PHILADELPHIA — Two days before the World TeamTennis finals, the host and No. 1 seed Philadelphia Freedoms had a problem: Their mascot was missing.
Nettie King, a tribute to WTT founder and Freedoms owner Billie Jean King, is has a giant tennis ball for a head and wears glasses. But the team had no idea where the mascot costume was, with the finals less than 48 hours away. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the team had shipped Nettie back from Chicago after bringing the mascot west for a match against the Washington Kastles. But, then, nothing. UPS at first said the mascot suit was just delayed by the weather. Then, an update: The mascot was missing, possibly lost somewhere in Philadelphia. The team put out an ABP. Was this a nefarious act, like the time someone stole the Phillie Phanatic’s head?
Nope. By Friday night, UPS had recovered Nettie—it was merely misplaced—and reunited it with Billie Jean King’s team. Drexel’s mascot, a dragon named Mario the Magnificent, was also in attendance as the heavy. (He hugged me as I entered the university’s Daskalakis Athletic Center, but maybe he was secretly patting me down to see if I were smuggling Nettie’s head.)
World TeamTennis—written that way, one word, in camelcase—was founded in 1973 by Billie Jean King, her now ex-husband Larry and several others. It lasted a few seasons in the ‘70s and has been back for good since 1981. Billie Jean King bought the league in 1984 and last year sold it to venture capitalist Mark Ein. She’s still involved as the owner of the Freedoms; the championship trophy is named after her and Larry.
WTT is a streamlined version of tennis. Teams play five sets—men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles—with no-advantage scoring and points counted normally (from 0–4 instead of love, 15, etc.). Men’s doubles is the first set, followed by women’s doubles, and so on. Sets are first to 5, and every game counts towards a total score. A full match takes between two and three hours, including a halftime. The season only lasts a few weeks; there were six teams in the league this season.
Things are also a little flashier—or, at least as flashy as tennis can get. The court is multi-colored. The arenas play music between points (“Philadelphia Freedom,” the song Elton John wrote for Billie Jean King, is played most often). There are mascots, at least now that UPS has found Nettie. It’s all very family-friendly: It was a rare event in Philadelphia where the mayor showed up and he wasn’t booed.
Unfortunately for Nettie, she didn’t have much to watch at first on Sunday. The opening match, men’s doubles, went 5-3 in favor of the Springfield (Missouri) Lasers. Philly went 12-2 this season, while the second-place Lasers went 8-6; Philly outscored them 67-49 in regular season play. But the Lasers had just acquired Marcelo Demoliner, the top doubles player this season and ranked No. 54 in the world, three days ago. (The trade deadline is apparently “before the championship game.”) It worked out: Demoliner and Miomir Kecmanovic won the last three games of the first set over Kevin King and Fabrice Martin to win it.
The second set went even worse for Philadelphia. Taylor Townsend double-faulted four times and the Lasers went up 10-5 after two sets. Springfield looked like it might capture its first WorldTeam Tennis title in 23 years of existence.
But the Freedoms fought back. Martin and Townsend, playing mixed doubles, won their set 5-2. Martin consistently hyped up the crowd. Townsend, the WTT female MVP this season, won the first two games of the fourth set. It was tied. The DAC got pretty loud. People in the crowd danced to what I believe was an instrumental version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.”
By the time the women’s singles match was over, Townsend had rolled over Vania King 5-2. In almost a blink the Freedoms suddenly led, 15-14. Kevin King, in the final singles match, continued the push: He led the set over Miomir Kecmanovic, 3-1, giving Philadelphia an 18-15 lead. And he was up 3-0 in a game.
But Kecmanovic fought back and won. Then he broke King, who double-faulted twice. Then he won another point and tied the game and eventually was serving to win it. The Philadelphia crowd was suddenly quiet. And then, the saddest confetti in history.
The Springfield Lasers had won. Marcelo Demoliner celebrated as if he’d been with the team for all 23 years of its existence, instead of just the last three days. (A few thousand dollars in prize money surely didn’t hurt.) Freedoms owner Billie Jean King then had to pose with the team that had just beaten her’s, and with the trophy named after her. Rough. At least she had Nettie.