World Team Tennis launched in 1974, intent on bringing top flight tennis out of the polite confines of the country clubs and into America’s raucous hockey and basketball palaces. Founders Dennis Murphy, Jordan Kaiser and Larry King (husband of league front woman Billie Jean King) sought to sell the product through a combination of star power, promotional gimmickry and nods to established team sports tropes.
Matches took place on candy-colored courts. Organizers encouraged fans to cheer loudly during rallies and to heckle opponents. World Team Tennis introduced a co-ed team sports league to the national sporting scene, drafting off the sensational publicity from the previous year’s “Battle of the Sexes” tennis exhibition between Bobby Riggs and WTT’s marquee star, Billie Jean King.
Teams were composed of three men and three women, playing two sets each of men’s and women’s singles and two sets of mixed doubles. (This format was quickly abandoned after early matches dragged on for up to four hours, replaced by a five-set format, featuring one set each of men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles). The league featured a simplified “no-ad” scoring system meant to appeal to a broader swath of American sports fans, with 4 points winning a game, rather than the traditional Love-15-30-40 scoring familiar to tennis enthusiasts.
Some of the innovations didn’t sit well with Dennis Ralston, the U.S. Davis Cup captain and traditionalist player/coach of the Hawaii Leis, one of sixteen World Team Tennis franchises that debuted in May of 1974.
“Tennis is not like baseball,” Ralston complained to The Associated Press after one month of play in June 1974. “In Philadelphia and Baltimore, people would yell ‘Miss it!’ when you were serving and the announcers encourage them…pretty soon people will start throwing bottles.”
The Leis were owned by Don Kelleher, a lumber salesman from San Rafael, California. Home matches took place at the 7,500-seat Honolulu International Center as well as the gym at Honolulu’s McKinley High School. The 1974 edition of the Leis finished last in World Team Tennis’ Pacific Division with a 14-30 record. In the 16-team league, only the 13-31 Toronto/Buffalo Royals fared worse. It would be the only time in the three-year history of the lowly Leis that another team finished with a grimmer record.
In April 1975, one month before the start of WTT’s second season, the Leis signed the 32-year old Australian star Margaret Court. Court won all four Grand Slam singles tournaments in 1970, becoming the first of only three women ever to do so. One month later, the Leis got an unexpected opportunity to pair another marquee name with Court when the Houston E-Z Riders franchise abruptly folded on the eve of the season, leaving the league’s biggest male star without an employer. At age 30, Australian John Newcombe owned 23 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles competition. In 1973, Newcombe had been the first male star to sign a contract with World Team Tennis, defying his Association of Tennis Professionals union which initially opposed its members joining the un-sanctioned league.
But Newcombe struggled through an injury-plagued campaign with the Leis in 1975. In a WTT match against the Pittsburgh Triangles in June, Newcombe tore cartilage in his knee, which caused him to miss Wimbledon. The 1975 Leis finished 14-30 for the second straight year, tied for the worst record in World Team Tennis. Neither Court nor Newcombe would return in 1976.
In December 1975, the Leis inked the combustible 29-year old Romanian Ilie Nastase to a one-year contract for the 1976 season worth a reported $125,000. Nastase’s arrival was a coup for Leis owner Don Kelleher and all of World Team Tennis. The top male players had been somewhat slow to join the league and Nastase was a legitimate superstar and publicity magnet- winner of the 1972 U.S. Open and 1973 French Open and the ATP’s #1 ranked male player for 1973. With Nastase under contract, the Leis cut John Newcombe loose, selling his negotiating rights to the Los Angeles Strings. Meanwhile, Margaret Court retired to have her third child.
Despite Nastase’s presence, the Leis still averaged fewer than 3,000 fans per match during the first half of the 1976 WTT campaign. In early July, Kelleher announced that the team would move six late season matches to Portland, Oregon’s Memorial Coliseum and the Seattle Center Coliseum to test those markets for a potential relocation of the franchise in 1977. The Leis continued to regress on the court, finishing dead last in World Team Tennis’ 10-team format with a 12-32 record. Kelleher made the move to the Pacific Northwest official in a September 1976 press conference, announcing that his club would be known as the Sea-Port Cascades in 1977 while splitting matches between Portland and Seattle.
The 1977 Sea-Port Cascades were a rather unglamorous group. Nastase did not make the move to the Pacific Northwest, signing instead with the Los Angeles Strings. By World Team Tennis’ fourth season in 1977, the league had attracted many of the sport’s top stars, including Bjorn Borg (Cleveland-Pittsburgh), Rod Laver (San Diego), Nastase (Los Angeles), Chris Evert (Phoenix), Martina Navratilova (Boston) and Billie Jean King in New York, alongside the 1977 Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade. The Cascades biggest “name” was the Dutch doubles specialist Betty Stove, who lost to Wade in the 1977 Wimbledon singles final. Tom Gorman of the United States signed on as the Cascades player/coach.
The 1977 Cascades finished 18-26, good enough for fourth place and a franchise first: a playoff appearance. The division-winning Phoenix Racquets, led by Evert, made quick work of the Cascades, dispatching them in the WTT quarterfinals.
Kelleher moved the club to Seattle full-time for the 1978 season and sold minority interests in the team to four area businessmen. The Cascades added one-off appearances to the schedule in Boise, Corvallis and Portland, to go with 19 home dates at the Seattle Center Coliseum. Under Gorman’s direction as player/coach once again, the re-named Seattle Cascades posted a 20-24 record in 1978. It was the franchise’s fifth consecutive losing season dating back to the Hawaii days, but also their best performance and it earned the club its second straight playoff berth. In the quarterfinals, the Cascades upset the division winning San Diego Friars. The Boston Lobsters eliminated the Cascades in the World Team Tennis semi-finals in late August 1978.
After the season, World Team Tennis named Cascades doubles specialist Sherwood Stewart as the league’s most valuable first-year player for 1978. Meanwhile, Kelleher and his Seattle-based minority partners announced the club would not return to Seattle and explored selling the team to Houston interests due to disappointing attendance. The Cascades averaged only 1,695 fans per match in 1978, down from 3,100 per game in 1977 when the club split matches between Portland and Seattle.
The effort became moot when the Cascades and the rest of World Team Tennis folded in November 1978.
Former Hawaii Leis Margaret Court, Ilie Nastase and Dennis Ralston have all been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
A scaled back version of Team Tennis returned in 1981, with smaller venues, fewer contemporary stars and far less media attention. The league later revived the “World Team Tennis” brand name and continues to play today, typically in country club settings rather than the large hockey and basketball arenas of the 1970′s.