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Volleys With the Pros

Players Trade Shots With the Legends of Australian tennis at a Texas Fantasy Camp
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

It is a warm autumn afternoon at the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch, in New Braunfels, Texas, and at Court 7 some of the most renowned names in the history of the game have gathered to watch: Newcombe, Roy Emerson, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall, Mal Anderson, Owen Davidson and Charlie Pasarell. Cliff Drysdale and Fred Stolle, TV analysts and champions in their own right, are also there to add barbs of commentary and intermittent play-by-play. It's a daunting audience even for a couple of tour professionals. But, today, the action pits a cardiologist from Jacksonville, Florida, against a pulmonologist from the Philadelphia area.  

Welcome to Tennis Fantasies with the Legends. Nowhere else in tennis is it possible for 80 recreational players to rub elbows with world-class athletes for one utterly immersing week. Think of Tennis Fantasies as the ultimate ball-whacking, pub-crawling, testosterone-laced (indeed, it's evolved into a male-only event) time of your tennis life, a $3,895 (excluding airfare) experience that synthesizes Walter Mitty adventure with a motivational seminar and an engaging course in tennis history.  

"Unless you believe in reincarnation, this is as close as you'll get to feeling like a hotshot tennis player," says New York pediatrician Al Eden, a lifelong Rosewall admirer who has never missed a session in the camp's 12-year history. "It's social, it's competitive and, in its own odd way, something altogether different, some way of establishing a fountain of youth for us campers and for the legends."  

It is also a rather exclusive experience with more concrete goals than most fantasy camps. Though Tennis Fantasies is held for just one week in late October, "you've got to understand, we actually play this sport for our entire life, so it's different than a baseball, basketball or football camp where you may play a little, but the camp is more of a rare workout than something tied to an ongoing activity," says veteran camper Jack Valenti of Lexington, Kentucky.  

Emerson, winner of more Grand Slam titles than any man in tennis history (28), agrees that the camp's enchanting mix of banter, ball striking and competition engages him. "The essence of sport is the struggle, in people trying their hearts out, spilling their guts and putting it on the line," says Emmo. "I love watching that effort."  

The match between the two physicians, Mark Benjamin and Willie Bell, meets Emmo's criteria with a vengeance. Tennis players usually play for themselves, but at Tennis Fantasies they play as team members. Benjamin represents the Musclemen, named in honor of their captain, the diminutive Australian great Ken "Muscles" Rosewall. Just over 6 feet tall, the wiry Benjamin is the pulmonologist. He competes with the pensive deliberation you'd expect from a doctor who lives in a Philadelphia suburb, wears snugly fitting plastic glasses and plays at a club with slow, red clay courts.  

Bell is the cardiologist from Jacksonsville. Shorter and stockier than Benjamin, a bit impish, his black hair flapping over his head, Bell gives off the contented, good-old-boy look of a carefree, riverboat blackjack player who knows when it's right to hit on 16--but usually stays and lets the dealer go over. His team is led by another Australian legend, mustachioed "Newk" Newcombe, and is called the Lawnmowers in honor of its captain's prowess on grass courts. One year, Newcombe's team paraded an actual lawn mower into the dining room, yelling "your ass is grass."  

On this day, the Musclemen and the Lawnmowers have completed 23 matches--eight doubles, 15 singles. Whoever wins the majority advances to the finals of the camp's four-team competition. With Newcombe's Lawnmowers leading 12 to 11, Bell's victory is the potential clincher. A Benjamin triumph will force a tiebreaker.  

With the other team match concluded, Bell-Benjamin is the only game in town. Dozens of campers start drifting around the periphery of Court 7. Newcombe stands along the east sideline, ready to coach Bell. Newcombe loves holding court, and makes the tale of the most routine match the stuff of Wagnerian drama.  

Among the more recent morsels are Newcombe's experiences as captain of the Australian Davis Cup team. One hot day in Sydney, Newcombe told a young underachiever named Patrick Rafter-- "in no uncertain terms"-- that it was time to "dig deep, as deep as you've ever dug, and then, just when you've dug as deep as you can dig, you'll need to dig deeper still. We'll stay out here as long as it takes." Rafter overcame a two-sets-to-love deficit to defeat France's Cedric Pioline, and seven months later, in September 1997, won the first of two consecutive U.S. Open titles. He cited that Sydney comeback as the turning point in his career.  

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