Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way first. The Musclemen swept the week, dominating in a fashion I didn’t see in either 2011 or 2012 by any team. The Dunnies finished 0-3, although our star recruit (and full-time teaching pro, it turns out) Roberto Castillo was undefeated in singles at number-one. The Wankers and the Mongrel Kangaroos may have finished in a tie for second, or maybe not. Who the hell cares.
Musclemen coaches Davidson, Case, Murph Jensen and—of course, Rod Laver—accepted the accolades graciously, and handed out a ball hopper’s worth of MVP awards. One went to my Wednesday doubles opponent, Mike Quinn. Mike never lost a match, and his clutch net play and driving backhands had made a difference after my partner Buddy Banks and I had taken a 5-4 second-set lead with the entire Musclemen coaching staff watching (and Laver perhaps waving his hands in some mystical spell-like way). Whatever the catalyst, Mike’s partner Jeff Renk found a serving zone he’d lost somewhere at the start of the set, and before we knew it, three games had come and gone, and Quinn was leaping (sort of) into the air, screaming with pure joy.
My pure joy continued to be centered on the interactions with the Legends. Doc Eden had said to me early in the week that he felt it was his obligation to make Rod Laver feel at home, feel a part of the group, the band of brothers, as unlikely that might seem. Joel Drucker had echoed that sentiment in his Wednesday conversation. And tonight those impressions coalesced into — preceded by Newk’s leading us in a standing hip-hip-hooray—a chant of “Next Year! Next Year!” directed towards the Rocket. After 15 or 20 seconds, Newk indicated that Laver had made some kind of affirmative gesture and an even louder cheer erupted.
A few minutes earlier, Rod had been onstage with the rest of the Musclemen, taking a turn at the microphone. “I was thrilled to be here,” he said, and thanked us!
There’s a fantasy moment. Mission apparently accomplished, Doc.
Our only rain of the week had fallen in Thursday’s pre-dawn hours, leaving the courts wet and the ranch pros, as the sun rose, squeegeeing the courts. Play was delayed almost an hour, and trainer Larry Starr was encouraged to extend our pre-play warm-up exercise session. I counted about 50 campers partaking of the jumping jacks and realized that over half of us were bagging it completely.
Part of that related to injuries. We’d lost two (maybe three) guys to strains and pulls, changing our lineup in the worst way: almost all of us had to play up. Not that we were alone. Buddy and I played our morning doubles against a Mongrel Kangaroo team—Rick Ross and Bob Weinbed—who’d never been on a court together. That showed for about 20 minutes, as we raced to a 6-0, 1-0 lead. Then we swooned for 15 minutes, and found ourselves down 2-5. Fortunately, we were not facing Laver’s juju and won another five games in a row to take the match.
Before the match, both teams’ coaches gave pep talks. Newk’s was theatrical and emotional. As his teammates formed a circle around a stuffed kangaroo carefully placed to face our group about 20 yards away, Angus Deane poured some kind of ritual sand on each player’s hands and the rest down the front of his shorts. There were chants, moans, f-bombs, and slash-the-throat miming. I, in turn, tried to steal their souls by taking pictures.
Ours was more subdued. Stolle thanked us for being there, hoped we’d return and possibly keep the team intact (he may have been in the minority on that point), and then surprisingly reflected on the future, saying that he and his mates were nearing the end of their participation, and that the future of the week belonged to the young Legends, like the Jensens. Sitting with Newk at dinner on Wednesday night, I shared Fred’s comments and John seemed surprised. A transition wasn’t under discussion, he suggested, and the status quo would continue. At least for now.
Stolle had also apologized for the fact that, as a consequence of losing our injured players, most of us were about to get creamed. Indeed, my opponent Ron had been my dinner tablemate the night before, where he told me his Las Vegas USTA league team had competed at either the 4.5 or 5.0 level for regional and national championships. I’m a 4.0, or was a few years ago, in my early mid-sixties. A few years ago, Ron was in his early 40s.
Fortunately, Ron was a gentleman on the court. He even let me imagine I was in the match at 3-3, 30-love in the second set. Then he gently destroyed that fantasy. My comrades fared about the same. To my left, we lost 0 and 0. To my right, my buddy Rich Flisher played a miraculous match, only to fall in a closely-fought 10-point tiebreaker. I think we lost the day 20-something to nine. That might be a Legends Week record. After the morning doubles, I’d chatted with Rick Ross and speculated we might see each other in the singles. He wound up playing five courts below me. Stolle was right on the money; sadly, it was the best call he made all week for the Dunnies.
Walking slowing back to the gazebo next to the first court, I spotted Laver —by himself, remarkably—standing by the beer cooler. I’d wanted to ask him about his Pancho Gonzalez comment, that “he’d tried to beat up on me” when Rocket had first joined the pro tour. What, I now wondered, had he meant by that?
“Oh, he’d sometimes serve me and then walk to the other side, whether it was in or out, regardless of what the call was,” explained Laver. “If he was told to come back, he’d glare at me, as if I’d made the call. In the locker room, if he’d won, he’d just pack up and walk out.” Strangely, Rocket added, if Pancho lost, he’d hang out and be as friendly as any of the pros imagined he could be.
And then it was time for our final dinner. The MVP awards. The Rookie awards. The going undefeated awards. Doc Eden’s last round of dirty jokes. The Newk-led cheers for Laver. The attendance plaques (it would be great if photographer Ken could one year figure how to light players’ face). The handshakes, the hugs, the promises of return.
And Emmo’s singing of “Walzing Matilda,” flanked by all the Aussies in the room (and, bizarrely, Puerto Rican Charlie Pasarell, who perhaps has honorary Australian status that hasn’t been announced). Emmo was accompanied this year by rookie Tom, a professional guitarist and “song minister,” who apparently conducts services with music. Before he strummed his first chord, he told a brief story about his arrival in New Braunfels and how others wondered how he might react to the post-dinner presentations. His story wasn’t long, and ended with the words, “F__k you!”
So I guessed it worked out okay.