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Team Tennis gives Las Vegas another chance to hold service

Before it was a major league sports town, and a Triple-A ballpark town, Las Vegas was something of a country club town.

Lots of golf clubs and tennis rackets.

Lots of shirts with little alligator insignias.

Lots of people named Tad and Buffy.

But whereas Las Vegas once had three pro golf tournaments, it now has one, and whatever that was Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods did at Shadow Creek. As for the tennis business, it would appear we’re taking a baby step to get back in.

Tickets went on sale Friday for the Vegas Rollers, who will play in the latest iteration of World Team Tennis, a pastime organized by Billie Jean King in the 1970s. The tennis legend sold her majority share in the mixed-gender league to WTT franchise owners in 2017.

Top Rollers will include Las Vegas resident and 2017 Wimbledon semifinalist Sam Querrey, Las Vegan Asia Muhammad and the colorful Bryan brothers. Identical twins Bob and Mike held the world’s No. 1 doubles ranking for 438 weeks, including a record 139 consecutive. They’ve slipped a bit since peaking around 2014, but they still like to bump chests after winning points.

Tim Blenkiron, Muhammad’s coach, also will serve as Rollers coach. Longtime local tennis enthusiasts may remember Blenkiron and partner Luke Smith winning the 1997 NCAA doubles national championship for UNLV.

Short season tennis

The WTT season will be condensed into three weeks in July and early August, when the ATP and WTA pros are on hiatus. It’s an ideal scenario for a quick paced, short attention span city such as ours. Matches will be played indoors at Orleans Arena.

That should be more conducive to drawing a crowd than outdoors Tennis Channel Open matches in February at the Darling Tennis Center.

There were three TCOs at Darling, which was primarily built to attract big-time tournament tennis with a center court that seats around 3,500. James Blake beat Lleyton Hewitt in the first Las Vegas final, and the Bryan brothers won in doubles. Huge crowds packed center court when the weather was pleasant.

But brisk and windy weather usually held serve, and the tournament date was sold to a group in South Africa, said Ryan Wolfington, executive director of the United States Tennis Association’s Nevada district, and a chief proponent for bringing major pro tennis back to Las Vegas.

“You’re reading my mind,” Wolfington said of team tennis setting the table for something a little higher on the ladder. “The reason we are fired up by this and we got behind the (celebrity) event on the Strip was because I want to show that Las Vegas can support a high level pro event, if it’s promoted properly.”

Showing up early

Wolfington said if team tennis is going to to succeed here, it will have to make a big splash on opening weekend.

“That’s where most of the big names are gonna be,” he said of stars such as Venus Williams (Washington) and Victoria Azarenka (Orange County). “In World Team Tennis, all of the teams try to get out of the gate strong, because it’s a short season, only seven matches.”

The opening weekend as well as the WTT finals at Orleans Arena on Aug. 3 will televised by CBS.

“The big goal is to eventually bring in one of those massive events where you get the top 20 players of the world en masse, not just a handful,” Wolfington said of Las Vegas’ checkered tennis past.

That history includes the Alan King Classic, Davis and Federation Cup, a celebrity match pitting Jimmy Connors against Martina Navratilova (a seniors tourney at which Connors publicly blasted media for a tiny crowd), the aforementioned Tennis Channel Open and Smash Hits benefit (at which Sir Elton John made tawdry jokes about Andy Roddick) and assorted Challenger and mini-tour events.

This is the second time Las Vegas has had a WTT team. The first one lasted about as long as Chris Beard did as UNLV basketball coach when the owner who planned to move the Sacramento team here ran afoul of creditors in 2014.

So like a net serve, Las Vegas has been given another chance to make a tennis impression. It’ll be interesting to see if Tad and Buffy show up.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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