If there had been a more perfect day to play tennis during the previous 29 years of Legend Weeks, I really wish I’d been there, because it’s hard to imagine improving on very light winds, brilliant sun, and temps in the high 70s. Unfortunately, I opted to play imperfect tennis. Fortunately, as far as my Dunnies are concerned, it didn’t matter.
The day began, like the previous one, with a lecture/clinic. For Tuesday, the topic was returning the serve, and the presenters were Mark Woodforde and Rick Leach, two of the world’s greatest doubles players in the 80s and 90s. Both emphasized, as other Legends had in the past, the need to do whatever it takes to get the ball into play—either by moving back, shortening your swing, or taking away your opponent’s strength by overplaying to one side or the other. I probably didn’t listen closely enough.
This was followed by the morning stretch/calisthenics session led by Larry Starr, our head trainer who I’ve written about in the past. Larry has a World Series ring from his time in the Major Leagues, and a mannerly approach to his exercise leadership. I’ve never seen him snicker at any of our jumping-jacks. At least at mine, in part because I rarely do them (in truth, that puts me in a minority; most of us seem to exercise with a passion). But today, I decided to go all out: stretches, knee bends, torso twists. I was exhausted by the time Larry began the jumps. So my Legends Week remained jack-free.
Fully warmed-up, I made my way to one of the four clay courts to face my Muscleman opponent David Morgan, who is here for the second time in 20 years. He’s also an Aussie, three months younger than me, who got to know Newk in 1990 when David was CEO of Australia’s biggest bank. His resume, Google has since shown me, is breath-taking. He was a professionaI Australian rules football player and an All-Australia amateur cricketeer. For his 70th birthday, his wife—who was a Minister in two separate Aussie administrations—gave him a present consisting of a private lesson with Rod Laver on one of Wimbledon’s grass courts just prior to this year’s Ladies Singles final. Laver didn’t attend our match, but it didn’t matter. I did have one of my coaches, Dick Stockton, by my side for most of the match. I suppose it helped, although the scoreboard didn’t reflect it. When he arrived, I was up 4-3, 40-15, needing one of the next two points to take full control. From then on, I won three games. Down 1-4 in the second set, Dick—nicknamed Stax by the other Legends—urged me to run around my backhand on my service returns. It was, in fact, excellent advice, and I immediately had success … for one game. But Morgan, who had a net game I can only dream about, was the better man. And, having done my research, possibly in every way.
The afternoon offered no respite. John Berry (known as Air Berry to some, because he arrives every year in a private plane, bringing a few campers with him), who I’d played against a year ago, was my first-time partner. Until very late in the second set, I had no doubt that I was the worst, most pathetic one he’d ever had. My late, late flurry was for naught, and we were crunched. The good news was we won the overall match, and were now tied first place with the Wankers, my team a year ago. The other good news was brother Joe won his first match, beating my teammates Mitch Kaplan and Pete Maresco. “That scouting report you gave us,” Maresco later informed me, “was a piece of crap.” Sorry.
A couple of other Tuesday thoughts:
I’ve noticed two changes from previous years. First, one of the favorite elements—a clinic featuring four courts, each overseen by a Legend, with a different featured aspect (serve, volley, approach, backhand), with groups of us rotating through each—used to happen only on Friday morning, when many of us were already departing or getting ready to go. Now it’s been integrated into every afternoon (although you can only join in if your name is on the list for that afternoon). Not clear where that leaves Friday morning. Second, no more certificates for acing one of the Legends. It’s mentioned at the evening session, but no award or public shaming. I guess that’s progress, but I’m glad I got my two in when Newk and Stolle still had to shake my hand and pose for a picture, amidst the hooting laughter.
- One of the small moments that makes this week special is the informal concert that Tony Huber plays around 5:30 each evening on the deck of his condo overlooking Court 8. Last night, he pulled out his mandolin, and played a waltz he’d written to honor his mother. It was beautiful.
Steve Contardi, as part of the 30th anniversary celebration, compiled a three-decade fact sheet. Among the entries: 2,341 guest weeks booked, 912 cases of balls used, 12,113 cases of beer drunk, 5,265 matches played, 157 rackets thrown (over fences), 5,614 pounds of ice applied, 2.04 miles of tape (much of it to hold ice bags), and 117,882 f-bombs launched. Reader alert: there may be fake news embedded here.
- A coaching award was given to Angus Deane, Newk’s oldest friend and owner of a massive ranch in the Australian hinterlands, who was watching his partner Ian lose to opponents Angus thought inferior. “If you don’t win this match,” Angus advised Ian, “I’m going to choke you with my own hands.” Ian found new focus, and prevailed. I probably could have used some tough love myself.
- Finally, Tuesday closed with Emmo, Newk, and Rocket reflecting on their earliest years, playing backyard tennis on courts made from anthills and establishing themselves in small-town tournaments until legendary coach Harry Hopman took notice. “I would look at the names on the Wimbledon trophy, ten consecutive years of Aussies, and wonder … how did we get so much better.” Grit, modesty, hard work, making the best of what they had.