A 360-degree look at tennis - forward to the Aug. 30 start of the U.S. Open, backward to semi-retired legends, with sideways glimpses at innovations - is available this month with the Randalls Island-based New York Sportimes of World Team Tennis.
WTT teams - there are 10 - are coed, pack a 14-game schedule into three weeks of July and tabulate final scores by counting games won (rather than sets won). Each competition features one set apiece of men's singles, women's singles, mixed doubles, men's doubles and women's doubles, played on courts color-coded to separate the ad and deuce courts, service boxes and doubles alleys. Scoring (five games win a set, rather than six), is simplified: 1-2-3-4 instead of 15-30-40-game.
"We get a nice group of players," said Sportimes owner Claude Okin, the tennis club entrepreneur who opened the team's new $19-million flagship Sportime club last year and has partnered there with John McEnroe's tennis academy. "It's a combination of legends, some of the world's current top-ranked players and players ranked 50th to 150th, guys and women about to make an impact."
Okin's team features, on a part-time basis, McEnroe himself, as well as reigning Open champion Kim Clijsters, plus Jesse Witten, the 22-year-old who last year made his major-tournament breakthrough by advancing to the Open's third round, and Ashley Harkleroad, who once was ranked as high as 39th.
Rosters consist of "core players," contracted for all 14 games on the schedule; marquee players such as McEnroe, Andy Roddick of the Philadelphia Freedoms, Serena and Venus Williams of the Washington Kastles, Maria Sharapova of the Newport Beach Breakers, Lindsay Davenport of the St. Louis Aces; and "exempt players," who are "drafted" into the various visiting markets. For instance, Roddick was drafted by the Sportimes for this Wednesday's home game and will play McEnroe.
And other familiar names, recently retired from the pro circuit who otherwise would be in the part-time "legends" category, are available for the entire season, such as Davenport and Martina Hingis of the Albany-based New York Buzz.
"It's part exhibition and part financial opportunity," said Okin, 48, who opened his first tennis club in Amagansett when he was 19 and recalls stringing rackets for Long Island's original WTT team, the New York Sets (then Apples), 35 years ago. "But what people don't get is how competitive it is. They're playing for prize money every night; for some of the young players, this can make it possible to continue their careers."
For the spectators - the Randalls Island facility seats just over 2,000, with non-discounted tickets ranging from $40 to $125 for matches that feature marquee players, and $50 for a family of four on other nights - Okin said there also is a "guarantee" that all kids will get an autograph after the match.
Because touring pros are just stepping into the U.S. hardcourt season in July after Wimbledon, the WTT season fits into a narrow scheduling window. Okin, who played Division III tennis at Vassar before finishing his education at Stony Brook, has been able to count on longtime relationships in the sport to help recruitment. When Patrick McEnroe created a new WTT franchise in 2000 with the intention of basing it in the Hamptons, he went to Okin's Sportime club in Quogue.
Sportime took over ownership in 2003, moving to another Okin club in Westchester before settling on Randalls Island last year. "Now, John McEnroe has ended up being my real partner here," Okin said. "We wrapped the team tennis around his academy to bring attention to John. Though he doesn't really need more attention."