A quick observation to start: even at breakfast, the Ranch dining room is filled with the sound of friendly chatter. There are no quiet meals, except occasionally an early lunch on a 90-degree day, when everyone is worn out. It’s energizing to be drawn into lively conversation as dawn breaks over New Braunfels. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.
Wednesday is, to use a pro golf tournament phrase, “move up day,” when the contenders separate themselves from the field. Nothing has been finalized in terms of the week’s winner, but elimination has taken place by the end of the day. Or, in the case of the Dunnies and the Wankers, by 11:30 in the morning. With the schedule accelerated because organizer Steve Contardi and his staff feel uncertain about Thursday afternoon’s forecast, we have played two full team matches by mid-day. And, as did the Kangeroos on Monday and Tuesday, the Muscle Men had their way with us in the morning.
The wind was brutal, combining with a bright sun to create difficult glare on the hard courts. My opponent, Texan Harry Herzog, had beaten me twice, in both singles and doubles, a year ago. I only have a chance against a player like him if he’s never seen me before. So, no chance. Harry generously let me win a couple of games in the second set, and I wandered around, watching other matches. My brother was struggling in a doubles mismatch featuring three senior citizens and a twenty-something. Joe didn’t have the twenty-something. That wasn’t pretty either. The only bright spot I saw — with the exception of the glare — was my doubles partner Brad Reese, the Winter Park, Florida doc, coming from behind to beat Coloradan music director Tom Lich in a tiebreaker. Unfortunately (I seem to use that word a lot when writing about the Dunnies), Brad tore a muscle in the last game of the second set — he gutted it out to win the breaker — and ruled himself out of afternoon play.
Lich, who I played against (and beat!!!!) in a doubles match in 2018, is, as I said, a music director, in this case for a mega-church that can accommodate up to 8,000 worshipers. It is not only non-denominational but poly-theological (if that’s a word), and was started by a pal of Thoreau, Emerson, and Mary Baker Eddy in a Denver suburb. He told us he recruits for the church band or orchestra from the local jazz scene, and that he performs about three times a week. “Do you record?” I asked. “No,” he said, “it’s too expensive and no one owns CDs any more. You can find me on YouTube. Too much of me, to tell the truth.”
My partner in that match a year ago had been David Brand, a Texan I’ve spent a lot of time with this week. Until today, I didn’t realize how lucky I’d been. My fantasy — the group running this week for Newk calls itself Tennis Fantasies, so the circumstance leads one to imagine — was to have a partner who’d been a Division I athlete and a racquet sports professional. To my amazement, David told me he’d been a safety on the Southern Methodist University football team for two years — years when they were so good the sports media nicknamed them “The Pony Express,” playing off Mustangs, the team name — until the NCAA forced the university to shut down its football program. And then David had become a racquetball pro for several years, traveling around the country playing tournaments and hosting clinics. My dream had come true, and I hadn’t even known!
The name Tennis Fantasies aside, reality can occasionally intercede. An year ago, camper Mark Wirth collapsed on the court, and it seemed he might be having a heart attack. He was stable by the time the EMTs arrived, and discharged from the local hospital before day’s end, but the sight of several doctors — all campers — hovering over him as he lay isn’t quickly forgotten. This year, the moment occurred when news arrived that Luke Jensen’s number-two at the West Side Tennis Club, Associate Director of Racquet Sports Akimi Kinoshita, one of Japan’s best in the late Eighties and early Nineties, had been struck in the eye with a ball during a clinic, and rushed to the emergency room in Forest Hills. By late afternoon, Luke had already made plans to fly back to New York, and he’d be gone by Wednesday morning. Fortunately, an update reported that Akimi’s eye sight was apparently okay, though she had a concussion.
The Dunnies still had a chance to avoid the cellar, and faced off against Roy Emerson’s Wankers for a round of doubles. The schedule had been flipflopped again, because the Thursday forecast wasn’t showing rain, so there’d be plenty of time for the singles matches the next day. Brother Joe and I were paired, facing Idahoan Tony Blair (not the prime minister), who’d I’d played at least once before, and John Macom, who was new to me but whose brother Bill was a longtime camper and one of the better ones. It figured to be a tough match, and it was.
Joe and I fell behind early, then battled back to take the first set 7-5. We fell behind again in the second and never rallied. In the super-tiebreaker, we got an early lead for the first time, but they pulled away to take the match. The good news was the rest of the Dunnies stood tall, and we’d have a 6-4 lead going into Thursday’s final round. Just as unexpected, Newk’s Mongrels trailed the Muscle Men, 4-7.
After dinner and Doc Eden jokes (“You people don’t deserve me,” he observed after one lukewarm response), there was commentary from Emmo, Charlie Pasarell, and Johan Kriek about the future of professional tennis governance, when the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic era might end, and the lack of creativity in the men’s game. “It’s the same point every time,” Emmo said. Kriek shared the experience of growing up in South Africa, choosing between rugby (“I wanted to be a Springbok”) and seeing Bjorn Borg at the South African Open when Johan was in boarding school and Bjorn was an emerging star. “Six years later,” Kriek remembered, “I played him in the US Open Finals.”
By then the crowd was getting edgy. It was time for the hallowed Australian Boat Race. This team-based beer-chugging exhibition has long been part of the Week’s ritual. There is recruiting, there are time trials, there is even a Boat Race Hall of Fame. Years ago, each of the four tennis teams had a Boat Race squad. Now there are two: Dunnies/Wankers and Mongrels/Muscles. I think those are the combinations, anyway. I’ve never raced. But the D/Ws prevailed for the second year in a row, sending Newk and his security guard Angus Dean into a deep funk.
The race, by the way, lasted 86 seconds. No one got hurt.