A private league bringing together Nadal, Djokovic, Agassi and Sampras? Not exactly unheard of. The Asian project is actually strongly inspired by a league that existed in the U.S. in the 70s. Red this incredible story in the MAG.

Mahesh Bhupathi didn't invent anything with his private league project. 40 years ago, in 1974, some young American promoters decided to transform tennis in a collective sports show, that could also apply to the NBA or NFL. Colourful courts, new regulations and puzzled stars: the adventure lasted for four years, the time to create a happy little mess in the civilized world of the racquet...

 

The announcement at the end of February was a bombshell: the Indian Mahesh Bhupathi, 39, professional tennis player and doubles specialist, will introduce from November a new competition under the name of International Premier Tennis League (IPTL). The idea is to organize a tennis championship in various Asian cities that would bring together current players, including Nadal, Djokovic, Azarenka and Serena Williams, and former stars, including Agassi, Sampras and Martina Hingis. A competition with its own rules, which would reduce the matches to a single set and impose the tiebreak at 5-5. Crazy? Yes a little. Unheard of? Not exactly. The IPTL is actually inspired by a league founded in the U.S. in 1973 and called the World Team Tennis (WTT).

 

And the ball became… yellow.

 

At the time, professional tennis, which was still in its beginnings, was in crisis. The ATP had just been created and it wasn't as well organized than today. Seeing a potentially lucrative business to be made in the sport, promoters saw an opportunity and tried to seize it. Two tennis leagues were then successively founded: the National Tennis League (NTL) in September 1972 and the International Professional Tennis League (IPTL, already this acronym...) in February of the following year. The two quickly merged to form the World Team Tennis (WTT), whose motto said it all: "A whole new ball game." In other words, they wanted to revolutionize a sport considered dusty to fit the American standards of entertainment. The promoters behind this project, Larry King (the husband of Billie Jean King), the young Jerry Buss (future boss of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA) and Bob Kraft (who will later buy the New England Patriots in NFL) agreed to a radical (r)evolution of the regulations. For better readability, they decided to replace the "15-30-40" system by games worth 7 points each. To increase the speed, they also decided to promote matches in one winner set with a tiebreak at 5-5 (again, the 2014 version of IPTL didn't invent anything). Finally, to improve the show, they organize the matches on multi-coloured courts and test the yellow ball that the ATP would only adopt for its own tournaments from 1978.

 

"A threat" to tennis, according to Ashe

 

A total of 16 licenses were purchased at a price of 250,000 USD each. A championship was organized, the American way, with an East conference and West conference. The franchises were called Philadelphia Freedoms, Los Angeles Strings, Pittsburgh Triangles, Boston Lobsters, San Francisco Golden Gaters, Hawaii Leis... Remained to convince the best players of the moment to embark on the adventure. The clinching argument was, obviously, the money: John Newcombe was the first star to sign a contract with the WTT for a check of 50,000 USD. Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas, Ilie Nastase, Bjorn Borg, Evonne Goolagong and Chris Evert all followed. But not everyone gave in to the lure. Among the protesters, Arthur Ashe even said that the WTT was a "threat to all the professional tour." Stan Smith also rejected what he considered as a masquerade. "Playing a match in two sets, without advantages in the games, with a tie-break at 5 all and a possible replacement of the player in the third set, I'm sorry but I don't call this tennis," he said. But the biggest revolt came from Europe and especially Italy and France, which saw their tournaments directly threatened by this new competition. The WTT was indeed planning to take place between early May and late August, only providing a short break for Wimbledon.

 

Connors, deprived of Grand Slam

 

Philippe Chatrier, president of the French Tennis Federation at the time, went on the offensive and demanded for all players under contract with the WTT to be prohibited to participate in any tournament on French soil, Roland Garros included. Jimmy Connors, was then punished in 1974, while he was en route to the Grand Slam. Year after year, the seasons of the WTT - also called "Intercity league" - were organized in a carnival atmosphere, with mascots and loud audiences that were disturbing the players, unaccustomed to these kind of atmospheres... The matches were held between teams of at least four: two men, two women, with one men's simple and one men's doubles, one women's singles and one women's doubles and mixed doubles to finish. The Denver’s Racquets were crowned champions in 1974, while the last to win the championship were the Los Angeles Strings in 1978. Because after only four years of activity, the crazy adventure came to an end. Audience figures were in free fall, the protests of the ATP didn't weaken and some franchises were forced into bankruptcy. Quickly, the WTT fell into oblivion. Until its concept resurfaced this year in Asia in a modernized form called IPTL...

 

 

By Régis Delanoë