I awoke to cloudy skies and a forecast for more rain. As I headed off to breakfast—my golf cart now fully recharged—I heard someone call “Mr. Cox” and glanced over to see one of the uniformed staff.
“Good morning,” he said. “My name is Juan P. and I’m your butler. If there’s anything you need, please let me know.” Ah, the perks of a villa suite.
The forecasts in the Dominican Republic are evidently no more reliable than they are in New York City, and although it remained overcast, the threatened rains never materialized. At 3 p.m. a crowd of perhaps 150 people and a dozen television, radio, print, and online press, both local and U.S., gathered at La Terraza Tennis Center for the arrival of Courier and McEnroe. This event was a huge deal because McEnroe had never been to the island so this was the first time anyone had had a chance to see him play on their native soil.
The main stadium court, already beautiful with its border of trees, flowers, and lawns, had been further enhanced by the addition of pots of yellow flowers on court and a tall canopy covering the spectator area. The show court extended below a terraced seating area lined with red brick below a patio with the pro shop, bar, and swimming pool. Chairs with white slipcovers stretched along the edge of the patio.
The plan called for a set of doubles, with the pros each playing with a young local player: McEnroe with Pedro Nolasco, who had started training at Casa de Campo at age 8, and now, at 20, was the No. 4 ranked player in the Dominican Republic; Courier partnered with Francisco Concepcion, who also began playing his tennis at Casa de Campo and rose to be the principal teaching pro, has become the most dominant player in the Professionals Regional Tournament. Once that ended, McEnroe and Courier would square off in an 8-game pro set.
I won’t attempt a blow-by-blow of either event (that’s available on RadioTennis.com), except to say that McEnroe trotted out his usual antics, glaring at linespeople who made close calls against him, berating himself for easy misses, feigning exhaustion when a point went long, or pulling on his shirt as if to suggest a beating heart when close points went his way. He even took on chair umpire and tennis director, Emilio Vasquez, complaining “I already heard fault,” when Vasquez announced “Fault” in case the audience had not heard the linesperson make the call. Still he and Nolasco managed to get up a break midway through at which point the match was interrupted for a substitution.
Randy Walker took the mike and announced that Concepcion was injured. “He suffered a bruised ego because he was expecting to win again McEnroe,” Walker told the audience. He then asked for a volunteer to take over. A woman who’d been sitting on the brick terrace—and just happened to have her racquets with her—strode toward the court, to the delight of the spectators, who recognized her as Joelle Schad, a former national champion and pro who had twice been a Gold medalist in the Central American and Caribbean Games and was now coach of the Federation Cup.
Unfortunately for Courier, the change didn’t help. At match point, with Nolasco serving, Courier warned, “Pedro, if you want a scholarship to play in American, you may want to lose this point.” But the attempt at intimidation didn’t work, and McEnroe and Nolasco won 6-2.
After a brief break, the singles began. Courier extracted his revenge, winning 8-7 in the pro set. In the earlier press conference, both players had been asked whether there was anyone they hated playing. McEnroe answered, ” No one I want to name. The one guy I hated to play on clay, was him [pointing to Courier], so this may not be a lot of fun.”
He was then asked whether matches like these still get his competitive juices flowing. His answer was that exhibitions were different from Grand Slams, where so much was on the line, but that neither of them likes to lose. Courier chimed in: “I think you’ll notice with John’s competitive juices, the way they flow, we may need some extra towels.” He then summed up the spirit of the afternoon: ” It’s wonderful to be here to promote tennis in the Dominican Republic and to have a chance to take John down a peg or two. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
It was. But at the same time, looking around at the crowd of only 150 or so people, it struck me that this was an extraordinarily high-profile tennis event for a resort where, in recent years, tennis had been totally overshadowed by golf, and even polo. The tennis programs had atrophied to the point that there was little on the calendar other than private lessons. Guests looking for a game often had to settle for a hit with one of the young pros.
That began to change when Casa de Campo brought in Peter Bonell, himself an avid tennis player, as Chief Marketing Officer. He quickly understood that this exceptional complex needed a makeover, and he began to search for people who could help. One of the first people he turned to was Mark Mason, who runs one of the last remaining tennis-only shops in the country. Mason, who lives in New York City, had vacationed at Casa de Campo and thus knew first-hand how far the tennis experience lagged behind virtually every other aspect of the resort. He drew on his extensive tennis network and eventually put Bonell together with Randy Walker, who has a long history of tennis promotion and marketing, and with a Spanish-speaking American, Ted Murray, who has run clubs, resorts, and academies all over the world. Together they began to explore a new vision for La Terraza Tennis Center. And his way of announcing all these new efforts was, with Walker’s help, to bring in McEnroe and Courier as a way to dramatically introduce the new direction.
“We’re doing this as entertainment event for the villa owners,” Bonell told me, “the same way we do for golf and polo.” The point was not to make money, but to let local and international press know that henceforth tennis would be getting the kind of attention previously lavished on other aspects of the resort. Bonell’s vision is nothing less than to make Casa de Campo the No. 1 tennis destination in the Caribbean.
Ted Murray has an impressive international tennis resume and now runs his own tennis consulting company called Tennis From the Heart, which takes a holistic approach to teaching tennis. Initially, he came down thinking his principal role would be to help standardize the teaching methods, beef up the programming, and put in place a conscientious game-matching system. His consulting company is called Tennis From the Heart and takes a holistic approach to teaching tennis. He speaks fluent Spanish, having lived in Venezuela as a kid, and later ran clubs and resorts in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Along the way he coached a young Leander Paes, who went on to achieve a No. 1 world ranking in doubles, while working at the live-in academy run by the Amritaj brothers in India.
But just in the few days he’s been here, his discussions with Bonell have led to an even more ambitious vision for what Casa de Campo can become, including making it the venue for a tennis academy for Latins.
For the moment, this is a work in progress. One noticeable change is that Mason has helped better merchandise the pro shop and outfitted all the ball boys and pros in Casa de Campo logo clothing with an aim to their looking more professional. Director of Tennis Emilio Vasquez—who until Victor Estrella broke into the Top 100, at age 34 at the U.S. Open this year, had been the highest ranked tennis player from the Dominican Republic—will have a role as tennis ambassador, essentially the same one he’s held since he joined Casa de Camp three decades ago. Meanwhile, Murray and Bonell are continuing their discussions and the seeds of more events like the McEnroe-Courier exhibition have been sown.
In the press conference, Courier was asked whether he thought he could bring his PowerShares series—a four-man competition featuring the likes of Courier, McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Andy Roddick, Michael Chang, Ivan Lendl, andothers—to Casa de Campo. “”There’s absolutely a chance to get the PowerShares series here,” he answered. “This would be a great location.”
After years of languishing, tennis at Casa de Campo is once again getting attention.