Steve Campbell’s serve took an awkward bounce away from the returner.
“Hit it off the frame,” Campbell said by way of apology.
His next serve found the bottom of the net.
“Not enough frame,” he quipped.
Welcome to the 13th annual Maustodon — a tennis competition unlike any other. This event is not played on the manicured lawns of Merion or Newport or Wimbledon, but in Dennis Maust’s backyard along the spine of a ridge with a beautiful view of Penn Township farmland.
Despite a stiff breeze, this was a picture-perfect mid-June day, for which Maust was grateful.
“We’ve had rain in the past,” he says, “but we’ve always been able to get in at least two hours of play.”
'The best thing'
Maust is a ceramic artist and the boys tennis coach at Lancaster Mennonite School. Years ago, he served a three-year stint with Mennonite Central Committee in Bangladesh. While there, he had the chance to play on a grass tennis court built by a British firm on a tea plantation. It left a lasting impression.
“I just absolutely loved it,” Maust says. “It was like the best thing. So, I said, ‘I have an opportunity here.’?”
Every June, as professional tennis tournaments move from clay to grass courts, Maust mows his grass a little shorter than normal and rolls it with a mechanized road roller for his annual mixed doubles tournament.
The tournament’s title is an amalgam of the founder’s name, the Pleistocene-era mastodon and Wimbledon, which is played on grass and is the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.
Winners receive ceramic plates Maust created that bear the likeness of a mastodon holding a racquet in its trunk and the famous Wimbledon “W” turned upside down to form the letter “M.”
Whites and wood racquets
It is similar to The Championships at Wimbledon in that players must wear white. And while Maust doesn’t serve crumpets and tea, his wife, Rachel, prepares coffee and cake for the players.
But the similarities end there. What makes this tournament unique is that players must play with wood racquets and the court has its own set of ground rules.
For example, the court is two feet shorter than a regular tennis court because of the presence of a large maple tree on the east side. If the ball hits the boughs of either that tree or of an overhanging tree but lands in the court, it’s still in play. A screened fence behind the baseline on the west side of the court is within three feet of the baseline, so players are encouraged — even forced — to play serve-and-volley tennis.
And Maust reminded the nine doubles teams on this day that, because these matches are played on grass, bad bounces are part of the game.
The bounces, says Laura Pauls-Thomas, who played for Maust at Lancaster Mennonite and went on to play four years at Eastern University, “are unpredictable.” But the event “is really enjoyable. You’ve just got such natural surroundings and lots of oxygen.”
For Melissa Landis, of Lititz, who was playing in the tournament for the second time, the bad bounces were less of a concern than the smaller head of the wood racquets.
“With wood racquets,” she said, “you have to watch the ball more intently.”
Serving as linespersons
Many of the competitors are relatives or friends of Maust or friends of friends. For them, it is less about the competition and more about the experience. And Maust involves everyone. Those not playing take over as linespersons or as the chair umpire.
The chair umpire also is responsible for taking nominations for the best tree shot and the best diving shot. This year, both awards went to Khodor Kaliil, of Richmond, Virginia, who is married to Maust’s niece.
For Bobbie Campbell, this was a chance to cross an item off her bucket list.
“I always wanted to play on grass,” the Lancaster resident said. “I actually had a surge of adrenaline. I love the challenge of adjusting to the game ... and playing on different surfaces.”
Katie Knisely, of Lancaster, has played in all 13 Maustodons and is a previous winner. She played for Maust when he helped coach the girls team at Manheim Central High School. The first Maustodon, she says, included a number of her high school teammates.
“I love tennis,” she says. “I don’t get to play very often, and this was the only chance I had to play on a grass court. It’s always guaranteed fun.”
In the finals of this year’s Maustodon, the Lancaster duo of Rebecca Thacher-Murcia and her son, Gabo, won in a tiebreaker over Maust and partner Maddie Ruth, who made the trip to Penn Township from Boston by way of Harleysville, where she had been visiting her grandmother. For her drive home, she was accompanied by a ceramic trophy and the memory of a day well spent.