By Thursday morning, most of our camper bodies—those in their sixth decade and beyond, anyway—were feeling … well, strained, I guess is the best description. For myself, in a week at home, after three consecutive days of play (interrupted, albeit, by a paradisical picnic at the peak of the Eggli ski mountain), a day off would be mandated. But here, in the dry but cool mountain valley, on Day Four we faced the toughest pair of sessions of the week: a morning two-and-a-half hours beginning with a demonstration of the overhead smash followed by an hour of gruelling volley-volley-volley-overhead drills, before shifting into traditional doubles.
With the weather more or less dry, but unseasonably cool (the temps fluctuated between the high 50s and low 60s—midwinter conditions for the Floridians in our midst, who were wearing multiple layers they’d peel off or pull on several times during the two days), we were able to use all the red clay courts at our disposal—the four at the Grand Palace, and four more outside the Sport/Tennishalle. In the afternoon, I was back on the hotel courts (as was Lesley), and we finished out the day with another two-and-a-half hours of men’s and women’s doubles, respectively.
The doubles, by Thursday, was a lot more competitive than any tennis played at the beginning of the week, for a couple of reasons. One, we now knew a bit about each other. More importantly, two, Roy knew a lot more about how we played. As Ramesh Krishnan mentioned to me at dinner on Thursday night, “The only way you can make a week like this work, if you are the organizer, is to put all your energy and all your attention into it, to really engage with everyone. Roy can do that.” Indeed, it can be awkward to ask Emmo to rearrange a pairing and let one play with one’s wife, after he’s spent an hour thinking about who to put on which court. But he’ll do it, and make it work for everyone.
Ramesh’s comments were made at a private outing arranged by our friend Fabienne, who lives part-time in Gstaad. Thursday night is left open, and campers are on their own. Most eat at the hotel, which is superb. But Fabienne suggested we try a newish restaurant—Art 16, in the neighboring village of Saanen—that was unpretentious but extremely chic, very Swiss, specializing in veal, beef, chicken and amazing local boutique vineyard wines. With Roy and Joy joining us at the table, sharing stories about playing at our club in New York (the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, where the US Open used to be held), and reminding me that the men’s locker room there used to have its own bar. Regrettably, I told him, it’s now a storage area.
By Friday noon, I decided—like the Aussie greats in days of yore—I needed a drink. Yes, there were still two-plus hours to go—we’d been working on return of service and approach shots—but even though Lesley and I had splurged for 50-minute deep tissue massages at the Grand Palace Spa (a 25-minute massage was part of the Tennis Week package, but our bodies were asking for more), I felt old and slow. The Spa, by the way, is epic (not that I happen to be a connoisseur of spas)—lots of stone, an immense central fireplace surrounded by comfortable lounges and chairs, a glass wall looking into an indoor/outdoor heated pool with still more lounges, private massage rooms swathed in teak with soft music playing over hidden speakers—it feels more like the sybaritic retreat at a Bond villain’s private lair than a hotel. But, like I said, what do I know.
What I did know was that although Thursday seemed to be a marathon with a moving finish line, on Friday—when, as noted, I needed a drink by noon—the week felt like it had sped by. Some of us were looking for a final victory. Others were looking for a penetrating backhand. And still other were asking for a final bit of sun (their prayers went unanswered). Two hundred vintage car rally drivers—they’d begun their race in Beijing 31 days earlier, and were finishing in Paris on Sunday—had come and gone as if in a Hollywood dream. Several, if memory serves, were driving open-air racers and coupes from the Twenties, and wore antique goggles and leather helmets. They had pulled in on Thursday afternoon amidst a swarm of photographers, filling the parking lot. And by nine on Friday morning, they’d gone. All but one pair of Brits, that is, who were leisurely eating breakfast when we arrived in the dining room. We asked them why they were still at the hotel.
They told us a tale of woe, sort of. They’d left Peking—the race organizers used the colonial name for the city in all their marketing and promotion, which couldn’t have pleased our Chinese overlords, but that’s clearly another blog—in a 1927 Vauxhall that had been meticulously restored by a fellow countryman. Problem was, he used original parts and on Day 4, somewhere in the Mongolian desert, a key part failed. The Brits somehow managed to A) get the Vauxhall shipped back to England and B) purchase another car—a 2007 Land Cruiser. With a cd player. Air conditioning. And heated seats.
Yes, I know. Only in Gstaad are these stories believable. Anyway, the Brits were now comfortably in first place, and as a result, had to start last at every stop. Not that it mattered. “The only interesting thing now, mate,” they said, “is that we try to turn each other’s seat heater on with him knowing it.”
Rally driving was on my mind at lunch on Friday, because our other friend Tom, who not only has a home in Gstaad (he hosted us last year for the Tennis Week) but also a 1937 Lagonda Coupe, had recruited me to navigate for a day-long Classic Car Rally on Saturday. The weather forecast suggested this would not be happening, at least for us in an open-air coupe. But Tom brought along his classic Mercedes so we could take some pictures for posterity. Fortified with a glass of Swiss sauvignon blanc, I made my way back out to the Palace courts for mixed doubles. I was disappointed that Lesley was sent down to the Tennishalle clay to work with Marco, but she assured me at day’s end that she was more than satisfied. “One of the best sessions of the week,” she said. “We focused on the volley, then had two great sets on mixed doubles, against Mark and Marcelle and then Antony and Anna. I love the way, all week, that Roy and his pros mixed our practice with play. It’s really skillfully done.”
Up at the Palace, we campers were gearing up for a final round of mixed too. One of us—Richard Mount from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts—was actually keeping a running tab of his results. “Four and ten,” Mount said, adding with a smile, “but I’m feeling it this afternoon.” For me, it was just a nice mellow close to what had been a wonderful week, weather notwithstanding. Scores? I forget.
At the farewell dinner Friday night, we were fed and entertained like royalty. The menu? Sardines tartine with micro salad, followed by turbot medallion from the North with black rice, followed by roast beef filet with Barolo sauce with onions and pepper, rosemary potatoes, and grilled vegetables with pine nuts, followed by pistachio ice-parfait with cherry compote. Wine? Yes, plenty. And the entertainment. World-reknowned maitre d’ Gildo—he apparently had a concert in Beijing this spring—sang two selections from the opera “Tosca.” Sylvia Bennett, a Grammy nominated cabaret singer married to camper Hall, channeled Edith Piaf in an amazing version of “La Vie en Rose,” with Gildo singing harmonies. And the handful of Swiss among us—pros and campers—sang something the rest of us didn’t understand. Kind of like can-can meets national anthem.
With pelting rain in the forecast for Saturday morning, the last official session, Lesley and I decided it would be time to rest and re-explore the village of Gstaad.