Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova, about to play her first match for the World Team Tennis Boston Lobsters after a six-game sit-out, feared a hostile reception from the home fans at Boston University's 4,388-seat Walter Brown Arena, which was sold out for only the second time in the 1978 WTT season.
Having been broiled in the local press for taking unauthorized leave from the WTT East Division leaders, Navratilova expected to be baked and stuffed by the paying customers. Or at least to have her claws cracked.
But when she was introduced before the match, amid the obligatory fanfare of organ music, she received an enthusiastic standing ovation. She was relieved, and moved.
"I was afraid some people would believe what was in the papers and boo me," said the expatriate Czech left-hander, who had claimed a strained muscle in her left shoulder and gone home to Dallas, missing the six matches.
What was in the papers was an unidentified Lobster official's opinion that there was nothing wrong with Martina except a prima donna ego . . . that the strained shoulder muscle was in her head . . . that she had, in effect, gone AWOL, flying home even though Coach Roy Emerson asked her to see a doctor first, and to grace the team bench if she was unable to play.
"It stinks. She is developing a star temperament. I knew after she won Wimbledon there would be trouble . . . It's got to stop. It's terrible for the league," the unnamed spokesman was quoted in the Boston Globe.
This was after the Lobsters had withheld announcement of their leading attraction's departure for three days and released it only minutes before a home match in which her participation had been advertised.
Navratilova responded angrily that the statement was "a bunch of bull," a Lobster tale told out of school.
"First I had the flu. I was taking an antibiotics for that," she said after her "welcome back" in which she blew a 4-1 lead and lost to Chris Evert in singles, 7-5, and was whitewashed in doubles alongside Ann Smith by Evert and Ann Kityomura.
"I've also had shoulder problems off and on for three years, and it got worse right after Wimbledon."
Apparently the ailment is authentic. Navratilova is contemplating a cortisone injection before the U.S. Open at the end of the month.
But the credibility of her explanation suffered because she said publicly at the Virginia Slims Championships four months earlier that she planned to take a rest after Wimbledon. Also, she had acknowledged that her shoulder pain - which re-appeared suddenly in her Wimbledon semifinal against Evonne Goolagong after months of dormancy - was "probably psychosomatic."
"I didn't do a thing in Dallas, just rested the shoulder. I didn't play tennis or golf or anything - contrary to what some people say," Navratilova insisted, still justifying her absence to a handful of postmatch interrogators long after Evert's Los Angeles Strings had tied knots around the Lobsters, 32-16.
From across the room, Strings player-coach Ilie Nastase - who recently had been fined $15,000 for skipping three WTT matches in order to play in a post-Wimbledon tournament in New York - impishly played devil's advocate, a familiar role when he is not playing the devil himself.
"You can take a rest if you want. Why not? If I won Wimbledon, I would take three weeks," Coach Nasty said.
Navratilova tried to ignore him.
"You don't have to say you have had shoulder," he continued. "Just say, 'I am on vacation now. Don't bother me.'"
Navratilova finished her interviews and headed for the door. As she passed Nastase, he grinned and added: "You can take three weeks, four weeks, whatever you want, sweetheart. You are Wimbledon champion."
Navratilova patted him on the head.
"You know, sweetheart," she said, "sometimes you talk too much."
Welcome to the wacky world of WTT, where the stars come out at night . . . when they feel like it.
It is a long way, geographically and spiritually, from the Centre Court at Wimbledon to WTT's multicolored carpet, even on a night when Walter Brown Arena is sold out for the first meeting between Navratilova and Evert since the Wimbledon final.
Five one-set matches per night, with cumulative scoring deciding the overall outcome. East and West divisions, "pennant races" and playoffs. A court with red, green, blue and brown panels instead of lines. Four roving linesmen, in numbered uniforms, who run from one line to another and make their calls as conspicuously as a baseball umpire bellowing, "Yer out!"
Substitutions, lineup juggling and battles of coaching strategy. "No-ad" scoring (1-2-3-game) and "sudden death" all the way. Noise. Hoopla. A decidedly un-tennis-like upbeat tempo.
Team tennis is as different from traditional tennis as a sprint and a marathon, a drag race and the Indy 500.
"It's a different atmosphere from tournaments - a fast-action type of thing," said Emerson, 41, the great Australian Davis Cup star of the 1960s who won more Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles (28) than any other man in tennis history.
The players are the same. So are their basic skills. But the game they play - souped up with the familiar trappings of other American pro sports, right down to trades between franchises, mascots and future draft choices - differs from tournament tennis in strategy, psychology, character and ambience.
WTT is the result of the tennis boom and the Super Bowl mentality, complete with hand-slapping team huddles and the players' names sewn on the backs of their jerseys.
But despite the participants' insistence that they are, in Billie Jean King's phrase, "trying their butts off every night," it is difficult to escape the impression that World Team Tennis is a four-month series of exhibitions, a show biz spectacle rather than a serious competition.
How else can one interpret Evert's reaction to her 7-5 triumph over Navratilova: "Even though this won't go down in the record books, I need to win sets from her, to get more confident."
Vitas Gerulaitis, who led the departed Pittsburgh Triangles to the league title in 1974 and has played with two other teams since, makes this distinction: "Most people come to a WTT match to see some good tennis, but also to be entertained. That's the whole idea of the league: show biz. We're paid to be entertainers."
WTT has its appealing features. The format offers a lively two-hour "mixed bag" - one set each of men's and women's singles and doubles and mixed doubles. It gives spectators a home team and a glimpse of some of the game's superstars, past and present, as they come to town.
It has provided a vehicle for some aging but still attractive players - Emerson, Rod Laver, Cliff Drysdale and Marty Riessen, for example - to prolong their competitive careers as player-coaches. It has filled a summer void in the schedule for women players, and has given some enterprising young players regular practice, top-flight competition and coaching.
It has also expanded the pro tennis market to some extent, drawing most of its fans from the legions of middle class Americans who have taken up tennis in the past five years, but never attended professional matches.
WTT has veered away from the burlesque aspects of its first season - the encouragement of raucous crowd participation at deafening decibel levels, coarse chants on second serves, cowbells and Dancing Harris - and sought to dovetail with the tennis establishment.
It has dropped its futile efforts to attract the off-season "Joe Six Pack," the boisterous fan in the second balcony at basketball and hockey games, and has gone after the tennis neophyte and the mainstream fan it alienated with outrageous gimmicks at the outset.
But it has not really succeeded in welding the stars of international tennis into team loyalists, closely identified with the cities they wear on their sleeves. With the possible exception of San Francisco and Los Angeles, where home attendance has been consistently good this year, WTT has not become an established part of local sports communities.
"It's like the Central Hockey League; you've got a hard core of maybe 3,000 people in any city who will come out to the game, but the league doesn't have any focus or any impact outside the cities where the games are played," said Ron Bookman, editor of World Tennis magazine.
"Most players are just collecting their paychecks and waiting for the season to end so they can go back to tournaments."
And it is difficult to take WTT seriously when the top men players (Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas) aren't in it, Nestase and Gerulaitis skip out to play tournaments now and then, and the stars decide where they want to play. Navratilova doesn't like Cleveland, so she goes to Boston. Evert is tired of Phoenix, so they put her in L.A., and let her take a friend along.The stars are running the league."
WTT fifth regular-season schedule ends this afternoon. It has been going on since late April, with a three-week break for Wimbledon. After 44 matches for each team, the bottom club in each of the five-team divisions has been eliminated. The other eight teams begin the playoffs Tuesday night in four cities, also in general obsecurity.
"Too many teams in the playoffs," Nastase complained recently - not because the inclusion of eight of 10 teams is patently ridiculous, but for more self-interested reasons.
"I think it shouldn't be so many because it keeps the players longer," he said. "This year we have to play even after the U.S. Open. Most are waiting to go out of Team Tennis and play a few tournaments."
The thought of madman Nastase as a coach boggled the minds of most observers when his appointment was announced by the Strings last spring, but he has gotten good reviews from his players as road manager, chaperone, practice coordinator and resident blithe spirit.
"Ilie has done a very good job. There's no friction on this team, and that's very unusual," said Evert.
This is not surprising, since Nastase's philosophy on coaching Evert has been to let well enough alone: "Whatever she asks me to do, I do, chirped Coach Nasty. "She wants to hit overheads, I hit her lobs for two, three hours."
"I think coaching has given Ilie a sense of responsibility and helped settle him down; he's been great," added the Strings' trainer, Bill Norris.
"Before, we never knew when he was going to get run out of matches for his conduct. He was ejected from one game in L.A., and he came close a lot of other times. He's not as wild, as cuckoo in the mouth anymore."
Nastase has felt the weight of his new responsibilities.
"Don't call me coach, call me more than that," he said after one match against the New York Apples. "Call me mother. Call me father."
Frank Margiotto, 71, a bachelor who retired three decades ago after 24 years as a chief petty officer in the United States Navy, unblushingly describes himself as "a rabid sports fan." If he blushed, he would be the same color as his favorite team: the Lobsters.
The afternoon after the Los Angeles match, the Lobsters assembled at 1:30 p.m. outside the fashionable Charles River Park apartments, where all of them except Tony Roche live during the April-through-August season. (Roche has an apartment with his wife and two daughters in suburban. Hanover, 45 minutes away, near the Lobsters' practice headquarters.
The Lobsters were scheduled to play the Apples - WTT champions of 1976-77, but now gone slightly sour - in another home game, but this one at their "satellite" arena: Cape Cod Colliseum in South Yarmouth, Mass., a 90-minute drive from Boston.
Most WTT franchises play some of their home games in "satellite" cities, the better to make a buck in the tennis hinterlands. The New Orleans Nets, for instance, have played home games in Baton Rouge; Houston; Lakeland, Fla., and Biloxi, Miss. For a few days, they were known as the Sun Belt Nets.
Hartford was to be Boston's only "satellite" this year, until the roof of its Civic Center caved in last winter. The four games scheduled there were moved to the Cape.
The team bus, which was badly in need of new springs and shock absorbers, heaved through heavy traffic on the Southeast Expressway.
For awhile, a transistor radio offered the soothing sounds that disc jockeys refer to as "easy listening." But by the time the bus cruised toward the Cape Cod Bridge, with the threat of seasickness gone, there was no music except for occasional a cepella choruses by Emerson.
"Except for me, we're a pretty quiet bunch," he explained. "Everbody goes to sleep."
Little wonder. In the previous 19 days, the Lobster had played 15 matches in 11 different cities - "our most brutal schedule in five years," according to Andy Jick, the team's long-suffering but affable director of operations.
In the wake of such an itinerary, characterized by midnight suppers followed by 6 a.m. wake-up calls, Emerson knew that the best approach to another bus ride was to let sleeping Lobsters lie.
"The travel schedule is the worst part of WTT," he said. "You play in a lot of places that are hard to get into and out of, and consequently you sometimes come up a little tired for your matches. Sometimes it's better to sacrifice two hours of practice and get some rest."
The bus finally pulled up to the dingy, barn-like coliseum at 3 p.m.
"A dreary old place, miles from anywhere," Emerson had called it. "A great place to spend eight hours."
Out piled six players, a trainer, an equipment manager and the white Samoyed owned by Californian Terry Holladay - the world's only Lobster with a pet dog. She is an interesting person, listing as her "outside interests" marine biology, music, films, philosophy, Eastern literature and sports cars.
Last man off the bus the sports columnist of Esplanade, a biweekly gay newspaper in Boston.
"I cover a lot of Lobster games," he said "because no other team in town will give me credentials."
Operations Director Jick had left Walter Brown Arena past midnight, then arose at 5 a.m. to drive the rental truck bearing the court to south Yarmouth. When he arrived there, the arena floor was too litter-strewn from a recent rock concert to allow the court to be installed.
Clean-up was completed at 10 a.m., and three workmen worked feverishly to get the court down and the net posts secured before 2 p.m., when the Apples began a two-hour practice.
WTT is as proud of its court of many colors, which was unveiled at the 1975 All-Star Game, as the late, great American Basketball Association was of its red, white and blue ball. "A daring and innovative creation," it calls the carpet with royal blue deuce service courts, green ad service courts, chocolate back courts and red doubles alleys.
The only problem - one that escaped the league fathers - is that some tennis pros are color blind. Says Phil Dent, who used to play for New York. "I couldn't distinguish the brown from the red, I didn't see any line at all, I had to hit and hope."
The Lobsters followed the Apples on court and practiced from 4 to 6 p.m. The tireless and marvelously fit Emerson was the first man on and last man off court, exhausting all his younger colleagues. He was still hitting with a local teaching pro when the rest of the team broke for dinner: submarine sandwiches from a local take-out shop. Choice of tuna, turkey, ham and cheese, roast beef or Italian cold cuts.
At 7:30, the National Anthem was played by members of the Cape Cod Conservatory.
"I asked if they could send over a few musicians," said Myra Kraft, wife of Lobsters President Robert Kraft. "The woman said she might be able to round up eight woodwind players. Then they heard the match was going to be on TV (televised back to New York by WPIX). Suddenly 40 musicians showed up, all looking for the cameras."
They practiced for 90 minutes, played a truly rousing "Star Spangled Banner," and left before the first ball was struck.
The contest was even more stirring. The Lobsters blew a seemingly comfortable lead and lost, 25-24, in that pinnacle of Team Tennis, the "Super Tiebreaker."
In WTT scoring, if the team that is behind wins the last game of regulation play, the match goes into overtime. This continues until the leading team wins another game, or the trailing team catches up, at which point the "Super Tiebreaker" (best-of-13-points, sudden death) decides the whole shebang.
The last set this particular evening, at the behest of the home coach, was men's doubles: New York's Gerulaitis and Ray Ruffels vs. Boston's Emerson and Dale (The Animal) Collins, a beefy, 22-year-old Aussie signed after a tryout that afternoon.
Collins, 6-1 and 190 pounds, has a bright red beard, a fearsome scowl and a rusty hairdo worthy of Bozo the Clown - bald on top, but long and fiercely frizzy on the sides. His serve has been clocked in the neighborhood of 130 miles per hour, a mighty weapon on the fast WTT carpet.
"You might say he can nudge the ball a bit." nodded Emerson, obviously pleased to have a partner who looks like Grizzly Adams in tennis togs.
The Cape Cod Crowd of 4.356 took immediately to Collins, chanting "An-i-mal, An-i-mal" as he battled to a creditable 6-3 loss to Gerulaitis.
Alongside Emerson in the "Super Tiebreaker," Collions won all four points he served with aces or service winners. Huge cheers. Unfortunately, he can't do much except selve, and so Gerulaitis and Ruffels kept hitting at him, clawing their way six points all: simultaneous match points for both teams.
Gerulaitis served the excruciating final point wide to Emerson's forehand - a very soft serve that looked as if it were traveling in slow motion. Did he intend this? Had he choked? No one will ever know for sure. But Emerson tried to nail his return cross-court, and knocked it wide.
"Yes!" screamed Ruffels as the ball sailed out. Emerson grimaced. The Animal groaned. Up in the press box, Billie Jean King - sidelined by a bad heel, but doing color commentary for WPIX - squealed and did a little boogie.
Almost since it made its debut on May 6, 1974, one constant in the life of World Team Tennis has been the report of its impending demise.
That it has gotten off the ground each of its five seasons has been a surprise. But every year it has made steady if unspectacular progress in attendance, acceptance and solvency. The Golden Gaters, who lead the league in attendance, reportedly may come close to breaking even financially this season, a WTT first. "In the West, I'd say we're made it already." said King, one of the driving forces behind WTT since her husband, Larry, helped found it. "In the East people are more set in their ways and harder to sell on something new.It's a cultural thing. It's going to be a long haul.
"But it will come down to the law of supply and demand. If there's a market. WTT will survive. If not, it will die."