[Author’s note: Due to a communication error, this article was previously published earlier today (7/27/2018) before the bulk of the interview has been transcribed and included.]
During the two-three week lull between the end of Wimbledon and the start of the ATP Masters 1000/WTA Premier events (Rogers Cup in Montreal/Toronto and Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati) ahead of the US Open, pro tennis players in the USA often take a break from the tour to join forces to play in an unique format - a mixed-gender competition known as “TeamTennis” in the World TeamTennis (WTT) league. On the Philadelphia Freedoms squad (one of the WTT OG that inspired Elton Johns to write this song) and currently in 1st place in the 6 team WTT team, this year is Cal Women’s Tennis alum Raquel Atawo (formerly Kops-Jones before she married fellow Cal alum and Track and Field alum Toby Atawo). Raquel starred for the Golden Bears from 2000 to 2004, including being the top ranked singles player in 2004; she graduated with a degree in American Studies. In between her busy schedule on the tour, Raquel has also done some volunteering coaching for UC Davis. I was able to briefly chat with Raquel right before their contest against the Washington Kastles last Friday.
Raquel Atawo is currently the 36th ranked doubles player in the WTA. Pairing up with Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany this year, they have made it to the Round of 16 of the Australian Open and Round of 32 of both French Open and Wimbledon. The pair won Stuttgart this year, part of Atawo’s 18 WTA doubles title in her long career.
For the uninitiated of World TeamTennis (which does not currently have a team in the California Bay Area), each match is played by two sides that competes in 5 sets (first to 5 games) - men’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s singles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles; the order of play is decided by the two coaches ahead of the match. The scoring is no-advantage, which has recently been adopted recently by College Tennis to cut short on game times. WTT also does not have the let rule, meaning that there are times that a pivotal game is decided by a serve that nicked the netcord and drops in for an “ace”.
The atmosphere for WTT, which often take places inside an indoor arena is akin to that of a basketball match. You have music blaring, fans dancing, sometimes even cheerleaders on the sidelines in between the typical quiet tennis action. It is a fun but also intimate setting for fans to see professional tennis players in action from up close. All kids 16 years and younger can get autographs from both teams at the end of each match.
As a WTT fan since I went to a few Washington Kastles matches 8-9 years ago when I was in graduate school, I opt to volunteer for the local Philadelphia Freedoms this season. Freedoms are owned by tennis legend Billy Jean King who used to also own WTT before selling the majority stock to the league to other owners. Billy Jean made an effort to introduce herself at one of the matches that I worked at, which was pretty cool, but we shall see if she actually remembers my name. That’s probably sufficient background for this interview.
On the difference between World Team Tennis format and that of college tennis:
Raquel Atawo: “It’s very similar, actually. The main difference is that we play with men [in WTT] that adds a new element. We play mixed doubles as well. It’s very similar in the team aspect, with the cheering and the support [amongst players]. There is also the coaching. I think my experience playing in college has prepared me for this.”
On how WTT is different from the life on the WTA Tour and how WTT helps prep for the U.S. Open:
Raquel Atawo: “[In World TeamTennis,] you have to get intense for just a short period of time. So playing in WTT prepares you for having a quick start. With 14 matches season, you get to play a lot of [high leverage] points to get match tough. [Afterward,] you go to the tournaments really mentally prepared and can play relaxed.”
On if she has checked in on Cal Women’s Tennis recently:
Raquel Atawo: “I saw the [renovated Hellman Tennis Complex] facility just last December. It looks really nice. There are some really nice locker rooms. Courts look great. Nice posters [celebrating the history of the program].”
On the Philadelphia Freedoms, Raquel is playing with 2017 U.S. Open women’s singles champion in Sloane Stephens and a rising American woman star in Taylor Townsend, both like Raquel are African-American. Raquel has in past interviews lauded the Williams sister as inspiration for her in tennis.
While Raquel has yet to meet rising senior on the current Cal Women’s Tennis team in Maria Smith, who is carrying on that still under-represented legacy of African-Americans in tennis. She has the following to say about how the professional tennis landscape has changed.
Raquel Atawo: “There are more and more minorities coming through [tennis]. You will see more and more stars in the next 10-15 years. [Fans] have already see emerging stars like Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys. They are already here now, but they will get even more exposure with success. There are more opportunities now for them in tennis, and it’s good to see.”
Finally, Raquel is obviously fond of her collegiate experience at Cal and having that degree. She has the following to say about the choice of going to college to play tennis versus turning pro right away.
Raquel Atawo: “There is no question about it that [going to college for tennis] is worthwhile. You are going to get a lot of matches. You are going to get a good team [to bond with together]. Hopefully a good coach who will help you throughout the four years to really develop your game. And on top of that, you are getting an education. So if you are lucky that you can get a scholarship, you have to go [to school]!”
Thank you to Raquel Atawo for the chat. Best of luck to the Cal alum on her quest to win a Grand Slam doubles title before her career is over.
For the 2018 season, Raquel Atawo has played 64 games with a 37-27 record so far for the Philadelphia Freedoms, who has a league best 8-1 record; Freedoms’ 0.592 winning percentage in Women’s Doubles is currently the best league-wide. This is the 6th season of WTT play for the Cal alum.
All of the World TeamTennis action is streamed for free on WTT.TV. The World Team Tennis season concludes with the championship, which currently does look to include Raquel and the Freedoms, on August 5th, 2018.