We Dunnies gathered on Courts 9 to 18 around 9 in the morning, a bright sun beginning to take away the chill, but the wind—as it would most of the day—playing havoc with slices, lobs, and serves.
For Mark Woodforde, the Australian doubles legend and Tennis Hall of Famer who has been tasked by our head man Fred Stolle with most of the coaching details (who’s playing with whom, and where in our rankings). It’s a little like flying blind. He knows some of us from prior years, but not necessarily in partnership with the candidates he has to pair with us. He’s only seen the rookies—of whom we probably have eight or nine—for an hour or two at most. And he knows that Fiery Fred already thinks we’re all useless buggers. Teammate Marty Judge asked if coach Stolle meant that literally, but was hooted down by his nervous teammates before Fred could answer. Our other assistant coaches, former USA Davis Cup stars Dick Stockton and Brian Gottfried, are also there to assist, but they don’t have any more insight than Mark. For the most part, anyway. Dick’s seen me play in Florida and on the grass at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, my home court. He doesn’t swear much, but I’m pretty sure the word “useless” would also figure prominently in his scouting report.
Nevertheless, the powers that be have placed me on both the morning and afternoon courts with some talented hitters—Mark, Fran, Jim, Sam, Jeff, a young Brazilian “ranch pro” named Thiago, and Mitch Kaplan. Mitch and I seem to work together particularly well, and at dinner discuss the likelihood we’ll be paired up. It would be an interesting combination—we’re about the same height, the same age (he’s the kid, two years younger), similar games (though I’m lefty, he’s rightly), and in our final practice match, had beaten two young power players. So we’ll see what the lineup looks like tomorrow.
Other high points of Practice Day:
- A morning volley clinic with Roy Emerson. Emmo, he of 28 grand slam titles, has an aura about him that’s matched only by Laver’s. And Rod, truth be told, won’t swing a racket these days. But Roy still practices what he preaches—in brief, don’t stand too close to the net, don’t hit down, relax the hand/firm the wrist, use a short stroke. It’s a remarkable experience, being taught by one of the greatest players ever, and the aura he and this create is the subject of yet another blog worth checking out—Joel Drucker’s blog on tennischannel.com.
- An exhibition doubles match between Woodforde and Danie Visser, a former South African David Cup star new to the Legends line-up (apparently replacing Murphy Jensen, who’s nowhere to be seen so far), and two campers from Australia, who matched up surprisingly well. In an extremely high-quality set, one you could have sold tickets to, the Legends prevailed 6-4. It’s humbling to think guys this good paid to be here. (Around $4,500, not including transportation, if you’re interested.)
- An evening panel—after a BBQ dinner, surprisingly good, featuring brisket, ribs, chicken and a dessert of apple crumble and vanilla ice cream—of Laver, Newk, Emmo, Stolle, Owen Davidson, and Charlie Pasarell took issue with the character of Jack Kramer, as portrayed in the current movie, The Battle of the Sexes, about the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome. Not having seen the film, I could only glean that the Kramer in this version of the story was a kind of bad guy, sexist, and perhaps greedy. But it was interesting to realize that this moment had been a part of these panelists’ lives, and they had a lot of feeling for the man, positive and negative. “A classy, great guy,” said Newk, adding “I was very pissed off when I walked out.” “I plead the fifth,” countered Stolle. Laver reflected that when he got tired of accepting a ten-pound voucher for winning Wimbledon, he could turn pro because of the groundwork Kramer had done. “He did a great deal for the game,” agreed Emmo, crediting Kramer with starting the pro circuit and, later, the ATP. Davo wanted to plead the fifth at first, too, then noted that Kramer, in his opinion, hadn’t come off particularly badly. Charlie concluded by saying, “I think open tennis owes a lot to Jack Kramer. I went to the premiere and it’s disgraceful how they presented him.”
- Other topics included the Laver Cup (the one in Prague, that is) and the future of the Big Four in men’s tennis. The verdict? Roger and Rafa, thumbs up. Murray, dubious. Djokovic, very dubious.
- As we walked out of the lodge we were each handed a copy of Laver’s autobiography. The Rocket was with us, but no one seemed to have a pen, so he couldn’t sign anyone’s book. As I got outside, I realized I had a pen in my bag, fished it out, and caught up with Rod on the deck. “Would you mind?” I asked. “I’d love to,” he said, turning to the title page. I had my trophy for the week.
By evening’s end, all were ready for the competition to begin. With sun, moderate temperatures and no wind in the forecast, life was looking sweet.