Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Billie Jean King's Vanity League Playoffs

As we come to the end of July, we also come to one of the most anticipated times of the sports calendar. For the last 26 years - Has it really been that long? I didn't even notice - this time of year has gripped our imaginations and inspired the inner child in each of us. We're reminded of our athlete-heroes growing up, the superstars we looked up to, whose posters decorated our walls, and whose every play we marveled at. I'm of course talking about the World Team Tennis playoffs.

I know what you're thinking - "What the hell are you talking about?" This is a fair question. For a professional league that has been around since 1974 (and without interruption since 1981), the WTT has had surprisingly little impact on our national sport consciousness. But it's been there, in a variety of permutations, attracting some astonishing names. Almost every recognizable tennis player in the last 26 years has played in or been involved with the WTT - Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Martina Hingis, Anna Kournikova (I said recognizable, not good), and Martina Navra..., um, Navra..., eh... Nagonnaworkhereanymore. Plus many more who aren't current players and don't have profiles on the league's website.

The rules are fairly straight forward. Every team has about 5-7 players (I couldn't nail this number down), men and women. Each match between WTT teams consists of five sets where the teams play to 4 points. The sets are men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles and mixed doubles. Substitutions are allowed by the coaches.

Given how famous but unknown tennis is to many people and how long this league has been around, WTT is fascinating. It gets some TV coverage (mostly from Outdoor Life, although the history section claims ESPN2), and you gotta wonder if there's a die-hard WTT fanbase. What kind of ratings does this sport get? Newspaper coverage? How do the matches themselves break down? Are they entertaining or merely gender-neutral?

FSC will have more about all this as the playoffs start (beginning on July 27), but I think it's hysterical that Billie Jean King is the majority owner of the league and the title cup is the "King Cup." That'd be like David Stern renaming the NBA trophy the Stern Cup, or perhaps redesigning it as a huge pair of gilded cajones and calling them the Stern Balls. Although come to think of it, Stern doesn't own the NBA, so maybe a more accurate analogy is to imagine Isiah Thomas taking the CBA championship, back when he owned the league but before he destroyed it, and renaming it the Zeke Cup.

My point is that this seems like an exercise in vanity on King's part. I wouldn't be surprised if that's one of the reasons the league is still largely unknown. Who wants to watch self-indulgdent tennis?

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