By Karen Billing
Rancho Santa Fe resident Russell Geyser is bringing professional tennis back to Southern California with the San Diego Aviators. The Aviators are a part of the Mylan World TeamTennis League, co-founded by Billie Jean King in 1974.
King, the legendary tennis player who won 39 Grand Slam singles including a record 20 titles at Wimbledon, appeared at the Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa on May 5 for Geyser’s press conference to announce that “the Aviators have landed.”
The Aviators will have a compact but exciting three-week season starting July 7 against the Austin Aces, a team that features former professional tennis player Andy Roddick. All 14 regular season matches will be played at the Valley View Casino Center (formerly the San Diego Sports Arena).
“It’s very important to me, personally, that there’s a team in Southern California and San Diego couldn’t be any better,” King said. “There’s no reason the city can’t have a successful team. This is the only professional tennis you will have in this area and we hope people will come and support it…We think San Diego will just love it. Your team is amazing.”
At various times in the past, San Diego has had a professional tennis presence — from 1975-78 the city was home to the World TeamTennis Friars and, in 1981-85, the Buds played here.
Geyser said he chased hard to bring tennis back to the city, purchasing the team in early 2014, encouraged by his close friend Lorne Abony who owns the Austin Aces — Abony moved the Aces to Texas last year from Orange County.
Geyser is the founder of Geyser Holdings, an early stage venture capital, deal syndication and real estate acquisition firm. He is also a film and television producer and co-founder of an athletic apparel company, Ballstreet. For the last six years he has been the lead sponsor for the SES Tennis Chapter that benefits kids in Tecate, Mexico.
Tennis has long been his passion.
In purchasing the team, he knew he was getting a team without players but he reached out to a number of tennis relationships he had and was able to recruit and build an “incredibly strong team.”
“The most important thing I can say about World TeamTennis and the owners like Russell is they want to win and the players want to win. It really is about competition, this is not an exhibition,” said Ilana Kloss, the CEO of Mylan World TeamTennis.
The Aviators bring together marquee players, such as the Bryan brothers Bob and Mike, who have amassed 98 team titles and an all-time record 15 Grand Slam titles, as well as four-time Grand Slam champion Daniela Hantuchova, a Slovakian tennis player who is ranked 30th in singles and 55 in doubles in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and has 33 top 10 singles wins. The three-time Olympian has beaten nearly all of the top players in the sport, including Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova and Serena and Venus Williams.
The Aviators are rounded out by the number one singles player from India, Somdev Devvarman, who won back-to-back NCAA titles while competing for the University of Virginia; Raven Klaasen, a South African tennis player ranked 30th in doubles; and Kveta Peschke, who has won 26 career WTA doubles titles and one singles title, currently ranked number 10 in WTA doubles.
“I think Russell has done an amazing job of drafting a high-quality team with a lot of experience,” said Kloss. “They have the potential to win the conference this year.”
“With your players, you have a good chance (to win the championship),” King said. “Your team is kind of the envy of the league.”
Geyser said convincing players to come live and play in San Diego in July was not a hard sell.
Team matches include five sets with one set each of men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. The first team to five games wins each set. One point is awarded for each game won and a nine-point tiebreaker is played if the set is tied at four-all.
Geyser said the Valley View venue offers a great setting to watch the matches.
“We drafted very personable players, we picked people that we thought would interact on a more intimate level and make it fun for fans,” Geyser said.
Geyser said he recalled his days growing up in a “tennis world” and stressed that the Aviators are a way to keep that going.
“(It’s important) to build a local following so kids can come out and dream of playing for their hometown team,” Kloss said. “We really want this team to be a part of the community year-round.”
King said that was what it was like for her as a young tennis player in Southern California, getting to see the pros play up close.
“When I saw Althea Gibson play as a child, I wanted to be number one in the world. I saw her and knew how good I had to be,” King said.
To develop more U.S. champions she said there really needs to be more high-level tennis in this country, and World TeamTennis and owners like Geyser are truly investing in the sport and building its future.
“We need to help our delivery system at the grassroots level,” King said. “We need to get rid of the word ‘lesson.’ Put kids on a team…it creates a whole different relationship with players, it’s a special bond that you don’t get when it’s just the individual. “
Kloss said the innovative league really mirrors King’s philosophy in life, of men and women working together as a team.
After opening against the Aces, the Aviators will host the Philadelphia Freedoms (King’s team) on July 8 and will have a special ceremony to honor her. All matches begin at 7 p.m. except for the July 20 match, which begins at 5 p.m. For tickets or more information, visit