The Huggy Bear

 

For more than 20 years, Teddy Forstmann, the Wall Street icon who died this past weekend, hosted one of the most coveted, charitable and secretive pro-am doubles tournaments in tennis. Five years ago, during one of the event’s final gatherings, we got an insider’s look.

It was two days before the start of the 2006 U.S. Open and tour veterans Mark Philippoussis and Andrei Pavel were getting in some last-minute preparation. Each had a highly anticipated first round match—Philippoussis was to meet No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal and Pavel would take on Andre Agassi, who was playing in the final tournament of his career. The two were on opposite sides of a court warming up for some doubles. Alongside  Philippoussis was his partner, Doug Teitelbaum; Pavel was teamed with Kristian Cee. Not familiar with Teitelbaum or Cee? That’s not surprising, since neither is a regular on the pro circuit. In fact, neither possesses a stroke any serious player would envy. The match wasn’t being played at Flushing Meadows, but a hundred miles away on the backyard court of a mansion located among the most exclusive real estate in the northeast. Instead of autograph-seeking fans holding Sharpies and oversized balls, well-heeled spectators with BlackBerrys stapled to their hands surrounded the court. Why would Philippoussis and Pavel fritter away their last few days before the Open messing around with hackers in a secluded hideaway?
Welcome to the Huggy Bears Invitational. For more than 20 years the Huggy Bear (as it’s commonly known) has been one of the world’s most coveted pro-am doubles events. Players like Ken Rosewall, John McEnroe, and Martina Navratilova have participated in the five-day, 32-team charity tournament that takes place in the Hamptons on Long Island. If you’ve never heard of the Huggy Bear, you’re not alone. For almost all
of its existence, the first rule about playing in the Huggy Bear was: Never talk about the Huggy Bear. Press and outsiders weren’t permitted to get a whiff of this ultimate insiders’
event.That is, until now.

In the 1980s there was no bigger player on Wall Street than Ted Forstmann. His private equity firm, Forstmann Little, made billions in leveraged buyouts of companies such as Gulfstream Aerospace and Dr. Pepper, and turned Forstmann into an industry legend. Around that time—1985 to be exact—his older brother, Tony, started a tennis tournament
with friends and local pros on the court at his Hamptons residence. No slouch in the financial world himself, Tony’s place was more of a compound than a home. They christened his sprawling backyard Camp Huggy Bears, supposedly in reference to Tony’s nickname among his family, because he is, by all accounts, a hugger. Although the name of the tournament is shrouded in mystery, people with knowledge of the event’s history say it most likely derives from that moniker. Please pardon the lack of certainty: While lips have loosened around the Huggy Bear, they’re not exactly flapping.
A few years later, Ted and his younger brother, Nick, who owned homes in Southampton, got involved in the tournament and decided to turn it into an event to raise money for children’s charities all over the world. They divided the draw into two sections—a pro-am and a pro–ex-pro—with the winners from each division squaring off in the final for a handsome winners’ check. The brothers’ collective clout and deep pockets attracted many
of the sport’s biggest names. They asked celebrities and their wealthy friends to put up hefty sums to participate and limited the spectators to an invitation-only list of charitable contributors. Matches were played at Camp Huggy Bears, Ted’s place, and other private courts in the area. The pros stayed in the spacious homes of the patrons. “You make great connections with highly successful people,” says Tom Gullikson, a five-time Huggy Bear participant. “You meet rich, powerful guys who can help you down the road.”
Teitelbaum has been one of those hosts and, although he had never played in a tennis tournament, he wanted in on the action. “About four years ago I asked Teddy if I
could play,” Teitelbaum says. “At the time I weighed around 360 pounds and he said I could if I dropped 100 pounds.” Teitelbaum shed the weight through diet, exercise, and the last recourse of the wealthy: gastric-bypass surgery. “I’ve dropped 120 pounds so far,” he says, which earned him his entry into the event.
Since amateurs like Teitelbaum are skilled club players at best, you might think the touring pros would have mercy on them. “Never,” says Mike Bryan, one half of the world’s
best men’s doubles team and a two-time Huggy Bear player. “There’s some big money involved and the way the format is set up, you’ve got to go all out at all times. We’re crushing the ball just like we’re playing a tour match.”
The format that Bryan refers to is the event’s bisque system. Not to be confused with a thick soup, a Huggy Bear bisque is a free point that can be taken at any time during a match. Each team is given a different bisque handicap designated by Ted Forstmann and the tournament director, Tom Annear. The team of Philippoussis and Teitelbaum, for example, received a rating of 7+1, which means they got seven bisques for the first two sets plus an additional one if the match went three sets. When two teams meet, their handicaps are weighed against each other, and the team with more bisques retains the difference.
“The first time I played with the bisques, it blew my mind,” Jimmy Arias says. “You get the feeling that if you’re serving at 30-all you have to win the point or your opponents will use a bisque and it’s a break.” Arias teamed with Jeff Tarango in 2005 and made it to the final of the pro–ex-pro division. “Using the bisques takes some skill,” Tarango says. He tells the story of starting a tiebreaker with one bisque remaining. The logical thing seemed to be to hold onto it until his team could cash it in late in the breaker. But sitting courtside,
Forstmann advised Tarango to take the bisque on the first point to negate the serve of the opposing pro. Tarango then served twice, winning both points, and he and his partner followedcit up by winning the two service points of the opposingcamateur. Just like that they were up 5-0 and went on to win thectiebreaker easily. Forstmann, an avid card player in his youth,cknows how to play the angles.
Wondering why Tarango was taking tactical advice from Forstmann? That’s another facet of the Huggy Bear—the now-defunct, high-stakes Calcutta auction. On the Tuesday
night before the tournament, backers of the event and even players got a chance to buy one of the participating teams. Fred Stolle, the Aussie great and a fixture at the Huggy Bear, was usually master of ceremonies. Money was put in a large pot as prices for teams reached the tens of thousands. A sizeable portion was donated to the charities, but the rest went into the bettors’ pool. Depending on how the team you bought fared, buyers could net a handsome profit. Forstmann had bought Tarango’s team that year and he wanted to see a return on his investment.
“A lot of the guys involved with the event like to bet, and it was pretty exciting when they did the Calcutta,” says Stolle, a four-time winner of the Huggy Bear, including two titles with his son, Sandon. Many players were already getting substantial appearance fees, and the tournament has significant prize money (last year’s total purse was $351,000), but the Calcutta upped the interest level.
“The owners of my team would get a little vocal,” Gullikson says. “They’d say things like, ‘Hey, I own you. Let’s go. Don’t miss that return of serve.’ But it was all in good fun.”
In a tournament full of Type-A achievers, no one wants to win more than Forstmann, who declined to be interviewed for this article. “Teddy is without a doubt the most competitive
human being on the planet,” says Bob Bryan, his playing partner of the past two years. The two won the title in 2005, a first for anyone in the Forstmann family.
Even at 67, and stocky ringer for crooner Tony Bennett, Forstmann is a capable athlete, having played goalie for Yale’s ice hockey team. “He knows what to do,” Stolle says. “He doesn’t make many errors and lets the big fella [Bryan] do the work.” He also gives himself plenty of bisques (6+1 in 2006) and plays with an intensity that matches his business persona. Players tell of a time when Forstmann called Aussie legend Rosewall a “cheater” (which he preceded with an expletive) because he didn’t agree with a line call of Rosewall’s. Spectators’ jaws hit the ground, and Rosewall, a noted sportsman, was steamed, but the Hall-of-Famer managed to forgive the insult.
The cutthroat nature that Forstmann helped instill was eased several years ago when the Calcutta was retired. Some Huggy Bear regulars point to the appearance of former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux in the draw as the reason for the change. Breaux was still in office when he first played the event, and it’s believed organizers didn’t want to have any appearance of impropriety.
“I think it’s different without the Calcutta,” Tarango says. “There’s not as much energy in the crowd and people are not as into it.” Indeed, the spectators are a relaxed group these days, clad in summery pinks, oranges, and yellows and engaged in courtside chatter that has little to do with tennis. Still, the fans are savvy enough to appreciate the opportunity
to watch great tennis in an intimate setting. So when former pro Richey Reneberg blisters a return by opponent Jiri Novak, onlookers rewarded the shot with a healthy round of applause. The Huggy Bear is still something to see.

Saturday night at the Huggy Bear is party time. A tent is erected on the grounds of Southampton Hospital to accommodate the hundreds of people who attend the annual benefit dinner. Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks, Stevie Nicks, and Roger Waters are just some of the performers who have entertained over the years. Don Henley made his third appearance last year. To get a table requires a donation in the tens of thousands. Celebrities, tennis and otherwise, make appearances. In 2006, pop star Gwen Stefani
was there with her husband, and first-time Huggy Bear participant, Gavin Rossdale.
Since its inception, the Huggy Bear has raised close to $30 million for countless charities that help children in need. In 1997, one of those organizations was the Silver Lining Foundation, which was founded by former pro Andrea Jaeger to help children with cancer. Jaeger had heard about the Huggy Bear and set up a meeting with Forstmann. He agreed to donate $1.7 million to the cause. Now called the Little Star Foundation, it has expanded to include kids with other diseases.
“Teddy’s so involved,” Jaeger says, “but he gets his friends involved as well. He has such a passion for helping children that when you hear him speak, you don’t just admire him, you
want to get on board.”
One charity that received funds from the Huggy Bear in 2006 was Friends of Nick, which was started in memory of Nick Forstmann, who died of lung cancer in 2001. The organization aims to build character in eighth-graders and awards scholarships for them to attend inner-city archdiocesan high schools. Nicky, as friends called him, was the heart and soul of the Huggy Bear. His death rocked Ted, who didn’t want to continue the event without his younger brother. He declared that the 2001 Huggy Bear would be the last. But then he surprised everyone and decided to carry on until 2004, the event’s 20th anniversary. Shirts made for the tournament that year had “Last One” printed on them.
Ending the event was not a popular decision. Tarango purchased Post-it notes at a local drug store, wrote “Not” on each one, and stuck them in front of “Last One” on the shirts.
Forstmann felt the groundswell and agreed to host one more time. That was 2005, the year he first teamed with Bob Bryan. When the two won the title, Forstmann felt they had to defend it. At the dinner the following year, Forstmann revealed that he’s prepared to host until the Huggy Bear reaches its 25th anniversary in 2009. All those in attendance greeted the announcement with rousing applause.
Then they immediately saved the date on their BlackBerrys.

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