Billie Jean King spearheads revival of team tennis league from top

As a top-ranked tennis player Billie Jean King was never one to stay at the baseline. Today, as the first woman commissioner of a pro sports league, she still doesn't let much grass grow underfoot. The prime mover and shaker of TEAMTENNIS, an eight-team league that begins a whirlwind, one-month season July 10, she has been on the go much of the last six months.

Many people would be left breathless by the schedule, but for Billie Jean, whose life constantly runs at ``fast forward,'' it's all just another day at the office.

Of course she doesn't get to spend that much time in her real office, which occupies the second floor of an attractive condominium on Manhattan's upper west side.

Recently I met with her in TEAMTENNIS's new headquarters, which are tucked so discreetly into a building facing Central Park that no one would know they're there.

Laura Knoop, the league's vice president, says Billie Jean doesn't like to rent office space, so this made a nice if rather expensive acquisition only about a block from BJK's New York residence.

To reach the commissioner's sparsely furnished office, one ascends a polished wooden staircase. A shadeless lamp sits on an executive desk that King opts not to sit behind. ``I like to be on the same level with people I'm talking to,'' she says pulling up a chair in front of the desk for our interview.

The chief topic of conversation is the new league, which actually revives the same basic format used by World Team Tennis from 1973 to 1978. That venture was a freewheeling departure from tournament tennis. Mixed rosters, no-ad scoring, colorful patchwork courts, and noisy crowds were all part of the formula, as was an all-Soviet team during one stretch.

Billie Jean was deeply involved as the player-coach of the Philadelphia Freedoms. So too was her husband, Larry, who eventually became the WTT's fourth president.

Now they're trying again, largely using Larry's new and improved structure, but his wife's leadership and persuasive abilities.

Interestingly, she doesn't believe the previous attempt at team tennis was so much an artistic failure as the victim of in-house feuding.

``Teams were starting to make money. It was really the owners who sabotaged themselves,'' she said. ``They didn't get along, they weren't tennis people, and they didn't have any leadership.

``I went to a couple of the league meetings and I couldn't believe grown men could act like that. I mean it was unbelievable they way they'd yell and scream.''

There may be owners raising cane this time too, but Billie Jean expects to serve as a one-woman complaint department, which is just the way she wants it. She'll essentially call the shots and have control.

The important thing, then, is to attract owners with a similar outlook and commitment. ``I'm not looking for someone who just be-bops in and says, `Oh, yeah, I want a team,'' King explains. ``I try to get people who really love tennis, care about their communities, and are willing to market and promote it year-round.''

The right kind of owners appear to have have been found to launch the eight charter franchises, each of which plays 14 matches . The Kings, in fact, are part owners of the Chicago franchise, which will compete against teams in Boston, Los Angeles, Oakland, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego, and Miami Beach.

New York is conspicuously absent from the list, but at least by having the league headquarters here, Billie Jean's vision for the future is apparent. Then too, it places TEAMTENNIS squarely in the nation's corporate and media capital.

The new commissioner is a great believer in working with corporate America and has struck a deal with Domino's Pizza to be the circuit's major sponsor. The company's level of financial commitment is such that the league will be called Domino's Pizza TEAMTENNIS. She expects the association to pay big dividends as pizza shops around the country are utilized in marketing the team tennis concept to a wide audience.

And what is that concept?

``It's fun, No. 1,'' she says. ``It's men and women participating together, with everyone having an equal opportunity to contribute to the effort. And the matches should only last about 21/2 hours.''

Just as with the previous format, each match will consist of five sets, including men's and women's singles, plus men's, women's, and mixed doubles.

In a scoring change, any set that is tied 5-5, instead of the customary 6-6, will be decided by a nine-point tiebreaker. That's to keep things moving.

The most radical alteration, however, revolves around how the players are paid. There will be no salaries. Only prize money.

The total prize money for the season has already been set at $400,000, or $50,000 from each team. Money will be paid out in each event as well as to the team, so there is an incentive to contribute to the teams' overall effort. Coaches even are paid on the basis of their team's performance.

This pay system keeps league costs fairly constant and avoids problems with skyrocketing salaries.

It also, however, precludes attracting some of the really top players, who won't find the money adequate or its non-guaranteed nature to their liking.

``We never planned on getting the big-name players,'' indicates the effervescent 41-year-old executive, whose own participation is pretty much limited to occasional doubles matches. ``You don't want to have to depend on them anyhow, because if you do you wind up in trouble, which is what happened before. We said we're not going to ever get ourselves in that bind again, where you live and die depending on who plays.

``I believe the concept is going to win out and that we are going to get players who really want to be playing team tennis, who really enjoy the atmosphere and having coaching for about a month.''

Eventually as the league expands and the pool of prize money increases she expects the superstars may sign up. For the time being, though, the league is satisfied with taking either up-and-coming talent or lesser known established players generally ranked no higher than 20th in the world. Among the names to be found on current rosters are Tony Giammalva, Rosie Casals, Vince Van Patten, and teen whiz Gabriela Sabatini.

``At Wimbledon you have 127 losers and one winner, which is why in tournament tennis we don't create more names,'' King observes. ``In baseball or basketball, though, you know more than the top player. The others may not be as famous, but at least they're known and appreciated. And hopefully over the long run we can develop that kind of appreciation.''

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