You don't have to appreciate Team Tennis--and, really, who does?--to appreciate a sports league with a sense of humor.
Wednesday afternoon, Team Tennis announced that it was expanding into Orange County, which is funny, because Team Tennis still has stretch marks from the last time it expanded into Orange County.
The new team will be coached by UC Irvine's Greg Patton, who's also funny, and will be known as the Newport Beach Dukes, which the league thinks is funny. See, the Dukes will play their home matches at the John Wayne Tennis Club.
"Isn't that a great name?" Billie Jean King says. "I love it. Very creative."
Billie Jean loves just about everything about Team Tennis. We suppose someone has to. This odd little league, funded by a pizza company and founded on a unique no-stars concept, has been her pride and joy since she took over as CEO five years ago.
"This is the 10th year of Team Tennis. Can you believe it?" Billie Jean enthuses. "We survived, we're standing and now we're really solid. All but two of our teams made money last year and everyone will probably be in the black this year."
\o7 Et tu,\f7 Dukes?
Precedent is hardly promising. Two previous Team Tennis incarnations--the Anaheim Oranges and the California Oranges--died on the baseline, folding once in 1978 and again in 1983. Those tennis teams were unwanted orphans, bouncing from Anaheim Convention Center to Los Caballeros to the Newport Beach Tennis Club, and drawing an average of 729 fans in their final season.
It was hard to blame the county. If you had a mid-July evening free in Newport Beach, would you choose to spend it watching Sandy Collins and trying to pronounce Mima Jausovec?
But that's the Team Tennis way. Having bankrupted itself chasing the Chris Everts and the Jimmy Connors in the 1970s, the league retrenched in the 1980s, signing lesser names for lesser pay and moving franchises to smaller markets.
Or, as Billie Jean calls them, "growth areas." These are cities such as Raleigh, N.C., Wellington, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., San Antonio, Tex., and Sacramento--"places where they don't have a professional tournament, where there's a tennis void," Billie Jean says.
Newport Beach qualifies, according to Billie Jean, because "Orange County has all those tennis players. It's perfect."
Perfect in that it has a tennis club with lights. Fred Lieberman, owner/promoter of the Dukes, lives in New York and wanted to base his team in the Hamptons. You can find many things in the Hamptons, but Lieberman couldn't find a suitable facility with lights, so he was forced to look West.
Thus, the Dukes were born.
And who, exactly, are these Dukes?
You'll need a scorecard.
Amy Frazier: At 17, one of the youngest players in Team Tennis and, at No. 20 in the women's world standings, the top-ranked player in Team Tennis. Which, according to Billie Jean, means nothing. "Because our format is so different," she says, "many times you'll see the highest-ranking player finish last or second to last in prize money."
Sophie Amiach: Ranked 129th in the world, she played for the Sacramento Capitals last season. Placed first in the league in mixed doubles. Best Grand Slam showing: quarterfinals at the 1984 Australian Open.
Marty Davis: A veteran of Team Tennis, Davis ended the 1989 calendar ranked 143rd in men's singles. But then, doubles is his forte. There, he ranks 82nd.
Roger Smith: No, not the General Motors honcho skewered in the Michael Moore documentary, although Davis does refer to his doubles team as "Roger & Me." This Roger Smith was born in the Bahamas, attended Ohio State and has never visited the top 100. He ended 1989 ranked 187th.
With this group, the top drawing card will be the coach, the hyperkinetic, hyperbolic Patton, who has made mountain kings out of Anteaters at Irvine. Patton, kind of a younger, taller Bobby Riggs, is the ideal man for the job.
Team Tennis needs to be plugged and Patton, rest assured, can plug with the best of them.
"My summer is now set," Patton proclaimed Wednesday. "Some people look forward to summer vacation. My idea of vacation is putting me on the court.
"They approached me to see if I was interested and it took me a lot of deliberation. Probably about five seconds."
Beginning July 1, Patton will be prodding the Dukes along their four-week schedule and if they don't finish last, they will qualify for the Team Tennis playoffs. Toward that end, the Dukes will play seven home matches and seven away matches, hoping to win enough of them to win a few fans.
Put up your Dukes?
This summer, we'll see if Orange County will put up with them.