When we awoke in our condos at the Ranch and the neighboring T Bar M Estancia (with 94 campers this year, Newk had to arrange for extra accommodations, which are actually quite pleasant; even a couple of the Legends were housed there, and a shuttle was available for anyone who wanted to avoid the 15-minute walk), the sky was overcast, but the air was dry. The sun—the sun !!!—would appear by mid-day the forecast promised.
The rain had juggled the playing schedule to the extent that four separate matches would be settled during the full day. In the morning, we Dunnies would finish up our match with the Wankers, where the score stood at 10-8 in our favor. and in the afternoon, we’d take on the Musclemen, who held a commanding 8-4 on us. We’d begin, however, with a clinic on the forehand and backhand, led by Pernfors and Philippoussis. The focus was on rhythm and getting the racquet back early. “We’re not here to change what’s working for you,” Mikael said, with just the slightest snark, eying Willy Hoffman (he could have directed the same remark even more sarcastically at about two dozen of us). They closed the clinic with some volleying tips, the most resonant of which was not to overplay them. I didn’t mention Rod Laver’s admiration of my running, swinging forehand volley, because Mark very likely would have asked me demonstrate. And laughter would have ensued.
I wish my matches were worth talking about, but at least I split, beating travel mate Bob Weinreb and his partner in straight sets, and in the afternoon, falling to former doubles opponent Harry Herzog, also in straight sets. In between the two, however, I had a chance to watch the end of one of the epic matches of the week: West Sider Jon Knipe and his partner taking on an outstanding doubles team representing the Musclemen. The scores were 7-6 (15-13), 5-7, and in the final 10-point tiebreaker (in lieu of a third set) 15-13. Each team had four match points before the ultimate, and travel mate Knipe played as if his hip and elbow were perfectly functional (which they weren’t). It was one of those matches, where the entire Legends crew—coaches and players—gather around the court, cheering. Jon later told me he’d never forget it, even though he came out on the losing side.
Moments like that define what’s special about the week. There are other pro-ams, other fantasy camps, but few are week-long, and even fewer promote the camaraderie and sense of team spirit that this one does. When Newk leads his in the Samoan war dance, prior to play, screaming “Team … Family … Kill,” it’s hilarious overdramatization on the one hand and pure passion on the other. No other team dares to try anything like it.
There are options out there. Ray Emerson’s weeks at the Grand Palace Hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland are a unique luxury vacation, unmatched if you love tennis and have the bread. Pernfors described a Swiss Legends weekend in upstate New York featuring Mats Wilander that sounded enticing. And Johan Kriek has a vision of a multi-sport guys’ week in south Florida that would offer golf and fishing along with the tennis. Not sure how the bonding works on that premise, if you’re a 4.5 racketeer with a 32 handicap. But if anyone can make it happen, I’m guessing it’s Kriek.
Anyway, the week-long competition came down to the final morning session between Newk’s Roos and Davo and Rocket’s Musclemen, and after the long battle featuring Knipe … it was a tie. One that would be broken—this rule may have been made up on the spot—by which team won the most sets. So Jon, in eking out the second set, clinched the match. “It would have been better if we’d won,” he noted with resignation.
The day ended pleasantly with a lightly attended clinic focused on the backhand and the approach shot led by Emmo. With two ranch pros feeding the dozen or so of us who still had the energy—and, as Roy occasionally would shout at us to show, “the interest.” (I have been reminded over the course of this week that I have enough problems with my backhand that six different Legends—Emmo, Luke, Mikael, Rocket, Marty Riessen, and Newk himself—found an aspect to criticize that the others had missed. Ranch pro Thiago Lins, who was onsite for this week only, is the head tennis coach at Cumberland College in Tennessee and may have offered the soundest counsel. “Why don’t you just run around it and hit your forehand?” he shrugged. I have a feeling Cumberland is going to have a great season.
A Farewell, A Little More History And A Song
The final night is bittersweet—my wife Lesley, on the phone the next morning, said, “You had your banquet, didn’t you?”—and the meal, while very tasty, is no match for the atmosphere: regret (that the matches are over), delght (the honors and awards), anticipation (there is next year), and the feeling of friendships new and re-established. Ranch pro Adrian spoke for his mates, thanking us for making this week the best of their year. Camper Howard Rogg, a London attorney and Legend veteran of two decades, announced that this will have been his last. Accompanied by his wife (possibly the only camper spouse at the ranch this week), for the first time he’d only played doubles.
He’d missed the past couple of years, he said, because his son had been seriously ill. This year, he decided to return because his now-healthy son was getting married in Las Vegas three days before the Week. “And here we are,” Howard concluded. “I’ve been a MVP, a horse’s ass, a dickhead [both recently-retired award categories], all the while led by the finest tennis players we’ve ever known. But the body is giving up.” He closed with a quote from Shakespeare—Newk was the composer, we were the orchestra, I can’t read the rest of my notes—and with great English reserve, said good-bye.
Jeremy Fieldsend, who owns and operated the ranch with Newk, shared a personal history of the property–celebrating its 50th anniversary this year under their control. He touched on the guests—Presidents Bush, Bill Cosby (no unacceptable behavior that he was aware of), lots of tennis greats, and other celebrities—and the events in tennis and the world that corresponded to the ranch’s lifeline. And when he was done, when the awards were handed out, when the final three dirty jokes—all-time greats, Doc Eden assured the rookies, who were no longer rookies—Roy and Newk called all the Aussies, and a few honorary Aussies, in the room to sing “Waltzing Matilda.”
We all had lyric sheets on our tables. And we all sang along with them.