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In Texas, paying $4,645 for the privilege of losing to Rod Laver

Eben Novy-Williams
(c) 2014, Bloomberg News.
NEW YORK — Mike Rennels remembers the volley he put past former Wimbledon doubles champion Ross Case 12 years ago to win a long rally that ended with both players at the net.

Rennels, a retirement benefits consultant at Merrill Lynch, was playing with doubles partner Dick Stockton, a former collegiate tennis champion once ranked No. 8 in the world. After losing the point Case jokingly threw his hat at Rennels, prompting laughter from players and spectators.

"Ross might have been trying to keep the point going by toying with me for all I know," Rennels, 52, said in an e-mail. "He came back with three great shots after my one winner. The legends are just that, legends."

Stories like that are common at Tennis Fantasies, a six-day, five-night all-male tennis fantasy camp in central Texas. Around 100 guests pay $4,645 to $5,045 each year for clinics and match play overseen by 14 former pros with a combined 147 Grand Slam titles, including Australian champions Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Roy Emerson.

"Most of us played together and against one another for many years and we're all good friends, so it's a great opportunity for us to spend a week together," Newcombe, who co- founded the camp in 1988, said in a telephone interview. "And as the same alumni continue to return, we've become close with them as well."

Rennels first attended the camp in 2002 on the recommendation of long-time friend Kevin Castner, who has made the trip nearly every October since 1996. Both are part of a group of about 70 men, many doctors, lawyers and business executives, who return each year for a tennis reunion.

A former Merrill Lynch broker, Castner said his annual voyages to Tennis Fantasies -- which is as much social as it is sporting -- allowed him to meet future friends and clients.

"You're with somebody for five whole days, you're sitting at matches, eating together, and conversations just drift," Castner, 60, said in a telephone interview. "You don't say 'Wow, nice forehand. Do you have any money to invest?' "

The idea for the event started when Steve Contardi attended Cincinnati Reds Dream Week, the Major League Baseball club's fantasy camp, as a 1987 Christmas gift from his staff at the Club at Harper's Point. Contardi, who had run tennis camps for coach Nick Bollettieri, said he immediately realized that the format -- taking lessons and playing with former professionals - - would lend itself perfectly to tennis.

Contardi needed accommodations with at least 20 courts and access to a group of elite former professionals. He found both in the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch, the seven-time Grand Slam singles winner's 250-acre compound in New Braunfels, Texas.

Newcombe, now 70, won a combined 26 Grand Slam titles, including doubles, second-most in men's tennis history behind Emerson's 28. The 76-year-old Laver, who is joining the camp for the first time this year, won all four Grand Slam singles titles in both 1962 and 1969, the only male to accomplish that feat twice.

Contardi, who didn't know Newcombe personally, flew to Texas to pitch the idea. Newcombe saw potential and reached out to a few other well-known pros from the 1960s.

"There is not one word typed on paper. It's a handshake agreement between a good old Australian and a good old Midwesterner," Contardi said. "And 27 years later, it's still working."

The camp had 27 guests its first year and lost $53,000, Contardi said. Over time, as players like Rennels and Contardi returned annually and word of mouth spread, the event settled on its current number of 100. About 75 percent of those signed up for this year's camp, which runs Oct. 19-24, are returnees.

Players are evaluated by the former pros after they arrive on Sunday before being split into four evenly matched teams. After a practice day on Monday, the teams meet in singles and doubles over the final three days for the camp championship. Each morning pros give clinics and every camper plays one doubles match with a former champion, which is how Rennels ended up serving to Case, playing alongside Stockton.

"The tennis is exhausting, but you totally look forward to it," Rennels said. "You play hard, you drink hard and you just enjoy the surroundings. I'm hooked on it and it's a part of my life now."

As the camp's regulars have advanced in age, Contardi said some have begun bringing their sons. Long term, his main concern is finding younger ex-professionals to draw a younger crowd.

"That next generation of tennis stars made a lot of money and don't really have to do this kind of work anymore if they don't want to," Contardi said. "And if they do, they get paid a lot more for it."

In recent years the camp has added Americans Murphy Jensen, 45, and Rick Leach, a 49-year-old who won five Grand Slam doubles titles. Campers say both have fit seamlessly into the culture, which they describe as a mix of caustic humor and heartfelt friendship.

Castner, the former broker, says he keeps in touch with about a dozen fellow campers throughout the year, and shows up a few days early to extend the reunion.

"If one of us was in need, I would bet that John Newcombe would do just about anything to try and help them out," Castner said.

Newcombe agreed.

"A couple of alumni guys have gotten sick or had hardships over the years, and they received e-mails and calls of encouragement from everyone, including us legends," Newcombe said. "It's really become like a big family."

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