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Australian champion's tennis ranch in Texas serves the international set

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Deep in the outback of Texas lies a tennis ranch of international stature.

That's right, mate.

The John Newcombe Tennis Ranch, just a few miles west of New Braunfels, is a tennis lovers' delight that serves up a bit of the Down Under.

Australian John "Newk" Newcombe makes sure of that. The three-time Wimbledon champ, who lives in Sydney, turns up at the ranch three or four times a year, not only to stir up a little excitement but also to ensure that the place is running as smoothly as a boomerang slicing through air.

Even without the tennis great's presence, you'll hear plenty of Aussie accents because many staffers hail from the founder's homeland.

The ranch, however, is much more than tennis with an Australian twist. Newk's is an institution, proudly claimed by Texans, but in reality belonging to the world.

Although such facilities often come and go, this unpretentious tennis ranch has been around for more than 20 years.

What's its formula for success? Maybe it's the top-notch tennis instruction. Could be the young and bubbly (and flirtatious) tennis pros. Perhaps it's the allure of the Texas hill country.

Surely, mate, it's all of the above, coupled with the pros' ability to work successfully with tennis players of every level.

"We can challenge a player of any ability, and that's our emphasis," said Jeremy Fieldsend, chief operating officer and former top Zimbabwe tennis player.

He's right. The staff has developed the fine art of tailoring a stay to be exactly what a guest wants it be.

Say, for example, you're a hotshot player who wins every tournament at your club but would like to put even more punch in your serve. This is the place.

But what about this relatively new-to-tennis, easily intimidated, once-a-week, strictly social player? With great trepidation, I recently went to Newcombe's for a weekend with 15 of my tennis-club colleagues -- most of whom are more serious, dedicated and adept at the sport than I. Wouldn't the tennis pros and serious guests shake their heads in disdain at such inadequacies?

No worry, mate -- as the pros are fond of saying. The tennis camp staff has years of experience dealing with such discrepancies.

John Newcombe got his start near New Braunfels in 1967 as a pro at T Bar M (now a Christian sports camp). In 1973, Mr. Newcombe bought part of the land and opened his own facility.

Today, Mr. Newcombe is in partnership with Clarence Mabrey, former head coach of NCAA Tennis Champions at Trinity University.

Although Newk's touts its adult program as the best in the country, its programs for the younger sets are internationally known.

Its junior camp for 8- to 18-year-olds is host to from 1,500 to 2,000 campers each summer.

"We run a camp that's fun, but we know our responsibilities to parents," said Mr. Fieldsend. "We feel that parents should teach their kids to play tennis. They won't always be playing football or baseball or soccer, but they can always play tennis."

The junior camp brochure tells all about the program. An "Aussie Glossie," subtitled "What did they say?" explains such terms as "ripper" (great shot), "Sheila" (pretty girl), "loo" (restroom) and "fair dinkum" (no kidding).

The international stature holds for the John Newcombe-Owen Davidson Tennis Academy, which attracts high schoolers from around the world to come and live, training under Mr. Davidson, another former Wimbledon champ from Australia.

This year, about 50 teen-agers from 14 countries are living at Newcombe's and attending school in New Braunfels. Because schoolwork is stressed, 98 percent of the students get college scholarships, said Mr. Fieldsend.

If there's one area about which campers, students or adults probably are not writing home, it's the accommodations.

Judy Benda of Denver, who gushed about Newk's on a recent weekend stay, admitted the accommodations are "rustic."

"Outdated, not rustic," corrected her friend Cindy Moore.

Far from froufrou

The unpretentiousness adds to the ranch's appeal. The accommodations may be far from froufrou, but they are clean and functional. The limestone buildings sit among huge trees that rustle in the breeze and are edged with stone paths, giving the place a camp-like feel.

In fact, Newk's has plans for a $30 million to $40 million resort down the road under the Radisson name. Some regulars fear such luxury will change -- negatively -- the Newcombe experience.

In a sport known for its crisp white shorts and skirts and country-club affiliation, Newcombe's is anything but.

Although many guests in the adult program are country-club members, Newk's delights in reminding guests, "This is not a country club." It's even printed on a T-shirt. Guests are comfortable with that philosophy.

Everywhere you turn at Newk's, you are reminded of tennis, John Newcombe and Australia. You'll find a few stuffed koalas, plenty of endorsements for ranch sponsor (still known as) Prince, and the ranch's logo -- a circle with a winking eye and a handlebar mustache. That would be Newk.

Above the fireplace in the lobby is a painting of John Newcombe. The artist is Marty Driscoll, vice president of operations.

For adults, Newk's offers a variety of weekend and weeklong packages. Our group chose a two-for-one weekend package.

The metronomic plop-plop of tennis balls greeted us shortly after check-in at 4 p.m. on Friday, as eager campers got in some tennis before dinner.

Cocktails in the bar were at 6:30 p.m. ($1 beer and margaritas), and a buffet dinner of pasta, vegetables and bread was available at 7:30 p.m. Then it was out to the courts, just for fun.

The weekend drew 80 people (100 is the max). With only eight lighted courts (28 courts total), pros rotated groups of four out to play four games. Some shyly stood in the background while others jockeyed to get in as much play time as possible.

Pros fired up those waiting on the sidelines, lining them up to do "the wave."

If guests felt cheated about not getting in enough tennis the night before, they were as pacified as a koala in a eucalyptus on Saturday. Clinics and tournaments were scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., then again from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. (Advance literature described each clinic as 2 1/2 hours long.)

True, not every minute of those eight hours was spent smashing balls on the courts. Some of the time was spent indoors on instruction, including an inspirational and realistic "Tips on Tennis" session.

Mr. Fieldsend addressed "mental toughness," a big factor in tennis, and even answered the burning question of why professionals always stare at their rackets between each play. (No, they are not analyzing whether their rackets need restringing. They are simply staying focused on the game.)

Kept hopping

Guests were randomly divided into two groups in order to alternate indoor and outdoor activities. Within each group, players signed up for beginner or advanced clinics, i.e., instructional or advanced ground strokes; instructional volleys or double play strategies; instructional serve or serve and volley.

Within each clinic, groups were subdivided into fours (or fives) to work with a pro. About every 15 to 20 minutes, each foursome moved down the courts to work on a different drill with a different pro. This affords players a great advantage. While one person might like a serious, no-nonsense pro, another may be less intimidated by someone who jokes through a drill. Different strokes for different folks.

For most drills, the pro hit about eight balls to a player, who then was expected to run around and retrieve the balls. (This is one area in which I showed the most improvement, becoming quite adept at balancing balls on my racket.)

By the time the player finished, it usually was his or her turn again. In other words, the pros kept players hopping.

At the end of the morning and afternoon sessions, players were videotaped -- a cruel but effective device. Pros analyzed every move, backing up the tape several times, playing it in slow motion or fast forwarding, while lightheartedly offering pointers.

Helpful hints

I probably learned more from watching others on videotape, however. When I was being critiqued, I was too busy cringing to hear the helpful hints.

For lunch, the staff threw burgers on the barbie out on the patio. JTC Dinner was brisket served indoors, followed by an evening of karaoke. Pros lingered, encouraging guests to sing, even if in large groups.

Sunday offered another morning clinic from 8:30 to noon, then a lunch of salads and sandwiches before checkout at 2 p.m.

You can be certain many from that weekend will return. Two from our group already have; a month after our trip, they went to Newk's for spring break with their children.

"We have a huge repeat business," said Mr. Fieldsend. "We offer value for the money -- and friendliness. You can go to nicer resorts, but we pride ourselves on the value."

Judy Benda and her husband, Steve, plan to return. In arranging a weekend of tennis, price was not a factor, she said. They and another couple had investigated several different tennis facilities, including much pricier places, before deciding upon the Texas locale.

"We had heard about the hospitality, friendliness and accessibility to the pros," she said. "They certainly know how to work the egos. Egos are a big deal on the tennis court, and they know how to handle that. I'm real impressed. We'll be back."

Ceil Taylor and her husband, Tom, from Dickinson, Texas, have been coming to Newcombe's for about 15 years -- sometimes as often as three times a year. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Taylor walked away with the trophy for best in her group shortly before singing an admirable rendition of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" during the karaoke session.

Over the years, Newk's has evolved, changing with the trends in tennis (and entertainment in the bar), said Mr. Fieldsend.

"But we stress the fundamentals -- and having fun," he said. "Those don't change too much."

Fair dinkum.

IF YOU GO . . .

Getting there: The John Newcombe Tennis Ranch (P.O. Box 310469, New Braunfels, Texas 78131-0469; [800] 444-6204 or [210]-625-9105) is on Texas Highway 46, west of New Braunfels.

Transportation between San Antonio International Airport and the ranch is available with 48 hours' advance notice. The shuttle service number is (800) 477-0427.

Facilities: Newcombe's offers 24 championship hard courts (four covered, eight lighted) and four just-opened clay courts; a swimming pool and Jacuzzi; mini-soccer field; volleyball pits; basketball court; and pro shop.

Rates: Two-day summer packages are $325 or $335 per person, double occupancy, depending on accommodations. Five-day summer packages are $825 or $875 per person. Prices are subject to change after Sept. 1. Meals are included, as well as clinics, video critiquing, round-robin tournaments and a T-shirt.

Accommodations are available for non-tennis types.

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