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 souffl� 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.