triangles and yell to their lungs' content, which horrified tennis purists. Stacks of bills went unpaid, acres of seats went unfilled, yet last week WTT President Larry King was outwardly optimistic.
"A number of teams will make money when you consider appreciation of value," he said. "Some will even make an operating profit. I think our investment is going to be a lot less than we expected. Our league is in terrific shape."
First, let's get the teams straight, which is no easy thing nowadays. Seven teams have gone the way of the dodo: the Chicago Aces, Baltimore Banners, Minnesota Buckskins, Houston EZ Riders, Florida Flamingos, Toronto-Buffalo Royals and Boston Lobsters. The nine survivors are the New York Sets, Los Angeles Strings, Golden Gaters (Oakland), Pittsburgh Triangles, Hawaii Leis, Cleveland Nets, Boston Lobs (moved from Philadelphia), Phoenix Racquets (moved from Denver) and Indiana Loves (moved to Indianapolis from Detroit). The 10th team is the San Diego Friars—a strange nickname when you consider there are women on the club. Will they be called nuns?
There have been player shifts and departures, too, the most important of which was King going from Philadelphia/Boston to New York, where she will no doubt continue to be WTT's biggest drawing card. Ken Rosewall, John Alexander and Jimmy Connors have not returned, but Margaret Court signed on with Hawaii and Marty Riessen is the player-coach at Cleveland. And the league still boasts Evonne Goolagong (Pittsburgh) and Rosemary Casals (Los Angeles).
Everyone agreed that there were too few spectators and too much travel in '74, and some of the teams have come up with a scheduling innovation called the "spectacular." For instance, on June 4 in the Los Angeles Sports Arena there will be a four-match carnival (or marathon) featuring L.A., New York, Golden Gate, San Diego, Phoenix, Boston, Hawaii and Indiana.
"We and the Los Angeles people are strong in our belief in the spectacular concept rather than shotgunning 22 home matches against single teams and trying to promote each one," says Indiana President Bill Bereman.
"The only argument you hear against the spectacular concept is that you won't be able to build city identity. I won't argue that, it might happen. But the other argument is, 'Why lose a lot of money trying to build city identity?' The spectacular concept definitely decreases costs."
Five of the teams are doing without spectaculars, four are siding with Indiana, so the league, if it lasts, should be able to find out which way draws best.
The second big innovation is the varicolored court, manufactured by Sport-face (not Parker Bros.) and decorated with acrylic paint, which also serves to make the surface slower. The doubles alleys are maroon, the backcourts brown, the deuce service courts royal blue and the ad service courts green. There are no lines. President King, who wants WTT to adopt the idea right away, claims that the linesmen will be more accurate calling areas instead of lines and that the patchwork-quilt court will serve as a memorable "signature" for the league, just as the red, white and blue ball has been for the American Basketball Association. (WTT, unlike the ABA, has a legal exclusive on the idea.)
The Walden matches were videotaped for later showing in WTT's 11 market areas, and King made sure to invite the owners into the TV truck to see how the court looked on screen. The near-unanimous opinion was that it looked fine and the yellow ball was easy to follow. However, the players will be harder to convince.
"We need a different shade of green," said Billie Jean. "Off the green I couldn't see the ball well."
"It looks too circusy," said Wendy Turnbull of Boston.
"It's very hard to follow the ball," said Francoise Durr of Phoenix.
The four-officials idea seemed to work nicely at Walden. Two linesmen sat on platforms stationed on opposite sidelines between service lines and baselines. Two others were on ground-level seats at each end. One of the side linesmen also served as umpire. Since each man had more responsibility, they seemed to pay closer attention, and the calls were at least as good as at regular matches.
Picking a league champion at this point is almost impossible because, if the WTT owners have done nothing else, they have come up with well-matched teams. En route to the Walden Goblet last week, New York beat Los Angeles 25-24, Cleveland 29-27 and Indiana 28-25.
"It's going to be hairy," said Billie Jean King.