What’s been called a demented brotherhood got off to a rousing start Sunday night, after the traditional opening dinner of beef tenderloin, lobster tails, and cheesecake. There are either 115 or 118 of us—I heard both numbers, over the din in the dining room (or rooms, actually, as a second normally-unused space has been set for our overflow)—which is an historic high. And 36 of us are first-timers, also a record (other than the first Week 30 years ago, when perhaps more arrived in New Braunfels, Texas for the inaugural session). Is it the reappearance of Rod Laver, arguably the greatest player ever? Is there a new tennis boom in the making? Or is it just the number of guys looking to hang out for six days, hitting fuzzy balls and drinking beer (and wine, two bottles on every table), is growing?
Beats me, and pass the merlot.
Anyway, back to the rousing start. At 4 pm yesterday we gathered on the bleachers facing Court One, one of the many hard courts stretched in series of eight through the ranch grounds. There are also a handful of Har-Tru clay courts, but the competition is played for the most part on cement. You can request to play on clay, but unless you’re a member of Newcombe’s Mongrel Kangaroos, you’re probably out of luck.
As in past years, we’re introduced to the coaches of the four teams—the Kangaroos, the Wankers (led by Roy Emerson), the Musclemen (headed by Laver and Owen Davidson), and the Dunnies (steered by Fred Stolle). At night’s end, we’ll know which team we’re assigned to, but for the moment we’re a single band of brothers. Or, as Stolle reminds us, aging, fundamentally useless buggers. “I thought I looked old,” he growled, “then I saw your faces.”
After 60 minutes or so of practice doubles, we retired to our accommodations—a nicely appointed second-story condo with a huge stone fireplace, a deck overlooking the clay courts (sigh), two bedrooms and a sleeping loft, a kitchen, and a couple of tvs. It’s the same one we were in last year, and I’m crossing my fingers. I speculated then I’d caught Legionaire’s Disease from the ac. This time around, it’s going to be toasty inside.
The nightly happy hour starts at 6:30 with all the beer you can drink, nibbles including veggies and dip and a couple of hot appetizers, and plenty of smoozing. Dick Stockton stopped to chat. He’d visited New York in June and graciously spent a day at the West Side Tennis Club, in part to raise awareness of his Blue Sky Foundation’s work in organization the Boots on the Court program, bringing tennis clinics to armed forces bases around the country. So did Tony Huber, a Franklin, Tennessee-based musician who confided he’d brought a mandolin, guitar, electric bass, and some instrument I didn’t really catch (those Tennessee accents can be tricky) in the trunk of the car he’d driven overnight from his home. Tony—who’d managed to be memorably stung on his tongue by a bee a year or two ago—promised an informal concert from the deck of his condo.
When we finished our cheesecake around 8:30, the dementia part of the Week began to kick in. First off, New Yorker Marc Segan answered a series of questions putatively posed by the rookies. None of the responses are suitable for family reading, so I won’t go into detail. The rookies didn’t know whether to laugh or be appalled. Then Dr. Al Eden, a distinguished Manhattan physician and an octogenarian who has attended all 30 Weeks, told a few jokes (again not suitable for family viewing, or work for that matter), and broke some big news about the Australian Boat Race. The Boat Race, described to the rookies as the high point and essence of the Week, is a team drinking game. And by now, the rookies were glad they hadn’t had the opportunity to bring wives or significant others. (Although in this day and age, who’s to say we don’t have rainbow warriors fighting on our sides … maybe we do have significant others.) Then Dr. Al dropped his bombshell. While he would remain Commissioner of the Boat Race, oversight of the event was being transferred to a new Boat Race Czar … Rocket Rod Laver!
The Rocket, whose profile had been raised higher than it’s been in decades due to the remarkable success of the first Laver Cup matches, seemed as pleased as he’d been when Federer and Nadal raised he trophy in Prague. His grin grew even larger with the next announcement: the Legends Week would establish its own Laver Cup. Week organizer Steve Contardi, Sagan, and the good doctor unveiled a plaque … with a large men’s protective cup attached to it. The cup—that is, the Cup—would honor those who got hit by the ball in the most sensitive places, and those who deserved to. A picture would be taken of the honoree with the Rocket. The honoree, if exceptionally worthy, would have to wear an oversized jockstrap over his shorts for a designated period of time. An emotional moment, for sure. I thought I saw a tear run down the world’s greatest player’s cheek. But he might just have been overcome with laughter.
And then the results of the draft were announced. As expected, I was back on the Dunnies. I thought I could see Stolle grimace when my name was called. Unexpectedly, Joe’s name wasn’t called, until assistant coach Ross Case of the Musclemen spoke.
They’ve broken up the Kahns. It’s a new dawn.
Next: Monday’s For Practice