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Lobsters 20, Sportimes 18

Boston Lobsters start the season with a victory

MANCHESTER — Tan with slick black hair and a muscular 6-foot-5-inch build, Australian Mark Philippoussis once starred as the bachelor on an NBC dating show. Ten years ago, he faced Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final.

Rhode Island native Jill Craybas, 39, turned professional 17 years ago. The petite blonde has seen most of her peers retire or turn to coaching.

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Amir Weintraub is Israel’s second-ranked men’s player. At 26, the lanky righty is the country’s next great tennis hope.

Along with three other teammates, Philippoussis, Craybas, and Weintraub form a unique group. Each has experienced flashes of greatness, none has sustained it for commercial success.

They are the 2013 Boston Lobsters, and they met for the first time at dinner on Friday. Over the next 16 days, they will compete together, then disperse to pursue individual careers.

On Sunday, the Lobsters’ World TeamTennis season opened with a 20-18 win over the New York Sportimes.

“We come from different paths,” said Craybas. “But it’s really a fun environment and great to get everyone together in a team atmosphere. The WTT is really like nothing else.”

The Lobsters have a new home this season, the Joan Norton Tennis Center. It’s a shiny and compact outdoor complex, plopped in a wooded area of piny trees and tall rocks. It’s on a winding road off Route 128, best marked by a farmer’s stand on the corner.

Once inside, the WTT is reminiscent of minor league baseball: Providing a family friendly experience is just as important as winning matches.

Before the match, PA announcer Steve Calechman, also a stand-up comedian, reminded the crowd to cheer loudly, “but please don’t use curse words. They’re not nice!”

If an errant ball flies into the stands? Keep it. Top-40 music blares between points.

The loudest cheers came midway through the match when Sportime Abigail Spears spontaneously performed a five-minute dance solo to the 2007 hit “Cupid Shuffle.”

“I thought it was pretty funny when the PA announcer said to the crowd, ‘Come on Crustacean Nation!’ ” said Gloucester native Pat Harries, who brought her daughters (ages 9 and 12) to the match. The trio licked ice cream during a 20-minute rain delay.

Four mascots wandered the crowd of 960. There was Larry the Lobster (wearing oversized white tennis shoes), Orson the Bear (Polar Beverages is a team sponsor), a slice of pizza (promoting one of the food vendors), and the Geico Gecko (a corporate league sponsor).

Even with big-name support (Billie Jean King is a co-founder) the WTT remains a mom-and-pop operation.

“I always tell people this is a great event to bring families to,” said Cambridge resident Eric Butorac, a fourth-year Lobster. “It’s a fun way to introduce them to tennis.”

Since 1981, WTT has attracted stars like Serena Williams, Pete Sampras, Chris Evert, and Andre Agassi. The Lobsters’ big name this season is Philippoussis, who peaked with a No. 8 ranking in 1999. The 36-year-old did not play Sunday; he’ll debut July 14.

Philippoussis was a breakout star in the mid-1990s because of his magazine-cover good looks and booming serve. His career includes nearly $7 million in prize money and 11 singles titles — but also five knee surgeries, several failed comeback attempts, and a declaration of bankruptcy in 2010.

When he faced Federer in the 2003 Wimbledon final, it marked two careers at crossroads. Federer’s victory marked the first of his record 17 major singles titles. The 31-year-old, currently ranked No. 3, still contends for Grand Slams.

Philippoussis hasn’t appeared in a final since, but he’s still playing.

And though not as prestigious, it’s safe to argue Lobsters matches are a bit more vibrant than the All England Club.

Emily Kaplan can be reached at emily.kaplan@globe.com.
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