Sunday, July 17, 2011

In defense of World TeamTennis

   It's fashionable to belittle World TeamTennis.
   The refrain goes something like this: WTT is a circus. It's not real tennis. The players don't care who wins because their world rankings (which determine tournament entries and seedings) are unaffected.
   WTT's critics probably have rarely, if ever, attended a match. The league actually works on many levels and complements tournament tennis well. There are reasons WTT has lasted 36 years. It has much to offer, such as:
   --Variety. In one night, fans see everything tennis offers: men's singles and doubles, women's singles and doubles, and mixed doubles.
   --Societal benefits. WTT promotes gender equality because men and women work together for a common goal, with their results counting equally. This sets a good example for children -- and adults, for that matter -- in the stands.
   "We're teaching them without them realizing it, which makes it even more fun," WTT co-founder Billie Jean King said in an interview last year. "They're learning through experience."   
   --A fast pace. To ensure that matches finish in 2 1/2 or three hours, the first team to reach five games instead of six wins each set. There are no deuces, and players don't have to win by two games in a set or two points in a tiebreaker.
   If a set is tied 4-4, the first team to win five points in a tiebreaker prevails. If a match is tied after regulation play, the first team to win seven points in a Supertiebreaker earns the overall victory.
   No lead is insurmountable. The team that's ahead must win the last set, or play continues until 1) the leading team wins one game, or 2) the trailing team ties the match score, in which case a Supertiebreaker is played.
   --High drama. Every point is critical. Games, sets and even matches can be decided by one point. The latter occurred Friday night as the host Sacramento Capitals edged the Newport Beach Breakers 19-18.
   With the overall score tied 18-18, the last set (mixed doubles) tied 4-4 and the tiebreaker tied 4-4, Sacramento won the final point and the match. Had Newport Beach won the last point, the Breakers would have prevailed.
   Fans love the tension, and the heightened pressure helps players when they return to their respective international circuits. What's not to like?
   --A rooting interest. Fans have an emotional stake because players represent their city.
   --Promotional and health benefits. WTT brings superstars and legends to cities such as Sacramento, Kansas City, Mo., Springfield, Mo., Boston and Philadelphia that wouldn't otherwise wouldn't attract them. For example, Serena Williams, Martina Hingis and Bob and Mike Bryan have played in Sacramento this season. The pros, including the lesser-known players, inspire children and adults to take up a sport they can play for the rest of their lives.
    --Young and old players. Fans can see everyone from teenage prospects to players in their 50s, such as the temperamental but supremely gifted John McEnroe.
   In an effort to prevent burnout and injuries, the WTA Tour limits the number of tournaments that girls aged 14 to 17 can play. Team tennis gives them a chance to gain experience, play in front of crowds and learn from their coach and veteran teammates.
   Legends, meanwhile, can remain in the game because they play less than one set per event, perhaps only doubles, rather than two out of three sets.
    --Hometown players. Competitors such as Yasmin Schnack of Sacramento can play for their hometown team, and youngsters can dream of doing the same.
   As for players not caring, granted, WTT isn't Wimbledon. But they're professionals. They're being paid well, they receive performance bonuses, they're playing in front of paying fans, WTT helps them compete under pressure, and the will to win is ingrained in them.
   Furthermore, players sign up for WTT because it's a refreshing break in their predominately individual sport. They do not want to let their cities or their teammates down.
   If the players don't care, why do the better ones usually win? The Washington Kastles, who are loaded with talent, are 10-0. True, Venus Williams stunk up Allstate (now Capitals) Stadium in the Sacramento area in 2005 shortly after winning Wimbledon, but that's an exception.
   Are there problems with WTT? Sure.
   The biggest one was solved, at least for this season. The playoffs will be held at a neutral site, Charleston, S.C., named the "Best Tennis Town" in America by the United States Tennis Association last year.
   In past years, the playoffs have been held in a league city to try to capitalize at the gate on that team's following. WTT has chosen a city with a strong team, which has usually made the playoffs and then gained a huge advantage. In three of the past four years, a team has won the league title on its home court.
   Also, teams sometimes sacrifice winning for money by using retired, ineffective marquee players (hello Anna Kournikova), and playing "let" serves is awkward and unnecessary.
   But let's look at the big picture. The WTT season lasts only three weeks. Fans have the rest of the year to follow tournament tennis.   

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