Monday is practice day at the Tennis Fantasy Week at John Newcombe’s Ranch in East Texas, and—last year for me anyway—was a bit inconsequential. Some drilling, some practice doubles, a lot of wind, a bit of chill, not a whole lot of coaching. This year, Monday was close to perfect.
As the sun rose, there was already a mildness in the air. By late morning the temperatures were already in the mid-80s, and the breeze … well, the wind was certainly still there, blowing at 10, maybe 15 miles per hour, but—as coaches Stolle, Stockton, and Woodforde repeatedly told us, in Texas, that’s about as good as it gets. They used it as a teaching tool, and Stockton spent a good 20 minutes with six of us—we seem to be the second-highest of four groups of teammates on our 24-man Dunnie roster, and will likely play the fifth, sixth, and seventh slots in the doubles, and somewhere between seven and 12 in the singles, depending on how many campers are playing singles as well as doubles.
Stockton, who’d played his college tennis in Texas at Trinity, and while there, would drive over to Newcombe’s (who’d moved here in the late Sixties) to hit, was particularly insightful about the ways to make the conditions work for the player. The wind behind us, we’d lift short, but very high lobs, and watch them drift into perfect position. The wind in our faces, we’d aggressively throw them up, aiming for the baseline or just beyond, and watch them fall in. Moving to the service lines, we’d practice—into the wind, hitting aggressive flat and spin serves, with no fear of going long. With the wind, we’d pretend we had only a single serve, hitting it at three-quarters speed, and let the conditions do the work for us. It was an exhilarating session one I was hoping would deliver dividends on Tuesday, when the weather report promised more of the same.
The rest of the session was centered on doubles play. Four of us in the group paired off. Greg, an aero-engineer from Colorado, who works for a space launch company owned jointly by Lockheed and Boeing, and who’d helped oversee 95 consecutive successful launches at Cape Canaveral since the late 1990s (including the Mars Rover launch), paired with me. On the other side of the net were Josh, a six-eight former Amherst College basketball star, a bio-engineer working for a boutique firm in Boston, and a Legends rookie who’d given himself the week as a 40th birthday present, and Paul, a northern California resident with an impressive, powerful all-around game. Greg and I managed to take Josh and Paul to a tiebreaker, which they then put away, as Josh managed a very good John Isner imitation to serve it out. (Later in the afternoon, during a camper/Legend fantasy doubles match, Josh—playing with Stockton—managed to ace Fred Stolle … not once, but twice. Eff bombs exploded. And I felt great that I’d returned several just a couple of hours earlier.)
I’d been anticipating my first conversation with coach Stolle with more than a little trepidation, but when it occurred, it was benign, pleasant, and epithet-free. “Hi Terry,” he’d greeted me as I walked towards him at the end of our morning session. I told him that, as far as I was concerned, the Fantasy Week atmosphere, and the attitude of our team, had changed—for the better—from last year due to his presence, attitude, and, frankly, his swearing. “I swear more here,” he laughed, “than I do in total the rest of the year. I do a lot of tv, and people come to me all the time, and ask me how I keep it in. I don’t keep it in. I push it out, when I’m here.” Then he asked me if I was all right playing with Greg. Stolle asking me for my blessing????? I stammered it might be better to ask Greg. “Oh, I already have, and he’s fine,” he smiled.
Okay, so I’m paired with an actual rocket scientist. If we do something stupid on the court, the eff bombs are sure to fly.
As with last year, Monday closed with a presentation. This year it began with a video greeting from Ken Rosewall, shot in Australia last summer at their Tennis Hall of Fame. Rosewall apologized for not being able to make it this week, and said we’d have a great time. Then a panel of Aussies—Anderson, Emmo and Stolle—reflected on Rosewall, his legacy, and that era of Australian greatness, its “Golden Age.” Given that Rosewall had missed 44 Grand Slams over the course of his career, by turning pro, and given that he’d won the French in 1953, and then again in 1968, Anderson said, “You have to wonder how many he could have won” had the era been open.
“Ken had the worse serve in the world,” noted Emerson, “worse than any of you in this room.”
“No,” interrupted Stolle, “I got a guy.” Then Stolle reflected, “I was his pigeon. He’d look at a draw, and if I was in his quarter, he’d say, ‘Great, I’m in the semis.’”
As the three segued into war stories from the Sixties, my ex-partner Rich, who’d whispered at the start that he was bailing to make an early start on Tuesday, sat still, completely engaged. “What was I thinking,” he said, almost to himself. “This is what’s special. You can play tennis anywhere. But there’s no place you can get this.”