December 27, 2008

The Other Type of Team Tennis

Every so often while switching channels I happen across a curious game of tennis.

The basics are there -- but with a few twists. The usual green or, now more common, blue hard courts are replaced with multi-colored turfs, alternating purples and reds with the normal palate. Doubles teams feature unlikely pairings: Lindsay Davenport and Elena Likhovtseva, Martina Hingis and Mark Merklein. Coaches advise players during change-overs and co-ed teammates cheer from the sidelines. The scoreboard is labeled not with players' names but with strange monikers like the Boston Lobsters or the Newport Beach Breakers.

This isn't Davis or Fed Cup, it isn't the Olympics and it certainly isn't a Grand Slam.

World TeamTennis was founded by the great Billie Jean King and her former husband Larry in the 1970s. Billie Jean, who's been such a proponent of equality in tennis and elsewhere, campaigning for prize parity among other causes, envisioned a forum where the best names in the game, men and women, could compete on the same court for a common goal.

She succeeded.

Billie Jean has attracted players like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Tracy Austin, the Williams sisters and Anna Kournikova. WTT has also served as a training ground of sorts -- both Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova started in the Pro League as teenagers.

The WTT format is similar to a lot of things you might have seen, but not entirely like anything. Teams are comprised of four players, two men and two women, who compete in a total of five events in any one meet. There's one set each of men's and women's singles and men's, women's and mixed doubles. Sets are only five games long, there are nine-point tiebreaks to decide 4-4 deadlocks, and possible overtimes and super-tiebreaks. Instant replay -- not just a challenge system -- is the norm, there's no such thing as advantages, players wear jerseys that bear their names.

The 2009 schedule, announced last week, kicks off July 2nd and ends with the Championship weekend July 24th through the 26th. While the players' roster won't be announced until February, we can certainly expect some of the top names to return. And defending champions, Albany's New York Buzz, will be eager to repeat.

Outside the Pro cicuit, one of the most interesting things about WTT is the ability for anyone to play. Like in beach tennis, you can start your own team -- and if you're not quite so ambitious the official website tells you how to join an existing league in your area. You might not be able to play doubles with the Bryan brothers -- at least not right away -- but it's one step closer!

See you out there!

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