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Volleys With the Pros

Players Trade Shots With the Legends of Australian tennis at a Texas Fantasy Camp
| By Joel Drucker | From 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.  

In the south corner, leaning against the fence, is Benjamin's coach, Charlie Pasarell. Despite being the number-one-ranked American in 1967 and a world-class player for 15 years, Pasarell is far better known for one loss than any of his many victories. The previous night, in the ranch's "Waltzing Matilda Room," Pasarell pulled up a barstool and regaled several campers with the tales of his incredible 1969 Wimbledon match against all-time great Pancho Gonzalez. Played over two days, the 5-hour, 12-minute struggle was won by the 41-year-old Gonzalez, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9.  

With Newcombe and Pasarell cheering their men on, Bell and Benjamin build their own historic moment. Eight other former top-10 pros watch, too. It is primarily an Australian crew: the affable Emerson; the enduring Rosewall, the owner of perhaps the sport's finest backhand and a repeat winner at three of the game's four majors; Stolle, an 18-time Grand Slam champ and noted ESPN analyst; Roche, Newcombe's doubles partner and, along with Newcombe, Emerson, Rosewall and Stolle, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame; Davidson, one of only 12 players to win four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year; and Anderson, the unseeded champion of Forest Hills in 1957. Rounding out the coaching crew are ESPN commentator Drysdale (once ranked number four in the world) and American Marty Riessen, winner of nine Slams.  

Often during these matches, Rosewall, still exceptionally mobile in his mid-60s, will scurry into corners and act as a ball boy. For the campers the spector of the Aussie maestro fetching one and tossing it over is akin to being handed a club by Arnold Palmer. No camper or coach (for each deeply respects Rosewall as well) can quite get over it.   Bell's nimble forehand earns him the first set, 6-3, and now he leads, 5-3, in the second. It is time to get on with the dirty business of winning and move ahead to tomorrow's final.  

But Bell is unwilling to press a good hand. Benjamin recognizes this, and his own game picks up, as he delicately coaxes Bell into errors.  

Balls soar high over the net, at half the speed each player showed when they cracked a few with Emerson and Drysdale a couple of days earlier. The tension grows as the pair go into a tiebreaker, a drama heightened by the fact that, at Tennis Fantasies, the third set consists strictly of a tiebreaker.   "I swear," mutters Stolle, "watching you guys play takes 10 years off your life. Ten bloody years."  

Benjamin quickly leads 6-0 in the tiebreak. "Boys," Drysdale says in the baritone voice that booms into millions of living rooms, "this thing is going to three. Hold on to your hats."   Then, a Benjamin error, and the slow metronome reverses itself. Suddenly, Benjamin grows cautious. Bell, cornered beyond belief, ekes his way back in. Each set point vanishes. "Come on, Willie, that's the way!" yells Newcombe. Other Lawnmowers join in. Pasarell's hand covers his mouth.  

Bell reaches match point. And when he wins, the court erupts. As Bell and Benjamin shake hands, they momentarily stare at each other in recognition of the exciting tennis they'd just played. Bell is carried off on the shoulders of his teammates.   A dejected Benjamin sits on the bench in shock. Anderson and Newcombe each shake his hand and congratulate him on the good effort. Then captain Pasarell sits next to Benjamin and squeezes his shoulder. "That was tough, Mark, but it happens. Believe me, it happens," he says, reminding Benjamin of the seven match points he'd seen evaporate against Gonzalez.  

That night, in the bar, campers congratulate Bell and Benjamin on the great match. Bell is the winner, but the sense is that the loser is also a champion. Roche, Davidson and Stolle offer the customary Aussie post-loss greeting: "Bad luck, mate." Emerson assesses the set-point opportunities with all the attention he'd bring to a Grand Slam final: "You had that one point, Mark, at 3-6, where you hit a good lob and didn't quite slide it back behind him."   Benjamin can't believe the sincerity and attention. "I figured I'd come here, have a little coffee with these guys and they'd pat me on the back," he says. "But now, I see the connection. These guys know just what it's like to have this happen. They know. They care."  

Newcombe and his co-captain, Anderson, gather the Lawnmowers, demanding that, despite a night spent drinking Margaritas, they be primed for the next day's finals. He recommends that a few of them get a good night's sleep and arrive at the courts at 7 a.m. to warm up.  

Then Newcombe looks at Angus Deane. Deane is a long-standing camper who owns a 300,000-acre ranch in Queensland, Australia, and is so strong he makes Crocodile Dundee look like a weenie. Deane has closed many a bar in his day, rolls his own cigarettes and smacks the ball a country mile. Realizing sleep would probably derail Deane's regime, Newcombe says, "Angus, I don't care what you do, just be ready."  

Tennis Fantasies is the brainchild of Steve Contardi, who also earns his living as operating partner and tennis director of The Racquet Club at Harper's Point, one of Cincinnati's leading tennis clubs. Before that, he'd worked closely with big-time pro coach Nick Bollettieri. In 1988, Contardi's club gave him the present of a trip to a Cincinnati Reds baseball fantasy camp. Watching the friendly interactions between the campers and a few stars, Contardi wondered: Why not make this work for tennis? But Contardi wanted more. He wanted big names and, noting how the baseball players zipped back to their remote hotels at sundown, he wanted their involvement virtually round-the-clock. "Hey, the fun isn't just from playing, it's from hanging out," says Contardi.  

The trick was finding the right participants. First came a generational challenge. "The whole point of your career," John McEnroe once said, "is to succeed enough so you don't have to give the clinic." But the matter was also cultural. Many top American players, no matter what the era, lacked the common touch. They'd teach a bit and whack a few balls with you, but to get personally involved in the competitive struggles of a lesser player required ditching the spirit of individualism.  

Australia's tennis philosophy was the opposite. Even greater than the accomplishments of its grand champions was the remarkable attitude they'd brought to the game. This more than anything is what makes Tennis Fantasies so refreshing.   "You think you're all big studs at your club," barked Newcombe the first day of camp, "but now you're going to be part of a team and root for your mates."  

The Aussies became the vital ingredient in Contardi's recipe. His quest was aided by Newcombe's willingness to let the camp take over the entire ranch for a week. With 28 courts, teaching pros, ample condos, cooking staff and bartenders, Newk's ranch was the perfect locale. Campers came from all over the world--the United States, Australia, Ecuador, Great Britain. More than half each year are repeaters, creating a fraternal atmosphere that Contardi refers to as that "same time, next year feeling." And yet, as Mark Benjamin and many other newcomers ("rookies" in camp parlance) discover when they come to Tennis Fantasies, all it takes to be accepted is a racquet and desire.  

From the minute campers arrive at Tennis Fantasies on a Sunday afternoon, Contardi makes each feel like a first-rate player. All are given tennis bags, including a customized Tennis Fantasies warm-up suit and several shirts. Soon after checking in, players hit the courts for friendly doubles and an evaluation that is both friendly and intimidating. Russ Adams, whose photography has graced the cover of virtually every tennis publication, chronicles every move. As ranch pros feed balls, the pack of legends, armed with clipboards and pens, begin scouting talent for the evening's draft.  

Within two hours, with drills and practice games of doubles, the Aussie ethic sinks in. Players know they are under close scrutiny. Each captain assembles a competitive team, ranging from club-level "C" to "A" (or, in National Tennis Rating Program terms, from 3.0 to 5.0). "Of course, these guys are so astute they can size us up in about two minutes," says Ken Munson of Cincinnati. Amid greatness, everyone is so humbled that even the most talented campers dare not come off as arrogant.  

Campers are also rapidly exposed to the gentle Aussie practice of "rubbishing," or what Americans call "trash-talking." Each night after dinner, legends and campers address the group in a roast-like atmosphere that conjures up images of a football training camp and "The Dean Martin Show."   "My advice to you," Drysdale tells a camper who's been coming for five years, "is that you take two weeks off from playing tennis--and then quit."  

Initially, it's a bit disorienting to absorb all this blarney. But campers are encouraged to respond all day long. Drysdale, for example, is frequently chastised for winning only one Grand Slam title, and a doubles crown at that.   Ten-time camper John Lehmann of Boca Raton, Florida, notes that, "Rubbishing is the Aussie way of saying, 'I like you, but don't get all full of yourself.' They only do it to people they really care about, and to people they know can take it. And they love--I mean love--getting it back from others."  

But there are also more delicate moments. That first night, Newcombe proudly introduced each of the legends, reciting their extensive résumés and relating how each remains involved in the game. Pasarell has directed a professional event in Indian Wells, California--the most important tournament west of the U.S. Open--since 1981. Stolle, Drysdale, Rosewall, Riessen, Emerson and Davidson are partners in a company called Grand Slam Sports that holds corporate tennis outings all over the world. (Lehmann is its former president.) Roche is Newcombe's co-captain on the Australian Davis Cup team, working extensively with Rafter.  

Monday at Tennis Fantasies is a heavy practice day. Each team takes six courts and works out under the supervision of its legendary captains and the ranch's high-energy pros. This session points out to Bob Mitchell a few wrinkles on his backhand and return of serve. Roche, widely considered to have the greatest backhand volley in tennis history, runs three campers through an exhausting net-rushing drill. Emerson arranges six players on a court, directing a routine that requires volleying, passing shots and extensive movement. "The feet, the feet, they're part of your body," he reminds the campers.  

Besides running drills and feeding balls, the captains prod their charges firmly. After coaching them on the importance of rushing the net in doubles after a good return of serve, Newcombe catches one of the campers resting on his heels. Since the camper is a veteran, Newcombe knows he can use him as an example. Australia's Davis Cup captain yells loud enough to stop the other five courts dead in their tracks: "That is enough! There's simply no way we're going to win this thing if we play like that! Now I want to see you all paying attention out there!"  

Eager to please their notable coaches, many campers tax their bodies to the limit. Anticipating this, Contardi has two professional trainers, Larry Starr of baseball's Florida Marlins and Doug Spreen of tennis's ATP Tour, on hand for late-day rubdowns and bandaging.  

Over the course of the week, each camper plays one set of doubles as the partner of a legend. Each finds himself serving to the likes of Ken Rosewall as Adams records the moment on film   The Aussie code resonates throughout: naturally you should have fun, and there likely will come a moment when you do something extraordinary like ace Drysdale, sneak a volley past Roche or hoist a lob over Davidson. The legends take their philosophy seriously, too. "Sorry about that," Rosewall says to Al Eden after missing a volley. Are you kidding, Eden thinks, Ken Rosewall is apologizing to me.  

But crow loudly like some football player on ESPN, and you pay. "The fantasy match isn't about winning," says Marc Segan, a Manhattan toy inventor. "It's about hitting some balls versus these guys and them letting us feel good about it." Campers who strut after winners will quickly be reminded where they stand on the tennis food chain. When Bob Mitchell clucks after drop-volleying Emerson, the Aussie lines a serve so fast on the next point that it hits Mitchell on the fly--point to Emerson.   After dinner, once the friendly insults are dispensed, the legends explain what inspired them to master all those serves and volleys.  

"The year was 1954," recalls Newcombe, "and Australia was playing the U.S. in the Davis Cup finals in Sydney. More than 25,000 people were watching Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad play Tony Trabert and Vic Seixas. One of the ballboys was Fred Stolle. I was 10 years old and my dad took me there. In another corner of the stadium came a nine-year-old lad with his dad. That was Tony Roche. And to think what a miracle it was that those little kids eventually played Davis Cup, too."  

The next day will be the campers' turn for competition. Tuesday through Thursday make up the camp's spine, with each player playing a singles and a doubles match. "These guys are so competitive they'd bet on an ant race," says Segan. "And guess what? We're the ants." Indeed, over time the competitive event obsesses the camp, creeping into meals, hot tubs and late nights at the bar. Every captain has his own distinct style, which translates to his students. Rosewall's Musclemen, co-coached by Davidson, are a low-key bunch, following the classy, understated manner of their leader. Stolle runs his Dunnies (Australian for toilet) with a mix of sardonicism and tactical guidance. Newcombe favors emotional, big-picture intensity. Emerson loves hands-on coaching more than anyone, a devotion that explains why the teams led by him and Riessen have taken five of the last eight titles.  

As the Benjamin-Bell match revealed, once all the drinks and food and blarney are cleared, the tennis itself became profoundly important. Marc Cripps, a tennis instructor who comes each year from London, overcomes a deficit of a set and 5-love to win a match. Howard Rogg, another London resident, is renowned for epic struggles that often trigger physical injuries in his opponents. At the 1996 camp, for instance, a deft shot by Rogg caused Mitchell to take a tumble and nearly fall over Drysdale sitting in a courtside chair. As Drysdale excused himself, Mitchell told him to perform an anatomically impossible act. Clearly he was no longer awed by anyone.  

In between the tennis, the stories continue. "Sweden, 1964, and I was playing the opening Davis Cup match versus Jan-Erik Lundquist," says Emerson. "Slow clay, heavy balls, and this guy loved to bomb the serve and hit passing shots. I got in a bit of a spot, losing the first two sets."   Bit of a spot?  

"Then I won the next two, but got down 5-2 in the fifth. It wasn't looking so good.  

"But Lundquist had to show off how fit he was, and hit the ground to do push-ups. Mr. Hopman [Harry Hopman, the legendary Australian Davis Cup coach] saw that and said to me, 'It's over. He's keen to lose. Now's the time.' So I picked it up a bit and won the next five games."  

On the camp's final day of competition, the teams led by Newcombe and Emerson play lively tennis. Attempting to derail Emerson's best doubles player, Newcombe urges the duo of Marc Segan and Glenn Bergenfield on after every point. "I could feel the spirit of John Newcombe trying to beat me," Emmo's player, Jimmy Miller, would say later. "It was as if this will was entering me through them." Nevertheless Miller and his partner, Tom Sansonetti, hang on for a straight-set victory.  

By day's end, Emmo's team is winning, and needs only one more victory to earn the championship. On Court 9, Bob Horning and Mike Lawhon are in control. Having been in at the creation of Tennis Fantasies with Contardi, Lawhon has never missed a session of Tennis Fantasies and lives for the camp's big moments, whether it is crooning "Love Me Tender" at the karaoke bar to one of the ranch's hostesses or scrambling all over the court. When Horning strikes a sharp return, Lawhon crosses for an easy volley, thumping it for a winner.  

It is all over. Lawhon and Horning hug each other and begin cheering with their teammates. As they have on so many continents in so many cities on so many courts, Emerson and Riessen shake hands with Newcombe and Anderson.  

That night, Contardi and the legends preside over an awards banquet. Plaques and photos are given to every camper, along with special honors for such categories as "Most Improved" and "Charlie Hustle." Save for a set of early-morning drills and rallies before airplanes whisk them off, the fantasy is over for these campers. They will go home with a treasured memory of the week when the legends of the game let them into the inner circle. But that's what they pay for. The astonishing thing is that the warm feeling of the experience is also shared by the professional side of this tennis equation.  

"This is a very special week for us, too," Davidson tells the campers. "We've spent our lives in this sport, and to see how much people like you love it, that excites us."

  Oakland-based Joel Drucker writes frequently about sports and popular culture for Tennis, Biography and HBO Sports.