In 1989 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario surprised Steffi Graf to win the first of her three French Open titles at age 17. Tonight she’s trading baseline blasts with Ashley Harkleroad, a lithe pro once hailed as the American Kournikova. Sanchez-Vicario tucks a small gold chain into her neckline and bears down, driving a forehand that slams into the mat near an unflinching line judge.
“Let’s go, Lobsters,” someone yells, waving a foam claw. A Tom Petty song blares briefly as Sanchez-Vicario adjusts her headband and walks back to the service line. A fuzzy, bright-red crustacean mascot roams the outdoor bleachers here at Harvard University dispensing high-fives. Each child in this crowd of 500 or so clutches a racquet; every night here is racquet night, thanks to sponsor Advanta.
It’s just another day in World Team Tennis, the long-running pro league (www.wtt.com) with 11 coed teams around the US and a history of luring marquee-name participants. Venus Williams, fresh from her Centre Court triumph at Wimbledon, appeared here Wednesday, playing for the Philadelphia Freedoms.
The Newport Beach (Calif.) Breakers roster includes the names Sampras and Sharapova.
A $25, general-admission ticket gets a tennis lover up close for a night of doubles and singles events and a “half time” dance show. Parking at this venue is close and easy; $70 for the whole season (seven home games). A burger costs $3.
Local tennis instructors have come tonight to show their students some very accessible stars. Before her match, new Lobster Sanchez-Vicario had been out joking with fans and old-friend opponents from the New York Sporttimes. “There’s no tension or pressure,” the hall-of-famer had said off-court earlier, referring to the tennis she has played since her 2002 retirement. “And this weather,” she added, flashing her Sandra Bullock smile, “is like Spain.”
WTT scoring is abbreviated: It’s four points to win, no deuce or advantage; the announcer calls “two all” instead of 30-30. The court looks a bit unusual – blue and brown surface areas along with standard green. The atmosphere is decidedly looser than it is at many hushed tournaments (Eastern and Western Conference champs play later this month for the WTT title).
Sheri Weber has come down tonight from suburban Winchester, Mass., with her daughters, Jaime and Lucy, and their friend Hayley. “It’s just a fun, casual event,” Ms. Weber says, ushering the pastel-clad trio into the stands. Memorable, too. At a WTT game she attended with her girls in Indian Wells, Calif., Jaime sat in the third row and caught an errant ball.
“Go to the US Open and you’re probably sitting 100 yards away,” says Bob Bahar, third-year owner of the Lobsters. He says he can remember when people who heard his job title would ask him why he was competing with Legal Seafoods. But awareness has grown. “I do this for the community involvement,” he says. “This is what it’s all about.”