Day 4: The Lay Of the Land

Looking over past entries, it occurs to me that the reader might not have a clear picture of the layout of the Ranch, nor the structure of the day. Let me try to fill that in.

The Ranchhouse at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch

The Main Lodge. Courtesy John Newcombe Tennis Ranch

First, the Ranch itself. The central ranchhouse—or lodge, as it’s called here—is where all our meals are served, buffet-style. A dining room is decorated at one end by the over-sized logos of the four teams, which serve as the backdrop for each night’s post-meal “entertainment”, the story-telling and conversation of the Legends. The lodge has a second large, open room where the registration desk, the long bar, tables, benches, a couple of TVs, walls of Newk’s clippings and photos, and a sales lounge for the tennis community—which will have its own clubhouse—that Newk and his partners are building on a strip of land just west of the Ranch. The furnishings are Western in style and modest in design—natural wood, some leather, unpretentious. The lodge also has a small tennis shop, a couple of bathrooms, and the Ranch offices.

Immediately outside are a pool (which I’ve yet to see anyone use), a Jacuzzi (which I’ve been told gets some use, though I haven’t seen it), and nine of the 28 courts—four clay, and four hard, with a surface that resembles, and is possibly identical to, the Open courts at Flushing Meadow. Two-story wood-and-stone buildings abut the four hard courts, with guest rooms and balconies with a view of the play. Behind the clay courts, the land is undeveloped and wooded, and when Hutch and I went out to play our morning matches there, a herd of deer gathered on the other side of the fence, no more than five feet away, staring at us in what seemed to be a bemused, what-the-f-are-you-doing-here kind of way.

Stadium Court and MASH Unit

Two sets of small metal bleachers, an open-sided permanent shelter for escape from the sun, and a temporary open-sided trainer’s tent abut the “show court”, the hard court closest to the lodge. On Monday, the tent looked a bit like a MASH unit field hospital—two Dunnies had gone down with injury before the first practice ended—but former major leaguer Larry Starr and his staff had kept everyone pretty much together. I saw no crutches, no walking wounded, no emergency hospital trips during the first four days. Indeed, by the end of today, Starr had put down his ice and tape and was taking serves.

The rest of the Ranch runs west, towards the new tennis community. Small houses, like the one I’m in, stand on the outer edges of the property. Twenty more courts—the same hard surface, but, from what I saw, in not nearly as good condition—lie in three clusters a fair distance from the lodge, with four protected from the weather by another open-sided structure with lights.

Jumping Jacks? Not For Legends

Our days begin around 7:30, when breakfast is served—eggs, bacon, fruit, yogurt, muffins, bagels, toast, juice, coffee, tea, even omelets cooked to order (though I have yet to see one made). It doesn’t get light much before then, but I’ve seen players on the court, with one of the young “junior” pros assigned to each team, working out as soon as the ball is visible. Shortly after 8, one or two Legends hold a brief mini-clinic at the show court on one aspect of the game—a stroke, positioning, match strategy—and then Larry leads us in warm-ups. “These are not stretches,” he admonished us. “You must not stretch before you play, only after.” Some of them felt like stretches, to tell the truth. But not the jumping jacks. If you told me that, at age 64, I’d be doing jumping jacks at 8:30 in the morning, well, I would have assumed you mistook me for someone who did jumping jacks in the morning. But there I’ve been. Not the Legends, though. When Larry has us leaping and squatting, they’re off in small groups, smirking and pointing. Oh, to be a Legend.

Match play begins at 9, singles for most, although there a several campers who’ve chosen to only play doubles. The courts you’re assigned to are indicators of how strong your captains think you are. Woodie and Dick seem to think I’m a decent doubles player (court 4), but that I suck at singles (court 11). So far, I’ve proven them right on both accounts.

Around 11:30, we have a half hour of drills, or an exhibition, or both. The drills are optional, and I’ve skipped as many as I’ve participated in. Then comes lunch—a soup, salads, hot and cold sandwiches, tea, juice, coffee and cookies. After lunch, most of us return to our rooms, where I’ve fallen asleep twice I don’t think I’m unique in that. Afternoons begin around 2 or 2:30, with doubles play. At 4:30, fantasy doubles matches take place—half hour sessions where, at least once during the week, a camper is paired with a Legend and faces off against another camper/Legend team. The rest of us either go to a clinic, or hang out and drink our first beers of the day.

Legendary Imbibing

John Newcombe

Newk leading his Kangaroo drinking team in a pre-match war dance

The drinking, which has been rather modest in comparison to the orgy of imbibing that I’d led myself to expect, continues through a happy hour and to dinner—with two bottles of Australian red on each table—and beyond. The evening menus have been more hearty than gourmet—chicken, barbecue, pasta—but fresh and tasty. And the discussions that follow have been funny and fascinating. Tonight, Owen Davidson had reflected on his most emotional moment as a pro. Remarkably, it had been at Forest Hills, not Melbourne or Wimbledon or Roland Garros. He told of standing in the old clubhouse—my clubhouse!—with Newk, waiting to take the court to play Rod Laver and Davo’s idol, Ken Rosewall. And then later, arriving at match point, mishitting a return of service. “Muscles (Rosewall) was so disgusted with my shot, insulted by it, he just swatted it into the net,” laughed Davo.

The evening ended with a drinking contest—a fairly tame one involving two teams of six, with each team member—in sequence—chugging one cup of beer. First team to finish wins. The Dunnies lost again.

With our on-court performance equally weak, we became the first team to be eliminated from everything. Now we’re playing the spoiler role. But I did make my mark in one way—I managed to lose two super-tiebreakers in the same day. I’m pretty sure I’ve tied a Fantasy Week record.

Which, come to think of it, makes me a kind of Legend.

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