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Tennis / Mike Penner

This League Doesn't Have a Name

March 24, 1985

Team Tennis held its 1985 player draft the other day. You might have missed it.

The local entry, Jeannie Buss' Los Angeles Strings, came away with Larry Stefanki as a No. 1 selection. Quite a coup. Stefanki has won a tournament during the past year (last month at La Quinta)--credentials of rare caliber in this league.

In other news, the Strings filled out their roster with a trio of Team Tennis veterans: Vince Van Patten, Pam Teeguarden and Anne White.

Elsewhere around the league, these people were hot items: Ben Testerman, Hank Pfister, Leif Shiras, Butch Walts, Andrea Leand, Lisa Bonder, Mike Bauer, Eric Korita, Robert Van't Hof.

You may notice the absence of John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert Lloyd, Ivan Lendl . . . even Henrik Sundstrom and Helena Sukova. No top-10 types in sight.

That's the way it's been ever since Team Tennis chopped World off its name and its budget to the bone five years ago.

And, that's the way founder, commissioner, spokesperson and promoter Billie Jean King still maintains she wants it.

"We're not after McEnroe and Connors, we're not after Martina and Chris," King said. "We have a league money pool of $400,000. McEnroe gets $70,000 to $100,000 for a single exhibition. We can't touch him. It's ludicrous for us to even try.

"These players know we're out here. They know what we're doing."

What King and Co. are doing is trying to succeed with a concept rich in originality but lacking in big bucks and big names. And we all know what matters in the pro sports market, 1980s-style.

McEnroe has said Team Tennis "will never work." Stan Smith, an advocate of team play in Davis Cup competition, says he can't buy the Team Tennis format. Last year, the league got caught in a crunch between Wimbledon and the Olympics and had to limit its season to six days. And when a Team Tennis match draws more than 3,000 spectators, it's major news.

But still, Team Tennis plugs along, content to set its sights low and set about reaching them. Like most of the players who have committed to the league, Team Tennis has its limitations, knows them and tries to stay within them.

"We don't want anybody who doesn't want to play for us," King said. "What if we went after, say, Andres Gomez and begged him to play. So he plays a match or two and says he hated it, it's not clay, whatever. We want our players involved in sponsor parties, community events, and an unhappy player is not going to want to do that.

"We don't have a lot of prize money to offer, but we know how to help a player. We are able to provide him with good business contacts throughout the community.

"And, some of our players can make more in Team Tennis than they can in a tournament. A No. 1 player can earn $5,800, plus travel expenses. That's not bad for one month."

King downplays the effect a Top-10 player can have on attendance in Team Tennis.

"Anybody outside the Top 4 really doesn't matter," King said. "Do you really think Henrik Sundstrom will draw better than Butch Walts in San Diego? I don't, and yet Sundstrom is in the Top 10.

"I think Butch will sell as many tickets as someone like (Anders) Jarryd. I really don't know if the players in the lower part of the Top 10 are well-known by the general public."

King, however, concedes that a McEnroe would "turn a crowd of 3,000 into 15,000." And she wouldn't mind adding a marquee name to the league roster.

She says John Lloyd should play Team Tennis. She says she tried to talk Tracy Austin, starting yet another comeback, into joining the league this season.

"Tracy could've played Team Tennis this year," King said. "It would've been great for her to start out with us and ease her way back in. Team Tennis would have been the perfect vehicle for her.

"But Tracy's afraid she's not ready. Unless we could get a guarantee that she'd play the whole season, we didn't want her. That's real important for our credibility."

So, Team Tennis will rely on Stefanki and the gang in 1985, with eight teams competing in a 14-match schedule during July. Other franchises and owners:

Boston (International Management Group); Chicago (Larry and Billie Jean King); Oakland (Emil Roy Eisenhardt); San Antonio (Leo Rose); San Diego (Maury Ornest); St. Louis (Harry and Ruth Ornest); Miami Beach (Abe Pollin).

"Our first priority is ownership," King said. "You need solid owners and we now have them. It took me two years to notice it. I know it now."

Next up for King: Getting the public to notice starless Team Tennis. That's known as saving the toughest for last.

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