Hardly had Mark Knowles taken a seat outside the Capitals' trailer Thursday when a middle-aged man welcomed him back to another July in Sacramento.
Knowles, an engaging 40-year-old Bahamian, responded, "Good to see you," as more locals chimed in behind the first.
In his 11th season of World TeamTennis, all with the Capitals, Knowles is as much the face of the franchise as gregarious coach Wayne Bryan. Knowles has been a constant on the court, aside from one missed summer in 2008, amid changes in roster, ownership and venue.
Before the team's home opener Thursday, Bryan said he views Knowles as "without a doubt, I think, the most popular player to ever play in Sacramento." Which might serve as a pleasant footnote to Knowles' career.
Knowles reached the top of the world doubles rankings for the first time 10 years ago and returned there in 2004. The most recent of his three Grand Slam men's doubles titles, all with former partner Daniel Nestor, came in the 2007 French Open.
His game, though, has aged well. This year, he won the San Jose doubles title with Xavier Malisse, reportedly becoming the first player since John McEnroe to win an ATP doubles crown at 40 or older.
"I'm probably towards the end," Knowles said Thursday. "I have three kids now, so it's hard, but I still enjoy playing, and I'm still playing at a high level. (San Jose) showed me that I still enjoy playing at a high level, and I still enjoy competing."
Knowles said he is playing a lighter tour schedule this year of about a dozen tournaments. He also is coaching 13th-ranked singles player Mardy Fish, who completed his two-match stint for the Capitals on Friday night.
"The other component that keeps me playing is that my oldest son is 6," Knowles said. "He gets the whole tennis scene and enjoys it. It's a different chapter of my life, and I get to share it with my family. That's really special."
Knowles' family plans to join him from Texas for the third week of the WTT season, when the Capitals play mostly at home, he said. The league is a peculiar feature on the tennis landscape, promising no ranking points and a lot of travel, yet Knowles continues to make it a priority. WTT suits him, Bryan said.
"He's a great team player," Bryan said. "I always feel like tennis is about losing, not winning, and how you act. He can lose a match and come right back and root for his teammates. But again, he doesn't lose very often."
As a Capitals rookie last season, Elk Grove resident Yasmin Schnack played mixed doubles with Knowles. It was "nerve-wracking," she said, until Knowles would begin dancing on the court or waving his arms to incite the crowd.
"He's played every Grand Slam, he's traveled around the world, he has kids he's achieved so much in life, and you can really tell he's an incredibly happy guy," said Schnack, 24. "Not many people can reach that level of happiness. I think that's difficult, and he's there."
After a point in men's doubles Thursday night, Knowles grabbed the ball and stuck it in front of a TV camera stationed near the net. He glared across the court during mixed doubles, shrugged dismissively following lost points and barked at the chair umpire from the Capitals' bench over a close line call. Several times, at the net, he performed volleys so improbably reflexive as to seem clairvoyant.
"He's got one of the best backhand returns in the history of tennis, and he's one of the best volleyers the game has ever seen," Bryan said. "I enjoy watching him play."
The coach-player relationship between Knowles and Bryan, who is in his 11th year with the Capitals, is interesting. Knowles often has encountered Bryan's twin sons (Mike and Bob Bryan, one of the world's top doubles teams) on tour, where they have been "big rivals throughout my career."
"But I think Coach and I had a mutual respect right off the bat for each other, and I've learned a lot from him over the years," Knowles said. "Not only in tennis, but also in life.
"That's part of why I love coming back. You're never too old to learn, and I'm still learning a lot of things."