After leaving Monterey you turn off a main highway onto a narrow road that slopes down between trees and emerges into the clearing John Ford must have used for those early films with Wayne and Fonda. This is what Real California is supposed to look like, a land of soft mountains and deep canyons. Be there for dinner on Sunday night, you were told, but it is only late afternoon, and the buildings—the few you can see—are quiet among the trees. Finally, behind a door marked OFFICE, you find a lady with a smile who gives you a card to sign and points toward your cottage. She is Barbara. Or Barb. Or Mrs. John Gardiner, of John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch. Everyone here goes by his first name.
It is a couple of hours later, and we are all in our personalized blazers in the living room with just enough chintz and prints around for a scene out of exurb Connecticut. The fire burns in the hearth, and waiters are noiselessly serving cocktails. Unheralded, out of some back room, emerges a platter of caviar mousse. This is a tennis ranch?
There must be a dozen or more of us, and we are introduced by John and Barbara, but it is like the first day at school, so we all stick close to the ones we already know. In the dining room we find a long buffet where a man in a chef's hat is carving a gorgeous barbecued lamb that no one should be gross enough to disturb.
Nonetheless, we fill our plates and choose a seat at one of the tables for six or eight. John likes everyone to mix, because, he says, "that's the way life is." The red wine is served and after the main course a salad and then a soufflé with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. More a fattening ranch than a tennis ranch, you decide, except that John is at the end of one table talking about his days on the tour with Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzales and the time they were down in Miami when Bobby Riggs, by then plump and 40, kept dragging Kramer into one kind of game after another and losing to him—first tennis, then golf, then backgammon. "He's setting me up for a kill somehow," Kramer kept complaining.
Give John Gardiner a head of long hair, a string tie and a swallowtail coat, and he could be your Senator from Mississippi. At 52, the hair is as white as a new tennis ball, and those dinners and lunches Barbara puts on every day have added to his waistline. But as he is expanding, he is also expansive, a true raconteur. He tells his stories in staccato spurts, his wit as dry as the riverbed alongside the ranch.
With the coffee, Gardiner rises to welcome us all formally and explain the ground rules. "Orange juice and the San Francisco paper will be brought to your room at 8 in the morning," he tells us, "and breakfast will be served at 8:30 here in the dining room. We'll meet on the courts at 9:30. You are here to work. We can't remake your game, but if you do some of the things we tell you to, we expect you to improve. You may not notice it while you are here, but about three weeks from now you will suddenly discover you are playing better. Now, you are your own boss here, so you decide how much you want to play. You can come out or not, whenever you want."
"Except tomorrow morning," Barbara interjects. John nods. We regroup in the living room, someone orders a stinger, and we are starting to relax with each other. "Hey, John," cries a fellow in glasses who could be pegged as Mr. Jaded, the sophisticate. "My room is snazzy. I never dreamed it would be like this. A fireplace! And those huge bath towels. You're spoiling me."
"Might as well give the mortgage a workout," John answers. John likes to talk poor and kids about the money side of the business. It makes good counterpoint, because the one thing you are never aware of at Tennis Ranch is money. There is no such thing as a cash register, and you never see a chit for a cocktail or any of the extras, such as the things you buy in the tennis shop. (The flat fee of $325 covers almost everything, from dinner on Sunday night through lunch on the following Friday, including sauna baths and massages in the late afternoons.) If John sees you trying to decide between this pair of shoes and that, however, he is apt to say, "Take those. The markup is better."
We are in our proper whites when we muster at courtside next morning. This week is a mixed-doubles clinic. Among us we have Fred and John, a couple of junior partners in one of those Goliaths of the Manhattan law industry. At the opposite end of the bar, so to speak, is Bob—tall, bald, athletic, a lawyer from Bakersfield, Calif. There is Bill, an adman from Greenwich, Conn. Alex runs a ski resort in the Sierra. Alty is a Wall Street broker. Steve is big in a conglomerate in Chicago, while Glen actually owns one in New York and is often on the phone, presumably congloming. Two or three are bachelors, the rest have their wives, and there are a couple of unmarried ladies.
How did such a group ever find this tennis ranch, hidden away as it is in the Carmel Valley? It has never been advertised in its 13-year lifetime, and its biggest promotion is a four-page brochure in which prices and dates and the daily schedule are modestly confessed. Wendy, who is Bill's wife, says she heard about it from her brother. And how did her brother hear about it? From a friend, she thinks.
So now John stands before us on Monday morning, a racket in his hand, and briefs us on what is about to happen. He hopes we have all read our textbook, bound in navy blue with our name on the front and a page devoted to each of the shots—serve, backhand, etc. He introduces his staff of teachers: Mary, a pretty, blonde southpaw who won the Ojai doubles championship; Stella, black-haired with skin tanned to the color of freshly brewed coffee; Robin, young and blond and wiry, who almost beat Alex Olmedo in a pro tournament the week before; and finally Jeff, young and blond and husky and John's chief of staff.
"Repetition is the law of learning," John expounds for the first of a few dozen times; we are going to hit the same shots over and over again. "It is something you would never do on your own. Tilden says it took him 12 years to master the forehand, so I guess we can work on it a few days." At last he divides us up by sex and sends us off in small groups to study under our teachers.
Tilden notwithstanding, the schedule is designed to keep us from getting bored doing one thing too long. Jeff starts us off on forehands and backhands. We line up three in a row on one side of the net, and Jeff hits balls to the man on the left while a machine slings them at the other two. Half an hour of that, and we move to a court where Robin teaches the volley. "Move the hips first, then step into the ball, then punch," he shouts at us in a twangy voice from the ranchlands of the Central Valley. "I don't want you standing there like your feet are stuck in cement. And I don't want to see you swinging at the ball. I want you to punch it." When we move on to Stella, she emphasizes footwork and follow-through. There is no loafing and no pampering. Sinners are scolded. We hurry from teacher to teacher. We pick up balls and put them in the basket and feed the machine and start all over again. Our middle-aged arms and legs and backs ache. In midmorning we pause for soft drinks and fresh fruit, then go back on our sore feet for more. Our bodies keep reminding us how old we are, and the California sun is cruel to skin that has paled in offices and kitchens.
The noon recess allows us half an hour to cool off in the swimming pool before lunch. Then another of a succession of meals you would never quite get used to unless you were Mrs. Onassis dining every day at La Grenouille and Lafayette. We eat on a lovely terrace alongside a pool surrounded by explosions of spring flowers. Linzie, the man in the chef's hat, knows our names by now, and he wears an executioner's smile as he watches us stuff ourselves.
By afternoon John and his staff have us graded into classes, which naturally inspires a good deal of needling between echelons. Wendy is the best of the women, so she adorns the upper school with her long and graceful legs. Her husband is in a lower grade, but he accepts the slight until he spots one of his classmates hanging around Wendy's group. "Hey," he yells, "what are you doing over there with the varsity?"
Professor Gardiner gives us a lecture on the serve and how important it is to put spin on the ball. "It is like the brakes on a car," he says, drawing on his bottomless well of metaphors. And so by nightfall we are all old friends—crippled old friends.
At dinner we learn that Adman Bill likes all too well to make speeches with a style that is equal parts Southern filibuster and Mort Sahl. "Now take Steele," he says of a playmate from Rhode Island. "A lot of you don't appreciate Steele. But let me tell you that while all of you were sitting up there at lunch stuffing yourselves with soufflé, Steele was down on the court practicing, and he served 2,006 balls all by himself." One evening, surveying barbecued faces, Bill remarked that he would like to settle down at Tennis Ranch and operate the Solarcaine concession. From over in the corner John growled, "The dough is in Band-Aids."
Ranch life continues in this fashion, only more so, until it is time to pack and leave after lunch on Friday. At the final dinner Thursday night, Bill calls for a few words from everyone, including Frankie Albert, the old football star, who is a neighbor of John's and likes to attend the jollier commencements. "I can tell you one thing," Albert boasts. "I've been to a lot of graduation dinners here, and this is the drinkingest group I've seen."
Tennis Ranch actually began as a summer camp for children. With a lot of borrowed money and a little nestegg he had saved as a tennis pro at nearby Del Monte Lodge, John bought the old Godwin Ranch in Carmel Valley. He put in three tennis courts for starters, and converted chicken coops into dormitories that would sleep up to 70. The mothers who delivered and picked up their children at the beginning and end of each three-week term liked the place so much they demanded a session of their own, so John added 10 double rooms for adults. Those first clinics were just for the ladies, but when the husbands arrived to pick up their wives they demanded equal treatment, so mixed-doubles clinics now alternate with the ladies throughout an 18-week schedule in spring and fall. The children still have the ranch to themselves in the summer. Getting a booking is difficult, but John can afford to be tough; he has youngsters come from as far away as Japan and Saudi Arabia and receives many applications a year ahead of time.
Nor is it all that easy to be accepted as an adult, for Tennis Ranch caters to celebrities. You never know whom you might suddenly find across the net. Richard Nixon turned up for lunch once. Senators Percy and Goldwater and Postmaster General Winton Blount have Republicanized the courts, while show biz has supplied the likes of Dinah Shore, Janet Leigh and John Wayne's wife. But, for sheer class, there is seldom anything to equal the annual planeloads of Texas ladies who drop from heaven in their private jets, dripping with sporty little bijoux from Neiman-Marcus.
"One thing we have proved," says John Gardiner, underplaying the whole bit, "is that people will take tennis vacations."