Monday’s forecast rain was over before dawn, and as the ranch pros squeegeed the courts, we learned that the schedule had been changed. As happened a year ago, Steve Contardi and the Legends decided to begin match-play earlier. I assumed it was because poor weather (i.e. precipitation) was predicted for later in the week, but there’s nothing obvious showing on my iPhone.
At any rate, as we gathered for our first breakfast buffet — omelets are made to order — we were told to meet in the athletic trainers’ area (we have three trainers on-site, with training tables, stretching implements, and all the ice, tape and over-the-counter pain relief you could possibly need) to have our individual pictures taken with the Legends, all of us seated in front of the huge stone fireplace. When my turn came, the photographer decided to be creative and told me to wrap my arms around the shoulders of, to my left, Roy Emerson, and to my right, John Newcombe. I tried, really hard, but failed to do both, settling for Newcombe. “I hope that’s your serving arm,” consoled the photog. “He’s a lefty,” shouted Luke Jensen, as the Legends laughed in unison. I decided then and there to have my shoulder loosened by assistant trainer Jason Palmateer before every session.
Following the photos came our first — and now only — practice session. Our opening match, typically on Tuesday, would begin this afternoon, with the doubles. Our opponents, also per usual, would be the Mongrel Kangaroos. This is Newk’s team, with its own set of rituals. They arrive en masse with a small, stuffed kangaroo that has never seemed pleased to be consigned to this fate. They are then told to form a circle around the dead marsupial, and are led by Newcombe in a kind of Samoan war chant-cum-pantomime that concludes with the team miming cutting their own throats. These words really don’t do it justice. Our ritual is for our coaches to tell us to ignore it, or walk away, or something, so we do. I’ll take a picture of it later in the week to show you.
Anyway, back to the morning practice. We were divided into groups of four and sent to a variety of courts — mine was part of Newcombe’s newish country club, which was built a few years ago to accommodate the home owners who have made the property around the ranch a community. Newk sold them the land to build on. He’s proven himself to be a shrewd developer. I was joined by three others, Paul Anton, George Dreher, and a rookie, Brad Reese. I assumed, wrongly it turned out, that the four of us would pair up as two teams to face the Mongrels at 2 pm. The wind had picked up overnight and was blowing hard enough so that one of the best shots one could make involved lobbing the ball high over center court and watch it carry to a far corner. We practiced that a lot. Inevitably, three hours later when the matches got underway, the wind had died. Mongrel luck had struck again.
Except, amazingly, it hadn’t. Even though the Kahn brothers, who were unexpectedly paired together to face Richard Lieberman and Amir Behrozi — the latter a lithe, young-looking 40-year-old who also turned out be be Legend Charlie Pasarell’s son-in-law — lost a 6-3, 7-6 (7-5) battle, we Dunnies found ourselves in a 6-6 tie with Newk’s ringers at day’s end. Joe and I celebrated at the bar with Tito’s and cranberry. Could Tuesday’s round of singles and more doubles (for those who’d chosen not to play singles) bring an historic upset?
After a barbecue dinner involving brisket, ribs, and chicken, followed by apple crumble and vanilla ice cream, we sat back to listen to a discussion on the fate of the Davis Cup, a competition considered hallowed by the Aussie greats. With the advent of the Laver Cup and the launch of the ATP Cup, another international team event, the future doesn’t seem bright. And Newk, Emmo, and Mikael Pernfors shared with us how important their early participation had been for their careers. Mark Woodforde wrapped up the evening by taking us inside the decision-making process — Mark serves on the executive committee of the International Tennis Federation — and it didn’t sound hopeful for the Davis Cup.
It also, frankly, was a bit dull. What had been — for me, anyway — exciting to hear about had occurred at our dinner table, where I sat next to Woodforde and Pernfors talk about their early years, in the Eighties, when they would repair their own racquets with glue, tape, and used strings. Woody described traveling with just four racquets, all of which he broke in frustration during his first summer on European red clay. His coach had to sneak him into the German factory that made the racquet he was using, and they managed to walk out with six. Mark had a wide smile, remembering. And Mikael said he knew the feeling well. He’d spent two years down south at a junior college, when the University of Georgia offered a scholarship. Pernfors accepted, and within days, a shipment of Nike gear and racquets arrived. He said he lined up the sticks against the wall of his room and just gazed at them in wonder.
Two guys, just starting out, and each remembering the treasuring of a new racquet. One, within a few years, would become the best doubles player of his generation. The other, the summer of his graduation from Georgia, would make the finals of a Grand Slam event, the French Open.
It gives a little shiver up the spine.