The days are now cool, almost cold at dawn. But that hasn’t kept the early birds—some mornings a half dozen or so of them‐from hitting the courts for practice. The “ranch pros,” young teaching pros just out of college or a bit older, are available to anyone who wants them, at any time. And the early birds are getting their money’s worth.
For me, starting at 9 is just fine. I’d even opt for 10, if I had the choice. Today is the last full day of the fantasy—singles in the morning, doubles in the afternoon. We are playing Owen Davidson and Ross Case’s team, the Musclemen, named in honor of Ken Rosewall, a player whom Davidson has told us he idolized. The Musclemen are still in the hunt for the team title, and my opponent, Dan Rosenthal, is—once again—younger, bigger and just as fit.
Rosenthal is an aerospace engineer who launched his own software company, sold it, retired at 50, and is living in Los Altos, California, raising two girls and honing his net game. The only good news was that he doesn’t play on clay, where our match has been scheduled. For nearly two sets, his discomfort with the surface showed. And then, all of a sudden, he got very, very comfortable. Down 3-6, 1-5, Dan found he couldn’t miss, and my psyche, already fragile, crumbled. I lost five games in a row, rallied to force a tiebreaker, lost it, and found myself in another damned super-tiebreaker. Which, astonishing to me even hours later, I won.
Hutch, who’d had a walkover because—for the first time this year—a camper had hurt himself seriously enough to drop out of the competition, had cheered me on through the 10-5 final abbreviated set. Walking back up the hill to the trainer’s tent, he told me about what for him had been one of the week’s singular moments. The night before, at the post-dinner presentations, Davidson had told a story about Roy Emerson. They’d met in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in the early 70s, and the heavily favored Emmo had taken a set and a break lead. But, as he chased a drop shot, he’d somehow lost his balance and fallen heavily into the umpire’s wooden chair. Davo said he could see that his mate was in great pain, but Emmo refused to stop playing, insisting he was fine. The match continued, and Emmo could still play well enough to disguise whatever his condition was from the fans. But Davo knew he was hurting. As he told me later, somewhat reluctantly, “I knew he wouldn’t let up on me if things were reversed,” and he took control and eventually prevailed, a great upset at the time.
What was incredible, Hutch told me, was that Davo had apparently never asked Emmo again what he had done to himself. Until, that is, this morning at breakfast. And Emmo told him. He’d dislocated his left shoulder, Hutch heard him explain to Davo, but because he was right-handed, he felt he could keep going. Not until the match was over, and he was back in the clubhouse, did he get someone to pop it back in. “Listening to that exchange, I felt like I was living tennis history,” Hutch said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
The trainer’s tent was pretty quiet when I walked in, having tweaked my left ankle early in the singles match. There was no swelling, it hadn’t bothered me once I was warm and the blood was pumping, and I rarely have an injury that needs treatment. But after sitting for a short time, I could feel it when I walked. We Dunnies had had a good morning, and there was a possibility we could win the day’s team match, knocking the Musclemen out of contention (and, more importantly, giving Newk and his Mongrel Kangaroos a good shot at their first title in what was now being reported as 18 years). Trainer Larry Starr had time to not only wrap an ice bag around my foot, but to talk a bit about his 20-plus years as the Fantasy trainer. Starr has four World Series rings, and did long stints with the Cincinnati Reds and Florida Marlins as their head trainer. But, he told, he’d realized his heart was really here in New Braunfels when, during the Marlins’ last series, he was rooting for a four-game sweep so he could arrive for Fantasy Week on time. And he didn’t really care who did the sweeping.
Starr confirmed both my impressions: that injuries were few, and that the drinking had moderated. In the early days, he said, the tennis shoes were so poorly made that he and his team were constantly treating serious blisters. The heat, too, was often a problem, and the only incident of a camper being ambulanced to a hospital was for heat stroke. And the drinking? “We used to leave the Ranch on Wednesday night and go to a Mexican restaurant in New Braunfels” he recalled. “There’d be margaritas and more margaritas. Then, on the way back, the guys would stop at other bars. Some would even go into San Antonio.” The Legends, he said, drank a lot more in those days, too. “Newk used to chug beer between his legs,” he explained. Of all the information I’d been given this week, that was the hardest to visualize.
Ankle taped for the first time in 30 years, Rich and I took the court to face the Musclemen’s undefeated No. 4 team, Jeff and Pete (who, I would discover later this night, had been inducted into the Fantasy Week Hall of Fame). In any tennis dream I’ve ever, I’ve saved the best for last. Today that was a reality. We beat our opponents, 4 and 3, even with Davidson sitting in one of the cross-over chairs for the entire second set, coaching his guys. And, Woodie would tell us later, it was the deciding match.
The Dunnies win! The Dunnies win! It was the flush heard ‘round the world!
And so did the Kangaroos. So Newk was in, shall I say, a pretty good mood for the last night, Awards Night. Dan Rosenthal won the Rookie of the Week award, which made me feel proud. Bill, my second singles opponent, described how he’d won a Silver Star in Vietnam by taking out a machine gun nest, playing dead, killed an enemy soldier trying to take his weapon, and then being knocked out and wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade. No wonder he hadn’t seemed nervous during the super-tiebreaker.
Steve Contardi told us about plans for next year, the 25th anniversary week, but he didn’t have to wax particularly eloquently about how great it would be. Most, if not all of us, could visualize its coolness already.
When Newk and Emmo ended the festivities, leading us in a group sing of “Waltzing Matilda,” we all—Kangaroos, Musclemen, Wankers, and Dunnies—joined in full throat.
Good job, mates.