Sunday, October 21. Five forty-five in the morning, and I’m on the way to Newark Airport, one of more than 90 Tennis Fantasy Week attendees making their ways to what will be, starting later this afternoon, the 25th anniversary of John Newcombe’s Legends camp at his tennis ranch in New Braunfels, Texas. By 4 pm, we’ll all be on the courts, rallying, playing a few games, while the Legends—Aussies Newk, Roy Emerson, Owen Davidson, Ross Case and Mark Woodforde, Americans Dick Stockton, Marty Riessen and Rick Leach—watch and evaluate us, in anticipation of the player draft a couple of hours later that would determine who landed on which of the four teams that would compete over the following four days.
A year ago, those Legends oversaw 62 of us, but the historic weight of the 2012 week has added 30 campers, and new and returning Legends as well. Fred Stolle, one of the original band from 1988, had missed 2011, but would be back to lead his Dunnies (Aussie slang for toilets) squad. Rumor had it that Charlie Pasarell and Brian Gottfried would also return after a hiatus. And some fresh faces were expected—possibly American doubles specialist Murphy Jensen, perhaps Australian Mal Anderson. Whoever made it would have their hands full managing our crowd.
At least that was Dick Stockton’s sense of what lay ahead for the week. With 28 courts scattered across the sprawling complex, the afternoon doubles matches could all begin at the same time, but the singles likely would have to go on a staggered schedule. And if rain fell …”It will be a nightmare,” Dick told me, after we’d played a couple of weeks ago at the courts he oversees at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida. “But we were fortunate last year, no rain at all.” Good fortune seems to be smiling this year, too. Weather.com suggests we may not see a drop of rain all week, with temperatures in the mid-eighties, and relatively light winds. For East Texas, that is.
Landing at noon in San Antonio, a handful of campers, myself, and, yes, Murphy Jensen are met by a ranch van, and 40 minutes later pull up to the ranch lodge, where we’re met by a film crew. The 25th anniversary week, we learn as we’re handed release forms, will be the subject of a feature-length documentary. Whether this will affect behaviors remains to be seen. A flurry of emails a week earlier had, among other topics, touched on the possibility of filming. Would this exposure, one writer wondered, reduce the expletive-filled trash-talking of past camps? His comment was met by an avalanche of F-bombs, suggesting perhaps not. (To be fair, I had seen very little gratuitous swearing or, as also had been suggested, drinking last year; the week had been described as a “testosterone zoo” in its early years, but we seemed—as a generation—to have mellowed.)
In the van, Jensen was asked if he knew yet which team he’d be coaching. “Whichever the one is that wins the week,” he’d said with great confidence. “Did you know I have the second-best professional sports coaching record in history? The (Washington) Kastles won 32 matches in a row!” I had to wonder if anyone had told him he’d be an assistant.
And now it’s about 2:30 in the afternoon. By 3 our rooms should be ready, and then we’re out on the courts for the evaluation. After that, it’ll be happy hour, the team draft and dinner, and team meetings from 9 to 11. I don’t remember any team meetings a year ago, but given that they follow two-and-a-half hours of drinking, maybe the imbibing wasn’t quite as modest as my recollection.
But I wouldn’t forget a letter sent to me after the 2011 week. The writer, a camper named Jimmy Miller, one of the best players at the Fantasy Week and a tennis shop employee from Mountain View, California, had sent me a Tennis Week article about the camp’s first season, written by Dr. Al Eden. In his note, Miller said, “Something about these weeks in October and the Legends who played, and still play, for the love of the game, touches me like nothing else can. I hope the week will continue to find a special place in your heart as well … Just to get the chance to play for the Legends inspires me, and it’s then that I realize again what it’s like to play for the love of the game.”
I’m looking forward to seeing Jimmy again. And Dr. Al Eden. He’s come back every year. And the Legends … the ones I’ve met, and the ones still to meet.
Let the games, the trash-talking, the beer-swilling, the whatever, begin.