The M35 bus, running an endless loop between Harlem and Randall's Island, smells on a hot summer day like a mix between warm milk and a locker room. During the afternoon rush, tired men and women fill in the blue plastic seats, rubbing up against one another with a mix of sweat and smoke and day-old McDonald's grease until the air is rancid and each breath becomes a struggle.
In between a few embarrassingly loud gasps for air, I saw my seat neighbor staring intently in my direction. Noticing the pen behind my ear and calling me on my cliché, he asked if I was preparing to report on the evening's showdown between the Washington Kastles and the New York Sportimes -- New York's last home match of the 2011 World TeamTennis (WTT) season. The headliners were Serena Williams for the Kastles against Martina Hingis for the Sportimes, two former No. 1s whose pedigrees were sure to make for a sold-out crowd. They had clashed the night before at a WTT match in Albany, Hingis winning mixed doubles and Williams taking women's singles and doubles. Tonight, the two would meet again.
Yes, I was headed to Sportime, I told the man, but it was my first time on Randall's Island, and with the bus dropping us off in what looked like the middle of nowhere, I was simply hoping to find the stadium before things got too far under way. Hearing my distress, and a ticket-holding WTT veteran himself, he offered to be my guide. I thanked him and accepted.
We walked along I-278 and wound our way toward Sportime Randall's Island, the tennis complex where I would be spending much of the evening. Until 1933, Randall's Island was home to a House of Refuge for juvenile delinquents, a pair of asylums, and a homeopathic hospital -- not exactly the kind of place for wholesome family fun. In the last decade, the island has undergone an athletic renaissance and begun attracting some of the world's biggest stars. In 2008, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt made an appearance at Icahn Stadium on Randall's and set what was then the world record for the 100-meter dash. In 2010, John McEnroe and the New York Sportimes moved from Westchester County to the World TeamTennis courts at Sportime.
WTT began in the 1970s as a concerted effort to drag tennis out of the serene and dignified world of the local country club and into the loud and boisterous arena that had become the archetype for the American professional sports establishment. The league's rules were initially crafted to appeal to that portion of the public that, until then, had seen tennis as an upper-class sport. Cheering during rallies was not only allowed but also encouraged. The traditional game scoring was abandoned in favor of a first-to-four point system and matches featured one set each, played to five games, of five different events -- men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles, and mixed doubles. The league made its 1974 debut with 16 teams, stretching from Boston to Honolulu, and claimed more than 800,000 total fans in its first year.
Even as they hemorrhaged money -- not a single club turned a profit in the league's first two seasons -- WTT owners used their deep pockets to sign most of the sport's top players. The league made news in November 1975 when Chris Evert, who would finish the year a four-time Grand Slam singles champion and world No. 1, committed to play for the Phoenix Racquets for a reported $160,000 per year. In 1976, Rod Laver signed with the San Diego Friars for $200,000 a year -- about $790,000 today -- to become the highest-paid player in World TeamTennis.
Among WTT's other marquee names was the Baltimore Banners' Jimmy Connors, who was banned from the French Open in 1974 when the French Tennis Federation became unhappy that the league's schedule conflicted with its flagship event. Connors went 99-4 and won 14 tournaments that year, including the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- three out of four Grand Slams. Had he been given a chance to compete in the calendar Slam's second leg, there's no telling what kind of history Connors could have made.
My guide dropped me off at Sportime's main entrance. The stadium has no designated press row, so I was given a general admission ticket and placed in a seat on the bleachers in the section with the ball boys and girls. Directly in front of me, each wearing the standard WTT uniform of a crisp orange T-shirt and freshly washed cap, were three members of the crew, none of whom looked to be older than 10.
"Where do you think Serena is? I wish she would hurry up," said the smallest of the bunch.
"She's probably washing her Lamborghini," said another. "Actually, I bet she has a Rolls-Royce."
The third spoke solemnly with his cap pulled down over his face. "If she touches my hand, I'm going to sell it on eBay."
Such was the feeling throughout Sportime Stadium, which buzzed with the energy of hundreds of young families with children in tow. Hingis was an extraordinary talent, but this crowd was from Generation Serena. These fans were here for her.
The festivities began with some live entertainment, a five-minute dance routine that cobbled together ballet, hip-hop and a bit of Irish step. The performance was rough, but the crowd seemed to enjoy it and rewarded the dancers with thunderous applause. As "Tennis the Menace" -- the fuzzy green mascot of Sportime Randall's Island -- made his way through the stands, the ball boys formed a human tunnel at the players' entrance and prepared to welcome the teams.
The Kastles came out in style, each of the players -- an injury-conscious Williams being the notable exception -- jogging out of the clubhouse to give coach Murphy Jensen a playful hip check. The Sportimes, a little lackluster in their entrance, found support in a Top 40 playlist, a medley of Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Lady Gaga that blasted over the speakers and brought the crowd to life. The public address announcer coached the fans into a frenzy as the home team prepared to welcome its brightest star: "A 14-time Grand Slam champion in singles and doubles who spent a total of 209 weeks as the world No. 1, please welcome your very own, New York -- Martiiiiiiina Hiiiiingis!" After hearing her résumé, the crowd could not help but cheer.
The match starts with mixed doubles. The Kastles' Williams and Leander Paes, 18 Grand Slam doubles titles between them, take on the Sportimes' Hingis and Travis Parrott. The set barely lasts 20 minutes, and the Kastles win 5-1. The cumulative game scoring format means the quick loss has put the Sportimes in a deep hole. Whereas in traditional tennis they would be down only one set, under WTT rules they're down by four games.
The night's marquee match is next, a women's singles contest featuring Williams and Hingis. As the Swiss Miss takes advantage of Williams' shaky play to go up a pair of breaks, the crowd murmurs. Hingis glides across the court without seeming to expend much energy or effort. Williams, on the other hand, is raw and gritty and tough -- a real New York kind of girl. The city's affection for her dates to 1999, when the then-17-year-old charged through the U.S. Open main draw to reach the final against the world No. 1 Hingis. Williams prevailed in a second-set tiebreaker to win her first Grand Slam title, as well as the respect and affection of a crowd that couldn't help but fall in love with a fighter.
The score is 4-2 and Williams is serving for her life. On the game's opening point, Hingis hits a crafty drop shot and then lobs one over the 5-foot-9 Williams. Running with full force, Williams chases it down and gets it back in play, only to have Hingis try another drop shot. In a show of pure athleticism, she sprints forward and nearly digs out the winner before leaping over the net and past Hingis as she comes to a full stop.
Hingis and Williams share a laugh as the crowd hoots and hollers.
"Go Serena! Go Serena!" screamed the boy in front of me.
"Why aren't you cheering for Hingis? She won the point!" said his friend.
"I know," said the first, "but Serena ran like crazy to try and get that ball!"
Williams went on to lose the set, and Hingis' team lost the match. But after the lights turned off and the scoreboard shut down, I doubt a single soul could have been bothered about the outcome. As children throughout the stadium streamed onto the court, oversized tennis balls and black Sharpie pens in hand, all that anyone seemed to care about was a chance to be close to their idols. The stars had earned their pay tonight, with ground strokes, serves and sweat, and for that they would win the crowd's undying love and adoration. And in the retelling of this night, whether it's days or weeks or months from now, the fans will smile and remember that moment when Williams, 27-time Grand Slam champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the greatest players ever, ran like crazy on a multicolored court at Sportime Randall's Island -- and she did it, they'll say, just for them.