The U.S.S.R. made sports history last week when its team of six amateurs joined the professional ranks—namely. World Team Tennis—and the mobs at airport baggage claim areas. During the first hectic days of the WTT season, the Soviets, as the home-courtless franchise is called, lost all but one of their five matches, but they were just what the league needed as it struggled into its fourth season.
The Soviets are the league's road show, and WTT got them going with a bang and an overhead smash, sending them off to play a whirlwind series of matches before curious and appreciative crowds. They ate birthday cake, sailed souvenir tennis balls into the stands and filled their luggage with keys to various cities and other trinkets as they embarked on their 44-match, countrywide WTT tour.
The odyssey, which began in Indianapolis on Tuesday, featured an extravaganza on Saturday against Chris Evert and the Phoenix Racquets in, of all places, Plains, Ga., and a capacity crowd turned out for what was billed as the Peanut Tennis Classic with Billy Carter and Miz Lillian serving as hosts. While a Dixieland band played, Bobby Riggs threw candy to the crowd, Billy Carter puzzled over a forehand grip on his beer can, Instamatic cameras clicked like locusts, fetching Southern belles swooned and an exasperated Chris Evert got autograph elbow.
The well-mannered Russians might have been excused for dashing back home screaming and pulling the Iron Curtain closed behind them, but in truth they got a kick out of the hoopla. The jamboree at Plains was not entirely foreign to the Soviet players, for they speak fluent English—including slang—wear jeans and their hair long, sport gold jewelry, eat Big Macs and dig Neil Diamond and Elton John. "They've been over here so often, they're more like neighbors than foreigners," says Billie Jean King.
It was against King's New York Apples, the defending WTT champions, that the Soviets indicated they may grow to be as good at top-spin backhands as they are at wheat deals. They defeated New York 27-24 in overtime in Birmingham Friday night, coming from behind to do so and showing that once they master doubles strategy, they could have a winning record.
It should be remembered that while the Russians are superb at hockey and not all that bad at basketball, tennis is still in its infancy in the Soviet Union, where there are only an estimated 45,000 players and few facilities. In popularity tennis ranks behind weight lifting, rowing, figure skating and chess. And although Jimmy Carter "plays every day for his exercise," according to Miz Lillian, Leonid Brezhnev is an ice hockey fan.
The nucleus of the Russian team is Alex Metreveli and Olga Morozova, both of whom have been on the international scene for years. Metreveli, 32, is an eight-time U.S.S.R. national champion and the 1973 Wimbledon runner-up, and in 1975 was ranked ninth in the world. He's a good ol' Georgia boy in his own right—Soviet Georgia, that is. The spirited, enthusiastic Morozova, 28, leads the cheering from the sidelines when she is not playing, shouting "Zdorovo" (well done) after a particularly good shot. She defeated King 6-2 in Birmingham, and afterward King told her, "You always play well against me." Zdorovo,
In singles, the Russians can hold their own—the women, for example, defeated Evert, Sue Barker and King during the week—but doubles seem to confound them, a liability in WTT play because three of the five matches are doubles. In the Soviets' first four matches, they won only one doubles, and in Binghamton, N.Y. on Sunday, when they dropped a 31-17 decision to the league favorites, the Boston Lobsters, the pattern continued. The Soviets did not take any of the doubles sets.
The other players on the team are Teimuraz Kakulia, Konstantin Pugayev, Natasha Chmyreva and Jania Biryukova. The stocky Kakulia has a good forehand, a weak backhand and occasionally makes errors in judgment that cause Metreveli endless anguish. Kakulia celebrated his 30th birthday at the league opener on Tuesday, so the Indiana Loves gave him a birthday cake.
The 18-year-old Chmyreva is by all accounts headed for stardom. She is a two-time Wimbledon Juniors champion and the 1975 Forest Hills juniors titlist, and she is 5'9". Despite her size, Chmyreva has a country-club serve, but her volley is excellent. She broke Evert's service four times while beating her 7-5. It was Evert's second straight singles defeat; she had lost to Greer Stevens of Boston on Friday night. "And last year, Chris lost only one singles match in the entire first half of the season," said Jimmy Walker, president of the Phoenix Racquets.