WASHINGTON — Oh, the audacity. A World TeamTennis club is challenging the Los Angeles Lakers for all-time winning streak supremacy.
The Washington Kastles began the WTT season riding a 32-game winning streak, following back-to-back unbeaten championship seasons. They liked to tell anyone who would listen that they were second only to the Lakers among the "longest winning streaks in major U.S. pro sports history."
That changed Monday night when they won their season opener against the New York Sportimes — in front of a sellout crowd that included first lady Michele Obama — to tie the Lakers' mark of 33 from the 1971-72 season. Another win Tuesday against the Boston Lobsters would break the record.
Saying the Sportimes, Lobsters and Lakers are on a level playing field might make some chortle — but not the Kastles.
Leander Paes said he cried — yes, cried — when he had to leave the Kastles for a few games last year to represent India at the Olympic Games. He was fearful that his absence might cause the team to lose.
"I hurt for it," Paes said. "To me, playing the Olympics last year was huge. But leaving the Kastles to go for the Olympics and give it a chance to break the streak, I walked off the court in tears that day."
Still, it's a tough sell — Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain taking a back seat to a team that plays its entire regular season in 17 days.
Most fans don't consider WTT to be a "major" sports league. The matches have more of an exhibition feel, with the sport's top players making only featured appearances on certain nights. It would look more like the majors and less like Triple-A if, say, Roger Federer and Andy Murray were playing every match.
Nonetheless, these are professionals who are trying to win. And, in the Kastles' case, they keep doing it. Coming out on top 32 times in a row isn't easy in anything.
"It all depends on your perspective," Kastles coach Murphy Jensen said. "Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean (King), Chris Evert, the best tennis players that have ever played tennis have played World TeamTennis, and no team had gone undefeated. So to think this is anything less than the NBA or the NHL? Seriously? Five years ago, I would say absolutely, but not with the Washington Kastles. This organization is completely different than any other team in the league."
Asked what makes it different, Jensen and his players have a two-word answer: Mark Ein, the team owner and entrepreneur who has created a winning culture that attends to every need of player and fan.
"Mark Ein is the architect, and he's put together a product that players want to perform and want to play for," Jensen said. "It is the most professional, elite World TeamTennis organization ever assembled. There are players knocking on the door that would only play for this organization."
Jensen and three members of his roster — Paes, Anastasia Rodionova and Bobby Reynolds — were a picture of contentment and camaraderie as they talked and joked while sitting courtside before a practice Monday morning at the Kastles' immaculate waterfront stadium, which almost always sells out its 3,000 or so seats. Ein stood near the center of the court, his 2009 and 2011 WTT championship rings on his left hand and the 2012 ring on his right hand.
"Teams that are good, like the Patriots — granted they've got Tom Brady, but people come and go — they just have the right culture," Ein said.
Ein doesn't hedge when asked to defend the streak.
"I see what they have done to make this happen and what it means to them, and truly how hard it's been some nights," Ein said. "I really believe, deeply believe, that this streak is as hard as any of the other streaks. Eight of our matches have been decided by one game. We've had 10 match points against us. It's not like we've killed everyone every night. There have been a lot of close matches, and they've managed to pull out the victory."
The streak — and the debate over where it belongs in sports history — has brought invaluable attention to the Kastles and the WTT overall. That, in turn, has helped WTT promote its spectator-friendly brand of tennis, one that emphasizes the game's personalities.
The team aspect adds to the atmosphere. As does the streak. Opponents want to be the team that stops the Kastles' winning run. And each of the Kastles players doesn't want to be the one that has a bad night that cause it to end.
So far, at least, they've had each other's backs.