2018 Newk’s Legends Tennis Week

Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Terry Kahn, John Newcombe

A tight squeeze: three all-time greats … and me

For the sixth time in the past eight years, I’m en route to the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in New Braunfels, Texas. As has been the case since 2011, I’m joining about 100 other guys (women are not invited) to play team tennis during Legends Week. The Legends—at least the truly legendary Legends—are much the same as they’ve been for the past 31 years: host Newcombe and his Australian mates Roy Emerson, Owen Davidson, and Ross Case. Three years ago, legend of all legends Rod Laver joined the troupe. This year, so I’ve been told, Fred Stolle can’t make it. But there are several new faces to help fill that void: legends-in-the-making Mark Philippoussis, Wayne Ferreira, Johan Kriek, and Mikael Pernfors. New faces mean new personalities and new stories, which is all to the good.

But I’m not really concerned about that. Nor am I particularly bothered by the fact that, a year ago {link to 2017 final entry], I managed to lose 12 sets in a row before eking out a tiebreaker victory over my brother and doubles legend Luke Jensen after falling behind 4-0. In the off-season I managed to recruit Jensen to the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, where he is now esconced as Director of Racquet Sports. I think he’s happy there, but I’ll try to avoid another Legends match against him, just in case I’m wrong.

The Gang’s All Here

That doesn’t concern me either, to be honest. On the flight to Austin—my preferred route these days because it doesn’t involve a flight change (San Antonio, the destination recommended by the Ranch staff, requires a stop in Dallas) and is only about 15 minutes farther away by car—I’m accompanied by a pair of first-timers, tennis buddies Jon Knipe (a New York real estate attorney who is on the Board of Governors of West Side and a past club champion) and Brad Holbrook (a former New York anchorman and current acting coach—no, nothing to read into that—who plays a good part of his tennis in Uruguay). They’re both able to crush me on the court without much effort. So I’m hoping they’re on my team.

Experience suggests they won’t be. For four out of the first five years I’ve attended, I’ve been on the Dunnies, which is Aussie slang for toilets. Every year, we’ve taken a metaphorical dump, finishing last. So getting two really good players on my squad would be miraculous. Although the fact that Dunnie head coach Stolle is forecast to be a no-show suggests that the fates may have a different outcome planned for me. Or us.

But this, too, is not a primary concern. What’s got my full attention is the weather forecast. For the past week, the part of Texas that includes both Austin and San Antonio have been deluged by rain of Biblical proportions. Rivers are flooded, cars floating out of driveways, trees popping out of the ground. The sun is finally expected to shine today in New Braunfels. But not tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next.

“I talked to the ranch office yesterday,” Knipe reported at the Newark terminal before we boarded. “They said that Newk and Steve (Contardi, the Cincinnati tennis club owner who oversees the Legends Week operation) are meeting to come up with some kind of plan.”

A plan will be in order if the forecast is accurate. Although the Newcombe Ranch has more than 20 courts at its disposal, only four are covered. Legends Week veteran Bob Weinreb, also traveling with us, is going for his ninth visit. “There was one week,” he told us, “where they could only play tiebreakers, not full sets, in order to get everybody on court every day.”

Prepping For The Week

I suppose a tiebreaker-only week might change my luck. As usual, my preparation had been spotty. The letter from Contardi and Legends trainer Larry Starr, the only person I know with a World Series ring (for his efforts on behalf of the Cincinnati Reds), arrived in late summer, carrying their usual admonitions: play four times a week, mixing singles and doubles; do 22 different stretching exercises ten times apiece every day; add sit-ups and push-ups as needed; “decrease or stop drinking.”

The latter directive has always seemed to me a signpost that the world—at least the tennis world populated by the Laver/Emerson/Newcombe cadre of champions—has changed. The Aussies were known for their consumption of adult beverages (indeed, there used to be a bar in the men’s locker room at the West Side Tennis Club when the US National Championships and, subsequently, the US Open were played in Forest Hills); their affection for beer mirrored Brett Kavanaugh’s. Young Brett Kavanaugh’s, that is. Newk, by the way, had said that it was in no small part for show. One evening, at the Ranch lodge bar, he told me that his countrymen never discouraged or discounted the stories about their imbibing; it gave them a kind of leverage. Whatever, they’d been doing off-court, Newk said seriously, “We were always ready to play.” Judge Kavanaugh should have tried that line.

Cox and Kahn Honoring John Newcombe at the West Side Tennis Center

Cox and Kahn Honoring John Newcombe at the West Side Tennis Center

As I wrote in Getting Ready for the “Zoo” in 2011, abstinence seems counter to the spirit of adventure. And we will have a happy hour every evening prior to dinner, with tubs of beer, and wine bottles on every table during the meal. And beer in more tubs next to the gazebo by Court One all afternoon. I have cut back to beer, wine, and only the occasional vodka cocktail, so I am being mindful. Not that anybody really cares what an 0 for 12 teammate is doing or not doing.

Any way, I made an effort to get on the court this past week more than usual. Back to back singles victories over our incoming president at the West Side, and my esteemed editor Roger Cox, give me hope. (Roger was particularly generous, graciously allowing me to come back from a 2-6, 0-2 deficit, and declare victory with a 14-12 supertiebreaker win; at Newk’s, weather permitting, we’ll play the 10-point tiebreak in lieu of a third set.) And my wife Lesley and I, just last night, stormed to a 6-1 win over a twenty-something, athletic married couple who seemed mystified that two old codgers could still run.

So we’ll land in Austin mid-morning, pick up brother Joe who’s flying in from Boston (not clear if he’ll be writing again for the Boston Globe, but I’ll be asking for his contribution to this blog over the course of the week), and make the hour or so drive to the Ranch.

If, that is, there are no floating cars, trees or cows in our way.

Laver’s praise and no rain in sight

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E.J. Kahn III
E.J. Kahn III
E.J. Kahn III—known to most as Terry—is an author, journalist, and, most recently, communications consultant. He has written Net Results with psychologist Jim Loehr, a book focused on junior tennis parenting and coaching, and co-authored the award-winning autobiography of New York police officer Steven MacDonald. As a consultant, he has worked in Washington and New York with—among others—the Postal Service, Colgate-Palmolive, the State Department, and the City of New York. He lives with his wife Lesley in Manhattan, and plays most of his tennis at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, where he sits on the Board of Governors. A former college lacrosse player, he first competed in USTA tournaments in 2009, when he was ranked 10th in the East and 67th nationally in the Men's 60s.