Legends Week Monday is usually a practice day, when the 25 or so players on each of the four teams work on singles strategies and doubles positioning (and helping the coaches figure out who should be paired up). Our practices on this overcast but still dry morning were held on six courts adjacent the John Newcombe Country Club clubhouse, which though relatively new is already being expanded. These hard courts are newer than the ranch’s and nicer. The session went well, and I spent most of my time with Greg, a veteran from Colorado; Dave Nourse, brother of midwest auto czar Dick; and another David—Brand—a rookie who would become my doubles partner on Tuesday morning. What might have been the best part of the session was the banter between coaches. Dick Stockton and Johan Kriek, both outstanding in singles and doubles during their careers, reminisced about Jimmy Connors, whom they agreed was the greatest competitor either had seen. Not the greatest athlete, though. “Of the top ten Americans that came up through the juniors when Jimmy did,” Stockton opined, “Jimmy was probably the worst athlete.”
Kriek nodded in agreement. “Not,” he added, “that we would have ever said that to him.”
The most interesting rumor to date, by the way, is that Connors may be joining us as soon as next year.
The weather forecast remained dire, however, and the usual schedule was blown up. Our first matches—against Roy Emerson’s team, the Wankers—would begin that afternoon instead of Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, our assistant coach Luke Jensen was assuring me that our lineup wasn’t as sketchy as it seemed, based on my five prior years at New Braunfels. “We drafted for doubles,” Luke said, “and for strength in the middle of our lineup. That’s where the championship is won.”
I was extremely skeptical, especially after Monday afternoon. Before we went to our respective courts, head coach Dick Stockton gathered us together for a pep talk. There were two matches he was watching closely, he advised. One was mine. “You’re playing Dave O’Steen,” he said, “and I’ll never forget your win over him on clay.” It occurred to me that I would not be facing him on clay this time around—and that I had no recollection who he was, how he played, and when that match had happened (I suppose I could have bothered to reread my old blogs, which are archived on this site, in case you’re interested).
Turns out that, a) I should have asked for the clay again and b) probably should not have signed up for singles. At any rate, I couldn’t solve his slice-and-dice nor hit with any consistency, and lost in straight sets. I was now 0-13 since 2017 in sets that mattered. On the other hand, brother Joe won in doubles so the family impact was a wash. And our travel cohort fared pretty well too. Jon Knipe, the West Side Tennis Club Captain, wound up losing at first doubles for Newcombe’s Kangaroos (he would redeem himself in a Fantasy Doubles match—every rookie plays a set with a Legend over the course of the week—pairing up with young Aussie legend Mark Philippoussis in an amazingly entertaining win over South African legend Johan Kriek and his partner). The other newcomer, Brad Holbrook, former anchorman for New York’s Channel 11, destroyed his opponent on behalf of the Musclemen (coached by, among others, Rod Laver), 6-3, 6-0. Gracious as ever, Brad remarked, “If I had to play that kind of tennis every day, I’d give up the game.”
By midway through the matches, light rain had begun to fall and nothing suggested it would stop soon. But for the Dunnies it was a day to remember. Luke’s strategy seemed to be working. We were ahead of the defending champs, 10-8, and we hadn’t even had our all-doubles session yet.
A Davis Cup Eulogy
After dinner (Monday was the traditional BBQ night—ribs, chicken, pork, corn on the cob … all delicious), we had the first “formal presentation,” if anything this week could be considered either as put together as formal or as structured as a presentation. That aside, this was as memorable as any we’ve had in the six years I’ve been present.
Newk had three tall wooden chairs set up in the back of the dining hall, under the four team logos. He called up Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, and, somewhat surprising, Philippoussis. Mark, wearing a puffy vest indoors, had a slight deer-in-the-headlights look, which was refreshing. Nothing like watching a rookie getting ready to perform. And perform he did.
Newk choreographed an emotional, engaging, and angry critique of the decision to do away with the Davis Cup format that had defined the global team-tennis tournament for over a century. He began the show with a video by Tennis Australia for which he’d done the narration. It was called “Pride” and showcased various team members and winning Cup moments. At its close, Newk, holding the microphone, tried to speak and began to choke up. “Don’t cry for me,” cracked Emmo. But the emotion was real.
“You were the king of our Davis Cup team when I came on board,” Newk reminded Roy.
Emmo reflected on the poor conditions they often had to play—so few toilets that his parents had to be given permission by legendary coach Harry Hopman to use the men’s locker room at one important match. The challenge at first was to recapture the Cup from the US, and Emerson, with help, accomplished that. To no longer have that challenge and the drama of a year-long effort to achieve it was “a goddamn shame,” he told us. “It’s a great honor to play for your country,” Roy concluded. “Today, it’s all about money and points.”
Rod Laver echoed his sentiments. “As a child, I’d been listening to Davis Cup broadcasts on the family radio, thinking about representing Australia,” Rocket said. “Then, when I was 14, Harry Hopman chose me as one of the kids who got to practice with the team. And at 19, I went to the U.S. to play at Forest Hills against Barry McKay and Alex Olmedo.” He paused. “I’m pretty disappointed with what’s happened.”
Newk, Emmo, and Rod reminisced about key Cup matches and the atmosphere around them: cushion and hats thrown onto the grass courts, unexpected surfaces, dramatic comebacks. Then it was the rookie’s turn. Newk and Tony Roche had selected Mark in 1994 when they took over as captains. It was a bold choice, in part because Philippoussis never fit the classic Aussie profile. Dark, stand-offish, with a touch of menace, he was seen by some as limited. Big serve, average everything else. But four years later, he was carrying the country’s hopes against France. The Cup final would be played in Nice, on slow clay.
“We’d never won on European clay,” Mark began, “and I broke seven racquets in practice and had to get my agent to send me new ones. But at the first practice at the indoor arena where we were playing, I felt in the zone for the first time since we got there. I beat [Sebastien] Grosjean in straight sets. Then the Woodies (missing Legend Mark Woodforde and fellow Hall of Famer Todd Woodbridge) won the doubles.”
Ahead 2-1, with one more victory for the Cup, Mark was to face the French No. 1 Cedric Pioline. On paper, it was no contest … in favor of Pioline. But that night, as Mark recalled it for us, it was reversed. “There was incredible noise, and I couldn’t hear a thing that Newk was saying,” Mark remembered. He didn’t need to. Pioline fell in four sets, and Mark Philippoussis was Australia’s hero.
“For me,” Mark concluded, “Davis Cup was the most important competition, along with Wimbledon. That was my proudest moment. We won the Cup twice when I was playing. I never won a slam, but I wouldn’t exchange those Cups for one.”
Tuesday’s weather forecast is even dicier than Monday’s, and we’ll probably being playing indoors on the four covered courts. That’ll mean shorter matches—probably eight-game pro sets—but given my lack of stamina, how could that be a bad thing.