Diary of a Rookie at the Newcombe Fantasy Tennis

Diary of a Rookie at the Newcombe Fantasy Tennis

For my 60th birthday, I received one of the all time great presents: one week at the John Newcombe Fantasy Tennis Camp, located in a small town outside of San Antonio Texas. Here are the notes I “jotted down” on my laptop after each day’s activities.

Sunday, day 1

* I arrived at the San Antonio airport and saw two other ‘campers’ carrying tennis bags. I hadn’t known how much stuff to bring and was concerned that maybe my good-sized suitcase (which was mostly filled with three pairs of tennis shoes and nine pairs of socks) was going to look like too much. But one of the other guys had to have a cart to move his three big bags to the waiting van.

* The Newcombe ‘ranch’ is located about 30 minutes from the airport and is a complex of a club house/conference center, condo units, 24 hard courts, 4 soft, and 4 indoor.

* All the people couldn’t be any nicer than they were. Steve Contardi runs a tennis club in Cincinnati and started this program 16 years ago after he had gone to a Cincinnati Reds Fantasy Baseball camp (and John Newcombe became a partner sometime soon after). Steve and his whole family were there greeting people: there were 60 guys who had been here before and 24 of us ‘rookies’.

* There was a great ‘gift bag’ of stuff waiting for each camper: two Legend tee shirts, Legend polo shirt, a Legend long sleeve tennis shirt, and a Prince warm-up suit – all in a Prince tennis bag.

* The opening afternoon was the pro introductions and ‘tryouts’ for the four teams we would all be broken up into. How tough is it to serve with John Newcombe and other pros standing on your court with clipboards in hand watching and rating your every stroke!? Hard.

* The name pros included: Newcombe, Cliff Drysdale, Fred Stolle, Mal Anderson, Roy Emerson, Marty Reissen, Owen Davidson, Mark Woodforde, Charlie Pasarell, Ross Case, Dick Stockton, and Manuel Santana. They were all there with us all week, ran the clinics and on court drills, coached our teams all week, ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with us… and were always accessible for conversation, questions, autographs, photos, etc.

* The campers ranged roughly from 4.0 to 5.0 players; so I felt I was somewhere just above the median. Their ages ranged from 40 somethings to 70+ … so again, I was somewhere just over the median. The players come from all around the country (and some from other countries) and are a diverse group. I had dinner one night with two campers: one a millionaire who owned six restaurants and two hotels (who talked about buying his own jet) and another who worked for a company (and had to borrow the money one of the year’s to come to camp).

* We started by playing 8-game doubles matches with the winning team splitting up and staying on the same court and the losers moving. I was a little nervous – and played that way at the start – but was still fortunate enough to win all three of my matches.

* That first evening there was a Happy Hour, with all the pros and campers mingling over beer and snacks.

* Then we went into the opening dinner of surf and turf (beef tenderloin and lobster tales!) with nice wine on the table. But the fun was just beginning… there was a series of opening ‘remarks’ by Newcombe, Steve Contardi, and some of the returning campers. One was from a noted, 60-something NYC pediatrician who had been to the camp every one of the 16 years of its existence. He opened by giving his credentials (head of pediatrics at xxxx hospital, head of this and that board, the author of five noted books on child care, etc). Then he said, we should all go $#@! ourselves! And it went downhill from there!

* My dinner partner was Cliff Drysdale, who seems to be one of the most competitive pros at camp – and one of the funniest.

* The pro-leaders of the four teams had spent several hours evaluating the rookies and negotiating the draft of all the teams before this dinner. They then announced the names of the 21 guys on each of there teams as we each came up, got a team hat, tee shirt, and had our pictures taken.

* The four teams were: The Dunnies (outhouses), The Mongrel Kangaroos, The Musclemen (for Ken “Muscles” Roswall) and The Wankers (my team: “those that pull on themselves”).

Monday, Day 2

* We had a good breakfast and then a pro clinic by Dick Stockton and Mark Woodbridge on doubles positioning. The key point from Woody: make your presence known, always try to take your opponents second serve with your forehand – and let them see what you are doing.

* Then we went through warm-ups conducted by Larry Starr, former Cincinnati Reds and Marlins trainer. He cautioned NOT to do static stretching before first playing; but rather, do a series of muscle warm-ups he showed us – and stretch after you play.

* The morning was made up of team practice, where I and the rest of the Wankers played singles and doubles; so our coaches “Emmo” (Roy Emerson) and Marty Reissen evaluated us for doubles pairings, and rankings among the teams. Our third pro, Manuel Santana was late arriving because he was the head of the Madrid Tennis Masters event and had to complete those obligations before jetting to the camp.

* One of my partners was a camper from Ohio, Arnie Jones who was the middle linebacker and defensive captain for the 1972-4 Ohio State Buckeyes. And he looked like and played like a former football star.

* I felt pretty good how I played and stacked up against my team mates; and was thrilled when I overheard Emmo say to my opponent who had just missed my serve, ‘don’t worry about it mate, George has a very good serve.’

* Pointer on my high forehand volley: turn my left shoulder more toward the ball, using my left hand as a guide, and punch through with a very short stroke.

* After lunch, we had more team practice play. And then we had a different set of pros, Owen Davidson, Ross Case, and Cliff Drysdale work with us in groups of five on specific drills. We got the feeling these ‘apposing coaches’ were also trying to tire us out for the match play that started on Tuesday!

* My final tennis match of the day (at 4:30 p.m.!) was my Fantasy Doubles Match: where I was paired with Owen “Davo” Davidson against Fred Stolle and another camper. Davo was the more mobile of the two pros and I was slightly better than the other camper, so we won 6-2. The pros played mostly politely, putting their shots just out of your reach and comfort zone. When trailing, Stolle did whack one right at me at the net, which I luckily volleyed away for a winner. I was also fortunate enough to hit several by him, bringing him to say, “Hey Mate, you’re making me look bad… and I will have to get even (with a smile on his face)”

* Dinner was barbeque style food and we had Dick Stockton and Bob McKinley (former pro, brother of Chuck McKinley, and the head pro at the Newcombe Tennis Ranch year round) as our table partners.

* After dinner, there was the now-usual funny announcements/speeches; followed by a panel discussion with Manuel Santana, Mark Woodbridge, and Charlie Pasaral (former player and runner/part owner of the Indian Wells tournament).

Tuesday, Day 3

* Starting to wake up very sore from all the tennis. One big measure of my conditioning/fatigue is my early-morning resting pulse: on a good morning, it can be below 50 beats a minute. This morning it was 68!

* After breakfast, there was a clinic by Emmo, Manuel Santana, and Fred Stolle on the art of the drop shot and lob. That was followed by the daily Larry Starr warm-up drills.

* Then this was the first day of the team matches: our team, the Wankers, played against the Musclemen – coached by an enthusiastic Cliff Drysdale, Owen Davidson, and Ross Case.

* We all played a singles match in the morning and then doubles in the afternoon, with total matches won determining the victor for the day.

* My singles match was against a fairly steady player from Norwalk, Connecticut. I was able to prevail by a score of 6-2, 6-2 … but it was a two-hour match!

* Our coaches roamed the courts and gave on-court, during the game advice: like Emmo suggested I stand back behind the baseline more to return my opponent’s big first serve (which helped).

* The matches were best two of three sets, with the third set being a 10-point Super Tiebreaker. Our team lost four of five matches in third set tiebreaks and lost the morning’s singles by two matches.

* After lunch, we went to our doubles matches. I was paired with Paul Willis from Chicago – a nice player about my age – against two guys who come from the same town in Georgia and play doubles together regularly. We still could have beaten this team… but didn’t. They were able to take advantage of us not having ever played together before and most effectively lob over my partner’s head a lot. Even with very effective on-court coaching by Emmo (who had us stand back on the return of serve and play Australian on our serving), we lost in straight sets.

* Our team as a whole lost the doubles by one match, and thus the whole day.

* Being fairly exhausted by the point, I staggered back to my unit with a bottle of beer in hand; and had the pleasure of relaxing on my second floor deck overlooking the court where Newk was play his daily Fantasy Doubles match against Mark Woodforde and a camper.

* Dinner was Italian night, followed by some great, expletive filled speech exchanges between our pro team captains; with Newk giving the Dick Head and Horse’s Asses Awards to Cliff Drysdale, Owen Davidson, and Ross Case for all their ‘whining’ before their match with us about how Emmo ‘stole the draft again’.

Wednesday, Day 4

* Well, the ambulance came and they took the first guy to the hospital today.

* Even though I woke very sore, the resting pulse has come down some to 63; so onto another day.

* The clinic this morning was on grips and changes. Davo and Ross “Snake’ Case answered questions from the crowd. Mine was: what do they think about hitting a topspin forehand using the traditional ‘hand shake grip’ as compared to turning the racquet more into a western grip? They all learned to hit all their strokes using just one grip, the continental – which I use for my volley and backhand. So they said that the handshake grip should allow for enough topspin and (at our level) we didn’t need to learn to hit with a western grip.

* My singles match in the morning was against a nice, younger guy named Bill Platt from Cincinnati. During the warm-ups, I probed for a weakness and didn’t find any: strong serve, excellent forehand, solid backhand, good vollies and overheads. But during the match, I found that his backhand broke down under pressure. So, did he see many forehands? Noooooooo. I was able to break him each set at 3-3 and hold my serve (consistently going to his backhand); and prevailed 6-4, 6-4.

* Emmo actually came by my court to check out the standings and offer his advice as I had just won the first set. He paused and said, ‘I guess you are best left alone.’

* Toward the end of the morning, our team was tied with the Fred Stolle team at 7 matches each. I sat and watched my doubles partner from the day before, Paul Willis, play a tough match against a human backboard. After about two hours, Paul threw in the towel and smartly retired. At age something-over 65, he was having a tough time moving and breathing.

* So the morning came down to our guy, Mike Slater from Vancouver British Columbia, against the trainer, Larry Starr. They split the first two sets and were getting ready to play their super tiebreaker (first to 10 points) to decide the match, when Larry was summoned to another set of courts to deal with a camper who wasn’t smart enough to stop playing and had full body cramps and trouble breathing. They treated him with fluids and the ambulance took him away for I-V fluids.

* About an hour later Mike and the trainer picked up their match and played the super tiebreak. Our guy was serving for the match at 9-7, double faulted – and you can guess what happened then (we lost – and went down 9 matches to 7 for the morning). Emmo said to him afterward that he should have been more aggressive and gone for his shots (I commented to Emmo, ‘easy for you to say, you’re Roy Emerson!’).

* In the afternoon, our pros rearranged the doubles pairings; and I was matched with Arnie (Ohio State linebacker) Jones against the guy I beat in singles in the morning and my condo neighbor, Dan from Cincinnati. We survived not closing out the first set while serving 5-4, 30 love to win it in a tiebreaker; then rolled in the second set to win 6-1. For a guy who now weighs 270 lbs (!) he sure can move well.

* We all took off our shoes and watched the final doubles match of the day for our two teams (which ended up deciding the day). Our team lost in a third set Super Tiebreaker 10-8.

* So we are now 0-2 and out of the running. Thursday is now for the pride of not being in last place.

* Then they still had Fantasy doubles matches to watch before dinner. I watched two of our better (5.0) campers play a real good set paired up with Mark Woodforde and Dick Stockton (who had to play almost all out to not look bad).

* After a Mexican night dinner, there were the usual awards, jokes, and pro-to-pro ribbing (which is a delight to watch). There was a special award given to the camper who, during his Fantasy doubles match, hit Cliff Drysdale in the butt with an overhead. And every camper who aces one of the Legends gets his picture taken with him and receives a signed certificate authenticating the action.

* After all that, everyone adjourned to the bar for the annual Australian Boat Races… a team competition beer jugging competition. Each of our teams put up a combination of six pros and campers to have a relay jugging contest. Newk’s team was the defending champs, lead off by him, and successfully defending their title – even though there was a big dispute over the amount of ‘spillage.’

Thursday, Day 5

* My resting morning pulse was still elevated at 63; but I felt pretty good (considering all the tennis).

* The morning’s clinic was hosted by John Newcombe, who talked about the psychology of the game. He said that he was always a student of the game and went to a sports psychologist when he was just 18 and got some great pointers. Some of his keys…

* Be acutely aware of when ‘negativity’ is starting to creep into your body. And work to drive it out with positive thoughts and actions.

* When you start feeling tight in a close match (and even the pros do), look over the net and visualize your opponent as some funny animal, like a little hamster, elephant, etc. and get yourself smiling. If you can’t smile, you are just too tight to play well.

* Be aware of when your opponent is starting to feel tight and negative; and use that to your advantage to take charge. If you start seeing him feeling too positive and gaining momentum, then you have to work even harder to stay up with him.

* To illustrate the point, he told a story about when he was coaching Australian Davis Cup and Todd Woodbridge was playing #1 singles for them against a weak Japanese team in Tokyo. Todd had lost his two previous Davis Cup singles matches the series before and they were playing in front of 5,000 cheering Japanese fans in a new stadium. Todd is playing a no name Japanese guy who is ranked 243 in the world; but he loses the first set 7-6, the second set 6-4 and is down a break in the third set. He drags himself over to the bench on the changeover and Newk thinks, ‘What the hell am I going to say to this guy in 60 seconds to help get him out of this?’ So Todd is sitting there with his towel over his head and Newk says, “Todd look at me.” So he peaks out from under the towel. No, Newk tells him, take the towel off your head and look me in the eyes. He tells him, “You know what’s happening here?” and Todd looks back at him with eyes that say, “Of course I do, I am losing to a guy a should be beating (and I will never be invited to play Australian Davis Cup singles again).” Newcombe says to him, “You are done. Finished.” And Woodbridge looks back with a look of disbelief on his face, that his coach is telling him this. Newcombe goes on, “I know you are done for, you know you are done for, the 5,000 people in the stands know you are done for, all the people watching this match on TV know you are done, and especially your opponent knows you are done. When he started out, there was NO pressure on him: everyone knew you were going to beat him easily; but now all the pressure is on him! He is supposed to win now. All you have to do is go out there and break his serve one time… and he will crumble under the pressure. At the end of the break, Todd stands up, shoulders straight, and – with that small, short-term goal in mind – walks out onto the court. End of story? Of course he broke his Japanese opponent that one time and all the doubt left Woodbridge and crept into his opponent. A confident Todd Woodbridge went on to win in five sets.

* With that philosophy in mind, we all went out to play our last day of team matches; with two of us striving to not be in the cellar, and two others going for first place.

* My singles match was against a steady and cagey 66-year old Dick ?? from San Francisco. We exchanged early service breaks and I was up a service break toward the end of the set. While returning serve, I missed an easy return of a second serve with Emmo watching and he coached me, saying: “You didn’t move your feet. In big situations like this, your feet stop moving and you have to tell yourself to over do your footwork.” I won the first set 6-4 and then was leading in the second set and had a critical overhead after a long, back and forth rally – which I bricked into the net. Again, Emmo was watching and said: “don’t baby it, hit a solid overhead; and in always remember to keep your head up when doing that.” I survived and won the second set 6-2.

* Our team ending up winning the morning’s singles 8-7; so just had to spit the afternoon’s doubles to win the day. I was paired with a second year camper Len Saltzman a dentist from Chicago, and solid player (who was undefeated in singles and doubles from last year through this one). We played a tough duo of Willie Hoffman, a slightly younger, and very athletic German national who now lives in NJ and Leo Leonardi, a very experienced player from Clearwater, Florida (who could hit his ground strokes with either hand). We lost the first set 6-3; and on the break, I reminded my partner of his winning streak that we needed to keep alive (positive thoughts). We won the second set 6-4; then played the Super Tiebreaker, which we won 10-8.

* Our team ended up winning the afternoon doubles matches as well; so we won the day and ended up in third place for the week.

* After Happy Hour that included fresh shrimp from the Gulf and dinner of trout and pork tenderloin (yes, we did eat very well all week long), there was the Awards Ceremonies. There were thanks all around to the Legends who made our week wonderful, the great ranch staff of young pros and in the kitchen, and to Steve Contardi and his whole family who arranged it all. Then there were plaques and pictures for people who won all their singles (me as one), all their doubles, singles and doubles, Rookie of the Year (Willie), MVPs (the five rookies on the winning team who were undefeated in singles and doubles), and several special awards including inductees into the Fantasy Camp Hall of Fame.

* There was also recognition for Mal Anderson who announced that he didn’t plan on returning next year. He received a standing ovation for his great years tennis and cheers of ‘one more year.’

* When the trainer, Larry Starr came up to be recognized, he told a story to illustrate how important “coming to camp” is for everyone included. He stood with one of my teammates, Mike Lawhon (a big, strapping guy who is an orthopedic surgeon from Cincy and was the Reds team doctor at the same time Larry was their trainer). Larry said that he had been the Fantasy Camp trainer every year except for 1997, when the Marlins “forced him to go to the World Series” with them. Another year, the Reds did go to the World Series and both he and Mike were disappointed that they were most likely going to miss camp – unless the Reds got swept in four games, and they could come on Sunday night. Well, the Reds won the first game and they said, “there goes tennis camp this year.” But the Reds surprised the world and beat the Oakland A’s (?) in four straight games. So while every one else in the stadium is celebrating the victory, Larry and Mike are ‘high fiving’ each other shouting, “we’re goin’ to Fantasy Camp!”

* It was a great official ending to a truly Fantasy Week of tennis with the Legends.

Friday, Day 6

* Well, my body must have started to get used to the two-a-days. My resting pulse is down to 58 on this last half-day of tennis.

* After breakfast, we had a series of clinics for all those still walking and not having to catch earlier flights. With two pros on each court, groups of about 5 of us rotated from court to court for two hours of various drills.

* Mal Anderson advised my on my forehand to stay down and not ‘jump at the ball’ and leave my feet; but to stay grounded.

* On that same court, Fred Stolle said my backhand was ‘classic textbook’ but that on the ones that I missed, I stood up too straight and didn’t have my lead shoulder lower than my back shoulder (“if the ball bounces higher than you think, you can always raise yourself up; but you cannot as quickly lower yourself down.”)

* Dick Stockton was working on the groundstroke and advised: when playing doubles and the two guys are at the net and you are on the base line, aim for the top of the net (in order to keep your shot as low as possible and not give them a high forehand). He says, you will be amazed how many times you can just skim it over or even hit the net cord and get ‘a break.’

* Mark Woodforde’s court was on the approach and first volley. He said that he and Todd Woodforde would spend ‘hours a day’ drilling balls at each other at the net and closing in on each other to develop the quick hands (which he says was the key to their success in doubles).

* On another court, we worked on the volley with Roy Emerson. He watched me and advised: on the forehand volley, hold the head of the racket closer to the parallel (and not have it ‘cocked’ so high in the air); and bring it back with a slightly closed face (not open/laid back); work very hard to turn my left shoulder toward the ball (using your left hand pointing toward the ball as the guide); and then NOT to open your left shoulder when hitting the volley. On the backhand volley, one big difference is you need to take that ball a lot earlier and out in front of you. He stresses don’t over hit the ball on either side: “let the racquet do the work.”

* On another court, Manuel Santana was working with the groups on hitting the drop shot. The key to success is using the same motion to hit a ground stroke and then switch it to the drop shot.

* After lunch, we all packed up and took a series of ranch mini vans to the airport. I was fortunate to be in a group of four campers who rode with Roy Emerson. We had him all to ourselves for 35 minutes to talk about the early days of the tennis tour and some more pointed questions on tennis techniques. One question was about how he played against Santana, who he regularly beat. He said that when playing a baseliner, you can’t let him get into his groove on each point. You need to come to the net early in the point before he gets into a comfort zone. Baseliners like a certain rhythm to a point and if you can come in before ‘they are ready’ you take them out of their comfort zone.

* It was a great bonus to a great week, which was filled with legendary tennis stars treating us to words of wisdom (and some words of not-so-great wisdom), hard work on the tennis court, but – equally important – meeting a group of diverse people from around the world who come together to make an incredible week of Fantasy Tennis.