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Two superstars have a ball playing Team Tennis
Over the past five weeks, a populist spirit sneaked into the me-first world of pro tennis. It brought some unusual scenes: Jimmy Connors leaping up from the bench to hand his fellow Los Angeles Strings their towels, Martina Navratilova restringing a racket for one of her Atlanta Thunder teammates, and Billie Jean King greeting spectators at the gate in Atlanta.
All are part of Team Tennis, which has never attracted the crowds that King had hoped it would when she launched it in 1974. Still, there was a grassroots charm to the 1991 TeamTennis final last Saturday night at the humid, beer-and-cheap-champagne-soaked DeKalb Tennis Center on the outskirts of Atlanta. The Thunder beat the Strings 27-16 before 4,000 fans, and a good time was had by all.
When King recruited Navratilova and Connors last year, she brought TeamTennis its first marquee names since the late '70s. In return, the 32-day season gave Navratilova and Connors a chance to tune up for the U.S. Open in a relaxed atmosphere. Navratilova lived in a dormitory-style apartment complex behind the DeKalb Tennis Center with her coach and teammates. She cheerfully shagged balls, did her own laundry and got a $2 haircut from teammate Mariaan de Swardt. Navratilova has fallen to No. 5 in the world rankings, but she did not lose any of her 14 sets of singles and was named the league's female Most Valuable Player. In the final, she was the difference, winning 18 games and losing only five. "This is so much fun," said Navratilova. "You don't get sick to your stomach before a match."
The 38-year-old Connors, who was the league's male Rookie of the Year, was also enchanted with his first TeamTennis season. "If you asked me what I've done for the last five weeks, I'd say I've had a ball," Connors said.
With Navratilova and Connors promising to return next season, and TeamTennis hoping to expand from 11 to 16 teams and to increase its prize money from $550,000 to $1 million, the team concept may catch on yet.
Blue v. Red
The umps file a $5 million suit against Lou Piniella
Last week Richie Phillips, the executive director of the Major League Umpires Association, filed a $5 million lawsuit for defamation of character against Cincinnati Reds manager Lou Piniella. What had Piniella done? During a game between the Reds and the Houston Astros at Riverfront Stadium on Aug. 3, home plate umpire Gary Darling reversed a call by fellow ump Dutch Rennert, who thought the ball hit by Cincinnati's Bill Doran was a home run. Darling said the ball was foul. In the wild scene that followed, Piniella and outfielder Paul O'Neill were ejected from the game and fans threw debris onto the field.
The next day Piniella was quoted as saying, "He [Darling] has a bias against us. It's obvious. I don't know why that is. But if he doesn't like us for any particular reason, he should be professional out there and call the game right."