World Team Tennis (1974-1978)
Born: 1973 – WTT founding franchise
Died: October 27, 1978 – The Apples cease operations
Owner: Sol Berg
The New York Sets/Apples were a pro tennis franchise active in Manhattan from 1974 to 1978. The club was active for all five season of World Team Tennis (1974-1978), a funky little organization that attempted to graft the classic tropes of American professional team sports (team scoring, standings, cheerleaders, booing and cheering) onto the hushed, snooty atmosphere of the pro tennis tour. The league was founded in 1973 by serial sports entrepreneur Dennis Murphy in partnership with the game’s greatest female star, Billie Jean King, her husband/business partner Larry King, and a few others investors.
Jerry Saperstein, son of Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein, originally held the New York franchise but quickly sold it off to Sol Berg. WTT owners were inexplicably enamored with team names relating to the rules and equipment of the game. Loves, Nets, Racquets and Strings were among franchise monikers. New York ended up with one of the dullest and least imaginative – the New York Sets.
The Sets debuted on May 7, 1974, losing to the Hawaii Leis before an announced crowd of 4,990 at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum. Under WTT’s novel scoring system, each match consisted of five sets – one each of men’s singles and doubles, women’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles. There were no love or advantages – each game of a set was simply scored zero, 1, 2, 3, game. Match scoring was simply the cumulative games won from each of the five sets.
The Sets finished in the cellar in 1974 with a 15-29 record. Fans were largely indifferent – the club drew an average of just 2,869 for 22 home dates during the summer. But the Sets’ fortunes changed in February 1975 when the Sets traded for league founder Billie Jean King, whose Philadelphia Freedoms franchise was about to go under. King, still a formidable player at age 31, made the team an immediate contender. The Sets made the playoffs in 1975 and won the World Team Tennis championship in 1976, sweeping the Oakland-based Golden Gaters. The decisive match drew 5,730 to the Nassau Coliseum in late August.
In 1977 the club moved into Manhattan, splitting dates between the 17,800-seat Madison Square Garden and the more intimate 3,700-seat Felt Forum tucked inside the Garden. To celebrate the move, the club also re-branded, dropping the dreadful “Sets” nickname and becoming the New York Apples for the 1977 season.
The Garden was favored for bigger matches, such as a June 6, 1977 match against the Phoenix Racquets which showcased the two biggest stars of the women’s pro tour: Billie Jean King of the Sets and Chris Evert of the Racquets. The match drew a league record 13,675 fans. The Apples repeated as WTT champions in 1977 and attendance surged 38% with the move to Manhattan, topping 100,000 for the season and an average of 4,939 per match.
For the 1978 season, the Apples added a male superstar to pair with King, adding 23-year old Vitas Gerulaitis, who ranked as one of the top five males in the world at the time. The Apples also added a 21-year old rookie out of Douglaston, New York named Mary Carillo. Carillo would go on to become one of the great broadcasters of tennis and a highly respected reporter on HBO’s Real Sports and NBC’s Olympics coverage in the 1990’s and 2000’s.
There would be no third straight title for the Apples in 1978. The New Yorkers ran into another star-studded team in the playoff semi-finals – the Los Angeles Strings led by Evert and the temperamental Romanian Ilie Nastase. Here JoAnne Russell of the Apples takes on Evert in the decisive August 24th, 1978 semi-final match:
The Strings ousted the defending champion Apples on this night and went on to win the final championship of World Team Tennis in September 1978. This televised match turned out to be the final one the Apples franchise ever played. Team owner Sol Berg shutdown the Apples on October 27, 1978 in tandem with Boston Lobsters owner Robert Kraft. Berg and Kraft cited an inability (or unwillingness – it wasn’t totally clear) of WTT owners to sign the biggest stars of the men’s and women’s game as their reason for withdrawing.