For 31 years, tennis players — all male, for the vast majority all adult — have made their ways to New Braunfels, Texas in the third week of October for the opportunity to join one of four teams coached by several of tennis’ greatest, to tweak their serves based on input from Roy Emerson, to trash talk with John Newcombe and Owen Davidson, to volley with Dick Stockton and Luke Jensen, to learn doubles strategy from Mark Woodforde, and … well, you get it, it’s a unique competitive experience. Today, October 20, it starts again. Thirty-two years. And, presumably, counting.
We number 92 for the 2019 edition and will fill up the available condominium apartments at the Ranch, spilling over into those at the neighboring T Bar Ranch. We’ll also fill the Ranch’s 31 courts (four of which are Har-Tru, four which are covered, and the rest are asphalt), and spill over again onto the six almost-new courts at Newk’s adjacent country club. Nineteen of us are here for the first time, and they will have missed the experience of spending a week with legends like Rod Laver, Marty Reissen and Fred Stolle, all of whom have decided they’ve had enough.
Actually, it’s possible they won’t regret the absence of Stolle, as Dick Stockton told them — and the rest of us — at our first group meeting by Court Five (it’s the actual Court One of the hard courts, but the numbering begins with the four clay courts down below the main lodge, where we eat and drink and laugh at the nightly dirty jokes delivered by a 94 year-old Manhattan obstetrician named Doc Eden). “You would have been told you’re the most worthless, inept and useless players he’d ever seen,” Dick explained, “and you would not want to remind him that he’d drafted you.”
The teams, in fact, used to be selected by the captains — Newcombe for his Mongrel Kangaroos, Roy Emerson for his Wankers, Owen Davidson for his Musclemen, Stolle (and it has taken two legends — Stockton and Mark Woodforde — to replace him) for the Dunnies, an Australian slang term for toilets — but the draft, for better or worse, has been more or less abandoned. The selection process is now a combination of legacy (which team you previously played for), level of play as described in a pre-arrival questionnaire, word of mouth reputation, and whomever John Newcombe wants on his Kangaroos. For the seventh year, he hasn’t wanted me. Once again, I’m a toilet. Power to the flush!
Anyway, we gathered together for the first time at 4 pm, with week organizer Steve Contardi introducing us to all the Legends — the Jensen brothers, Luke and Murphy; Mikael Perfors, the one-time Swedish phenom who won the NCAAs singles and made the finals of the French Open in the same summer; Brian Gottfried, who along with Woodforde missed the previous year; Ross Case, whose nickname “Snake” will be a topic of discussion at least one evening; Rick Leach, a marvelous doubles specialist; Johan Kriek, the South African who won a pair of Australian Opens; and Charlie Pasarell, the former US number-one from Puerto Rico who founded both the Association of Tennis Professionals that now runs the global men’s pro tour, and the Indian Wells event for men and women, which, as the BNP Paribas Open, has become one of the world’s signature tournaments.
Contardi also introduced the “ranch pros”, young men and women who will serve as feeders, hitters, ball persons, water fetchers, and towel gatherers, and reminded us that happy hour will start at 6:30, with dinner at 7:30.
Then we hit the courts, rookies down on the clay, the rest of us — roughly sorted by ability, with the best at the courts closest to number 5 — were sent to play practice doubles for 90 minutes. From my assigned court, I couldn’t even see the lodge. Or Court 5. Message received.
Nothing much to report about that hit, other than I avoided injury. One of the other three, David Osteen, a career military man who when we left the service returned as a Pentagon communications consultant, had twice been a singles opponent of mine. We split those matches and had a fine conversation over dinner on Sunday night, agreeing that one of the real pleasures of the week was discovering the opportunity for friendship. But since he’d won the 2018 contest, I wasn’t sure I relished the opportunity for a rematch.
At dinner, we eat in a large open space, after serving ourselves at a buffet just outside the dining room doors (the rookies are always fooled by the opening night spread — lobster tails and sirloin — but truth be told, the food on Mexican and Italian Nights is also first-rate. And there are two bottles of wine on every table. Following the meal, a presentation begins. On the first night, it kicks off with a greeting by Marc Segan, who’s been attending since 1990. (There are five people — Newk, Emmo, Contardi, Jeremy Fieldstone who’s Newk’s chief executive, and Doc Eden — who have attended every one of the 32 years.)
Marc Segan, a Manhattanite who’s been coming to Newk’s since 1990, is the official opening night greeter, and he typically focuses on the rookies, telling them what they can expect. This night was no different. “You will hear the insults and the trash talking,” Marc advised, “and you will fall under their influence. The result will be that you will each start mindlessly insulting us, or brown-nosing to avoid the insults. And we will consider you a dickhead. Or a weasel.”
Marc went on to remind them — and us — that it’s pointless to try to impress the legends with any aspect of your game of tennis. “Your A game,” he reminded them, and us, “isn’t in their alphabet. But what will matter to them is whether, on match point, you come through for your mates. Or collapse like a little wet …” Well, you get the picture. He finished by reading an apocryphal letter from the wife of a rookie, who felt her husband had changed after a week in New Braunfels. “Why is he,” Marc read channeling the fictitious wife’s voice, “so proud to be a wanker?”
Doc Eden followed with three tasteless — but very funny — jokes. And then it came time to name the teams. Yup, I’m a Dunnie again. So is brother Joe. And, on paper, looking at the line-ups, it looks bad.
Maybe our Monday
practice day will offer more hope, but I doubt it. The weather forecast says
it’s the one day we may get rain.