- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

The sports landscape in the District this month has been about as active as a back-alley taproom at 4 a.m. But amid the lameness of July, the Washington Kastles managed to establish themselves as one of the District’s more entertaining diversions.

The debut of the World TeamTennis franchise was short of successful by on-court measures; the team finished its season Wednesday with a 22-17 victory over the St. Louis Aces without clinching a playoff berth. And granted, this was not always tennis at its highest possible level. Devout fans of the game probably will see a better talent show next month at the ATP Tour’s Legg Mason Classic.

But the Kastles were a heckuva lot of fun.

The format of WTT, with a fast-paced mixture of singles, doubles and mixed doubles events, allowed fans to see some personality from athletes typically obsessed with ranking points and prize money. The appearance of Serena Williams three days after appearing in the Wimbledon finals was fortuitous timing for the team. And having Anna Kournikova in town for Wednesday’s finale was, well, sweet.

The Kastles’ Mark Ein, a successful venture capitalist, did a number of things right in bringing a team to the District. He recognized the city as a hotbed for tennis, with a big population of professionals who appreciate the sport.

“It couldn’t have gone any better,” Ein said. “I think it exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

His decision to place a court at the old convention center site in the District was a gamble that paid off as more than 2,000 fans attended each home match mere blocks from some of the city’s more posh office buildings.

“When we met Mark, we knew he was really going to raise the bar,” WTT commissioner Ilana Kloss said. “It’s a market we’ve wanted to be in for many years. We feel Mark is the perfect owner. He’s a big picture guy. He wanted to come in here and do it right.”

Many people will ask, “Does WTT make money?” The question misses the point. When Billie Jean King co-founded the league more than 30 years ago, she did not have dollar signs in mind. For more than three decades, it has served comfortably as a fine diversion for some of the world’s best players, a showcase for young talent and solid ambassador for the sport of tennis. The Kastles held eight tennis clinics for more than 700 kids in the District and gave out 1,000 tennis racquets. WTT is, in short, a spreader of goodwill.

It would have helped, of course, if the Kastles’ Justin Gimelstob had known the difference between being outspoken and being a horse’s rear when making less-than-gentlemanly comments about Kournikova. (League officials wisely avoided having Gimelstob and Kournikova face each other in any matches last night.)

And if WTT wants to boost its profile, it must attract more than a casual involvement from the world’s most marquee players. This season, for instance, Williams played just a single home match in the District. And Andy Roddick was supposed to appear with the St. Louis Aces but backed out with a shoulder injury. (Miraculously, he is now fit enough to play four consecutive warmup tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open.)

But perhaps that’s unfair. After all, a WTT championship doesn’t come with a big check or a boost in a player’s ranking. And besides, some of the Kastles’ most compelling tennis action came from relatively unknowns like Sacha Jones and Scott Oudsema, not longtime pros like Gimelstob and Williams.

“You might say that if Serena played two or three home matches, maybe people wouldn’t have been as excited as they were about one,” Kloss said. “It’s a competitive environment out there, but we’re willing to compete. Would we like [top players] every night? From an economic point of view, I’m not sure it makes sense. The key is the stars get the people, but the product sells itself.”

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