Whither World Team Tennis? In Denver Fran√ßoise Durr accompanies her airedale Topspin on court and the yellow-shirted "Racket Rowdies" beat a rubber chicken with a stick in the balcony. In Honolulu a bugler blows taps when visitors serve and a fan club of garbage collectors cheers the results. In Buffalo the "star of the game" receives $100 from Desenex foot powder, possibly because there is no air conditioning in the arena. And in Baltimore the new Wimbledon champion, wondering why his team is called Banners, says, "Francis Scott Key? I thought we were named after some guy named Banner."
In nine short weeks WTT has changed its format, drawn a crowd of 176 and had its TV package canceled after just one match. It has produced women coaches, pinch servers, boo-requesters, coed showers, pizza magicians and cheers such as "Get hot, Stove" and made a buck-skinned hero out of the acerbic South African Bob Hewitt, a feat previously believed humanly impossible.
WTT has uncovered fear and loathing, enabled romance to bloom and rediscovered Iggy Geneva and his Mummers string band. Rosie Casals says the great thing about WTT is "it's impossible to dump." Sandy Mayer calls his home fans "typical New York—crude and obscene."
WTT is the most unprofessional, kinky, bizarre and ridiculous sports gambit to come along since Tony Galento. And probably the most fun, too. It will need fewer franchises, fewer matches, a shorter schedule and probably another revised format to escape sinking into oblivion, but it is a living, breathing spectacular tribute to fools and their money. And here is one vote for them. May they long live. And continue to double fault.
August 4, 1974
The Boston Lobsters are the funk 'n soul team of WTT, a kind of Brooklyn Dodgers of tennis. Nobody knows why this is, unless it is because their player-coach is the magnificent bewhiskered Carpathian Count, Ion Tiriac, or because the Lobsters have the only communal shower room in the league. The team includes Pixie and Roger, two ranked tournament players; Trish, a Phi Beta Kappa from Seattle who helped organize the Women's Players Association and is "currently published"; Raz, a Southern country boy given to hyperbole, non sequiturs and the exclamation wow!; Strawberry, who would like to lose weight but keeps winning bottles of champagne in airplane-flight games; and Junior, a champion roller skater who can balance a tennis racket on his nose.
Recently the Lobsters took it upon themselves to traverse WTT, which meant going a quarter of the way around the world, five cities in nine days, putting up with each other and trying to play tennis. Though they lost four of five matches, nobody died.
Oakland outside in the parking lot is most of a crowd of 50,000 Jehovah's Witnesses meeting in convention at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. When Raz Reid of Greenville, S.C. and Roger Taylor, the left-handed Englishman, meet a Witness, they are invited to return tomorrow for a terrific resurrection ceremony in memory of the 350 million who have passed on to the great beyond. "Wow, you gonna resurrect all of 'em?" says Reid.
"Only the good ones," says the Witness.
That night, when Lesley Hunt, the leading woman player for the Golden Gaters, is introduced the announcer reveals that Hunt thinks Oakland fans are not loud enough and hardly compare with the boo birds on the road.
As the Lobsters' Kerry (Pixie) Melville serves late in their set a man screams "Break her serve!" Across the way a boy replies "Break her leg!" Melville is smooth and graceful, but Hunt is aggressive and tough. Hunt wins 7-5.
Tiriac having been summoned to Rumania to play Davis Cup, Taylor is acting coach. Since Reid has been doing well in singles, Taylor plays him, choosing only men's doubles for himself. The strategy looks good when he and Reid take a 5-1 lead in their set. They need only to hold Reid's serve to clinch the match.
But over the net the Gaters' Frew McMillan, perhaps the world's best doubles player, starts pulling out shots from under his Sluggo cap, and on the Boston bench Stephen (Junior) Warboys, a Cockney lad of 20 who is to play the mixed doubles, is a bundle of jangled nerves. He keeps muttering "nightmare," and he is right.
With the crowd of 1,500 in full bellow, the Lobster men lose six straight games and the set 5-7. During the mixed doubles the home partisans wail, "Weirdo, Beardo" at Warboys, and he double faults away his serve. McMillan runs out the set and the Gaters win the night 28-25. LOS ANGELES "You can call it romance," says Marita Redondo, the 18-year-old sensation of the Los Angeles Strings. Others call it asthma.
The beauteous Redondo used to be a potential champion, but in the last year she has experienced a series of ills which, combined with a flaming affair with the Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Chanfreau, have thrown her into an awful slump. In the first half of WTT she seemed to be recovering. Then the Strings signed Chanfreau, and Redondo slumped again.
"She ought to be O.K. now; she's got her guy," says Karen Hantze Susman, who won Wimbledon at 19, returned to wifehood and is making a self-described "noncomeback" with the Strings.
This night Redondo is more than O.K. The Lobsters throw Melville at her, then substitute Janet (Strawberry) Newberry. Nothing works. Redondo wins 6-0. "Now I have to sit around and hope the lead doesn't disappear," she says.
At least the view is nice. Only in L.A. do the women players sport bare midriffs and the linespeople sit in director's chairs. Johnny Carson has a financial interest in the team, but he is not here tonight. Dan Rowan has season tickets, but he hasn't shown up yet. Hardly anyone has. The announcer, in a blue batik suit and red patent leather shoes, says 930 are "on hand" in the Sports Arena, but that includes 700 season-ticket holders. About 300 people really are "on hand."
Susman admits, "People don't come to see us, they come to see who we play. We're the no names."
Also the no wins. The Strings have lost 11 straight matches. And tonight will be 12. In a switch, Taylor plays Warboys with himself in the men's doubles and Reid and Pat (Trish) Bostrom in the mixed. The Lobsters sweep everything and win 24-20 as Trish and Junior respond to the pressure.
Honolulu The Lobsters have landed in paradise, and it is raining. On Waikiki they are not exactly taken with their hotel. Newberry asks, "You mean we came first class all this way to a place which is next door to McDonald's and isn't even on the beach?" She starts the singles against the Hawaii Leis and absolutely romps.
Mimi Beams, the Leis' P.R. girl, explains that the Lei queen, Alohanani Puha, would normally entertain except that she has a flat tire. Also, the absence of the crazed bugler, along with the 193 members of the Oahu Refuse Collectors' booster club who wear Leis T shirts imprinted with garbage trucks, is not aiding the home cause.
Hawaii had streakers at its first match, but they were said to have been paid off by team Owner Bill Schoen, who does radio color for the home matches. Schoen has plenty to color about tonight as the Leis make a dramatic comeback.
After the Lobsterettes take a 5-1 lead in their doubles set the team is ahead 17-5 in cumulative score, only one game away from victory even before halftime. Then they fall apart.
Going out for the final mixed, Reid says, "If we get behind, shout, 'Bomb alert' or something." Sure enough, in the last—and decisive—set Lei Coach Dennis Ralston and chubby, pigtailed Ann Kiyomura prevail 6-3. In the final game the tiny Kiyomura puts away four volley winners, then bursts into tears as the Leis win the match 23-22. "Unbelievable," Owner Schoen screams into the radio mike.
"Lucky," says Ralston.
"We need some players with nerves," says Taylor.
Houston The Lobsters have become crabs—grumbling, snapping at one another. The effects of losing have burrowed deep to the core of difficulty inherent in an individual sport that masquerades as team activity. Good teams are not necessarily those with good players. In WTT you have to get along, and the Lobsters know they have momentarily lost that ability.
Then suddenly it is Texas, and the cavalry comes to the rescue. And riding the white charger is Ion Tiriac, having traveled 24 hours from Bucharest to save his foundering legion. "What is dis stuff I am hearing?" the Count growls. Even the gnarled curls enveloping his head seem to be sneering. The Lobsters know Tiriac. He eats glass for dessert. They will get straight or else.
That night in Sam Houston Coliseum, hard by a police pistol range—"pop, bam" comes from next door—the EZ Riders' Helen Gourlay and John Newcombe broil the Lobsters in singles. Gourlay and tall Karen Krantzke, Wimbledon runners-up in women's doubles, do likewise. Even with Tiriac stomping around and applying his particular brand of terror on the bench, the Lobsters are hopelessly beaten.
Uncle Freddie, a fat magician usually employed by Shakey's Pizza, parades around in shorts and a ten-gallon hat. "I pick up cards and make cigarettes disappear," he says. "Also bourbon. Who is Fuzzy over there?"
Fuzzy is Tiriac. He enters the mixed doubles, glowering. Krantzke aces him. "Girl who stand at net, she may catch ball in teeth," he is to say later. But Tiriac hits nothing but soft balls at Krantzke, and Houston wins the set.
Baltimore The Banners' male star is the one-and-only Jimbo Connors, whose contract calls for him to appear in just 18 of the 44 matches at $3,000 per. The female star is Betty (Get Hot) Stove, a hefty Dutch girl whom the local fans call Boog. The coach is Don Candy, whose idea of excitement is to kick over the umpire's chair. "That would be magnificent," he says. "All kinds of havoc, with him lying there all smashed up and me ranting and raving."
Though Connors is the only unbeaten singles player in WTT history, the Banners were woeful in women's singles until they traded for 17-year-old Kathy Kuykendall, the youngest player ever to sign pro.
In their match Melville jumps ahead of Kuykendall 5-2, but the younger girl, playing baseline, begins ravaging her opponent with cross-court forehands and she wins four straight games, then the set on the final point of a tie break.
Connors is in his usual form, defeating Taylor 6-3 and pairing with Bob Carmichael for the clinching men's doubles. It is a miserable ending to a lost road trip for the Lobsters. They win only the mixed because Candy, adding insult to injury, replaces Stove with a local club player, Audrey Morse. "You're on TV, Audrey," everyone keeps shouting. Tiriac is not amused. He aces her and later slaps one underhand serve her way. "How you say?—boo-booshy move," he says of Candy's substitution.
The Baltimore coach does not kick over the umpire's chair, but the Lobsters agree that with Connors the Banners might win the WTT playoffs. As for his own team's rapidly deteriorating prospects Tiriac can only wonder.
"I am finding out what wrong," he vows. "I am building something for tomorrow, but little time. I must suck out everything from my Lobsters."