For 26 years, the Tennis Fantasies Week at John Newcombe’s Tennis Ranch in New Braunfels, Texas has offered a wonderfully predictable set of experiences. The six days begin with the campers’ arrival followed by afternoon rallying, followed by a four-team draft. Then a day of coaching and practice play, where the Legends—led by Australian Hall of Famers Newcombe, Roy Emerson, Owen Davidson and Fred Stolle—learn a bit more about their players and start to formulate singles and doubles line-ups. The next three days are devoted to team matches, and to evenings of story-telling and drinking. Friday, departure day, concludes with a morning of clinics and fond farewells.
For Year 27, organizers Newcombe and Steve Contardi, a Cincinnatti-based tennis promoter and club manager, are delivering a new element: the presence of Rod Laver, considered by many to have been tennis’ greatest player. Laver’s addition has generated tremendous interest, even becoming a news story in the mainstream tennis press. Indeed, so many of us have signed up and paid the more than $4,000 fee, that the Ranch itself can’t accommodate everyone. I—and about 30 others—will be housed at the neighboring T Bar M ranch, a five-minute shuttle ride away. The good news, beyond that we should have about as many attendees—more than 100—as were on site in 2012 for the 25th anniversary, was that we would all be together (with the Legends) for our meals, our cocktails and our post-dinner lectures, panel discussions, dirty-joke sharing, and beer-chugging contest.
And so, once again, I tried my best to follow Contardi’s pre-event mailed instructions. This year, however, I did not first go to St. Thomas and spend a week working out with a local teaching pro, as I had previously. Nor did I get any closer to abstinence than I had in 2011 (I did drink better wine, however; I’m told it’s a health food). Nor did I partake of former Major League trainer Larry Starr’s stretching program.
What I did do was practice on a hard court for a week in northern Wisconsin. The weather in Door County, a 70-mile-long peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan and about an hour’s drive from Green Bay, would I expected, be somewhat like that I first experienced in New Braunfels … high winds, mid-fifties to mid-sixties, and really tough to play in. Apparently, those expectations will not be met. The six-day forecast suggests mid-seventies to low eighties. I won’t need the layered look.
I also practiced at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York, my home base. There, again probably unfortunately, I spent most of my time inside a bubble, on Har-Tru working with head pro Guillermo Oropez, club captain Abdi Moshiri, and super senior Andre Heinmann. In the past, at Newk’s, I have asked to play on one of the ranch’s few clay courts. Sometimes, the opposing coach has said okay, and sometimes not. John Newcombe has never said yes. And I’ve never beaten the guy or guys he throws up against me.
Consequently, I guess you could say I’m sort of ready. I’ve got two years’ experience playing for the Dunnies, and I can imagine I’ll be with them for the third time. But, that said, the Dunnies weren’t champs in either 2011 or 2012. In 2013, when I was absent, they won the crown. And I know Dunnie coach Fred Stolle hates to lose. So we’ll see.
That’s the brutal reality of Tennis Fantasies.
(A joke. Sort of.)
Day One: Ready Or Not, Here I Am
Flying into San Antonio, shouldn’t be difficult. But without a direct non-stop from New York City, you have to choose between a connection in Chicago, and one in Dallas-Fort Worth, which I picked. Although the price was a reasonable $250 for the round-trip, we had an inexplicable delay of over an hour at DFW (“equipment” was the not-helpful explanation). The good news was that ranch-hand Selina, our van driver, was ready to pick us up as soon as our bags arrived and 40 minutes later we—there were a half dozen of us on campers on the flight—were at the ranch house, picking up our “swag” bags (two t-shirts, a collared shirt, and a pull-over) and rushing to change and get to the courts.
By the time I got out, the intros of the head coaches, assistants, and the “ranch pros”—the young guys (and one girl) who would assist as hitters, retrievers and occasional advice offerers—was wrapping up. Rod Laver, who was described by one fellow attendee as “shorter than I thought, maybe he’s lost a couple of inches?”, would begin with the Musclemen, Owen Davidson’s team, and rotate through the other three squads over the course of the week. Which meant I’d probably get at least one comment, tip, or piece of constructive criticism from the grand master before I left.
Laver’s presence seems to have been brilliant marketing on the part of organizer Contardi. Of the more than 100 campers, approximately 30 are first-timers—“rookies”, in Legends parlance—and many seem (to me) quite young, in their 20s and 30s. This bodes well for the future of the week. That said, I immediately began running into old friends, acquaintances and former teammates—Rich Fisher from LA, Joe Lipsick from Stanford’s faculty, writer Joel Drucker, ranked senior Marty Judge, and my pal Dick Stockton, ex-Davis Cupper and former number 7 in the world who’s the assistant coach of the Dunnies. I ask Dick if he thinks I might get drafted again to what’s now the defending champions.
“It’s going to be tough,” he responded, patting me on the head. “Did you get shorter?” Maybe I just made that last part up.
After a couple of hours of informal, pick-up doubles play—I teamed with Joe, and we dominated our two sets of opponents—ranch pro Adrian drove me and a few others to the neighboring T Bar M Ranch, where about 30 of us are bunking. The drive, along a narrow but paved back road, takes no more than a few minutes (walkers say they do it in 10-15 minutes, depending on how many beers they have) and is kind of pretty if you appreciate a scrub tree, dusty, flat landscape populated by herds of small deer. No lights on the road though, so I’ll be taking the every-15-minutes-shuttle. The room’s fine, two queen beds (one of which will be home to my clothes), a TV, a desk, and a bathroom with a decent-size tub shower combo. The coffee maker works and features Wolfgang Puck’s bespoke java.
What’s not to like? Especially after the draft results were announced at the Sunday night dinner. Joe, Rich, and I shared a table with the legendary Doc Eden and his son Robert, and the doctor was in fine form afterwards, taking the microphone and telling a series of foul-mouthed one-liners and anecdotes that had Fred Stolle and Owen Davidson looking, a bit anxiously, over at Laver, sitting at the table next to ours. Laver, for his part, seemed to be enjoying the frat party repartee. But I did notice he’s wearing a hearing aid. Perhaps he’d turned it off.
When Doc had finished (to thunderous applause) and returned (shaking scores of hands along the way), it was time to learn who’d be playing with whom. First came Emmo’s Wankers. Then the Laver/Davo Musclemen. Rich, Joe, and I were still seated. Newk’s Mongrel Kangaroos followed, and Joe went to them. Rich and I did a high five. We were back together on the Dunnies! The Australian Toilets! The defending champs!
“This demented brotherhood”—as one of the Sunday night speakers had described it—was set for another week of battle and camaraderie.
Let the games begin. Again.
Next up: Day 2 and the Laver Influence