Six weeks after my wife Joan's death, I arrived at a place I could be most real: a tennis fantasy camp.
Conjures up wealthy folks having a kindly hit with ex-pros. Dozens such events occur all over the world. But at "Tennis Fantasies with John Newcombe and the Legends," the camp I've attended for nearly 20 years, fantasy and reality take a different twist.
One night at Tennis Fantasies, Charlie Pasarell told a story. In 1969, in the first round of Wimbledon, he walked on to Centre Court versus Pancho Gonzales. It's a story worthy of Tolstoy, a tennis war that took two days, more than five hours. Seven match points for Pasarell were erased, Gonzales winning 11-9 in the fifth.
While many tennis events are at heart friendly clinics, Tennis Fantasies emphasizes competition. Under the eyes of camp founder and director Steve Contardi, campers play on teams, coached by legends such as Pasarell and Hall of Famers Newcombe, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle, Mark Woodforde, Owen Davidson and others.
The day after Pasarell told his tale, Mark Benjamin, a Philadelphia-based pulmonologist, played a match that would make the difference between one team or another reaching the next day's finals. Benjamin had lost the first set of his singles match but now led 6-0 in the second set tiebreaker -- the tennis equivalent of a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. Pasarell, Benjamin's coach, stood in the corner. Benjamin lost one point, then another, then another -- eight straight points to lose the match. A dazed Benjamin sat in a chair. Pasarell's right hand squeezed Benjamin's shoulder. "It happens, Mark," he said. "Believe me, it happens."
So what does a tennis fantasy camp have to do with the life and death of my marriage? Circle back to the spring of 2010. Joan had been struck with an infection that made her unable to walk and sent her to the hospital in May. By June she was about to remain in the hospital for a six-week course of antibiotics, followed by a discharge to a skilled nursing facility. The telling factor was that Joan had lupus, a disease that severely compromises the immune system. Health matters that were mere drops in the water for most of us often became tidal waves for her.
But if for much of our 28 years together Joan's lupus had largely been in remission, awareness of it kept us on war-time footing. With our love conducted with urgency and distinct engagement, Joan never ceased supporting me in pursuit of my own dream: a career in tennis as a writer. And it happened. A week with Australian legends, Joan said, "has your name written all over it."
As the French are to winemaking, Australians are to tennis: exemplary practitioners of the craft, in competition, sportsmanship and camaraderie. "You're all good players at your club," said Newcombe my first day at the camp 17 years ago, "but let's see how you compete when your mates are counting on you. And then let's see what kind of mate you are rooting for them." Quite different than the hierarchy of the American tennis culture.
By 2010 I had played more than 80 matches at Tennis Fantasies. Comebacks, chokes, ebbs and flows - all part of a team, often under the eyes of a tennis legend, occasionally with dozens of fellow campers watching too.
As Joan spent day after day on her back in a hospital, I needed support - not financial, but emotional. Who better to reach out to than people who'd seen me in the raw arena of competition? The Tennis Fantasies community rallied to my corner.
Joan's favorite player had been a contemporary Aussie, Patrick Rafter. "It's going to be just like Newk told Patrick," she told me one day from her hospital bed, referring to a 1997 Davis Cup match that had turned around Rafter's career. "We're going to dig, and we're going to dig deep -- and then we're going to keep digging."
On August 26 the phone call came from Joan's doctor. "The antibiotics aren't working," he said.
She was dead a week later.
This year marked the 25th anniversary of Tennis Fantasies. Each year, more than 75 percent of attendees are past campers. Right now I'm looking at a photo. To my right is Angus, an Aussie ranch owner who I partnered for 26 doubles matches. To my left is Marc, who flew cross-country to be with me when I had prostate cancer surgery. Then Rick, with whom I've had a rivalry akin to boxers Sugar Ray Robinson-Jake LaMotta. Next to Rick is Mal Anderson, a Hall of Famer who's coached me during dozens of matches. Then Mark Benjamin, the pulmonologist who took the tough loss. We were rookies in '95 and speak frequently. Finally Ken, another mate I met that first day who I've stayed with in Cincinnati.
I've played with and against all of these guys. They mock and appreciate my lefty tennis game. But even more, we have shared in life beyond the lines -- through death and tennis, time, pain and pleasure, win and loss. As the Aussies did across the world, so have we come to chase each other all over Newcombe's ranch and spread our competitive spirit and affection across the world. Dare not call this a fantasy.
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