The U.S.S.R. made sports history last week when its team of six amateurs joined the professional ranks—namely. World Team Tennis—and the mobs at airport baggage claim areas. During the first hectic days of the WTT season, the Soviets, as the home-courtless franchise is called, lost all but one of their five matches, but they were just what the league needed as it struggled into its fourth season.
The Soviets are the league's road show, and WTT got them going with a bang and an overhead smash, sending them off to play a whirlwind series of matches before curious and appreciative crowds. They ate birthday cake, sailed souvenir tennis balls into the stands and filled their luggage with keys to various cities and other trinkets as they embarked on their 44-match, countrywide WTT tour.
The odyssey, which began in Indianapolis on Tuesday, featured an extravaganza on Saturday against Chris Evert and the Phoenix Racquets in, of all places, Plains, Ga., and a capacity crowd turned out for what was billed as the Peanut Tennis Classic with Billy Carter and Miz Lillian serving as hosts. While a Dixieland band played, Bobby Riggs threw candy to the crowd, Billy Carter puzzled over a forehand grip on his beer can, Instamatic cameras clicked like locusts, fetching Southern belles swooned and an exasperated Chris Evert got autograph elbow.
The well-mannered Russians might have been excused for dashing back home screaming and pulling the Iron Curtain closed behind them, but in truth they got a kick out of the hoopla. The jamboree at Plains was not entirely foreign to the Soviet players, for they speak fluent English—including slang—wear jeans and their hair long, sport gold jewelry, eat Big Macs and dig Neil Diamond and Elton John. "They've been over here so often, they're more like neighbors than foreigners," says Billie Jean King.
May 8, 1977
It was against King's New York Apples, the defending WTT champions, that the Soviets indicated they may grow to be as good at top-spin backhands as they are at wheat deals. They defeated New York 27-24 in overtime in Birmingham Friday night, coming from behind to do so and showing that once they master doubles strategy, they could have a winning record.
It should be remembered that while the Russians are superb at hockey and not all that bad at basketball, tennis is still in its infancy in the Soviet Union, where there are only an estimated 45,000 players and few facilities. In popularity tennis ranks behind weight lifting, rowing, figure skating and chess. And although Jimmy Carter "plays every day for his exercise," according to Miz Lillian, Leonid Brezhnev is an ice hockey fan.
The nucleus of the Russian team is Alex Metreveli and Olga Morozova, both of whom have been on the international scene for years. Metreveli, 32, is an eight-time U.S.S.R. national champion and the 1973 Wimbledon runner-up, and in 1975 was ranked ninth in the world. He's a good ol' Georgia boy in his own right—Soviet Georgia, that is. The spirited, enthusiastic Morozova, 28, leads the cheering from the sidelines when she is not playing, shouting "Zdorovo" (well done) after a particularly good shot. She defeated King 6-2 in Birmingham, and afterward King told her, "You always play well against me." Zdorovo,
In singles, the Russians can hold their own—the women, for example, defeated Evert, Sue Barker and King during the week—but doubles seem to confound them, a liability in WTT play because three of the five matches are doubles. In the Soviets' first four matches, they won only one doubles, and in Binghamton, N.Y. on Sunday, when they dropped a 31-17 decision to the league favorites, the Boston Lobsters, the pattern continued. The Soviets did not take any of the doubles sets.
The other players on the team are Teimuraz Kakulia, Konstantin Pugayev, Natasha Chmyreva and Jania Biryukova. The stocky Kakulia has a good forehand, a weak backhand and occasionally makes errors in judgment that cause Metreveli endless anguish. Kakulia celebrated his 30th birthday at the league opener on Tuesday, so the Indiana Loves gave him a birthday cake.
The 18-year-old Chmyreva is by all accounts headed for stardom. She is a two-time Wimbledon Juniors champion and the 1975 Forest Hills juniors titlist, and she is 5'9". Despite her size, Chmyreva has a country-club serve, but her volley is excellent. She broke Evert's service four times while beating her 7-5. It was Evert's second straight singles defeat; she had lost to Greer Stevens of Boston on Friday night. "And last year, Chris lost only one singles match in the entire first half of the season," said Jimmy Walker, president of the Phoenix Racquets.
The Soviets got $200,000 for joining WTT (the team doesn't share in gate receipts but doesn't pay its traveling expenses) and took part in the Plains competition as part of a scenario that was calculated to give the league more publicity. Indeed, WTT is showing signs of increased health: Bjorn Borg signed to play with Cleveland, attendance is up and franchises are not falling off like dead leaves. But, points out Walker. "What we need is exposure." If golf could have Gerald Ford, Walker thought, tennis could have the Carters. "I wanted to give Amy the lemonade stand," said Bob Horowitz, assistant to the president of the Golden Gators.
For an apt description of Plains, you might just drop the "s." It is, after all, just plain Georgia, a small, rural community that woke up one morning to discover it was the home of the country's Answer Man. Since then the marketing consultants have moved in and turned it into Rock City South and made Billy Carter a gas-station celebrity.
So it was last week that almost everyone in the town of 680 citizens was either planning to go to the match or planning to sell something to the tourists who were going. Only a few of the local residents, like Ed Hollis, who wore a straw hat, sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, were not interested in seeing the Russians. "I'm not going," he said. "Not unless they're invading."
Still, a crowd of 4,200 paying up to $100 a ticket, a price that included a seat at Miz Lillian's barbecue as well as an autographed picture of Billy, was squeezed around the newly constructed court at the Lions Club by noon Saturday, a full 90 minutes before the match was scheduled to begin.
One of the media types on hand was 12-year-old Jeffrey Moss of the Plains Statesman, a local weekly. "I'm helping the New Yorkers, they're helping me," offered Jeffrey, who said he knew all the Carters. "Amy's nine," he said. Then he left to make arrangements for someone to take an exclusive picture of Evert inside a fenced area that was off limits to the press. Zdorovo.
Miz Lillian was sitting in the first row of the stands, outfitted in a white suit and a corsage and wearing a large photo-button of Chris Evert. "I like anybody who's perfect," she was saying when Chris walked up.
"I like Jimmy Connors, too," Miz Lillian told Evert. "He keeps me so excited. I never know what he's going to do."
"Me neither," said Chris.
Then Miz Lillian offered Evert some advice about Billy Carter, who was scheduled to play in a doubles match with Chris later in the day. "Make him run. He's too fat."
Billy showed up minutes later wearing a pair of jeans and some battered track shoes. Someone asked what brand they were.
"What kind?" answered his wife Sybil. "What kind? They're Top Dollar. I think."
Carter is becoming a hit on the state-fair circuit and he had had to get up at 5 a.m. Saturday to fly back to Plains from Baton Rouge, where he had made a personal appearance. He arrived thirsty and when Evert offered to show him how to hit a two-handed backhand, Carter demurred. "How am I going to hold my beer?" he said.
Suffering from the heat and humidity that had them draping wet towels over their heads on the sidelines, the Soviets quickly fell behind when Evert and Kristien Shaw ran off a 6-3 victory over Morozova and Biryukova in the women's doubles. But the Soviets had decided to switch their strategy and use the youngster Chmyreva instead of Morozova to play Chris in the women's singles, and she took advantage of Evert's lack of sharpness to win and put her team back into the match.
In the men's doubles, Ross Case and Butch Walts scored an easy 6-3 victory over Metreveli and Kakulia. And when Case hustled his way to a 9-point tie breaker to win the men's singles 7-6 from Metreveli, it was all over for the Russians. The Shaw-Walts 6-4 decision in the mixed doubles brought about a 30-23 Phoenix triumph.
A footnote. Billy Carter and Evert teamed to beat Riggs and Tandy Rice, booking agent for Carter as well as Dolly Parton, in a day-ending doubles match. Then everyone retired to the barbecue at Miz Lillian's or to Carter's gas station, where it was hoped he would regale the audience.
True, if the day's proceedings were made into a movie, it would premiere at a drive-in as part of a triple feature, but despite the heavy load of hokum, it was, as Morozova said, "Good fun."