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

June 25, 1995|By Kathryn Straach | Kathryn Straach,Dallas Morning News

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.

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