The atp's announcement that starting this fall, doubles matches will feature five-game sets and no-ad scoring will strike some as a radical change. It's nothing, though, compared with some of the twists and innovations that have come to define World Team Tennis. This endearingly quirky 12-team league, which inaugurates its 30th season this week, was created in the irrepressible--and occasionally quixotic--image of its cofounder, Billie Jean King. In short, WTT matches tend to resemble a cross between a tennis event and a county fair. "It's extreme tennis," says Andy Roddick, who will play for the St. Louis Aces.
So fans are encouraged to tailgate. Music blares between points as mascots prance on the sidelines. The coed teams are permitted mid-match substitutions. This season coaches can challenge line calls using instant replay. The abiding goal is to de-starch the sport or, as King puts it, "bring a new kind of energy to tennis."
The alphabet soup organizations that rule tennis have little use for a renegade league that siphons stars from sanctioned tournaments. But among players, WTT is universally adored. The roster reads like an intergenerational Hall of Fame ballot, peppered as it is with names like John McEnroe, Maria Sharapova, Anna Kournikova, Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, who is playing competitively for the first time since 1999. "Tennis is the ultimate individual sport," says Martina Hingis, who will play against Martina Navratilova--billed as "The Battle of the Martinas"--this Thursday. "The team spirit, that's what is important to me."
How can a league that holds its matches in small amphitheaters and racket clubs (and in the case of the Sacramento Capitals, a makeshift court on a mall parking lot) cover the salaries for so many A-listers? The answer: Last March, King persuaded a frequent tennis partner, Dennis Alter, the CEO of Advanta, to have his company sponsor the league. At WTT, they're accustomed to getting creative. -- L. Jon Wertheim