Pictured (l to r): Butch Walts, Mary Lou Piatek-Daniels, Robin White, Todd Nelson, Richard Willens (Larry’s son), Larry Willens
While we eagerly await the start of the 2019 season, it’s a perfect time to take a look back at the history of World Team Tennis here in San Diego. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that ours is a tennis-loving city, and that’s why WTT has been a part of the tennis culture here, long before the Aviators made the relatively recent debut.
The San Diego Aviators were created in 2014, when World TeamTennis franchise The New York Sportimes was sold to Fred Luddy, Jack McGrory, and Russell Geyser and brought to America’s Finest City. Taking on a name that was symbolic of a past steeped in aviation (Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was built here after all, not Missouri), the Aviators took their current form. The first player picks were the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, a.k.a. the most successful doubles team in tennis history. Not a bad way to start. The first season was played at the Valley View Casino Center, known to longtime San Diegans as the Sports Arena. The Aviators moved to their current home at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad in 2015, where the center court sports the WTT’s signature bold colors throughout the year.
San Diego’s WTT story goes back much further, spanning decades and including some of the most famous names in the sport. Many fans who come to cheer on the Aviators at La Costa may have no idea that team tennis has a much deeper foundation in San Diego, years before the current team brought its dominance to the league within the past few years. The city was actually home to two-time champion WTT team the San Diego Buds more than 30 years ago, and before then, the San Diego Friars, from 1975 to 1978 and again from 1981 to 1983.
The Friars roster featured an array of stars from the tennis world, including fellow Hall of Famers Cliff Drysdale and Rod Laver, widely regarded as the greatest to ever play the game, in 1976. Ironically, though he’d already won two calendar Slams by the time he joined the Friars, Laver was named the ’76 WTT Male Rookie of the Year. “It was, for me, an enjoyable time, because I’m over the hill from competing on the circuit, but when I came to just play one set, I’m pretty tough,” Laver says, laughing. “I played Vitas Gerulaitis,Bjorn Borg, and Ilie Nastase, and I beat them all in one set.”
Larry Willens, the Friars’ assistant coach alongside player-coach Drysdale, remembers,“Rod — he was Rod Laver! — everybody looked up to him obviously, but he treated everybody the same and he was very much into the team thing, and he got everybody else into the team thing, and so the whole team chemistry that we had every year was really, really good.” Despite initially being a little star struck working with Rod (“Coaching Rod was probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, because it’s really tough coaching the greatest player of all time, which I think he was,” says Willens), he received a lot of encouragement from Drysdale and the team, helping him to focus. “Rod and Cliff did an amazing job with me to make sure that I knew that I was to help them and not just the three ladies [on the team],” says Willens. “Once I got used to that, then I had no problems.”
Though Laver says it was fun seeing so many of his friends from the tour during the WTT season including Drysdale, Roy Emerson, and Fred Stolle, the competition was very real. “It was pretty highly competitive because back in those years, we had the [top] players so the tennis was always good, and I think that was one of the things that brought me to it,” he says. “It wasn’t just this fun sort of thing, ‘no pressure and just go play.’ It wasn’t that way at all. It was competitive. So, for me, I really enjoyed it.”
“It was pretty cutthroat,” Laver continues. “You can’t afford to make a few mistakes. We had Ross Case, who’d won Wimbledon with Geoff Masters, as my doubles partner, so each time we competed, it didn’t matter who was there — Ilie Nastase and Borg — and it was really a competitive shot every night.”
Laver also fondly remembers the famous KGB Chicken mascot, as he was then called, and the antics that kept the fans entertained and the opponents distracted at the matches. Large crowds made the atmosphere electric in the Sports Arena, where he recalls playing one match to a sell-out crowd of 7,000 spectators drawn to the star power on the court. “In the original league, every single great player around the world played, especially the women — Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Kerry Reid, Virginia Wade, one after another — everybody played,” says Willens.
The Friars folded in 1978, had a brief revival from 1981 to 1983, and then, in 1984, team tennis reappeared, this time as the San Diego Buds. Though their existence was brief — they played only two seasons, 1984-85 — how many teams can say they won a championship every year they existed? The 1984 champs included one curly-haired Brad Gilbert, who’d only turned pro a couple of years before. The following year, the winning team, coached again by Willens, featured names local players especially still know and respect today: Robin White and Todd Nelson. Both are current fixtures on the San Diego tennis scene. White is the director of tennis since 2012 at Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa, and Nelson is also a teaching pro at the renowned Rancho Santa Fe tennis resort.
“I was pretty new to the whole professional tennis world,” remembers White. “I was about two years in, and ironically the coach I was working with, Larry Willens, was going to be coaching the WTT team so I thought it would be a good segue for me to be able to work with him and obviously play for a city I was born in.”
“It was very fast-paced,” she continues. “It was fun being a part of the team. That was really one of the neatest aspects of it because tennis is such an individual sport and we travel around the globe for however many weeks a year by ourselves, but to be a part of a team was really, really fun, and while we maybe didn’t have big crowds — we played in the Sports Arena back in those days — they were into it, they were tennis people. So, we had a lot of good support behind us.”
Considering how her WTT experience helped throughout her playing career, White says, “I ended up hitting all my goals. I won two US Open titles, and I did win another team tennis title playing for L.A. in 1990, so I think it was a good thing for me early on in my career because I got to play more people that I didn’t know since I was newer to the tour, so that was more invaluable just to have more experience against a wider variety of players on the women’s tour, andmen, because I played mixed doubles sometimes too!” White won Women’s Doubles in 1988 at the US Open with partner Gigi Fernandez and took the Mixed Doubles trophy there a year later with Shelby Cannon.
For Nelson, being a part of World TeamTennis brought his love for tennis full circle. “I was a ball kid growing up for the Friars, so that was a beginning,” he says. “Knowing I did this for those players and now here I am one of those players in the stadium playing, it’s kind of an interesting dynamic that you go through, so it was special. I ended up playing Vijay Amritraj in my first main draw match in Queen’s, England, which was a huge ordeal because I remembered, ‘oh my god, I ball boy-ed for this guy!’ He was so good! He was top 10 in the world! I ended up being fortunate to have a win over him in that match but it brought me back to those days as a kid growing up here and seeing these players come through San Diego — Rosie Casals, Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, Evonne Goolagong — they were a lot of great players who came through San Diego then, and I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the game and go and see these people play even though I didn’t grow up with a ton of tennis experience at that point, so it was good timing for me.”
Nelson’s experience with the Buds underscored the meaning of team tennis. “We all knew each other really well and got along and came to play. We were there to do well yet there was no friction between any of us which really made it easy and fun and just a joy to be part of the group,” he recalls fondly. “I didn’t play my best when I look back on it in terms of results that season, but I tried my hardest and I had support one hundred percent from everybody on the team. I never felt like I let anybody down, although I would have loved to have a do-over myself in terms of performance, but that wasn’t what the team was about.”
Despite multiple iterations of WTT teams in San Diego over the years, the progressive format, the thrilling tennis, and the vision of league founder Billie Jean King remains constant. “It’s fun to get behind and support an actual team versus an individual,” says White. “Billie Jean was always forward-thinking and was always about equality. People think she’s about women’s rights, but that’s not correct. It was about equality.”
“I always felt that the team tennis was a lot of fun, and then to be able to come back and view it again the same way, I get a feeling of knowing just how the players feel when they’re playing each other,” agrees Laver, who’s a fixture courtside at most of the Aviators’ home matches at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa. “It’s superb tennis. I’m looking forward to it!”