It’s less than 24 hours before I will Uber to Newark to catch my American Airlines flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, and from there on to San Antonio, and eventually New Braunfels, Texas, for what will be my fourth journey to Legends Week at John Newcombe’s Tennis Ranch. For Newk and his pals—principally Roy Emerson, Owen Davidson, Fred Stolle, and Tennis Fantasies major domo Steve Contardi—it will be the 29th year of what author/columnist/fellow attendee Joel Drucker described as a “meta-tennis experience”, and for some of us, time may be running out. Emmo will turn 80 a couple of weeks after we leave. Rod Laver, joining the Week for only the second time, is 78. Other Legends coming to Texas—Marty Riessen, Ross Case, Dick Stockton, Charlie Pasarell, Mark Woodforde, Brian Gottfried, Rick Leach, and Murphy and Luke Jensen—are younger, some by a bit, some by decades. John Newcombe himself was 72 in May. There are probably a finite number of these weeks left.
On the other hand, I turned 69 in June and feel like I’m 40. Well, 55ish anyway. That, however, is in a comfortable, air-conditioned resting position in front of a laptop. How I will feel by Monday’s end—a couple of days from now—is likely another story. The Legends Week, for those of you reading about it for the first time (or who need a brief refresher course), starts with a right-off-the-plane workout on Sunday. This lets the team coaches get a look at the newbies (roughly 70 percent of us will be returnees, if recent history is any guide), and gauge the improvement/degradation of the vets. I will fall into the latter category, if my recent history is any guide too. (Feeling 55ish has done nothing for my backhand.) That evening, the Legends will have drafted all of us onto one of four teams—the Mongrel Kangaroos, coached by Newk; the Musclemen, coached by Emmo; the Wankers, helmed by Davo; and the Dunnies, led by Stolle. I’ve been a Dunnie—Aussie slang for outhouse—my three previous years. I imagine I will be again. This is not good news for Stolle. Every year I’ve skipped, the Dunnies have won the week. Every year I’ve attended, they haven’t, usually finishing last. I wish I could tell you it’s not about winning or losing, and it’s absolutely true that the camaraderie among Legends, campers, and the Ranch staff is off-the-charts fantastic, but this is—to all involved—more than a sports fantasy camp. As Joel Drucker suggested in 2014, during Legends Week, “We play each other. It’s authentic.”
The Week That Will Be
On Monday, our first full day, we will practice as the coaches—besides the legendary Aussies, each team will have several assistants (slight less-celebrated legendaries, but nonetheless winners of at least one Grand Slam title in singles, doubles, or mixed)—study our on-court performances in practice sets, mostly doubles, with our teammates. As with every day to follow, there will be clinics too, perhaps Emerson on the serve, or Dick Stockton on the volley, or Mark Woodforde and Rick Leach on doubles strategy (Murphy Jensen will offer lessons in trash-talking, but these tend to be less structured). And the day will end with a happy hour, dinner, and post-meal presentation. There’s nothing quite as thrilling as the moment that, say, Rod Laver, carrying his dinner plate, pauses by your seat and asks if there’s room for him. Sure, Rocket, we’ll squeeze you in.
Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday will be the team matches—singles in the morning, doubles in the afternoon. Actually, as the core demographic has aged over the decades, more and more of us are requesting doubles for both sessions. I became one of those this year, telling organizer Steve Contardi in an email that I’d play some singles, but only if my team needed me to. Given my three-year record in singles, that would have to be a pretty big need. By Thursday night, the winning team will be known, and that evening activity will include several awards. The only one I’ve ever won was a Legend’s Ace certificate. Somehow Newk misread the pace (none) and spin (lots) of the first serve he ever saw of mine, and after several f-bombs, conceded it hit the line and was good. I can promise you that is extremely unlikely to ever happen again.
What will happen at some point for each of us will be a set of Legend Doubles (the context two years ago for my improbable ace). These occur at the end of each morning and afternoon session, and pit two camper/Legend pairs against each other. I’ve had the pleasure of teaming with Stockton, Brian Gottfried, and Charlie Pasarell against Marty Riessen, Murphy Jensen, and Newk, and—amazingly enough—I’m undefeated. Sadly, Legend Doubles do not count in the team scores.
Most of the tennis will be on one of Newk’s 30-odd hard courts. In the past, I’ve requested my singles matches to be played on clay—Newk has a few Har-Tru courts. Generally, Emmo and Owen Davidson have said sure, why not. Newk has always refused. And that was before I aced him. These guys really do care about winning. Authenticity, indeed.
By Friday, it will be winding down. There’s a morning clinic which those of us with afternoon flights can participate in. The rest will have packed our tennis gear and can only watch a bit wistfully. Four years ago, Newk chose this moment to address the topic of mental toughness and how it applies to the supertiebreakers we play in lieu of a third set. I’d lost three of those puppies that week. Really, I thought, now you tell me? Now???
But, as with the two other years, it didn’t matter at all. The shared experience, the sense of brotherhood—demented or not—is the value proposition. I’m coming back. And this year I’ve convinced my brother Joe to join me. Stay tuned.