Some years ago in a hot Cleveland arena a professional tennis player named Eddie Alloo played a match while wearing a wrestling villain's hood, the first and only time a masked marvel has invaded the genteel sport. People who were there figured that they had seen it all, but they were wrong. Consider last week. While a new gimmick called team tennis was making its debut in various North American cities before cheering, jeering—and precious few—fans, down in Dallas an electronic gizmo was calling the serves and a teen-age Swede, not even old enough to drive a car in his native country, was playing for $50,000.
The occasion was the fourth annual World Championship Tennis final, and the Scandinavian whiz kid was Bjorn Borg, 17, who sports a Prince Valiant-length blond mane and has fjord water in his veins. Unfortunately, his opponent, 12 years his senior, was John Newcombe of Australia, who had been pointing for this day for nine months.
"When he's eager and keen and wants something badly," said another pro, speaking of Newcombe, "there's very little you can do to stop him."
Indeed, there was little Borg could do after the first set except pay attention and learn his lessons. Before 9,238 fans in Moody Coliseum and a national television audience, and with Borg's parents and a good part of the Swedish populace listening on radio, Newcombe battered the kid 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 and won the $50,000, the use of a Cadillac for a year, $1,000 worth of clothes for his wife Angie and a diamond ring with the score engraved on the band. With his second place in WCT doubles seven days earlier and his bonus for leading the regular WCT season in points, Newcombe collected $83,000 in the two-week. He has won $174,085 for the year and there are still 6½ months to go.
May 19, 1974
Borg started surprisingly well, breaking Newcombe in the first and third games and jumping off to a 4-0 lead in the first set. But although forced to work hard, Newcombe was in command the rest of the way. In his previous two trips to Dallas he lost in the first round. This time he was ready.
The cast in Dallas, fondly referred to in press releases and in the program as the "exceptional eight," in addition to Borg and Newcombe consisted of Rod Laver of Australia, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith of the U.S., Ilie Nastase of Rumania, Tom (The Twitch) Okker of The Netherlands and Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia. They were the point leaders from the Red, Blue and Green WCT tours that started in January.
As a Buck Rogers treat for the exceptional eight, the WCT brass introduced an electronic service linesman. A supersensitive netting resembling aluminum foil was laid down under the Supreme Court indoor surface and just beyond each service line. A thin wire was put under the service lines, and if a ball hit the line the system was deactivated, and nothing happened. If a serve was a fault, a "fault" sign appeared briefly on the scoreboard and on a mysterious brown box by the net judge's chair, and the human service linesman got buzzed by his special earplug. "It certainly stops you from arguing with the linesman," said Newcombe. "What can you say? He just says, 'It's the machine.' Who are you going to argue with then? You think I can beat up a computer?"
No, but just about anything else. Newcombe went into Dallas as the strong favorite. WCT polled its 84 players and 44 of them picked Newcombe to win, 19 to come in second. After all, he had finished 50 points ahead of his nearest rival in the lucrative competition underwritten by Haggar slacks and had a 38-6 record in singles.
He served beautifully Wednesday night and blew Okker out in three straight sets. Afterward Okker was asked about the buzzing linesman. "In my experience," he said, "it seems to record 75% aces when the other man is serving."
In the other Wednesday quarterfinal, Smith beat Laver in four sets, helped by Rod's atrocious serving. Laver went to Dallas in good shape, wanting the title very badly. It is one of the few tournaments he has not won. If he makes it again next year, he will be 36.
Other than Borg's early victories, which were broadcast in Sweden in the middle of the night, the highlight of the lower half of the draw was the Thursday quarter final match between Nastase and Kodes, for whom Moody Coliseum must have been named. Nastase detracted from the class of the affair by conspicuously displaying a towel with a cigarette advertisement on it and wearing an ad for the same brand on one sleeve of his tennis shirt. The pro bowlers banned such billboarding several years ago, but the Association of Tennis Professionals unhappily has failed to do the same.
At one point in the match, with Kodes ready to serve, Nastase kept arguing with a linesman and some heckling fans. A disgusted Kodes, who is irritable in the best of circumstances, threw down the balls and walked to the sidelines. The umpire finally got play started again. After he lost a point, Nastase slammed a ball near Kodes, whose back was turned. Kodes admitted later he would have liked to punch Nasty then, and Nasty, who refused to talk to the press until Kodes had left, called Jan a "bastard."
Borg beat Ashe in straight sets the same night, then took a tired Kodes in four sets Friday night, after which he called his happy parents at 5 a.m. Swedish time. "He's calling his parents after he wins," said Newcombe. "I'm calling my children!"
"I've got wine that's older than he is," said WCT Executive Director Mike Davies of Borg. "I wonder what will happen when he turns 18 and finds out the game is not supposed to be that easy."
Bjorn Rune Borg lives in Sodertalje, near Stockholm. His father was a fine table-tennis player and won a tennis racket as first prize in a tournament when Bjorn was nine. He gave it to his son, never dreaming that in eight years the boy would be the biggest Swedish sports hero since Ingemar Johansson. The racket was too heavy, so Borg used a two-handed backhand, which remains part of his game. His best weapon is a forehand that carries so much topspin that the ball lands and skitters forward like a jack rabbit dashing for cover. His biggest weakness is his volley, which he figures could be improved by 25%.
Borg is mostly poker-faced on and off the court and nothing seems to disturb his tranquil nature. He was considerably annoyed in recent weeks, however, when he was being tugged at by the team-tennis people on one side and his national federation on the other. Sweden won and Borg left Dallas to go home and play a Davis Cup match against Poland at a seaside resort, where his fans were clamoring for tickets.
Newcombe had different destinations this week. He planned to play in Houston for his new team, the EZ Riders, and to commute to the $150,000 Alan King Classic in Las Vegas. Has rackets, will travel, by plane for the time being. His Cadillac will have to sit for a while.
Surely it was the polite tradition-worshiping game of tennis they were playing down there on the green court in the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. There was gentlemanly Ken Rosewall, ladylike Evonne Goolagong and, uh, Billie Jean King, who had bells on her skirt and a bell on her back. Spectators were banging on triangles called "Goola-gongs." Rosewall was angrily shaking his racket in King's face. A man in the stands stood up and bellowed, "Billie Jean King wears Brut!" Mercy, this could not be tennis. And it was not tennis, either. It was team tennis, a sport introduced last week in the U.S. and Canada with more ballyhoo and confusion than P.T. Barnum—and certainly Bill Tilden—ever dreamed of.
The official name is World Team Tennis (WTT) and it consists of 16 teams whose home bases range from Honolulu to New York to Miami to Toronto, playing in four sections and two divisions. They will battle from early May to mid-August, then have playoffs and a championship, just like basketball, baseball and all the other team sports cluttering the newspapers and boggling the minds of those who attempt to keep track of expansion teams, nicknames and umpteen simultaneous pennant races.
The league is stocked with excellent players: King, Newcombe, Jimmy Connors, Tom Okker, Rosemary Casals, Cliff Richey, Cliff Drysdale. But many of the best American men—Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Tom Gorman, Marty Riessen—have declined to sign, and such colorful foreigners as Borg and Nastase are as yet outside the fold. Florida would dearly love to have local girl Chris Evert, but she is going to play the European circuit instead.
Actually, there is nothing new about promoters trying to turn an individual or tournament game into a team sport. It has been tried with bowling, boxing and golf without success. What is unique about WTT is that it is intersexional. Women are down there on the field of combat with men, playing mixed doubles for pay, their singles matches counting for just as much. Ms. King is not only the star of the Philadelphia Freedoms, she is also the coach—Mother Freedom. "We're a second-half ball club," she said last week in her best Red Auerbach imitation.
Another unique thing about WTT is that it allows, even encourages, yelling and rooting during a match. The Hawaii Leis, whose nickname has inspired a series of bad jokes, plan to pass out megaphones to their fans. Pittsburgh has the Goola-gongs, and the Boston Lobsters have a cheerleading mascot, a young fellow dressed up in an orange-red lobster outfit with a racket in one claw and shocking-pink panty hose peeking out from under the tail. In Philly a bell tolls every time the Freedoms win a set.
"I think it's great," said King. "I've been waiting a long time to have people hoot and holler."
"I really liked the whole thing," said New York Sets' Player-Coach Manuel Santana. "When they start cheering for you during a match it makes you feel good."
Cheering, yes, but heckling, no, was the view of Pittsburgh Player-Coach Ken Rosewall. His Triangles lost to Philly 31-25 in the WTT inaugural in the Spectrum. The two teams met again for the Pittsburgh debut, the Freedoms winning one more, 30-25. Rosewall was receiving serve and a young Britisher sitting on Philly's bench, Buster Mottram, began to heckle him. Rosewall lost the point and was so angry he nearly stalked off the court. He did shake his racket in King's face in the manner of a scolding teacher shaking his finger at a juvenile delinquent. Then he shook his racket at the Freedoms' bench. King kept Mottram reasonably quiet for the rest of the match.
Rosewall and King argued about crowd noise afterward, with Mother Freedom insisting, "I'm all for yelling. It's good for the game—especially this kind of game."
Amid all this ballpark-stadium-carnival din, the players and spectators have to keep in mind a batch of rule changes so radical that the lords of lawn tennis must be dropping their monocles. The WTT format is one set of women's singles, one set of men's singles and one set of mixed doubles, followed by a 15-minute halftime (which lasted in some cases up to an hour). The second half is a repeat—men, women, mixed—although not necessarily with the same players.
Substitutions are allowed. For instance, Kristy Pigeon of Hawaii (wearing a pretty white frock with a multi-colored cloth lei embroidered around the neckline) started the second-half women's singles against New York's Pam Teeguarden. Bingo, she was behind 3-0 and couldn't seem to keep her serves inside the Nassau Coliseum. Hawaii Player-Coach Dennis Ralston yanked her, put in Valerie Ziegenfuss and temporarily looked like Casey Stengel when Ziegenfuss broke Teeguarden's serve. But Pam went on to win and Val didn't get a "save."
The scoring in each game is no-ad (1, 2, 3, game, rather than the hoary 15, 30, 40, game). If a game goes to 3-3, the next point wins. No ads or deuces. The cumulative team scoring allows a point for each game won. If the Houston EZ Riders win the first three sets 6-0, they go off at halftime with an 18-0 lead. If the sets were 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, the score would be 16-11.
Team tennis is one of the few sports in which one side can be mathematically eliminated before the contest is over, and it can be a frightful bore watching the Cleveland Nets and Detroit Loves finishing out a meaningless mixed doubles. But there can be slambang climaxes and comebacks, too. Unfortunately, most of Florida's home-opener crowd of 5,126 had departed by midnight, when the Flamingos' team of Mark Cox and Betty Ann Grubb won 12 of the final 15 points to beat Los Angeles 27-26.
"This is the most unbelievable thing I've ever seen," said Flamingo Coach Frank Froehling.
"I'm ecstatic," said Cox. "I thought it was very exciting and a great experience. I felt a tremendous sense of triumph after we won the last point."
WTT is good for the players for a number of reasons besides money. Since only a set or two is required, oldtimers like Roy Emerson, 37, of the Golden Gaters, Fred Stolle, 35, of the Freedoms and Maria Bueno, 34, of the Flamingos, can extend their careers by three to five years, then perhaps stay on as coaches. There is health insurance, trainers and a home base—but also some brutal travel: Los Angeles opened in Miami, went to Minnesota two nights later and Oakland the next night.
The owners were not so ecstatic as Cox and the oldsters. Philadelphia announced a crowd of 10,611 for its much-publicized and circuslike opener against Pittsburgh, which was lots of fun, but two nights later only 1,787 showed up to see the racket-wielding lobster and his team compete in the Spectrum. For 23 matches in its historic first week the average WTT attendance was 3,280, and many tickets were given away and some attendance figures exaggerated. The Denver Racquets could draw only 1,481 for their opener and seem likely to go downhill from there, or to a more hospitable city. The Golden Gaters played before 4,012, not too bad considering that the Oakland A's drew only 2,980 baseball fans the same night. Still, at $50,000 a franchise, plus player contracts, arena rentals and incidental start-up costs, it seems the owners have bought themselves licenses to lose.
"I think it might take four or five years," said King, and she is probably not far off.
"We serve you right" is the Baltimore slogan, but the question is how long can the promoters serve up this novelty before 2,000 or fewer people? Maybe longer than the skeptics think. An attorney knowledgeable about tennis was talking to a Washington, D.C. man who was thinking about taking a WTT expansion franchise for a mere $350,000.
"You'd drop $400,000 a year," said the lawyer.
"Good," said the would-be tennis tycoon, "it'll be a great tax loss."
Box lacrosse and volleyball are the next sports to be organized into pro leagues. Get your tax losses now while they're hot.