Day Two: The Laver Influence

The vibe, if you will, at the 2014 Legends Week seems, to me anyway, a bit mellower and more collegial than 2011 and 2012, the two previous years I’ve attended. Maybe it’s because I seem to be practicing with a slightly weaker group of teammates than in 2012 and our hits are more relaxed and convivial. Tony Huber, a retired health care management specialist who now owns a small recording studio just outside of Nashville and who entertains Legends Week passers-by with mandolin tunes from his courtside second-floor balcony, was particularly good company this morning. An MVP last year, when he won all six matches he played, leading the Dunnies in points earned, he clearly loves the game but doesn’t seem to obsess about the competition. We played a couple of highly enjoyable sets of doubles, and one set of singles, where he paid a gracious complement. “I always assume I can out-think my opponent,” he said in a soft southern drawl, “but every time we play, you’re out-thinking me. Let’s do it again before the week’s over.”

Rod Laver, "The Rocket"

The Rocket, giving an impromptu master class on tennis history to a gaggle of gob-smacked Legends Week campers, one of whom is about to get him a fresh beer.

Off-court, though, is where I’m sensing the changed vibe even more strongly. And much of that I attribute to Rod Laver’s presence. He hasn’t picked up a racquet yet, as far as I’ve seen, and I’d be surprised at this point if he did. But the fact that, for example, on Monday afternoon, you could find him standing next to the courtside gazebo, a beer in hand, casually conducting a master class in modern tennis history before a dozen or so campers, also with beers in hand, was a value proposition that went far beyond how to hit a better backhand. As we stood around him, tossing questions whenever “Rocket”—his nickname in his prime, and the term of endearment the other Legends still used this week—would finish a thought and pause, it felt like a great gift was being delivered. He’d had two hips and a knee replaced, had recovered from a stroke, but his mind was clear and sharp. I suspect he could out-think all of us.

What did he touch upon? What didn’t he? When I joined the circle, Laver as mid-way through a response to a query about the toughest opponents he’d had. There’d been three distinct phases to his career, Laver noted: the amateurs, the touring pros in the pre-Open days, and the Open era. In the amateurs, Emerson had been his greatest challenge. As a touring pro, “Hoad and Rosewall beat up on me, and Gonzalez tried to.” (I made a mental note to ask more about that later this week.) He discussed leaving competitive tennis while still one of the 10 best players in the world. He talked about racquets, about Federer and Nadal, about in-game strategies, about court surfaces (“Grass was my favorite at the beginning … but eventually, when I learned how to beat the Europeans on their clay, that changed.), and then back to racquets. He discussed his coach Charlie Hollis from Queensland, who he felt certain we didn’t know (in my case, he was right), and Harry Hopman, who he said wasn’t a coach at all, but a brilliant tactician. The line I’ll always remember was his response to the question one camper posed, “Is it true that you used to file down your grips?”

“I didn’t play with a racquet,” Laver said, finishing his beer, “I played with a grip.” He then described in detail the process he’d use to transform each racquet, sanding and filing the handle to take all its edges off and taper it so it was wider at its bottom than its top. “I used a strong Continental grip, and I’d get blisters with a square handle. And I wanted to make sure it didn’t come out of my hand.”

Then it was time for a refill.

***

Dick Stockton at Newk's Tennis legends

Legend Dick Stockton, with his prize Dunnie recruits Roberto and Andre. And a lot of barbecue.

The day had begun with a brief lesson, led by Dunnie assistant coaches Dick Stockton and Brian Gottfried on returning service. The gist of it was to “find your comfort zone” and get the ball in play, no matter where one stood. “You can stand in the box, if you want,” noted Stockton, “just protect your” private parts. Then he recounted a moment from a match he’d played against Laver in Hartford, Connecticut. Laver had nailed him right in the most vulnerable area, Dick said, and won a valuable point. “I ran into him ten years later and asked him if he remembered the match at all. ‘Think so, mate,’ he told me, ‘the one where I hit you in the nads?’”

Rookie Roberto Castillo has been soaking up the stories like that. Castillo has an unusually rich resume for a camper (although a former ATP competitor had attended in 2012), coming from a Bogota, Colombia tennis family that’s produced both touring and teaching pros. Roberto—clearly the Dunnies’ best player based on the first practices—had been playing in the Orange Bowl tournament in Miami as a teenager when he was recruited by the coach of a small college in Tennessee, which offered a full scholarship that he accepted. His roommate, Andre, played basketball. Eventually the roommate got tired of hanging out in the room when Roberto went off to practice and learned how to play himself. Fast forward to this past winter, and Andre found himself hitting with Legend Stockton in Wellington, Florida. Stockton described the Legends Week, and Andre immediately planned to come and bring Roberto with him. Both became Dunnies.

So it was with a lot of confidence that we gathered for our first team meeting. “You’re all a–holes,” Coach Stolle informed us. Assistant coach Mark Woodforde tried to cushion the blow.

“That means ‘friend’ in Australia,” he assured us. “It’s a term of endearment.”

Steak and lobster at Newk's Legends weekend

It wouldn’t be a week in Texas without barbecue, and Newk’s Ranch doesn’t disappoint.

By evening we were all feeling pretty friendly. The meals had been uniformly good—steak and lobster tails the first night, followed by three kinds of barbecue on Monday. The bottles of cabernet and pinot noir—two on every table—were more than adequate, as were the giant tubs of complimentary happy-hour beer. On some nights like this, in past years, exhausted campers would head back to their rooms before the post-dinner presentations even began.

But, to my eye, nobody left early this evening. Not when Laver, Emerson, Newcombe, and Stolle were on stage, talking about their earliest years as competitors—the “anthill clay courts” made from the clay/sand mix scraped off giant Outback ant beds that their first competitions were played on, “country tournament” weekends in small villages where they’d play three or four matches a day for two days, small schools and big farms (Emmo noted he’d been quite the student—number-one in his class, and then admitted he’d been the only one in his class), Newk about his relatively-privileged upbringing compared with the others, and Stolle—the last to speak—complaining that “I’m the poor sister here”, before dropping a couple of f-bombs.

But, by then, everybody was truly exhausted. And the dining room began to empty.

Next: The Battle Begins

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