INDIANAPOLIS — Carrie Meyer couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
And then she couldn’t stop laughing.
Meyer was new to professional tennis, just a teenager, when she found herself facing Betty Stöve, a perennial top-10 player in 1975. Meyer, who built her game at North Central High School and the Indianapolis Racquet Club, was slightly nervous playing in front of her hometown crowd at the Indiana Convention Center. She was one of the newest members of the Indiana Loves of the second-year World Team Tennis league. And this set would be crucial to the Loves’ chances of earning a rare victory.
Meyer was waiting to return serve from the Dutch veteran when she noticed a disturbance to her right. Swaying proudly above the court at the end of a long pole, held aloft by a fan, was a giant jockstrap.
“It was the largest jockstrap I’ve ever seen in my life — I mean, not that I’ve seen that many — but this thing was absolutely huge,” she said between laughs. “They were waving it like a flag. Of course I thought it was funny. The idea of someone waving a giant jockstrap and then me, an 18-year-old thinking it was funny … I thought (Betty) was going to jump over the net and grab me.”
Stöve did not attack, but she was not amused. According to Meyer (now Carrie Richardson), her opponent thought the “flag” and Meyer’s response was rude.
But a moment like that was just what Billie Jean King was looking for when she co-founded World Team Tennis in 1974. Maybe not in the form of a giant jockstrap exactly, but King wanted the WTT to have the feel of the other major team sports, complete with a raucous, engaged audience.
“The biggest sports in the world are team sports,” she said, “and I want to make tennis huge.”
For four years in the mid-1970s, the Indiana Loves did their best to attract Midwest fans to this new brand of tennis — with mixed results.
LOVES COME TO TOWN
Indianapolis did not field a team in 1974, WTT’s inaugural season, but when the owners of the Detroit Loves put the franchise up for sale after that first year, a group of Indianapolis investors snatched it up for six figures. The Detroit team had finished first in its division and made the playoffs, but the Loves drew just half of the 4,000 home fans needed to break even.
The president of the relocated Loves was Bill Bereman, an outspoken and successful Indianapolis businessman who could be a source of irritation to others, as he explained in a 1977 Indianapolis Star profile:
“There are people who when they meet me think I am the most arrogant, egotistical, obnoxious, ruthless, overbearing person they have ever met,” he said. “Others say, ‘Yeah, he’s a great guy.’ I’ve never worried about which category people put me in. I just do my thing, and if you happen to be one who likes me, fine. And if you don’t like me, that’s also fine.”
In a bid to erase debt, Bereman made several deals that left him “with $3,700 in my pocket and no cost for the franchise and no players except Allan Stone,” he said at the time.
Stone, an Aussie native who won two Australian Open doubles titles, was the only player from the Detroit team who made it to Indiana — and he was the only Loves player to stay with the team all four years of its existence. Bereman made him the player-coach, although Stone had no prior experience in coaching.
“(Bill) was a sports nut, and he was a bit of an entrepreneur. He was always thinking up deals that could work. He saw himself as a promoter and an ideas man and someone who could make things happen around Indianapolis,” Stone said. “He said he could turn (the Loves) into a very profitable thing and Indianapolis would have another team like the Pacers. But Bill was an aggressive sort of chap who was difficult to deal with because he was loud, in your face and aggressive and not all that knowledgeable, if I could put it that way, about tennis.”
Ann Kiyomura Hayashi, a doubles specialist from California who played for the Loves in 1976 and 1977, saw a different side of Bereman.
“He was a nice guy. (He and his wife) had no kids of their own, but they supported tennis,” she said. “I think it’s because he loved being a part of something big. Maybe being an owner of a tennis team meant a lot to him. They always had us over for dinners and get-togethers. I think he liked to play tennis, but he wasn’t a big fan that way.”
Many of tennis’ biggest stars signed on to play in WTT, including King, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors.
“If you could get on World Team Tennis, you were in that top echelon of professional tennis,” Patricia Bostrom, a Loves player in 1975 and 1976, said about the early years of the league.
Bereman’s approach that first year was to put together a team without a superstar and see if it could somehow sneak into the playoffs.
“It was a bit of a shoestring budget in Indianapolis,” Stone said. “They didn’t have a lot of money, either, to sign up the big stars, but players like myself, Phil Dent and Ray Ruffels, we were doing quite well in this format anyway and were sort of holding our own, but we were unlikely to win against the big teams that had the superstars.”
Said Bostrom: “We lacked a superstar. We had more of a positive attitude of: Anyone can beat anyone on any night. That was our attitude going into every match. We’re going to fight for every point, for every game. Billie Jean can lose, and Rod Laver can lose, and Bjorn Borg can lose.”
The Loves did their fair share of losing that first year in Indy, however, finishing 18-26 and missing the playoffs.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
King and the league’s co-founders, including her then-husband Larry King, were determined to put a new spin on tennis’ dusty traditions. The WTT matches were usually played on four-colored courts, and scoring was no-ad. Each team had at least two men and two women playing singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Total games won determined the final score.
“Because it was cumulative scoring, you’d often get the score 24-24 at the end of the night, and there might be a supertiebreaker to decide the whole match,” Stone said. “The coach was allowed to make substitutions, so I could take someone out in a match if they were really struggling and put someone else on from the bench. There were no lines on the tennis court. They were all in quadrants, so the court was divided into four different colors. To serve the ball in, you had to hit it in the blue square or whatever the colors were.”
Bostrom liked the concept because it put women on equal footing with the men. Every point mattered, whether it was a man or a woman serving.
“I think it is a great vehicle even today because you have men and women playing together,” she said.
The women didn’t always enjoy playing against the men, though. Before joining the Loves, Bostrom played for the Boston Lobsters, where she would sometimes play mixed doubles with Ion Tiriac.
“He was the ‘Wild Hungarian.’ He would say to me, ‘Trish, the first shot you hit, hit right at the woman. I don’t care if we win the point, I want you to hit at the woman.’ It was to intimidate them,” she said. “And sure enough, the first return I hit would be as hard as I could at the woman. And sure enough, she would be a step behind after that. He was a very forceful coach.”
John Whitlinger, who won NCAA titles at Stanford and played for Indiana in 1978, said one of his mixed doubles teammates was nervous when they faced Ilie “Nasty” Nastase, a former No. 1 from Romania.
“Before the match, she was a little worried that Nastase was going to injure her somehow, that she was going to be physically harmed,” he said. “Knowing Nastase, I wouldn’t put it past him, but we got through that match OK. I think we lost 6-4 or something. But she was a little worried Nastase was going to blast a ball at her or whatever.”
Tanya Harford, a teammate of Whitlinger’s on that 1978 Loves team, remembers Nastase making “brutal” comments all the time, saying things like, “I am going to hit you. Be careful, little girl.”
“It was mostly in jest, with a hint of malice,” she said.
The biggest difference for most of the players was the opposing team’s crowd. Tennis fans were usually a serene bunch, but King wanted the fans to “boo, scream, do whatever they want.”
“Tennis was always quiet before. Wimbledon’s really quiet — you’re concentrating. But in World Team Tennis, Billie and Larry’s idea was, let the fans yell out, just like in football and basketball,” Bostrom said. “I can remember somebody yelled out as I was about to serve, ‘The zipper on your dress broke!’ You had to work really hard on your focus because you never knew when you’d get a catcall.”
Stone remembers opposing fans yelling “double fault!” each time he threw the ball up for a second serve. Geoff Masters, another Aussie who played for the Loves in 1978, heard about Jimmy Connors running into the stands when someone said something a little too personal. According to a 1974 New York Times article, “Connors rushed the rail and had one foot up before a guard hauled him back. ‘I was gonna take a swipe at the guy’s head,’ Connors said. ‘Heckling’s all right so long as it doesn’t get crude.’”
“They got pretty personal a lot of times,” Stone said. “Like, if they thought you weren’t the most attractive-looking person, if you were about to serve, they’d tell you to take off the mask.”
Stone knew of a player who had a unique way of dealing with opposing fans. When they gave him a hard time, he’d simply take out a piece of paper he kept in his pocket that reminded him how much he was getting paid.
“I can put up with that crew,” he’d say, pushing the paper back in his pocket.
But at home — the Indiana Convention Center from 1975 to 1977 and the new Market Square Arena in 1978 — the Loves enjoyed one of the best fan bases in the league.
“(Indianapolis) was considered the rowdiest and the loudest. I couldn’t believe some of the things I would see sometimes,” Meyer said. “We played downtown at the convention center. That was my favorite place to play. You always had a strong feeling of intimacy with the audience, that feeling of oneness. The audience plays a big part in the matches, and that’s why that feeling of intimacy — it’s like theater. That was one of the very wonderful things with the Indiana Loves.”
MONEY AND THE ROAD
Indiana continued to struggle in its second season, finishing 19-25 and missing out on the playoffs again.
The players weren’t complaining too much, at least when it came to pay. According to many of the former players, having a steady salary for four months was a good way to spend part of the year, even if they had to miss a few tournaments, including the French Open. Nearly all of those interviewed couldn’t remember what they were paid, however. Bostrom thinks her teammates were making between $25,000 and $50,000 a year.
The league needed superstars to survive, and they were happy to oblige for a big paycheck. In 1974, King (New York Sets) and Goolagong (Pittsburgh Triangles) had multi-year contracts worth over $1 million, and Connors (Baltimore Banners) made $100,000 for the four-month season (May to August).
Another benefit: Just about everything else was paid for — travel, hotels, apartments and cars. For pros who couldn’t afford coaches and sometimes found themselves losing money after first-round losses on the other side of the world, having a team pay all your expenses during the season was a big draw.
Stone remembers getting a call from Bereman one year when he was playing at Wimbledon (the league took a break for those two weeks). The Loves president wanted to talk to him about his apartment.
Bereman: “You’ve got to go to a different apartment when you come back.”
Stone: “Why is that?”
Bereman: “Well, we just had a tornado touch down, and your car is in the swimming pool.”
Stone: “Oh, that’s lovely.”
The constant travel was a different animal. The players were used to staying in one location for a week-long tournament. Now they were moving from city to city at a blistering pace on a 40-plus match schedule.
“One night you’re playing in New York, the next night you fly to L.A., the next night you’re playing Honolulu, the next night you’re playing in San Diego,” Bostrom said. “So I can remember thinking, ‘My goodness, our schedule is four months — think of what the basketball players go through because they have double the amount (of games). So the travel was really difficult in World Team Tennis.”
Added Hayashi: “You were never in one city for very long. You just pick up and go. It was a big adjustment. All of a sudden you’re part of a team rather than playing by yourself. You’ve got your teammates to think about. It was better to try to be a good teammate rather than doing your own thing.”
THE PLAYBOY AND THE PLAYOFFS
The Loves, like most of the teams in the league, were losing money: $80,000 in 1975 and $125,000 in 1976. A Los Angeles businessman and Elwood native named Larry Noble bought an 85 percent interest in the franchise in September 1976 that helped the team’s bottom line — for the time being.
After two losing seasons, Stone said he convinced Bereman to sign a couple of big-name players. On Jan. 31, 1977, Vitas Gerulaitis, then ranked No. 9 in the world, signed a two-year contract for $250,000 — and the use of a Mercedes. Soon after, Sue Barker, an English Grand Slam champion, also joined the team.
Gerulaitis was an interesting choice for Indiana. He once called the Loves franchise “rinky dink” because of the “gimmicks” the team employed to harass opposing players. To another reporter, he called Indianapolis the “armpit of the United States” and said the biggest pain in playing team tennis was “putting up with” the women pros.
Now, in his introductory news conference, he said he hoped “to bring some class to the team.”
“He was one of the top stars and one of the most flamboyant players in the world,” Stone said. “Vitas never took to Indianapolis at all because he was a New York boy, Long Island, nightclubs and stuff like that. He wasn’t that keen going to the farming community of Hoosiers. He didn’t like it that much, even though he got paid a heck of a lot of money and was given a Mercedes car and the whole bit for this three-month period. He didn’t warm to it, you know?
“He wasn’t that easy to coach because he didn’t take much notice of you really. But he knew what he was doing, and I didn’t try to change anything too much in his game because if he played well, he’d win his set anyway.”
In July 1977, just after playing at Wimbledon, Gerulaitis complained to the local paper about the team’s fans.
“I can’t understand why we’re not drawing,” he said. “The tennis community is just not supporting us. It surprises me. I haven’t seen that much to do in Indianapolis. It would seem that people might come to a tennis match. It’s tough to get up and play when nobody’s in the stands.”
One of Stone’s favorite stories about Gerulaitis was when Stone called the players to tell them the time for their photo shoot was being moved up an hour:
Stone: “Vitas, the shoot is now at 10 o’clock instead of 11.”
Gerulaitis: “Ah, sorry, coach, I won’t be able to make it.”
Stone: “What? You’ve just got to get in the car and drive 20 minutes down to the courts.”
Gerulaitis: “No, no, I’m in New York.”
Stone: “What are you doing there?”
Gerulaitis: “Well, I’m on my way back to Indianapolis. I would’ve got there by 11 if you didn’t change the time.”
Stone: “You didn’t answer the question. What are you doing there?”
Gerulaitis: “I had to go back for a night — there was a big party at Studio 54.”
Studio 54 was a famed Manhattan nightclub frequented by the stars of the ’70s.
A couple of hours later Gerulaitis arrived at the courts, and Stone had a question. Was that the first time he’d spent a rare day off to fly to New York and back?
“Coach, I do it all the time.”
Still, Gerulaitis and Barker, who was named Female Rookie of the Year, helped propel the Indiana Loves to their only playoff appearance. The team faced the defending WTT champion New York Apples, led by King and 1977 Wimbledon winner Virginia Wade, in the Eastern Division semifinals. After dropping the first match 33-21, the Loves tied the best-of-three series with a 27-25 win in Indy before getting crushed 31-15 at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
After the loss, Bereman talked about the team’s shaky future.
“We lost less money, but we’ve got a long row to hoe,” he said. “We have to double our season ticket sales, but we doubled this year and we can do it again.”
The Indiana Loves moved into the new Market Square Arena for their fourth season, but 1978 proved to be a disappointing one for the team, its players and, eventually, the league.
Player turnover was constant for the Loves every year, and the most recent changes didn’t help Indiana’s cause. Barker was traded to the Phoenix Racquets, and in a story announcing that trade, Bereman didn’t hold back on his desire to lose Gerulaitis, too.
“I really don’t want him back, and I’m going to try and get rid of him,” he said. “We paid more than $130,000 because we regarded him as one of the best in the world. However, he finished eighth-best in World Team Tennis among the men’s singles players.”
Everybody soon got their wish as Gerulaitis returned to his home turf and the New York Apples.
“He was not happy in Indianapolis,” Bereman said. “This wasn’t his kind of place. I’m as happy to be rid of him in Indianapolis as he apparently is to be gone from Indianapolis.”
Almost 4,000 fans — a giant WTT crowd at the time, especially for Indiana — were on hand for his return to Indianapolis in May. Gerulaitis responded to the shower of “armpit” taunts by keeping his composure and playing excellent tennis in the Apples’ easy win. He cruised through his singles and doubles sets and happily flashed the “Victory” sign.
With no superstars again, Indiana floundered. The team finished 13-31, the worst record in a league troubled by numbers. Exorbitant salaries for top players and tiny crowds in large arenas were proving to be too much for team owners.
“(The season) may have been too long, and they were playing in these huge arenas. The overhead on some of these buildings had to be ridiculous for the amount of people they were bringing in,” Whitlinger said. “And I think the salaries some of these people were getting were pretty high. I just think after they looked at the numbers after the ’78 season, they probably figured out, ‘You know what, this isn’t feasible right now so we’ve got to restructure something.’”
Added Harford: “I sensed it was not being the success it was touted to be. The crowds were not always good, sometimes really poor. It did not catch on as basketball, baseball and football had. It was more lightweight.”
GAME, SET, MATCH
In August, Noble, the Loves’ majority owner, met with several other owners in Beverly Hills, Calif., to decide their teams’ fate. Noble had business ties with Jerry Buss, the owner of the L.A. Strings and future owner of the L.A. Lakers.
According to the website Fun While It Lasted, Buss had become the league’s true power broker: “Frank Mariani, Buss’ long-time partner in his real estate concerns, owned the San Diego Friars franchise. Another associate, Larry Noble, ran the Indiana Loves. Buss and Mariani were also involved in the new Anaheim Oranges expansion club. In all, Buss held sway over 40 percent of the league’s 10 teams.”
Buss’ apparent one-man control of four clubs was an embarrassment to the other WTT owners and led to political infighting.
Masters played for Buss and the Strings for two years before Buss moved him to Indiana in 1978. When first contacted about being interviewed for this story, Masters agreed, writing, “Will try to remember as much as I can, though not being paid for the last year left a sour taste in my mouth!”
“That was an interesting time,” he said. “It was pretty good before I went to Indianapolis because Buss took over the Indiana franchise as well, I think, when it was struggling.”
A contract dispute with Buss and the league’s demise led to Masters receiving none of his $50,000 salary.
“To cut a long story short, the franchise was going to fall over that one year I played at Indiana, and Buss refused to pay us unless our agent gave back a bunch of money as well,” Masters said.
His lawyer told him Buss would drag out any lawsuit he might bring, which would cost him even more money.
“So, yeah, it left a sour taste in my mouth because I played for 12 weeks and I didn’t earn a penny,” Masters said. “In fact, I spent $6,000. So that was a dead loss for me.”
Whitlinger said he had lunch with Buss in August or September 1978, and he had no indication the team and league might go south. In fact, Buss was asking him where he wanted to play in 1979. L.A., Anaheim, San Diego and Indy were the options, and Whitlinger wanted to remain with Indy.
“There was no word, and Jerry would know,” he said. “Again, if you own four teams, I don’t think we would’ve had that lunch. I don’t know where it broke down because I know at that point in time it was going. I don’t know when it folded exactly, the date, but I was disappointed. It was too bad because I was really looking forward to playing again.”
On Aug.13, 1978, the Indiana Loves defeated the playoff-bound Anaheim Oranges 28-23 at home. It was the Loves’ final match in the original World Team Tennis league.
Soon after the season ended, five of the league’s 10 teams announced they would cease operations. Once the Boston Lobsters and New York Apples folded, the league unraveled quickly. The Loves followed suit in November, becoming the sixth team to call it quits. Bereman said the decision was “based purely upon economic consideration.” The team had never operated in the black, he said.
“I don’t know how we found out. We were just told that there was some doubt about a couple of the franchises that were really struggling, and there was some whisper around that they might not continue in 1979,” Stone said. “We were hoping like hell that it would keep going because I was about to start negotiating for a better contract … I was hoping that it’d go on for a couple more years.
“It was a pity that it folded because the concept was quite good, but it just cost too much money.”
In his press conference announcing the end of the Loves, Bereman, who died in 1996, said the main reasons for the shutdown were the demise of the other teams and the fact the players’ main focus was on their respective tours.
“Team tennis is different from any other sport in that the players do something else eight or nine months out of the year,” he said. “Players don’t want to make commitments (to team tennis) while they’re playing in tournaments, and you cannot sell season tickets and operate a franchise without knowing what you’re getting.”
WTT LIVES ON
In November 1982, Bereman and Larry King announced the Indiana Loves were making a comeback. The Loves would be the 10th team in a new league called Team Tennis and would play at the Indianapolis Sports Center, site of the U.S. Clay Court Championships.
Just before the season started, however, Bereman bowed out, claiming there were not enough promotable players in the league. The team played just seven matches — all on the road — and finished with one victory.
Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis continues today on a much smaller scale. The season is three weeks long with six teams competing for the King Trophy.
The former Loves players are happy the league is still going 40-plus years later.
“I’m glad they brought it back,” Whitlinger said. “It’s not nearly the same as it was. I think the way they play it now is probably a good thing. They went away from the big structures and went to smaller venues where you can get 1,000 to 1,500 people when it’s full.”
His nieces, Teri and Tami Whitlinger, were part of the World Team Tennis tradition as well, having played for the Sacramento Capitals in the 1990s.
“It brought back great memories,” Whitlinger said of watching them play.
“It’s found its niche, and I think that’s a good thing,” Masters said. “I think the initial concept was really a good one, but it was at a time when tennis was just exploding and there were a lot of people trying to find ways of making money. And as what normally happens, it takes a while for things to settle into a place where it works, and Team Tennis as it started was a great idea.”
To some of the former Loves players, their time in WTT was brief and a minor part of their professional career. But once they started talking, they remembered those months in Indianapolis as some of the most rewarding and enjoyable times of their lives.
“It was supported well by the local tennis community. They got behind us as much as they could,” Stone said. “They were very welcoming to my wife and I, and we had some good friends there.”
“I had a blast. I made some great friends from it. The people from Market Square Arena, the ushers, the staff were fantastic,” Whitlinger said. “I love the people in the Midwest. It was fun to be there.”
Richardson, the lone true Hoosier on those Loves teams, played one more season after the “jockstrap” incident, although she missed a number of matches in 1976 after contracting mononucleosis. She wanted to play more on the women’s circuit, especially in Europe, and eventually reached a career-high ranking of No. 14 before retiring in 1982.
Playing parts of two years in her home state, however, was a definite highlight, she said.
“You know, I look back on it and it was just very special to be able to play for Indiana. It was a very special time,” she said. “I’m grateful that I had it. I thought it was pretty cool to be able to play for my hometown.
“There is an extra element of pressure when you’re playing in your hometown. But it’s also extra special, too.”