Getting Ready for the “Zoo”

Friday, October 14. Thirty-six hours until the flight from Newark to San Antonio departs, and I’m wrapping up my weeks-long mandated preparation for the annual Tennis Fantasy Week at John Newcombe’s ranch in New Braunfels. The exhortations began in a letter from event organizer Steve Contardi, writing from his Cincinnati base in mid-summer. “I’d like to urge you to prepare,” he had advised, telling me and the other 50 or so attendees to play four times a week, to mix singles and doubles, and to do 22 stretches at least ten times apiece every day. The stretching program, drawn up by “former major league baseball trainer” Larry Starr, admonished us to add sit-ups and push-ups if we really wanted to be ready, and to “decrease or stop drinking”.

Abstinence, frankly, seemed to go against the spirit of the adventure. The Tennis Fantasy Week has for 24 years been an annual men-only gathering. The 13 “Legends”—besides Newk, we’d be overseen by Fred Stolle, Owen Davidson, Roy Emerson, Dick Stockton, Guillermo Vilas, Ross Case, Brian Gottfried, Mark Woodforde, Charlie Pasarell, Marty Riessen, Geoff Masters and Rick Leach — were, as far as I knew, amenable to a pint every now and then. (Sean, the long-time bar manager at my home club, the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, remembers afternoons in the 70s when the US Open was still being played there, and the men’s locker room had a bar next to the showers. The Aussies, in particular, were fond of stripping naked, grabbing a couple of bottles, and sunbathing on a not-entirely-secluded deck over the clubhouse terrace. Or so Sean says.)

Testosterone and Trash Talk

Indeed, ten years ago, when Touré—the Rolling Stone magazine writer and author—attended the Fantasy Week, he reported that the experience had been “a testosterone zoo … a summer camp for big boys.” The pictures included group shots of ruddy-faced middle-agers raising glasses and cans of amber liquids. Still, it was a decade ago, and Larry Starr might then have been living the major-league dream. But I seriously doubted things had changed very much.

So I embarked on my interpretation of the preparation conditioning program. Ten days ago, my wife Lesley and I headed to St. Thomas, where we spent a week at the Ritz-Carlton Destination Club, just around the corner from the Red Hook harbor and the ferry to St. John. I was put in touch with Randy Shaw, a Professional Tennis Registry teaching pro who holds the title of head pro at both the Ritz and the Wyndham in nearby Sugar Bay, although he teaches in other locales and—for the most part—works out of his car. Every day, either Randy or Lesley (or both) would run me through drills and play points on one of the two green carpeted courts that many Caribbean resorts favor (they do seem to dry quickly, to damn them with faint praise). After the third session, Randy—who looks a bit like a more serious, more athletic Jimmy Buffett—turned to me and said of my progress, “Well, at least you’re getting your cardio in.”

Returning to New York, I was greeted with more communication from Steve Contardi, who said he was asking first-timers—”rookies”, as he put it—to tell him about their playing levels. I offered that I was a decent B player, maybe a 3.5, maybe a 4, depending on the conditions, the opponent, the level of distraction (Touré also wrote that the courtside trash-talking is world-class). Then I recalled a conversation with a diver from San Antonio who I’d met one morning on the Ritz beach. When I’d asked about the weather I could expect, he said, “Nineties. Mid nineties.” So I added that I could easily melt to a 2.5.

My final prep—sets versus my pals in the city, all on either red clay or Har-Tru—did not augur well for a Texas appearance of my 4.0 self either. “You do realize,” said editor Roger Cox, “that the Newcombe Ranch is hard courts.” Um, no, that had slipped my trained professional eye. But, in this case, my editor had not been entirely accurate. Four of the 28 courts appear to be clay.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to get on them.

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