Friday, 27 July 2012

The American Dream - World Team Tennis through the eyes of Amir Weintraub


 Amir Weintraub, Israel's second best singles player, has been blogging about his life on tour for over a year now, for the Israeli magazine Globes. His previous blogs were translated by Or Levy for MTF and by Israel Tennis Results, and can all be found on his official website. Here I bring you my translation of his latest post (published on July 23, 2012), about his experiences on World Team Tennis. I highly recommend reading the previous installments!

- Anna.

##################################################

The American Dream by Amir Weintraub

In the USA tennis league, a room in Hilton, the keys to a Mercedes and a private plane waited for me

Everything started a little less than a year ago. Somebody told me about a crazy tennis league in the USA that’s called World Team Tennis, or WTT for short. A league of eight teams coast-to-coast, with this season featuring legends like John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, the brothers Bob and Mike Bryan, Sam Querrey, John Isner. Well, what does it have to do with me? Listen, they explained to me, try to sign up. There’s a draft that allows some players to enter the league, just like the NBA draft. Hundreds of players try their luck, maybe someone will take you by mistake.

I sent out the forms and forgot about it.

On March 13, while I’m in another hole in Asia, trying to fish for some dollars in a challenger, they tell me that the draft is being broadcasted live on US TV, coast to coast. The draft recruits in four rounds overall. At the beginning of the third round, they announce “The Springfield Lasers team, from Springfield, Missouri, picks… Amir Weintraub”. Barely 5 minutes pass, and I get a mail from the legendary Billie Jean King, one of the league’s founders: “Amir, I’m happy to announce to you that you’ve been chosen for the best league in the world. Your team will contact you today, be ready, it will be amazing.” Several hours later the mail from my team arrives, telling me to free my schedule of all the plans I had for the summer. The Pro tour is dead.

Photo by @JohnLaffnie

***

The American League is one of the biggest experiences for a tennis player (soon we’ll talk about the accompanying pleasure, and you’ll understand why). It takes place in a huge pressure tank, for three weeks between July 9 and July 28. This is also where the dilemma begins: the league coincides with tournaments on the Pro tour that I’ll be sorry to miss, especially now, when I have lots of points to defend. The meaning is that I’m going to fall down the rankings for this experience.

The big money comes in the second year (in the first year you’re a rookie and barely make anything), unless we manage to end up among the top four teams that reach the semifinals, and then I’m assured of a $30,000 bonus. I sign a contract that obliges me to play all the matches, unless I’m injured. By any means, I can’t play on the Pro tour during that period. I break the contract? Boom. A fine of $20,000. There are eight teams in total, divided into two groups – four groups on the west coast (Sacramento, Orange County, Kansas City and Springfield) and four on the east (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington).  Each team plays against all the others, and in the end – the first two out of each group make it to the championships play-off in September. The rules are completely different from regular tennis: here, your personal result has no meaning, but rather the accumulated score that the team got in the whole tie. The scoring system is different, too: you count “normally” 1,2,3, and there’s no trace of the traditional 15, 30, 40. The matches themselves are very short, around 20 minutes each, and the captain on the court can replace you at any given moment if he thinks you’re not playing well.

Photo by @JohnLaffnie

The ‘good souls’ back home were of course quick to publish that “Weintraub won’t make it to Israel’s Davis Cup tie because he went to play in the US league”. Well, then. First of all, even if we make it to the semifinals, it really falls on the Davis Cup dates, which are September 13 –16, but the league allows you to break the contract in two cases, without being fined: One, if you play the Olympics (irrelevant for me); Two: if you play Davis Cup in September, you can join your national team, but you’ll have to waive the $30K bonus from your WTT team.

I announced that I’ll come to the Davis Cup tie anyway. It’s not the money that draws me in, even though the country doesn’t really help, to put it lightly, and $30,000 can help me a lot with covering the big expenses. Besides, what is this onslaught? I’ll be 26 soon, and I want to feel like a tennis player. Is that too much to ask after 20 years of tennis? Let them back off a bit. I’m playing in Grand Slams, Davis Cup, challengers, playing and playing and playing, but the bottom line is money. There is no thank you or anything like it from the country, and there probably won’t be.

***

As the hour draws nearer, I realize that the whole story is bigger than I’d thought. Everything works well in the highest levels. First, you need to send the league six shirts and six pairs of shorts from your sponsor, and then the flight tickets arrive. And then I’m already on a plane to Springfield, Missouri, landing in the middle of nowhere in the USA, not understanding where I am. I go to pick up my luggage, and unlike in other middles-of-nowhere that I usually reach on the professional tour, here someone in the team’s outfit waits for me, and takes me by car to my hotel. On the exit from the airport, I recognize the billboards and see… myself! Every 500 meters there’s a huge billboard with my picture (!) on it. I ask the team’s representative what’s going on here. “This? It’s nothing. Wait till we get to the hotel.”

We arrive to Hilton. There, I’m told I have a room for 22 days. In the room, a “player’s set” is waiting for me – a team outfit, my posters, my pictures, tickets to the matches with my picture on them, tags for people, in case I want to give out some (but I have nobody to give them to). I open the envelope from the team manager, who updates me “Hi Amir, welcome. We meet for dinner today, and starting tomorrow we practice and begin to work.” I slip my hand in, and find a key with the note “Have fun :)” attached. A key to a new Mercedes s600. I almost fall on the floor.

Where did all that good stuff come from? Well, the model of the league is very clear: there are many stars here, who attract many sponsors. These stars also bring money from broadcasting rights, and tickets are sold for fair amounts of money, too. One of the most fascinating ties of the league, the one in the east group between New York and Boston, took place on Thursday. New York nominated its two aces for this tie – Hingis and John McEnroe, Boston brought out Andre Agassi. Tickets for this tie sold for $250. Who wouldn’t want to watch it? For the Saturday tie between NYC and Washington, a match-up between Hingis (NYC) and Venus Williams (Washington) was chosen.

***

And back to my little team: During dinner, we find out the killer schedule, one I have never experienced. 14 matches in 20 days are waiting for us. The amount of flights is crazy. The first tie is on Monday, on Tuesday morning we fly to New York, on Wednesday we fly to Kansas City, then to Philadelphia. On Sunday a home tie in Springfield, next after it a flight to Washington, on Monday to Newport, and it goes on and on and on. No day and no night. Where’s the pro tour and where’s this. I finish every day around 23:30, then there’s a treatment with the team’s physio, then a shower and a night meal. Around 3am I crawl into the bed. At 8 you need to be in the lobby, on the way to the plane.

Photo by @

Before our first away game, we find out that instead of Springfield’s usual airport, the team’s car takes us to a smaller airport. We all open our eyes widely when the car stops next to a private plane with 10 places. Say hello, that’s your plane for the next three weeks.

Photo by @JohnLaffnie
 
***

The tie against Kansas City takes place in a 2500-places full stadium. Only contrary to what we’re used to, the league here is a part of a larger happening and the stadium was built especially for the matches. It was built in the middle of a pedestrian mall, we’re playing right in the middle of down town, and everybody watches us from the buildings around. There’s always music between points, to pump up the crowd and us. The pressure is huge, the set is until a player wins five games, there’s no time for mistakes because there’s no time to fix them.

I’m being treated here as a tennis player in every way. I’m losing three weeks of important tournaments; I’m going to go down in the rankings. Is it worth it? I haven’t finished yet, but I’m already waiting to be picked in next year’s draft.

Photo by @JohnLaffnie

No comments:

Post a comment