Its founders included Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and 7-foot-1-inch, 276-pound former NBA behemoth Wilt Chamberlain. Which, in retrospect, seems appropriate.
Because by and large — and for all its iterations — World Team Tennis still is mostly about the tennis.
It was conceived as a mixed-gender league in which fledgling pros play alongside some of tennis’ biggest names in a team format. The stars usually commit only to a match or two, but their presence usually generates interest and a nice crowd. It’s a business model that has enabled the league to survive in the margins of professional sport for 44 seasons.
This summer, Las Vegas gets a team of its own.
Called the Rollers, it will be headed by chest-bumping Mike and Bob Bryan, the most prolific doubles team in tennis history. Former Wimbledon semifinalist Sam Querrey will unfurl his big serve in men’s singles; reigning Olympic champion Monica Puig and homegrown Asia Muhammad will add additional tennis appeal on the women’s side. Home matches will be played at Orleans Arena.
A trophy will be presented to the winning team upon conclusion of a 14-match season — the Orleans also will host the championship rounds — but it almost seems an afterthought.
With the entire season crammed into a three-week hiatus on the men’s and women’s tours, the fluctuating league is mostly about friends getting together for communal laughs and improvised ground strokes. It also can be loud and electric. It has evolved into something resembling a rock ‘n’ roll jam session.
But if you remember the Traveling Wilburys, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It’s five sets, really high energy, and you’re going to see every type of tennis — women’s singles, men’s singles, mixed doubles, doubles, women’s doubles,” Mike Bryan said after returning from the French Open. He and twin brother Bob will provide the Rollers with an energetic vibe that should help fill seats at Orleans Arena for a CBS televised match against the Philadelphia Freedoms — the former team of Billie Jean King and No. 1 fan Elton John — on July 21.
“We have been playing WTT since we first turned professional,” Bob Bryan said. “We feel the competitive nature of WTT best prepares us for the U.S. summer hard court swing. Mike and I are really looking forward to playing in Vegas. It’s going to be a fun couple of days.”
It also will be the first sustained major tennis presence in Las Vegas since the Tennis Channel Open folded in 2008.
The Alan King Classic at Caesars Palace was a Grand Prix event from 1972 to ‘85 and produced champions such as John Newcombe, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl. It also was where a towheaded 4-year-old from Las Vegas named Andre Agassi volleyed with Connors during breaks in the action.
But other than the United States’ 1995 Davis Cup semifinal against Sweden, the 2000 women’s Federation Cup final pitting the U.S. against Spain (that bombed at the box office) and the ill-fated Tennis Channel event — the Bryan brothers were two-time champions — the city’s exposure to big-time tennis has been minimal.
“It’s a shame there’s not a huge event out there,” Mike Bryan said. “The (Association of Tennis Professionals Tour) schedule is just so packed with tournaments these days that everyone is fighting for a week on the calendar.”
Having turned 41 in April, the Bryan brothers are nearing the end of spectacular careers that saw them hold the No. 1 world doubles ranking for a record 438 weeks and win more games, sets and matches than any other duo in tennis history.
“Right now we really see it as our last chapter, but we’d love to have a couple of big results on the way out,” Mike Bryan said. “That’s what keeps us going, and having a lot of fun and enjoying our last stops at some of these places. It’s about giving back to the community, and hopefully we’ll inspire some kids to take up the sport. That’s pretty much what it’s about for us now.”
But behind the scenes, that’s pretty much what it’s always been about for musically inclined Mike (drums and guitar) and Bob (keyboards), whose ties to Las Vegas go beyond World Team Tennis and a longstanding relationship with Andre Agassi, their idol growing up.
About 10 years ago the brothers from Southern California teamed with Marty Hennessy’s Inspiring Children Foundation to form Team Bryan, a youth tennis, arts and development program that has helped send more than 100 teenagers to prestigious colleges and universities and turned lives around.
Ryan Wolfington, who co-founded the foundation’s Las Vegas tennis academy with Rollers coach and former UNLV national doubles champion Tim Blenkiron, tells a story about how the Bryans — and their show business friends Adam Sandler, Kevin James and Jewel — inspired a suicidal local youngster to overcome her darkest hour.
“Mike and Bob wrote her a song at Wimbledon, and the moment I played her that video in the hospital it kind of snapped her out of it and she changed as a person,” Wolfington said. “That they would even know who she is and care about her gave her the initial desire to want to live again.”
That student recently was accepted to Stanford — not only one of the world’s foremost universities, but the very school at which Mike and Bob Bryan excelled on the court and in the classroom.
So to recap, World Team Tennis is coming to Las Vegas. And by and large, it is still about the tennis.
But sometimes it’s about something more.