Former tennis writer launches VH1 show with familiar names as characters
A glitzy, sweaty, drama-filled television program with characters named Sloane, Jelena and Davenport? No, it's not a show about the current Tennis Channel production of the French Open. It's Hit the Floor, VH1's second scripted series, which was created by former tennis writer James LaRosa. It debuts Monday at 9 p.m. ET/PT. (Click here for the trailer or watch it below.)
For years, LaRosa was a very popular voice in the tennis blogosphere, sharing his humorous takes on the sport for TennisChannel.com. Little did the tennis community know that his writing on the sport was just a hobby. The Boston-born, Los Angeles-based LaRosa has been working in television for almost 15 years and started on Hit the Floor while he was writing for Tennis Channel two years ago.
"I pitched it and wrote the pilot while I was writing tennis stuff," he said. "Hence why there are all those tennis references in the script."
Those tennis references include lead characters named after former or current players Ahsha Rolle, Sloane Stephens, Jelena Jankovic and Lindsay Davenport. The show centers on a fictional professional dance squad, the Devil Girls, and the glamorous and gritty world of professional basketball. LaRosa says all the behind-the-scenes access he received while covering tennis helped illuminate his take on the treacherous world of celebrity athletes.
"It's not necessarily G-rated," LaRosa said. "Certainly being around all the players' lounges at the Grand Slams and seeing the hoochies that some random player picked up the night before and gave passes to, all the endorsements and shady dealings, and people using other people to get closer to other people, all the stuff you see in tennis really informed this world here.
"So thank you, tennis, for putting me directly in front of it with my notepad," LaRosa said, laughing.
In an interview with SI.com on the eve of the series premiere, LaRosa discussed his use of the show as a "love letter" to tennis, his affection for Serbia and why Ernests Gulbis would be a perfect fit for the drama.
SI.com: When you sat down to write the pilot, why did you want to use all these tennis names?
LaRosa: I would say the naming of the characters is my love letter to a sport that I absolutely adore. I think any play that it gets is good play, and any attention it gets is good attention. I'm sick and tired of golf and hockey. Tennis needs as much attention as it can get.
SI.com: Aside from the names, did you use tennis players as actual inspiration for their nominal counterparts on the show?
LaRosa: The characters were already developed before I started naming them in that way. So I wouldn't say if you watch Coach Davenport, played by Dean Cain, that he does some amazing buggy-whipped forehand cross-court winner at some point in the pilot. Or that my head "bitch" character, Jelena, walks around putting on lip gloss or glitter constantly.
SI.com: That's unfortunate. The pilot is the lesser for it.
LaRosa: I can't guarantee it won't happen in future episodes. But I will say that having a black woman on my show named Jelena with a soft "J," with a Serbian name, has created some difficulties on set. I've had to correct every actor, any crew person who comes along. Her name is constantly mangled. But I think tennis player Jelena Jankovic is so wonderfully perfect in her own way.
SI.com: Quite true. You couldn't "Hollywood" Jelena Jankovic if you tried.
LaRosa: Listen. She has her own movie already [Jelenin Svet, a documentary from 2008]. We've been under the sheets with Jelena. Jelena might still be under her bed sheets beckoning us in. We've been to Jelena's world. We all individually purchased our tickets and we went back and got the Fast Pass [laughs]. It's so fun to talk about tennis and not worry about being fired. I can say these things!
SI.com: But why Jelena, of all people? Why that name?
LaRosa: The character on the show, Jelena Howard, is the team captain. She is, for lack of a better expression, the "Queen Bee." I don't love the expression because it's so Mean Girls and our show is adult. But she sees this ingenue coming and she doesn't like it one bit. So she's an interesting personality and the name Jelena had kind of a magic to it. It kind of stuck. The drama queen somehow got named Jelena on my show [laughs]. It was a total accident.
SI.com: Your lead is named after Ahsha Rolle. She hasn't played a match in 2013 and hasn't done much since 2007. You may be the world's biggest Ahsha Rolle fan.
LaRosa: What's Ahsha Rolle doing these days? That kind of dates my pilot. That tells you when I was writing and pitching this thing. It's not like she was at the height of her powers, like beating Tatiana Golovin at the  U.S. Open, when I wrote this. But I miss Ahsha Rolle. Anyway, I got to keep a piece of her. Wherever she is, she has a character named after her. Wherever she is, she should know!
SI.com: Walk me through the remaining tennis-related characters.
LaRosa: We have Sloane Hayes, who is played by Kimberly Elise. There are some fiery, kind of cool similarities there. And I just adore Sloane. So throw her name in there! And then, of course, Lindsay Davenport is my favorite player of all time, so you know Davenport had to get in there somewhere. Although surprisingly, Pete, Coach Davenport's first name, is not named after Sampras. I just thought Pete was a solid, nice, all-American name. I don't even know why I'm pointing that out. I should just totally say it's Pete Sampras, you guys.
SI.com: Here's my burning question for you: Where's Ernests Gulbis? You did one of the seminal interviews with him, in 2011, in the back of a car. You clearly got to know him. How can he not be in your show?
LaRosa: Oh, Ernests. There certainly may be a character who exhibits some Ernests-like behavior.
LaRosa: Allegedly. There is a character who sabotages himself but you love him anyway and he has a lot of talent. I might have someone like that but he might be filed under a different name. That's not to say there can't be one. Actually, I would love Ernests himself -- he's an actor, he can actually be on the show. I'm saving his name for himself. I really love all the characters [named after tennis players]. I have a character in the third episode whose last name is Tipsarevic.
SI.com: No way!
LaRosa: Pavle Tipsarevic is a $30 million Serbian player who plays for Boston. We also tried to clear Pavle Djokovic, Pavle Ivanovic and Pavle Jankovic, and none of those cleared. But Tipsarevic cleared.
SI.com: Jelena. Tipsarevic. The Serbian influence is strong on Hit the Floor.
LaRosa: I love Serbia in large part because of tennis. I really got to know the people. So there are a lot of Serbian references. I could be doing this with Serbian press right now, "You wouldn't believe all the Serbian references!"
SI.com: Which brings me to my next question: Who are your dream tennis guest stars?
LaRosa: I have some semblance of a relationship with most of the people I've named characters after and I actually want them on the show. But then I've already used their names, so how would I do it? Would Lindsay be Coach Davenport's cousin? Or do I have some weird moment with Sloane and the character Sloane, like, "Hey! That's my name too!" I don't know.
If I were to exploit the talents of big names that people already know, Novak Djokovic, Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Andy Roddick would be really fun. People who would kind of fit the tone of the show. People who have interesting senses of humor, a little sardonic, a little snarky. That's the tone of the show. I think they would fit in really well.
If it were people I would want people to discover, then you get the category with Ernests. I think you've just cast him on my show. Ernests clearly has the acting chops, as we've seen in his childhood acting video. He's a thespian!
Laura Robson would be just a delight on Hit the Floor. Another one with the sense of humor that would fit well with this show.
SI.com: So it's fair to say that tennis has its fingerprints all over Hit the Floor?
LaRosa: My writers' room opened the day the 2012 U.S. Open started and then we started production right when the 2013 Australian Open started, and now the French Open started and my show premieres. So all the big moments have coincided with Grand Slams. So just in case I couldn't be more emotionally overwhelmed on any one of these occasions, all of a sudden I have to be up at 2 a.m. to watch tennis at the same time.
SI.com: You're obviously working some long days on the show. Do you still get a chance to follow tennis?
LaRosa: Well, that's why God created Internet, right? I am still a slave to the same crappy live stream and my computer always has a window open in some godawful part of the world where Sorana Cirstea is doing her best [laughs]. So absolutely, I am not that far away.
SI.com: What would your pitch be to tennis fans who are intrigued by the tennis connections in Hit the Floor but are still undecided about watching the show?
LaRosa: Here's my pitch: If you think the WTA is crazy, you ain't seen nothing yet [laughs]. And I say that with love. Yes, there's basketball, but it's all that other stuff that we love so much that is at once glorious and messy.
Follow James LaRosa on Twitter at @JamesLaRosa. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udotKCcu9o4