Love All!
Queer tennis thrives, despite little TLC from the USTA

The game of tennis has been slipping, both on and off the court. Throughout the 1990s, television viewership tanked, participation took a nose-dive, and the tennis manufacturing industry popped more than a few strings. But in one arena it has thrived: among queers.

See also...
... by Douglas Robson
... in the Scope section
... from January 6, 2000

In one of the most under-the-radar grassroots sports movements in recent years, the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance (GLTA) has nurtured an entire generation of players. Even more remarkable is the fact that it has done so largely outside the auspices of the sport's authoritarian ace promoter, the United States Tennis Association. For the most part, the USTA has ignored the GLTA -- despite struggling to recruit new players itself. In fact, the USTA's head of community tennis development said she had never even heard of the group.

Why the influx of queer competitors? Simple: Gays have always had a sweet spot for the genteel game of tennis. It has a larger-than-life, soap opera quality. Players' emotions (not to mention flesh) aren't camouflaged behind layers of equipment, and the always-visible coaches, spouses, lovers and ex-lovers seated in the stands provide drama fit for a queen. "Love" is in its scoring system. Prepubescent pixies and hirsute hunks from exotic locales slug it out in short pants and revealing skirts -- appealing to romantic and erotic gay sensibilities.

In addition, there's a history of gay and lesbian stars, from "Big" Bill Tilden in the 1920s to modern greats such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. Compared to most pro sports, that's a mother lode of "out" participants. Tennis has provided a fertile nesting ground where queer players could flourish. Witness 19-year-old French phenom Amelie Mauresmo, who burst through the closet doors while reaching the final of the 1999 Australian Open -- an unprecedented feat for someone in the infancy of his or her professional career.

In gay circles, rumors have swirled around other bachelors and bachelorettes on the pro tour. Jim Courier, Todd Martin and even Pete Sampras have all been wrung through the queer rumor mill, while women players such as Conchita Martinez, Gigi Fernandez, and Jana Novotna are "suspected" of being lesbian. If any of them are gay, none have come out -- and for good reason. Navratilova, who (finally) disclosed her sexual orientation in the twilight of her career, claims she lost millions in endorsement contracts.

Enter the GLTA, which came into existence several years ago when gays and lesbians in the late 1970s and 1980s began searching for a way to claim their rightful spot in the sports establishment, and to escape the rigid and often homophobic atmosphere of regular USTA tournaments. Their solution: run their own events.

Today, the umbrella GLTA claims over 5,000 players in 35 member "clubs" strung from Honolulu to New York and London to South Africa. A circuit of tournaments dots the globe. They keep their own computerized ranking system and a roster of national sponsors, including American Airlines, Avis, Dunlop, and The Advocate and Girlfriends magazines.

How does it compare to the USTA? "It's much more festive and fun," says Matt Ray, a 37-year-old San Francisco-based player who participates in several events every year. He echoes a general assumption that the "campy, chummy" nature of the league is "more entertaining."

In fact, that campy atmosphere is what makes GLTA events atypical and -- in the eyes of participants -- worth the thousands of miles they often travel to play. For example, the springtime Chicago stop is renowned for its banquet drag show (most tournaments host an evening dinner event) featuring the likes of Virginia Wade-a-Minute, Evonna Smackanova and Tammy Why Not. A few years back, tournament organizers threw a Miss GLTA pageant, plucking unsuspecting contestants from the audience.

Sometimes players bring the drag circuit to the court, all in fun of course. Participants have been known to play in high heels -- and win. Many doubles teams create matching garb that runs the gamut from sequins to plain old skirts. One spring at San Francisco's Memorial Day tournament, a 6'2" dress designer for women's clothier Jessica McClintock showed up decked out from head to toe in a leopard-print outfit. "There is some stuff like that you'd just never see at a USTA tournament," says Tom Dando, an insurance underwriter and Toronto's GLTA representative.

There are also serious players. Some GLTA regulars include those who have played in the lower ranks of the pro circuit as well as a number of ex-Division I college players.

All of which begs the question: Why has USTA shown so little interest in the GLTA? Despite its dwindling numbers, the organization hasn't exactly come knocking on the GLTA's door offering its leadership and vast resources. It's been a wary relationship, at best. Even the USTA's own director of community tennis development, Pat Freebody, admits, "If we hadn't been asleep at the wheel, we'd have noticed that junior and new players weren't growing as fast as interest in tennis during the last two decades."

Is this a case of the USTA wanting the "love that dare not speak its name" to keep quiet?

Some GLTA officials think so, speculating that the USTA doesn't want to taint its image by associating publicly with a bunch of queers swinging rackets and playing in wigs and spiked heels. "I don't know if the USTA would want to embrace a gay organization that could bring controversy and scare away other members," says Max Stokes, the GLTA's director of communications.

GLTA Secretary Peter Steckelman notes that gays and lesbians present a prime demographic. By most accounts, gays have access to more disposable income than average Americans and gravitate toward individual sports. "It doesn't make sense financially," says Steckelman of the lack of USTA involvement. But remembering the backlash from advertisers following Navratilova's gay admission, he adds that "Madison Avenue hates controversy." Enough, conceivably, to push the 118-year old organization back from its official mission statement: "To promote and develop the growth of tennis."

The USTA's Freebody, for her part, bristles at the suggestion it would not welcome the GLTA because of its queer affiliation. But she also admits that she's never heard of the organization and doesn't seem much interested in bringing the group into the USTA's fold.

To be fair, the two organizations have started to align themselves in subtle ways. Locally, the USTA has offered occasional help to some GLTA clubs, members say. And for the first time, the GLTA this year signed up as a member service organization of the USTA in order to buy low-cost, subsidized insurance. But, notes Steckelman, "There has been no marketing or grassroots outreach from them. It's been me reaching out to them to cut down on our costs."

Yet GLTA officials also concede they haven't gone out of their way to affiliate with the USTA. "Personally, until the USTA understands why we were formed and why we exist, I don't see any reason to start a dialogue," sums up Carlos Banda, the current GLTA board president. At least for now, the players that dare to speak their names will do so on their own courts, and on their own terms.

Douglas Robson is a business reporter and freelance sports writer who dusts off his own tennis racquets from time to time.