Day Four: Meta-Tennis and Musclemen Domination

Rod Lave at John Newcombe's Legends Week

Victor and Wanker Sig Krupka with the blogger. Coach Laver has moved on.

For those of you keeping score at home, at the end of the second day of team matches, the Musclemen are undefeated, the Wankers and the Mongrel Kangaroos are 1-1, and defending champs Dunnies 0-2. If I wasn’t certain that Fred Stolle was going to say “Never again!” this year during the draft in regards to my joining his team, I’m really sure there’s a housecleaning in our future for coming Weeks.

It’s hardly about me. Coach Owen Davidson and assistants Ross “Snake” Case and Murph “Murph” Jensen deserve kudos for their match-up making and, in Murph-Murph’s case, their coaching bed-side manner (in my singles match in the morning, Jensen spent as much time trying to seduce me with the news that a special new racquet from Bridgestone, of all places, would change my life, as he did trying to help my opponent—his guy—Sig Kupka). Sig, as it turned out, needed no help.  So hats off to them. But the real reason, in my opinion, that the Musclemen have muscled their way out of mediocrity is the new member of their coaching brain trust: Rod Laver.

Call him talisman, call him lucky leprechaun, but when he’s standing six feet behind you watching you practice your serve—Rod Laver is watching me warm up!!!—and then huddling with your opponent in animated conversation—Rocket is telling him how to beat me!!!—you go kind of numb with a combination of pride and dread. Yoda has come to New Braunfels, and you’re playing for the Dark Side.

Rod Laver, John Newcombe, during Tennis Legends week "Boat Race," a drinking game

The Boat Race victors, plus Rod Laver

There have also been a rash of somewhat extreme, somewhat bizarre injuries. One camper checked himself into a local hospital with high blood pressure. Another got bit by a scorpion, and his foot swelled to twice its size (Rob Morgan tried to play through the pain, but retired in the doubles; he was in pretty good shape for the Wednesday night Boat Race). My buddy Jim Bumgartner tore his calf. And teammate JB deRosset—following a brutal, two-hour-plus doubles match played at an extremely high level—collapsed in the trainer’s area with full-body cramps. He, too, was rushed to a hospital, where doctors reportedly feared kidney damage. But he was back on his feet Wednesday night.

The injuries aside, the Week continues to have a high level of mellowness and collegiality. Except, that is, when it comes to drinking games. On Tuesday night, Doc Eden—whose post-dinner jokes, if printed here, would not only cause this website to be shut down, but would probably lead to jail time for webmaster Roger Cox (I’d plead insanity)—appointed the Jensen brothers, each of whom is virtually twice the doctor’s height (and perhaps three times his weight), as his personal “sergeants-at-arms.” They would serve in that capacity through Wednesday evening. The reason? Doc claimed he’d been threatened by Newk, and his right-hand man, Aussie rancher Angus Deane. No sooner had Doc finished, than Angus—who’d been described earlier by Newk as someone who slowly castrated a 700-pound bull who he’d taken a dislike to after being kicked—stood up menacingly and unsheathed a … butter knife. Murph-Murph looked worried. Luke laughed. We all took note.

***

Speaking of note-taking, there are several of what Bud Collins used to term “scribblers” here this week. The dean of the group is George Wachtel, who’s got a new book out—Senior Tennis—that I should have read before I came, and a blog—Senior Tennis and Fitness—that will tell you much more than this one about the how-to-play-better-tennis aspects of this week. George is amazing: not only was he one of JB’s opponents in the epic doubles that sent our player to the hospital, but—at 71—he looked like he could go on a two-mile cool-down run at its end. Plus he writes faster than me; his entry for Wednesday is already up. I hate him.

Peter Freeman is here, too, videoing for his Crunch Time Tennis website. And one of his video interviewees, writer-author Joel Drucker, is filling notebooks for a future magazine article. Drucker, who I believe would embrace the characterization as a “tennis nerd,” has found a place in the hearts of all long-term Legends Week attendees. In 2010, Joel’s wife Joan was hospitalized with complications from lupus, a disease she’d carried with her most of her life. At the time, Joel—who writes for the Huffington Post, the Tennis Channel’s website, tennis.com, and numerous national magazines—was planning to return to the Legends Week, where he’d been coming off and on since 1995. Tragically, she died in late summer. That Fall, Joel wrote a speech about her and how the Legends Week community—the so-called frat boys of a demented brotherhood—rallied around him to offer support and solace. Newk invited him to deliver during one post-dinner presentation. “The dining room went from Animal House to On Golden Pond, he recalled with a smile. He turned the experience into a memorable column in 2012, which anyone interested in the Legends Week experience should take a look at.

Tennis columnist Joel Drucker

Author/columnist Joel Drucker, 4.5 player and tennis nerd (he knows who invented the modern tennis court … do you?)

For Drucker, the Legends Week can be defined as a “meta-tennis experience,” a sense of the bigger picture of the sport, of “the democracy of tennis” in that we get to see and hear how much the game’s greatest care, how hard they try to succeed. “Our tennis is their tennis,” Joel told me over lunch. I thought it a brilliant analysis.

“This year,” he continued, “there’s a whole spirit of renewal. And that’s due to Rod Laver. If you can think of this as a Woodstock, you’ll recall that Bob Dylan never played there. For us, this is Woodstock with Dylan. Everyone is jacked to be around him. Even the Legends. For them, he is the personification of the nation of Australia and its accomplishments.”

Drucker reflected on the genius of Laver and his close friend Emerson, and the hard work that the other Aussies put in to try to work their way to the level of Emmo and Rocket (and perhaps Lew Hoad, Joel added). “But now Laver is 76, and Emmo is 78,” Drucker noted. “Since the 20th anniversary of the Legends Week—seven years ago—I’ve felt we’re fast approaching a time-moving-on moment.” In other words, we’re all sharing special, potentially last-in-a-lifetime moments.

This isn’t just another sports fantasy camp, in the eyes of Joel Drucker. “It’s the authenticity of us playing each other. That’s unique.”

***

In the afternoon, my new partner Buddy Banks, a Cincinnati pal of Steve Contardi, and I had another big ask from Coach Stolle—to take on Jeff Renz and Mike Quinn, two big powerservers with impressive ground strokes. Bud and my lack of information about each other—I couldn’t recall ever having seen him play and more than once called him “Bob”—didn’t help. But we made a match of it in the second set, pulling ahead 5-4, only to lose 7-5. And Jeff and Mike seemed pleased, so I guess we were a good scalp.

Then came my fantasy set with Charlie Pasarell, the visionary behind fabulously successful BNP Paribas Indian Wells tennis tournament, taking on longtime camper Bob Morgan and Newk. Here’s what happened. I was serving first. Newk was receiving. He said, “Come on, bring me your heat.”

“I don’t have any heat,” I responded. He was standing back, on the baseline.

“Seriously,” I said, “you should move in.”

Newk didn’t budge.

Photo of John Newcombe and Terry Kahn

John Newcombe, after winning the Boat Race, forgives blogger Kahn for his ace. Sort of.

I hit my greasy spin serve and it landed mid-box, on the alley line, and spun right, a couple of inches off the ground. Newk lurched forward, stopped, then slowly walked to the mark. Five, ten, fifteen seconds passed. Then I heard an f-bomb. And another.

Every night at the post-dinner presentations, anyone who has aced a Legend during one of the fantasy sets is called up, along with the presumably embarrassed former Grand Slam winner, to receive a signed certificate to that effect. Normally there are one or two, sometimes none. Two years ago, I nearly aced Murphy Jensen, but he was quick enough and long enough to touch the ball. He still remembers it, as he told me later. I hadn’t wanted to ace Newk and had told him that several times—on the court, after the set (which Charlie and I won 6-2), and before dinner.

So when I was called up to the front by MC Contardi, I apologized to Newk again. But he was already trying to explain to his buddies sitting at a table in front what had happened. I asked Contardi for the mike, and told the story you just read. The Newk grabbed the microphone from me and launched a counter-attack. I vaguely remember the phrases “big effing racquet” and “little pussy serve,” but there was also laughter, applause, and cheers. I left the stage, slapping hands as I walked to my table.

But, first, I apologized yet again.

The night ended with the Boat Race, a beer-chugging contest, six versus six. Newcombe’s team won, as it always does. Doc was protected by the Jensens. Laver was drafted as the international ombudsman. Angus chugged the final leg.

The final day was approaching, and everyone was feeling pretty good.

Next: When it’s over, Emmo sings

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