LOS ANGELES — "Are there any fines in team tennis?" asked Jimmy Connors.
"Yes!" said Billie Jean King. "You're in trouble!"
-- Byplay at news conference
LOS ANGELES -- Team tennis -- or as chief executive officer King would have it, TEAMTENNIS -- got back into the competition for glamour names the other day by announcing the signings of Connors and Martina Navratilova.
They are 38 and 34 respectively, and past their primes, but they are proven ticket sellers, and represent at least a partial return to the policies of 1974-1978. The league was then known as World Team Tennis (WTT) and had such players as Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg, Ilie Nastase, Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Margaret Court.
Navratilova and Connors played back then, Navratilova for the Cleveland Nets and Boston Lobsters, Connors in '74 for the Baltimore Banners. They have not been assigned to new teams yet, but one will be put in the East, one in the West, said King.
Bringing them back for the five-week 1991 season is a good move for King and her husband, Larry, part owners of team tennis, which they resurrected in 1981 after it had moldered in a grave for two years. Navratilova played for the Los Angeles Strings in '81, but mostly lesser players have been used and relatively low prize money offered.
Maybe the league's projected nine to 12 teams can be a happy stopping-off place between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open for fading stars who still have marquee value. Maybe the signing of Navratilova and Connors to guaranteed, multi-year contracts will spur younger players to join up.
"It worked out for both of us," said Navratilova. "It was good
timing for me. I'm not tired of playing tournaments, but . . . this is a great diversion for us. I'm still going to play my 12, 14 tournaments a year, but I'll get to play something that's different.
"The most fun I ever had on a tennis court, except for winning the big tournaments, was playing team tennis, being on a team. That's where tennis should be."
Connors has been practically retired because of a sore left wrist. He had a tendon and tendon sheath repaired recently in Santa Barbara, Calif., and figures he'll be back practicing in December.
"I think team tennis is going to enable the game to get back to where it was 10 or 12 years ago," he said, "which would be to help create the excitement and the electricity that it had when people came and identified with their players, be it Martina or myself, or Borg or McEnroe or [Vitas] Gerulaitis or whoever. . . .
"I think the greatest thing about team tennis 16 years ago was the way that people got into it right away. They got into screaming and yelling for the home team, or screaming and yelling against the other team. Because of that you really saw the true attitudes of the other players. All of those who were so stoic and so even-tempered and everything were throwing fits.
"It wasn't Wimbledon. It got a little bit of that [U.S.] Open atmosphere. People walking around, people throwing chickens on the courts, people doing all that."
(That's right. For those of you who haven't seen team tennis, silence is not golden. Spectators are urged to make all the noise they like, even during service tosses.)
King said the league has been doing well on TV -- 300 hours last summer on FNN "and also regional cables." Plus more than 1,025 cities have recreational team-tennis leagues affiliated with her organization.
"Team tennis' goal is to make tennis a huge sport," she said. ". . . We want millions of people watching. We want millions of people playing."
Having been conditioned by 10 or 20 league failures in sports ranging from box lacrosse to volleyball -- the World this, the National that and the Continental other thing -- I think TEAMTENNIS, as a sport with big names, will become TeamTennis, then Teamtennis, then team tennis, then defunct.
But Billie Jean King is a stubborn Donna Quixote, tilting at the tournament establishment, tilting at pessimists like me, and I admire her for her doggedness.
"It's still right for the game," she said, "and any time it's right for the game, it's going to win in the end. It WILL win in the end."