Agassi, Clijsters, Chang suit up
NEW YORK -- Andre Agassi wanted to smack some tennis balls around this summer, so he decided to take Billie Jean King up on her offer.
King, the co-founder of World Team Tennis, and commissioner Ilana Kloss traveled to his home in Las Vegas earlier this year and asked the eight-time major champion to play in their league.
"I mean, how do you say no to Billie?" Agassi said. "She's changed the face of sports. She's given anybody that has a daughter a chance at a life in sports. I have so much appreciation for what her visions are."
Agassi will play for the Philadelphia Freedoms, a franchise owned by King in the 10-team league that began its season on Thursday. He'll play at home July 10 against the Boston Lobsters and at Newport Beach, Calif., on July 17.
"I wanted to sort of re-engage in certain respects," said Agassi, who recently played an exhibition with wife Steffi Graf at Wimbledon. "Show an appreciation for the life and platform that tennis has given me."
While Agassi played for the Sacramento Capitals from 2002-04, Michael Chang and former No. 1 Kim Clijsters will make their WTT debuts this month. Chang will play for the Capitals, and Clijsters, who plans to return to the WTA tour after a two-year retirement, will suit up for two matches with the St. Louis Aces.
They'll join stars Serena Williams (Washington, D.C.), Venus Williams (Philadelphia), Maria Sharapova (Newport Beach), Martina Navratilova (Boston) and John McEnroe (New York) in the league King started in 1974.
"We always get good players," King said. "They don't have to play. Players that like teams and like to give back to communities, they like our league."
WTT is getting a boost this summer from its new partnership with the U.S. Tennis Association and a new team in New York City. In January, the USTA became a 25 percent owner of the league in an effort to expand the USTA Junior Team Tennis program.
The USTA's QuickStart clinics will be held in WTT cities -- which also include Kansas City, Mo., Springfield, Mo., and Albany, N.Y. -- providing balls, rackets and court dimensions tailored to youth under 10 years old. Serena Williams, Bob and Mike Bryan, and other pro players are scheduled to conduct the pre-match clinics.
"Where we really want to make the mark is to get more 6- to 10-year-olds in the game," said USTA executive director and COO Gordon Smith. "Tennis overall is doing well as a sport. We need to do better with the younger demographics."
The WTT's kid-friendly atmosphere includes mascots, coaches, cheerleaders and music between games.
Among young players, some will always rise to the top because they have the financial means. Smith said it's more of an attempt to find the Billie Jean King's of the world -- she took her first lesson at a public park in Long Beach, Calif.
"A huge percentage of all tennis is played in public parks," Smith said. "We want a network of regional training centers."
While professional tennis comes to 16 U.S. cities during the ATP and WTA seasons, the WTT franchises also provide "a great opportunity to bring pro tennis and market the pro game across the board," he said.
The New York Sportimes is raising its profile, moving from Mamaroneck, N.Y., to Manhattan. It's the first WTT franchise in New York City since the Apples in 1978 and features native McEnroe.
The new 2,000-seat tennis complex on Randalls Island will have 20 courts, including a traditional multicolored WTT court when it hosts the Aces in the home opener on July 7.
"We're simultaneously opening up this new $16 million tennis center, which is the largest tennis center that has been built in New York City in the last 30 years, other than the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center," said Claude Okin, managing partner of Sportimes clubs.
McEnroe's team will host Navratilova's Lobsters on July 15, which will double as a fundraiser for the Randalls Island Sports Foundation. King will be on hand for the event, and proceeds will benefit the renovation of the island, which includes a new track, and soccer and baseball fields.
"We've known for two to three years that Randalls Island could happen," King said. "We were really thrilled when we knew it was for real. It's going to be fantastic. It's going to be our stadium."
So how has the coed, team-oriented league survived in various cities and incarnations for nearly 35 years?
"If we don't have it, we don't spend it," Kloss said. "We've been able to adjust, we're a small company, so we're nimble. And the product is entertaining."
Kloss says it's affordable for fans and owners. Ticket prices range from $15 in the bleachers to $60 for a box seat. Kids under 16 get free tennis rackets and autographs.
Franchise fees range from $100,000 to $1 million, depending on the team, she said. Every league team offers tickets to underserved youth.
The economic downturn has affected some teams and sponsorships. The Delaware Smash in Wilmington folded, Gatorade ended its eight-year commitment and financial services companies are providing fewer hospitality tents.
But the league picked up apparel sponsor Turfer Athletic, keeping the number of sponsors at eight, and Kloss expects strong ticket sales because families are likely to stay closer to home this summer.
The WTT championship will be played on July 26 in Washington, D.C.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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