Less than 24 hours have passed since brother Joe and I stepped out of the Ranch van, picked up our “swag bag” at the Main Lodge, and made ourselves at home in a spacious condo overlooking the four Har-Tru courts. We were due to walk through the front door around 2:30, but the first plane American Airlines put us on turned out to be broken. The good news was that we weren’t airborne when the pilot reached his conclusion; the bad news was that two hours passed before a replacement made it to our gate. We did get to watch the second half of the Patriots game, however, so our time was not completely wasted. Welcome home, indeed, Tom Brady.
Several other Legends Weekers were similarly inconvenienced, including one Legend—Mark Woodforde, the Aussie doubles genius (he and partner Todd Woodbridge were known as the Woodies, collecting 17 Grand Slam titles including six at Wimbledon and three at the U.S. Open, which has put him into the International Tennis Hall of Fame)—who made sure the van didn’t leave without us. Two years earlier, at an after-dinner discussion, Mark had expressed some bitterness at the way Tennis Hall of Famers were treated (or, more precisely, not extended courtesies) at the Grand Slam tournaments. I asked him if anything had changed, and he said, not really, pointing to the French Open this summer, where Amelie Mauresmo had been honored for her induction, but other Hall of Famers on the grounds, including Woodforde and fellow broadcast commentator Fred Stolle, had not been invited to come onto center court and welcome her into that charmed circle.
“I spoke to Todd Martin, who’s now the executive director of the Hall, and he said it’s just too hard to get the Slam events to do anything,” Mark said. Which made me wonder exactly what a Tennis Hall of Fame director is supposed to be doing, if it’s not to align the Hall with tennis’ top events.
But by then we’d arrived at the ranch—a main lodge, eight two-story condo buildings facing 24 courts (four of them covered), other smaller buildings and cottages (“casitas”) scattered around the grounds, a pool, a Jacuzzi, a conference hall, and deer, rabbits, and various other creatures of the scrub forest surrounding the ranch. The 4 pm welcome had come and gone, and the four hard courts and four clay courts were filled with players. We managed to a get a quick hit in ourselves and prepared for happy hour, while the Legends withdrew to choose their teams.
Brother Joe managed to find both his friend Hoyt, who played college tennis at Williams and who quite clearly was one or two levels above us (as well as nearly 20 years younger), and the bar, and the conversation turned jovial. Hoyt was particularly excited to meet Rod Laver and the other Aussies, in part because he’d been a ball boy at the 1975 Aetna World Cup in Hartford, a made-for-the-sponsors event pitting a U.S. team against Australia in a three-day, Davis Cup-type competition. Laver opened the event, facing—of all people—Dick Stockton. Just as Hoyt was digging into his memory back, up walked … Rod Laver. Introductions were made, handshakes exchanged, and we asked Rod if he recalled the match (which he’d won in a third-set tiebreaker after Dick had squandered two serves). “Oh sure,” he said with a smile. “That’s the one where I hit Dick in the … (he first pointed at his groin, then moved it slightly to the right) top of his leg.” He seemed slightly embarrassed to say the word “groin” (or worse). That conceivably would change before week’s end.
The shame-free zone was certainly in effect when Marc Segan walked us through a series of what most folks would think of as FAQs, but were described by Segan as “(expletive) (expletive) questions”. They were funny and semi-informative and completely unsuitable for a family audience. And then the teams were announced. To my complete astonishment and delight, I—and brother Joe—were selected by The Wankers, coached by Emmo. I’ve hung out with him in Gstaad, and competed against him in Texas, and believe he’s incomparable. Maybe he didn’t have the career of Laver, but his 28 major titles (12 singles, 16 doubles) and eight Davis Cups is pretty incredible. And he knows how to teach!
Monday morning began with an 8:30 am lecture by Rod Laver on the history and development of modern tennis. Yeah, I’m exaggerating a bit, but for 20 minutes, after a warm introduction by
Owen Davidson, the Rocket patiently answered all our questions about important matches (specifically, how he was down in an early round match at Wimbledon two sets and 3-3 to Premjit Lall, an Indian with a modest resume, in 1969, the year he would win his second calendar Grand Slam, a record that may never be broken), changing economics (his one sponsor, Dunlop, gave him four rackets and six sets of strings for a four-month circuit), and the Aetna World Cup (he now admitted he’d hit Stockton in the “groin”; that night, Stockton reminded me that two years ago, Rocket had said it was in “the nads”; presumably we’ll get there by Friday).
Doubles practice followed, as our coaches tested us in different pairings. With the team matches just a day away, trying to establish chemistry is a tricky proposition, but Marty Riessen, Luke Jensen, Stockton, and Emmo were doing their best. I had the good fortune to be on a court with Terry Long and Lenny Saltzman, two Legends veterans. A breeze was keeping the temperature in the mid-eighties and life was sweet. By mid-afternoon, however, it was over 90, humid, and at least three of us had already left the courts for shade and ice wraps. But both brother Joe and I were going until 4:30, when we had a Legends Doubles match—he paired with Fred Stolle, me with Marty Riessen.
I’d played against Marty in 2011, when his back issues made him almost immobile. This year, he moved much better and with confidence. Given that Joe had hit a wall with the heat at the close of the afternoon practice, I felt pretty good about our chances. And given I’d seen Stolle consume a beer while playing his previous doubles set, I felt even better.
But it was what happened two points after I aced Stolle, much the same way I had Newcombe in 2014, that made this day for me. He and I had exchanged forehands several times when he changed his grip slightly and sent a slicing inside-out forehand into my alley. As I started to scramble, he shouted bitterly, “Move onto that, you little (s-word)!” I did, won the point, and owned one of the greatest comments I could have ever hoped for from a Hall of Famer.
Tonight, even though we heard fantastic stories from Emmo, Rocket, Davo, and Newk about the Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies and laughed at dirty jokes from Doc Eden, the high point for me was picking up another certificate and hearing Stolle grab the mic to complain about my “pussy little serve that bounced three times in the box”, and have him then smile, shake my hand, and say, “Well done.”
The real matches begin tomorrow. Little me is ready to move onto them.