At Washington Kastles matches, fans love the action, and the interaction

By Jorge Castillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010

A boisterous sellout crowd of 2,600 cheered loudly and hip-hop blared as Venus Williams danced her way onto a multi-colored tennis court downtown last week for her debut match with the Washington Kastles.

The staid All-England club, with its hushed tones and muted greens and whites, this was not.

Which, World Team Tennis organizers say, is the point. Virtually unknown outside tennis circles, the league has survived for 35 years by offering its fans mixed-gender competition in an unconventional, family-friendly atmosphere.

Marketed much like minor league baseball, it nevertheless has showcased many of the sport's greats in brief seasons that offer tennis in some U.S. cities without a pro tour stop and others starved for more of the sport.

"WTT provides a different player experience than tournament tennis," league co-founder Billie Jean King said in an e-mail interview. "The intimate setting provides closer access and interaction for the players with the fans. These players really like giving back to our sport and it is a big part of what makes our league successful."

Since the league began play in 1974, those players have included King, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Williams and her sister, Serena, to name a few.

"It's actually really, really, really good preparation as players transition from the European season [mostly played on clay and grass] to the hard court season in the United States," said Washington Kastles owner Mark Ein, whose team has the Williams sisters this season.

The teams are playing 14 matches in 18 days this July, followed by two rounds of playoffs. The matches are divided into five sets -- men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles and mixed doubles. Under the scoring format, every game counts toward a team's final score, so every point and game matters. Each match is usually completed within 2 1/2 hours.

Each team is allowed one "marquee" player per match. In addition to Venus Williams, John McEnroe, Andy Roddick, James Blake and Kim Clijsters will appear this season. Serena Williams had been scheduled to play in four Kastles matches this season but withdrew earlier this week with a foot injury.

The league currently has 10 teams in 10 cities. Only five American cities have both WTA and ATP tournaments, while several big-market cities such as D.C. host a tournament from one tour and others, such as Boston, currently have none.

The road to the WTT's current status has not been smooth. Financial trouble has plagued individual franchises and the league, which suspended play after the 1978 season before resuming in 1981 with four teams, a quarter of its original number. The Delaware franchise folded last year, the Houston team dissolved in 2008 and Hartford went belly-up in 2007.

Philadelphia and Boston, two of the league's original teams, were dormant for nearly 30 years before they were revived in 2001 and 2005, respectively. Sacramento, which has had a team for 25 consecutive seasons, is currently the league's longest-running franchise.

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