One year ago at Newk’s Legends Week, without our head coach Fred Stolle, we Dunnies faced one of the most challenging weather days I’ve ever played in. Thirty-plus miles-per-hour winds, chilling temps, overcast skies that threatened—but never actually delivered—rain. How did we respond? By lunchtime, we were down 11 to 3, and effectively eliminated from the team title three hours into the competition.
This 25th anniversary year? Absolutely perfect weather—overcast, 80 degrees, no wind (in East Texas!!!!). Stolle present and accounted for, patrolling the grounds, barking support and his unique version of constructive criticism. And the outcome? By this lunchtime, we’re down 14-6, having lost seven of eight super tiebreakers, the exact scenario we’d spent most of Monday prepping for.
The morning began with the news that we’d be facing the defending champions, Newcombe’s Mongrel Kangaroos, and as we watched them go through their Samoan War Dance pre-match ritual—without the normally-requisite face paint, which really ought to be required—Stolle shook his head. “Someone’ll injure himself, just wait.” Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, with a final whoop, they all walked to their courts limp-free.
My opponent was a young man—37, it turned out—named Rory Springfield. Fairly new to the game, according to the coaches, and very inconsistent. Of course, they hadn’t seem him play in a year and Rory, by his account and others, had been working very hard to improve. He was also a San Francisco Bay area resident, a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch who’d brought four clients with him for the week, and a committed Giants fan who’d brought his baseball game jersey to wear in the bar for each game of the playoffs. As a talisman, it was performing pretty well. His game had gotten good, too.
Through a scheduling quirk, we found ourselves on Court Five—the Ranch’s show court—but as the first set progressed, I would have been happier playing on one of the most distant outer courts. Or in another state. I had asked for one of the clay courts, but when our coaches met with Newk’s, and relayed the request, Newk said to forget it, as Rory only played on hard courts. When I sputtered, “Yeah, but … ,” Stolle waved me off. “You do remember whose place this is, don’t you?”
Rory cruised through the first set, and picked up an early break in the second, showing a consistency that mocked the scouting report. The only thing I had going for me was experience—which came with age, which wasn’t going for me—and I decided to slow things to a snail’s pace, hoping it would give him too much time to think. Whether that did the trick, or he tightened up for other reasons, I crept back into the match, eventually winning the set 6-3. By now a crowd had gathered. The senior citizens seemed to be rooting for me, given the croakiness of the “Go, Terry” cheers. The Merrill Lynch clients, and the bevy of Gen Xers I imagine included other financial advisors and their clients, pulled vociferously for Rory. The other piece of news—in the end, bad for me—was that we’d drawn the full attention of our coaching staffs. On every changeover, Newcombe was whispering in Rory’s ear, once even coming onto the court between serves. Stolle and Stockton were by my chair, and looked to be crossing their fingers, praying I didn’t run out of gas. Which, when I pulled ahead 4-1 in the super tiebreaker, looked like it might not happen. But Newk had seen something, and told Rory to get more aggressive and come to the net every point. My lead slipped away, and when he hit a volley to go up 7-6, it never came back. Losing 10-7, I was modestly consoled that at least I wouldn’t see Rory Springfield again.
And I didn’t. Until two hours later.
“You must be effing kidding me,” I remarked to Stolle, when the rocket scientist and I arrived for the doubles. Standing courtside were Steve Franklin, a smooth-swinging insurance executive from Connecticut who I’d seen play a fantasy doubles match in which he looked as good as at least one of the Legends, and … Rory. Stolle shrugged, but kept the eff bombs to himself. Despite my partner Greg Arend’s heroics at the net—he hit more overheads and volleys in 90-plus minutes than I do in a season—we (mostly I) managed to lose two more tiebreakers, and fell 7-6, 7-6. As the second tiebreak unfolded, Mark Woodforde, our third coach, moved onto the court just behind me, and began to exhort, “Come on, Champ. A little more energy, Champ. Get closer to the net, Champ. You should have made that volley, Champ.”
If you ever hear me call someone “Champ” after that, you can feel pretty confident I’m not about to give him a trophy.
And so the Kangeroos dominated on Day One of the competition, while Emmo’s Wankers barely edged Davidson’s Musclemen. For Day Two, we’ll go up against the Wankers, and hope Davo’s squad can play the spoiler role.
As the day came to a close, Newk reminded us that “We’re all here because we love tennis.” He went on to reflect on the specific history of the Davis Cup, and how he’d been able to participate in its 100th anniversary in 1999, in part by agreeing to shift the matches with the United States from Australia, where the schedule put them, to the Longwood Cricket Club outside of Boston, where the Cup series began. It had been a memorable fine moment for him, and a nice tribute to Longwood, where I’d played often in the Seventies and Eighties.
Today, I play at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York, another hallowed tennis ground. But perhaps, in the eyes of these Legend, not exactly revered. “You couldn’t get a decent bounce there,” remarked Emmo the other morning. “I wouldn’t have put a prize cow on that grass.”
I’ll pass the note along to our grounds crew. But the good news is, I’ve still got a chance to break into the record books here. Three consecutive tiebreaker losses … and still counting.