A Return to Forest Hills Stadium
July 31, 2016
The first question about this dispatch has to be: What are you doing watching World TeamTennis? I’ve been opposed to the format since its inception, for two reasons. First, it’s more like an exhibition than a serious event. Second, and even more important, it detracts from the main tour – or at least it did when WTT ran for a longer period on the calendar. (In 1974, Jimmy Connors was barred from Roland Garros for signing a contract with WTT.) Now, the WTT season is much shorter (12 contests per season versus the original 44) and there’s less of a main tour to detract from, at least in the United States. By way of comparison, I looked at the tournaments on the men’s main tour, then known as the Grand Prix, in the United States in 1978, which was the final year of the original version of World Team Tennis (back when “Team” and “Tennis” were separate words). The list is so long as to be almost incomprehensible today:
2. Boca Raton
7. Little Rock
9. St. Louis
10. Palm Springs
14. Washington (indoor)
15. Las Vegas
18. San Jose
19. Las Vegas (yes, again)
21. Dallas (WCT finals)
23. Forest Hills (WCT)
25. Washington (outdoor)
27. South Orange
28. North Conway
29. New Orleans
36. US Open
37. Woodlands (doubles)
39. Los Angeles
40. San Francisco
41. Maui (last US stop on regular tour – at beginning of October)
42. Masters (Madison Square Garden)
By contrast, here is the list in 2016:
2. Delray Beach
3. Indian Wells
11. US Open
Part of this is the shrinking of the tour worldwide – the ATP is now down to 62 tournaments per year, as opposed to the 96 in 1978. Another part is the decreased popularity of tennis in the US. In 1978, eleven of the year-end top twenty were Americans: Connors, John McEnroe, Gerulaitis, Dibbs, Gottfried, Solomon, Tanner, Ashe, Sandy Mayer, Tim Gullikson, and Stockton. At this writing, John Isner, at number 17, is the only American in the top twenty (and, as it happens, he is playing WTT this summer). Small wonder that over half the ATP events this year are in Europe.
This lengthy exegesis is meant to provide justification, at least to the satisfaction of its author, for supporting an enterprise of questionable value. That the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills is a short subway ride away from my home does not hurt, either. While I would be happier to attend a Challenger event at Forest Hills – and there was such an event from 2003 to 2007 – WTT was on offer now, and I succumbed.
Forest Hills Stadium (italicized hyperlinks lead to photographs) has deteriorated over the years, its rise and fall chronicled here and here. It’s not in great condition today, but presumably it’s no longer a “hard-hat area,” and the Empire has installed seats with backs near the court, which are far more comfortable than the stadium’s old bleachers. On the opposite side of the court is the stage for the stadium’s concerts, repurposed as seating with tables, and the West Side Tennis Club’s neo-Tudor clubhouse is visible in the background. There are four portraits under the stands, of Guillermo Vilas, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and John McEnroe. It had been many years since I’d been at the stadium, and I’d forgotten how small it is, but the demand for US Open tickets, even during a spike of popularity for tennis in the 1970s, was not what it is today.
Before the match began, there was an opening ceremony featuring the commissioner of WTT, Ilana Kloss, and a tribute to Billie Jean King and Virginia Wade, as well as a visit from New York City’s former mayor David Dinkins (who is four years younger than the stadium) and the national anthem from Sydney James Harcourt, who now plays Aaron Burr in Hamilton.
The current iteration of WTT has only six teams playing a two-week schedule (plus the final just before the US Open): the New York Empire, a new franchise, as well as the Orange County Breakers, Philadelphia Freedoms, San Diego Avatars, Springfield Lasers, and Washington Kastles. The match I attended was between the Empire and the Kastles. (Why are they called the Kastles? I have learned that that’s the name of the business owned by the team’s owner, Mark Ein. This also explains why there was a man on the Kastles’ bench who did not look like a player and had “EIN” on the back of his shirt. Had I known, I would have got a better photo of him than this one.)
No one seems to take WTT all that seriously: for the first match in Empire franchise history, the coach, Patrick McEnroe, had other obligations at the Rogers Cup, and Katrina Adams, president of the USTA, substituted for him. (That the president of the national federation would participate in a WTT match shows how innocuous the league has become.) The Empire’s roster nominally includes Andy Roddick, Noah Rubin, and Daniel Nguyen, none of whom were present for the July 31 match. Instead, their players were Maria Irigoyen, Christina McHale, Guido Pella, Neal Skupski, and Taylor Townsend, who does not show up on the league’s website and never removed her warmups at this match. (The Wall Street Journal has reported that Roddick, a part owner of WTT, will play two matches for the Empire.) If Townsend remains on the team, there will be some irony in her being coached by McEnroe, who in 2012 was involved in the decision to cut her USTA funding until she lost weight. Notwithstanding valid concerns about body image and eating disorders, the USTA had a point. Townsend is 20 now and, despite her talent, mired at number 146 in the world. There’s no diplomatic way to say it: she does not look like she is in shape to play world-class tennis.
The Kastles in attendance were Coach Murphy Jensen, Madison Brengle, Martina Hingis, Denis Kudla, Leander Paes (at 43, old enough to have been alive when the US Open was last played at Forest Hills), and Anastasia Rodionova. The unseen members of the roster were Bob and Mike Bryan, Mardy Fish, Nick Kyrgios, Sam Querrey, and Sam Groth.
WTT can’t resist gimmicks, which included some of the players wearing cameras on their heads during warmups (see McHale and Kudla) and the obligatory ear-splitting music in the background. (After the start of play, the volume of music played during breaks was moderated.) Everything is designed for speed: no-ad scoring, serves that touch the net cord are in play, changeovers only after four games, sets won by the first player to 5 games, and 9-point tiebreaks at 4-4. There is a “halftime” after the first three sets, and the final set of the evening was held up after a changeover while we waited for a television commercial break to end.
The night opened with men’s doubles between Paes/Kudla and Skupski/Pella. Each team was broken once and the set went to a tiebreak, at which point Paes seemed to shed 20 years. He led his team to a 4-0 lead and they claimed the tiebreak, 5-1.
Hingis/Rodionova and McHale/Irigoyen followed in women’s doubles. In another WTT gimmick, the teammates warmed up on opposite sides of the net, as Hingis hit with Rodionova and McHale with Irigoyen. It was as though WTT wanted to make a statement: “We’re warriors. We can’t warm up with our opponents.” Hingis served out the set for a 5-2 win, saving three break points from 1-3. She remains a breed apart: all the other players wore their last names on their backs, but not she, as if to say, “If you have to ask who I am, you don’t belong here.”
The Empire drew to within 12-11 when Pella took the men’s singles from Kudla, 5-2. Kudla was as high as 53rd in the ATP rankings this May, but now he’s at number 120. He’s listed at 5’11” and may be shorter than that, but he is a hard hitter. Pella, a lefty now nestled in the top 50, had entered the top 40 in March, and he made Roger Federer play two tiebreaks in the first round of Wimbledon this year.
Probably the most important point of the evening came in the mixed doubles. The Kastles’ team of Hingis/Paes served for the set, leading 4-2 3-3 over the Empire’s McHale/Skupski. The cumulative score for the match was 16-13. Hingis missed her first serve. If McHale could return the second serve effectively (the mixed doubles rule being that return of serve on 3-3 deciding points belongs to the player of the same gender as the server), the Empire could draw to within 16-14 and still be alive in the mixed doubles set. But she netted her return, giving the Kastles the set and an overall lead of 17-13.
After that, the women’s singles set between McHale – 58th in the world and Serena Williams’s most difficult opponent at Wimbledon this year – and Brengle, currently 50th in the rankings, was something of an anticlimax. McHale arguably has more game than Brengle, but often faltered after establishing a lead in the point. With two breaks of serve, Brengle took a 3-0 lead, and she eventually closed out the set, 5-2, giving Washington a 22-15 victory. The local fans did not seem too bent out of shape by the home team’s defeat.
The good news about WTT is that the players are on salary and all seemed pretty happy and free of stress. This is also the bad news about WTT, because it means that the stakes are low and play is not on the highest level. But I don’t think the ATP tour is returning to South Orange, so this will have to do. If it means a payday for a few more players without disrupting the main tour, I can’t object, any more than I do to the Bundesliga.