Third Time Lucky

 

I might have had better odds of owning a winning Powerball ticket, given the way the previous twelve months had unfolded.  But somehow there I was in mid-July, stepping up to the baseline to serve at 9-9 in the decisive supertiebreaker, two points from a berth in the finals of the New England 40-and-over 7.0 competition.  Lurking tantalizingly beyond that was the chance to reach a USTA national team tournament for the first time since 2006 (I also made it to Nationals in the Tri-Level competition, which features a single doubles position, in 2014).

Even conceding that nothing worthwhile comes without a struggle, it had been unusually difficult for me to get to that point.   I battled plantar fasciitis throughout the summer of 2017 and eventually chose to take two and a half months off from tennis (a very small percentage of the resulting frustrations are detailed in earlier posts).  I returned to the game that December and spent two mostly pain-free months slowly recapturing my form and fitness.   Then one cold night in February I somehow forgot to pack both my sweat pants, which I warm up in on all but the hottest days, and my compression leggings, a residue of two knee operations which I now wear whenever I play.  It was amazing that I remembered my racquet, but I might have been better off forgetting that, too, because about five games into the match my Achilles tendon went “pop” and I was back on the disabled list.  Long days and nights teaching and coaching, coupled with insufficient attention to my injuries, meant that by the time my Achilles healed, my foot was hurting once more, and it would continue to hurt all summer long.

I may not have been healthy or well-conditioned or playing the way I wanted to be playing, but I did choose my teams wisely, and those teams carried my 200-plus pounds of competitive deadweight into postseason play on many different fronts.  While I wasn’t able to play any qualifying matches for the Keene 8.0 mixed team which had made such a great run to Sectionals in 2017, I did the bare minimum (generally two matches at low lineup positions) to become postseason-eligible for Keene’s 7.0 teams at both the 18-and-over and 40-and-over levels, as well as the Algonquin 4.0 teams in the same age categories.  All four teams were deep and talented enough to finish in the top two in their respective local leagues, and though I played no significant role in those triumphs, I was more than willing to be a part of their postseason runs come summer.

The 18-and-over mixed playoffs came first, but since most of our nucleus of players was over 40, our captain, Chet Porowski, viewed this as a dry run for the older age category and used it mainly to try out different combinations and get everyone some playing time.  The result was what we expected, though we hoped for better: we lost all three matches and won just one individual court.  I had one winnable match that slipped away in a supertiebreaker and one unwinnable match in which the opponents somehow passed off a recently-graduated Division II college player as a 3.5.  Her serve was better than mine, which in men’s competition isn’t saying much but should by itself disqualify a woman from carrying a 3.5 rating.   One of our women blew off our finale on Sunday, leaving us shorthanded and requiring Chet to put his considerable diplomatic skills to use when the opposing husband/wife team who were left without a match to play protested vehemently (word to the not-so-wise: just take the free point and shut up, already!).  The only other memorable moment came when I mistook the coffee dispenser on the table at IHOP for a syrup dispenser and slathered my pancakes with it.   Yep, it was a successful weekend all the way around.

We were convinced things would be different in the 40-and-over division, though, and not without reason.  We had essentially the same group of Keene-based players and me as the 18-and-overs, but fewer teams competed in the older age category, and that allowed Chet to skim off some of the female talent from other nearby clubs.  He also brought two of his tennis friends onto the team as self-rated 3.0s: one, Tom, was closer to a 4.0 in ability but hadn’t played in organized competition since high school, and the other, Scott, lacked even that background but had the athleticism and power to play like a solid 3.5.   Putting them with strong or even mid-range 4.0 women gave us two near-certain points in New Hampshire and two super-competitive courts even at the highest levels of New England tennis.  Chet’s longtime partner, Kristen, had been bumped up to 4.0 in November 2017, or we would have had three super-competitive courts, but we still got by most of the time with a patchwork of combinations on the third court, and I was part of that patchwork.  I was the only 4.0 man and had two qualified 3.0 partners.   Anne was closer to a strong 3.5 but insisted on taking all her own shots- and in mixed doubles, as I have lamented many times previously, almost every ball is hit to the woman unless she is rated a full point higher than her male partner.  Factor that in and I may have been better off with my other partner, Jackie, who also happened to be Joe Waldvogel’s daughter.  Jackie inherited Joe’s pleasant off-court personality and competitive nature but is much more generous with line calls than her father.  Although she excelled in many other sports growing up, Jackie only had about a year of tennis-playing experience, so her game was still closer to a 2.5 than a 3.5, but she was willing to be coached during matches and unafraid of hard-hit balls, and by Sectionals (there are no Districts for 40-and-over since the number of competing teams is smaller) she had also developed an extremely consistent serve.

Sectionals were held in mid-July at a handful of clubs in the Boston area, and we first needed to win our round-robin four-team flight.  Anne and I played number three against Vermont on Friday, and the match unfolded the way many 7.0 matches do: the opposing woman lobbed with exceptional consistency and called all the close balls “out”, and her male partner blanketed the net and mixed some spectacular smashes with other balls that hit the back curtain on the fly.  We made just enough shots and they missed just enough for us to win by a break in each set in a back-and-forth match.  The other two matches were also close, but we won both and so went into Saturday with lots of momentum.  We built on that momentum with an easy win against a team from the town I was born in (Torrington, CT) and a much more difficult one against Longfellow, a club located in one of Boston’s wealthy western suburbs that had been considered the favorite in our flight.  The consensus proved accurate and Longfellow also entered the final match undefeated, but Chet and his partner Sorrell came through in an exciting supertiebreaker, and that sent our team to the knockout rounds with a 2-1 win. 

Eight teams now remained in contention and the elimination rounds were all scheduled for Sunday, meaning we would have to win three matches in about a twelve-hour span to get to Nationals.   But all the rotation players on our team were available except Anne, who had gone on vacation after our Friday match, so Chet felt we had as good a chance as anyone.  Our quarterfinal matchup would quickly let us know the truth of that, for we were matched up against Cedardale, a giant all-sports club from north of Boston that traditionally fields top-notch mixed teams at all levels.  Chet’s plan was to put his strongest lineup out against Cedardale, a slightly weaker one which included Jackie and me in the semifinal, and then the best and healthiest teams left in the final.  It didn’t look like that would matter, though, as Cedardale had ringers of their own: a man somehow rated 3.0 and his steady partner decisively beat our veteran duo of Sue and Bruce at number 3.  We needed to win both the other matches, and both went to supertiebreakers, and we faced match points in at least one of them, but the teams of Tom and his partner Tina and Scott and his partner Sandy came up huge, and that sent us into the final four.  Jackie and I were going to be playing on the big stage.

Our semifinal opponent was from Woburn, MA, another big Boston-area club (this one was a tennis-only facility with a somewhat grittier reputation than Cedardale and Longfellow), and we faced them on their home courts, which could very easily have doubled as a sauna.  Jackie and I played number three and warming up I knew we were in for a tough match: the opposing man, Mark, was about as good as me and a lefty to boot.  I’m not great against lefties and I typically only won with Jackie when I was the best player on the court by some distance, and often not even then.  Even worse, before our first set concluded I saw Chet and Sorrell go down to defeat by a wide margin a few courts away.  But with our season in the balance Jackie played with determination and I directed the ball to Mark’s partner, Lori, as much as I could.  We somehow broke Mark when he served for the opening set at 5-4 and then won a tiebreaker several minutes later to take the lead.  The lead did not last long.  Instead of losing heart, as less-experienced players might have, Mark and Lori sharpened their focus and dominated us throughout the second set.  I would have put our number one team of Tom and Sandy up against any 7.0 team in the country, so although I wasn’t aware of their result at the time (they ended up winning a very close supertiebreaker), I figured our match would be decisive, and I knew we couldn’t afford to lose it.  But we recovered well from our second-set debacle, as both Jackie and I were locked in and making few mistakes on the early points of the supertiebreaker.  Doing our best to take it one shot at a time, we somehow built a 7-4 lead.  Win just three more points and at the very least we would keep our season alive.  Lori served to me in the ad court, but instead of hanging back and dictating with my groundstrokes, I came in behind the return.  Came in a little too far, it turned out, because she lobbed over Jackie.  I chased the ball down but only sent back a weak reply, and Mark put it away.  Jackie then missed her return and instead of 8-5, or even 9-4, it was anyone’s match at 7-6.  Here I played two risky points and got burned on both, first trying to poach off Lori’s return only for the ball to skitter agonizingly off the tip of my outstretched racquet, then crossing during a baseline rally between Mark and Jackie (I didn’t like our odds in that matchup…) only for him to take the ball sharply crosscourt for a winner into the space I had just vacated.  They used that momentum to take a 9-8 lead, but I put a steady serve into Lori’s box and then somehow climbed the ladder to reach a lob that seemed destined to be a winner and stick back a heavy ball that bounced high off the baseline for a winner of my own (to their credit, Mark and Lori didn’t call the ball out, as many other mixed teams would have; if they had, I wouldn’t have argued….much).

So there I was at 9-9, in the New England semifinals, stepping up to the baseline with my trusty Babolat Pure Drive in hand.  I decided to serve out wide to Mark’s backhand and come to the net, but I didn’t serve it quite wide enough, and he ripped his best backhand of the day crosscourt into the doubles alley.  I lunged for it, but instead of trying to redirect it at Lori (I had a decent chance of returning even her put-away shots), I attempted to get it back crosscourt and found only the bottom of the net.  They won the next point, too, and it was over.  I felt awful then, and worse after I found out Tom and Sandy had won.  In trying to win the match with aggressive play I had lost patience and left my team exposed.  I felt especially bad for Jackie, for she was likely to blame the loss on her own lack of skill, when in fact she had maximized her strengths and played courageously throughout; I was the one who had let the team down.   It’s a match that I still find hard to talk about, and all the harder after Woburn beat another Boston-area team in the finals to clinch a spot at Nationals.   Pushing 50, with a body increasingly inclined to betray me and a psyche struggling to grapple with the implications of that, I wondered if my last chance to make a Nationals had come and gone.

I didn’t have long to wonder, though, because I still had two more Sectionals to take part in. The first one quickly fizzled: it was the men’s 40-and-over, once again held in Woburn (among other locations), and my Algonquin team, which had come in a distant second in our local league, faced a tough flight that included Rhode Island powerhouse Rally Point, Southern Connecticut stalwarts King’s Highway, and Westford from Eastern Mass.  We had been only moderately competitive at Sectionals in 2017 and in the intervening time two of our better players, Gary Roberts and Adam Hirshan, defected to Mountainside, which ended up winning the New Hampshire league.  Even the addition of Dan Watson, a quick, fit and aggressive player who had been rated 4.5 for a time, availed us little. 

I played in our matches on the first day and we lost both decisively, winning only one of the ten contested courts.   I had tried to rest after the mixed competition, but I rested too much to stay sharp and not enough to get healthy, and the result was two disheartening losses.  Neal Burns and I had a strange match in the opener against Connecticut.  One part of the strangeness was that I did not have to face the Ray Liotta look-alike Tim Trask, my usual opponent on Doug Presley’s Pequods.  Instead our opponents were Jim, a savvy player with a big heart, and John, who hit every forehand as hard as he could, which turned out to be very hard indeed.   John missed almost all those hard forehands in the first set, which we won easily, but then found the range and the match tightened considerably.  We ended up losing the second set tiebreaker 7-5 and then the supertiebreaker by a slightly wider margin.  Although Neal didn’t help by refusing to lob Jim, a short man with a minimally competent overhead, I was the main culprit, as I lost confidence in my return and somehow contrived to double fault three times in the course of a single ten-point tiebreaker, a tiebreaker that ended with my racquet flying into the courtside wall at high speed. 

Even being teamed with Dan Watson couldn’t save me in the second match against Rhode Island: he was drained after playing singles in temperatures that hovered close to 100 degrees indoors, and I was just pissed off about my earlier result and couldn’t let it go the way I normally do.  We had our moments, but the lobbing skills of our opponents, Phil (a very nice guy with great hands) and Craig (a not-so-nice guy but a skilled and honest player), and our own inconsistent returns doomed us to a 6-3, 6-3 defeat.  Keeping my racquet in hand this time proved to be a wise choice, because mid-match I became aware of a very attractive redheaded woman seated by the upstairs window yelling encouragement to me while pumping her fists.  Once I looked up, she did it after virtually every point for the rest of the match.  Hard as it may be to believe, that kind of thing isn’t a regular occurrence at my matches, so to say it gave me some energy was an understatement.  I used that energy to draw us even at 3-3 in the second set with a well-executed lob volley to break Phil, but there weren’t many highlights after that.  She stopped me near the front desk afterward and told me how much she had enjoyed watching us compete, but although I was polite and appreciative, I was too drained and discouraged even to ask for her name.  As we had no hope of advancing, I didn’t come back the next day and watch, but my teammates didn’t do much better than I had.  We lost 1-4 to a good Westford team, but truthfully many of our guys were already more focused on the 18-and-over sectional competition the following weekend.  And what a competition that would prove to be.

My 40-and-over mixed team was a very good team, but it was my 18-and-over men’s team that was truly stacked.   We had the 2017 NH high school singles champion, Zack Gould, and the 2018 high school singles runner-up, Rohit (Ro) Yerram, both from Bedford.  We had Dan Watson and Rob Starace and Alex Mezibov and Gary Roberts and Kiran Humagai and many others, 19 in total, almost all of them high-end 4.0s.  We had Todd Toler’s superb leadership keeping everyone directed toward a common goal, even when that meant that guys who had been regular starters for years, sometimes decades- I was one of them- had to accept part-time roles.  Best of all, we had Noah Sullivan, a 20-year-old who had been a terrific player for a tiny high school and then disappeared off the map to take firefighting classes part-time at a community college.  Noah Sullivan was a little bit like Roy Hobbs with a tennis racquet, big and strong and hardworking and polite, and best of all, no one knew who he was- no one except for own Adam Hirshan, now living in the Lakes Region, who saw his potential during weeknight ladder matches at the Gilford Hills Club. 

We dominated New Hampshire with that team, though I say “we” only in the broadest sense, for Todd graciously worked around my numerous injuries to fit me into two matches at lower doubles positions and thereby preserve my postseason eligibility.  In one of those Alex Mezibov and I had the pleasure of beating longtime rival Richard King with the loss of only two games; I knew Richard wasn’t going to come back when he began bringing up the time a few years back when he had beaten me 6-1, 6-0.  I enjoyed the feeling that day, sure, since enjoyable feelings of any kind had been few and far between over the past twelve months.  Still, I knew I was more of a “depth guy” than a “rotation guy” when the postseason came. 

We had a lot of depth guys, though, and Todd rotated them all brilliantly while riding Noah, Ro and Zack hard.  The Districts in early August were proof of that.  USTA-New England rotated the District pairings, as it does every so often, and as a result we were no longer required to go to Portland but rather to Western MA, where teams from Eastern Connecticut and the host region awaited us.  The Vermont champions and the second-place team from the Granite State, Hampshire Hills, made the trip too. 

I stayed in the same lucky hotel, the Holiday Inn Express in Ludlow, as during the Tri-Level championship year of 2014, and maybe some of the mojo was still present.  More probably, though, our team was just damn good.  We started off with a bang by sweeping Eastern CT on Saturday morning, though four of the five matches were close.  Alex and I played number two against Ken, a lanky kid who looked to be just out of college, and Dow, a short, shaven-headed man about my age.  I dated Dow’s sister years ago, although I did not meet him at the time and did not tell him this when we faced off, fearing an awkward moment.  Dow turned out to have laser-like groundstrokes, a soft serve, and a forgiving nature: he stayed calm even as Alex hit him in the head three times with the windmilling crosscourt put-away volleys that are as close as the big Russian can get to hitting the ball with his arm raised high when a point is in progress (on his serve, mysteriously enough, he can raise his arm just fine).  It didn’t take long to determine that Ken was not nearly so calm: after making an error to conclude a fine match-opening point, he screamed an obscenity at high volume while smashing his racquet.  His disposition remained unchanged the rest of the way, but he had a big serve and terrific hands at the net to compensate for a so-so return game.  I don’t know if it was the heat of the day, the stickiness, or my own nerves, lack of conditioning and poor footwork, but I couldn’t hit my overhead (usually a strength) with any confidence.  Alex started well but dipped mid-match, and as a result we traded a pair of 6-3 sets.  In the supertiebreaker, though, Ken and Dow hit a number of poorly-executed, low-percentage shots and threw in a few double faults for good measure.  That allowed us to come away with a 10-3 win when in other circumstances our own increasing frustration might have fatally damaged our chances.

In the night match we traveled just over the Connecticut border to the Enfield Tennis Center to take on Hampshire Hills. Women’s 3.5 matches were being held at the same site, and we waited and waited and waited for them to finish.   The moonball-filled points seemed interminable, and in one memorable doubles match the players went to change the scorecards after every single freaking point of what ended up about a 14-12 supertiebreaker.  At least they didn’t lose track of the score, though.

Luckily the shortness of the match, once it began, more than compensated for the long wait.  Hampshire Hills had lost their opening match and seemed committed to rotating their team just as we had, because many of their top players watched from the elevated viewing area along with me and our other subs.   Hampshire Hills is a very tough opponent on their own courts no matter who they field, but elsewhere they need a strong lineup and a few breaks, and in Enfield they didn’t get either one of those things.  Only one of the courts was truly competitive, and there Zack Gould, perhaps best known for partnering with Mats Wilander’s son on the club team at Tufts University, took apart the power game of Ben Lambert, a recent four-year varsity starter at St. Michael’s College.  You could tell that Lambert was used to hitting people off the court, and almost no one with a legitimate 4.0 rating can do that to Zack: he’s too steady and absorbs pace too well.   Frustration set in for Lambert around the middle of the first set, and after that there was only going to be one winner.  10 individual matches played, and we’d won all of them: we couldn’t have asked for a better beginning. 

We were back at the Ludlow club by mid-morning for our first Sunday match against Vermont.  We weren’t taking them lightly, but shortly after the completion of that match we had to go back on court against the host team, which won a tough Western Mass league and was undefeated through the first day of District play.  With that in mind, Todd put a slightly weaker lineup out against Vermont, and it almost cost us.  Noah and Ro won easily in the singles, but Adam and Mark Parquette were beaten soundly, while Gary and Alex blew a 6-1, 4-1 lead after Gary tired and bickering set in between the two.  It was Dan Watson and Rick DePasquale who bailed us out.  Those two men couldn’t be more different- Dan is low-key and intense while Ricky’s the life of any party- but their lives have frequently been intertwined, as both married the same woman, although not simultaneously.  Here they put any personal issues aside and did what needed to be done, beating a solid team that pushed them to a first-set tiebreaker.  That made the final match a winner-take-all showdown with Western Mass.   We no longer had to worry about the margin of victory: we just needed three points.  We didn’t expect any of those three to come easily.

One reason they wouldn’t come easily was that less than half an hour after the Vermont match ended, we were being called to play again.  It’s a common scheduling trick: put the local team against what is perceived to be their biggest threat in the final match of the competition, but only after scheduling the interlopers to play another match right before that while giving the home team a long rest period.  We had faced that tactic in Maine, too, and we were as ready as we could be for it, with four fresh older guys set to take the court.  I was one of them.  Noah and Zack cruised in their singles matches, but all the doubles would be contested: Alex and I were on one, Dan and Neal on two, and Todd and Ro on three.  Pride prevents me from calling that a stack, but a more objective observer would be forgiven if he saw a hint of one.  On my court we faced Steven, a big-hitting lefty whose serve easily hit triple digits, and Chris, who hit with much less pace but used his size to good effect on high balls at the net (and if anyone’s game is suited to producing high balls to the net man, it’s a lefty who serves well over 100 mph in 4.0 tennis). Steven hit his groundstrokes hard and flat, but I was reading his returns well and making a very high percentage of first volleys, so although they held more easily, we were still in the match.  We even broke him once, when was trying to serve out the first set at 5-4, and later we broke Chris, too, and won the set 7-5.  In the second set things continued to go our way until I lost serve at 4-2.  Steven held in the blink of an eye, and then Alex hit some low-percentage shots and was broken.  The Ludlow duo served out the set from there, and the match went to the supertiebreaker.  We had some success early on, but I wasn’t volleying at quite the same level as before, and Alex missed a few makeable shots too.  Steven’s serve had a lost a few miles per hour by then, but not quite enough for us to capitalize on, and they ended up winning 10-7.  It didn’t matter, though: Todd and Ro controlled play against a very strong three team, while Dan and Neal were able to grind out a victory over the well-traveled Doug Hastings and his partner. Hastings’s matches are always full of emotional displays and this was no exception, but most of the yelling was done in a positive manner- guys pumping themselves and their partners up- so although on the temperature on that court may have been even higher than on the rest of them, there was no real conflict.   We took a picture under an improvised USTA banner, and for once I didn’t have to fake a smile when the cameras rolled.  We were going to Sectionals, and while I knew I hadn’t exactly been the chief architect of our success, it still felt pretty damn good.

img_2033

Algonquin 4.0 District Champs! (L-R Ro, Dan, Neal, Adam, Gary, Dave, Alex and Todd)

Two weeks later I was back at the Holiday Inn Express.  I was back at the Enfield Tennis Club, too, as rain at the scheduled site (The Williston-Northampton School) forced the first day of Sectionals to be played indoors.  That didn’t seem to bode well for us because we were pitted against the overwhelming favorites from Lakeville, MA, a team largely composed of recently-graduated Stonehill College players, and an indoor match would only accentuate our opponents’ youth and power.  The Lakeville tornado had ripped through Eastern Mass regular-season and District play, leaving many angry opposing teams in its wake.  Lakeville’s dominance was so extreme that several of their players were thought to have tanked just enough games in their District matches to avoid disqualification strikes from the USTA, before raising their level again at the end to win.  A group protest was filed by the captains of several of the opposing teams, but seemingly to little avail: the District results were allowed to stand, though one Lakeville singles player was barred from further 4.0 competition.   That small detail may not have helped the other Eastern Mass teams one iota, but it ended up helping us an awful lot. 

Alex and I were back at number one for this match, and we faced one of the players most frequently accused of tanking, a tall, slender late-20s banger named Devin, who according to Google was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at a small Division III school because of his tennis prowess (he now coaches the team there).  Devin was a happy-go-lucky guy who hit most balls as hard as he could- which in point of fact was very, very hard- and didn’t seem too worried when he occasionally sprayed one.  I could see why he had been accused of tanking, but you’re going to miss more shots when you play a high-risk style, and in our match, at least, I didn’t get the sense that his misses were deliberate.  His partner Larry was certainly giving 100 percent.  Although quite a bit older than Devin, Larry was still quick and athletic, and so intense that he got angry with Alex on a few occasions for not calling the score before serving.  Alex being Alex, he tried to tweak the guy after that, but Larry proved to be easier to annoy than he was to beat.  I’d say he was just as important to winning the match as Devin was, although having a huge-hitting partner likely set Larry up with opportunities he would have had more difficulty creating on his own.  We got it going a little bit in the second set, or perhaps they dropped off just enough to avoid a strike, but they were always the better team and came away with a well-deserved 6-2, 6-4 win. 

Rob and Neal also came up short against a team featuring an ex-Stonehill kid who was all over the place, but Noah and Zack came through with big wins against singles players far stronger than any they had previously faced.  Noah unleashed his full potential and dominated the number one player on a Division III team, while Zack rallied after losing the first set badly to a giant who had played collegiately someplace in Ohio not long before.  Put that guy in at third doubles and the banned player in his singles spot and they probably beat us 4-1.  But they didn’t have the giant at third doubles that day: they had two middle-aged men who really were 4.0s, and we had Ro, who may not be.  He and Todd dropped the first set but dominated the second.  Todd kept Ro smiling and loose throughout a supertiebreaker which was never close, and Al Michaels’s voice echoed in all of our heads: “Do you believe in miracles? Yesssssss!” The Lakeville Invincibles were invincible no longer.

Late the next afternoon we were back inside at Enfield, this time against a Rally Point team which had narrowly lost to Maine on day one.  We were ecstatic after beating the pre-tournament favorites but knew we couldn’t take any Rhode Island team lightly, and from my position in the upstairs gallery I watched another close match unfold.  It was close because Ocean Staters Phil and Craig did to Dan Horan and Kiran what they had done to Dan Watson and me, while Zack Gould lost for the first time all season, to Rhode Island high school state champion Matt Dubois.  But Noah won the last eight games of his match after a tight first set, and Watson/Starace and Roberts/Yerram took their matches in straight sets, though both needed to win a tiebreaker to do so.  Though it lacked the drama of the Lakeville match, the team victory was every bit as important, sending us as it did into a winner-take-all showdown against Maine on Sunday.

With so much other information packed into this post, I’ll skip over the enjoyable Saturday night banquet held at a country club on the outskirts of Springfield and get right to Sunday morning.  The rain cleared at last and we were outside at Williston-Northampton, matched against a team that had had our number in recent years.  To be fair, it wasn’t quite the same group of guys, since Gabe Gordon’s Marginal Vortex team had been forced to break up for a year after having reached Nationals in 2017.  This team was nominally based out of a club in the Portland suburbs rather than the traditional powerhouse Portland Racket/Fitness (I say nominally because all league matches are played at Racket/Fitness), but it was still Maine, and that was enough for us.  I should say that I like some of the Maine guys very, very much individually: there are some great people and terrific players that I have gone up against for years and enjoy seeing at every major competition.  But I don’t like the system they come out of.  I don’t like people scouring a state five times the size of my own for talent and concentrating the best of what they find on a single powerhouse team. I don’t like their scheduling, which always seems to be tilted ever so slightly in favor of the local team, much like what we faced in Ludlow.  I don’t like how Maine players, even those with exceptionally gaudy records, almost never get bumped.  And I don’t like how those players sometimes appear to tank meaningless matches once they’ve been eliminated from a competition in order to keep their ratings down.  In the end, though, it made no difference what I did or didn’t like, for I was on the bench: we sent out Sullivan and Gould in singles and Mezibov/Eric Morrow, Watson/Starace and Roberts/Yerram in doubles.  The lineup itself caused some drama when Todd bumped Rick DePasquale, a hero of our earlier win against Vermont, out of a promised Sunday playing slot in favor of Starace after we won our first two matches.  Rick didn’t take it well- as a competitive person myself I don’t blame him for that- and we aren’t likely to have him as a teammate very often in the future, but Dan and Rob were our best team, and with a berth at Nationals on the line it only made sense to play them together, whatever the consequences.

As it turned out, Rick and Dan might have won, but Dan and Rob did win, beating two unorthodox but dangerous players by a break in each set.  Noah won, too, against an opponent who had competed with guts and heart in his earlier matches but here shamefully tanked in an attempt to give Noah a rating strike, missing balls so often and so deliberately that Noah finally began to do the same thing.  It was undoubtedly the lowest-level number one singles match in 4.0 Sectionals history.  The third point wouldn’t be anywhere near as easy.  We lost the other two doubles, both in well-contested straight-sets matches to teams that on that day were a fraction better.  It all came down to Zack Gould against a guy I’ll just call The Jerk, though that is a far kinder sobriquet than he deserves.   The Jerk was a man-mountain who must have weighed close to 300 lbs.   He didn’t look much like a tennis player, but he hit any ball he could set up cleanly for with 5.0-level strokes.  He tried to hit some of the others with equal power, and that didn’t work out so well, but The Jerk’s playing strategy wasn’t really about movement or technique anyway.  It was about bullying, intimidation and getting inside the other player’s head, and at that he was an undisputed master.  He regularly threw his racquet and swore loudly after his own missed shots.  Far worse, he also made fun of Zack, needling him on the changeovers and in between points.  As the match progressed, The Jerk also regularly told the people cheering positively for Zack- who to that point had yelled nothing whatsoever about him- what he thought of them in the most explicit terms this side of a Ron Jeremy movie.  Before long, some of those people started to tell him very similar things right back ( I wasn’t one of them, but I’m still obviously recounting a heavily sanitized version of the actual events surrounding this match).  It got to the point where Alex and Eric on the adjacent court started swearing at The Jerk because he was constantly interrupting their points with his outbursts.  Even some of the other Maine players admitted afterward that they were embarrassed to have the guy as a teammate.

  Now let’s get one thing straight: I’m no shrinking violet on the court.  I estimate over 95 percent of my official matches conclude without any negative incidents, but over 30-plus years of competitive play that leaves plenty of exceptions.  I’m not proud of it, but in those exceptions I’ve exchanged all manner of insults, had matches that nearly came to blows, refused to shake hands with some opponents and been given the same treatment by others, broken more racquets than I can count on both hands.   Factor in conflict-ridden matches I’ve coached in, watched as a spectator or borne witness to while playing on a nearby court and I thought I’d seen it all.  I was wrong.  I’d never seen a display of bad sportsmanship anywhere close to what this jackass put on.   The volume and content of what he was saying seemed almost impossible to miss, but apparently the roving official didn’t hear him, because that good woman was nowhere to be found.  That’s right: while a boor whose actions would have made John McEnroe uncomfortable was getting away with murder, she was keeping the 3.0 women’s matches on the other bank of courts free of any foot faults. 

I probably should have just kept my mouth shut, but sometimes I can’t help myself.  It was late in the match and after getting crushed in the opening set, The Jerk had finally begun to get into Zack’s head.  Mixing nonstop trash-talk, bad line calls, gamesmanship and language that would make even our current President blush with some big serves and well-timed forehand winners, he was on the verge of taking the second set to a tiebreaker.  Zack somehow refrained from engaging with The Jerk, but he had gotten flustered and his level of play was dropping.  That’s when, seeing Todd some distance away and heading toward the other bank of courts to check on a match that was still ongoing there, I yelled “Hey Todd, get the judge!”  Loudly.  Not as diplomatic as I should have been, for sure, but the match was completely out of control at that point.  Wait a few more minutes and it might have taken a squad car to sort things out. The Jerk heard me, of course.  “Yeah, get the fucking judge, I don’t give a shit”, he screamed.  She may or may not have heard him, but the fucking judge duly appeared a couple of minutes later in the middle of the tiebreaker.   

Things had gotten so chaotic by then that it took her a few minutes to sort out all that she had somehow not heard before.  She ended up retroactively giving The Jerk a point penalty and Eric Morrow on the next court a warning for an explicit recounting of The Jerk’s behavior.   When the match finally resumed under the judge’s watchful gaze, The Jerk stopped going nuts.  He stopped winning, too.  It wasn’t rocket science: when they were able to just play tennis, the better tennis player had the advantage, and Zack dominated the last few points.  It had been a battle- almost a literal one, at that- but in the end we had achieved our dream.   We were going to Nationals!  To punch our ticket by finally breaking the Portland jinx made it all the sweeter, but it was plenty sweet regardless, and we celebrated accordingly.   The rest of the day passed in a blur as we went from Williston-Northampton to the main tournament site at Mount Holyoke College for pictures, high fives, hugs and USTA-New England champion glasses.  I loved the chemistry on our team and was thrilled to be a part of it, even though I hadn’t contributed as much on the court as I would have liked.  Given the injuries I’ve dealt with over the past few years, the sad reality is that I’m clearly much closer to the end of my competitive career than I am to the beginning.  It won’t be much of a surprise if October’s trip to Arlington, Texas represents my last experience at a USTA national tournament.  But many avid players don’t get to make a trip like that even once, so there’s no doubt I’ve been blessed to be three times lucky. 

img_2060

Algonquin 4.0 New England Champs! (L-R Ro, Alex, Noah, Kiran, Gary, Dan, Dave, Eric, Rob, Todd and Zack)

 

The Fight of His Life

Kevin Phelps was a handful from day one. The Bow native came into the world kicking and screaming twenty-four years ago, and the passage of time did little to improve his disposition. With a mile-wide chip perched firmly on his shoulder, Kevin spent his formative years giving the figurative, and occasionally the literal, middle finger to authority figures of all stripes in the Capital region. I was one of them, as his coach on a USTA junior tennis team during many of his high school summers. By then Kevin had grown tall and strong and more than a little bit nasty. He was a good player: not as good as he believed himself to be, but still genuinely talented and willing to practice hard to improve his game. Yet not surprisingly he tended to rub many people the wrong way with his cocky strutting, his sideways-tilted headgear and his Muhammad-Ali like pronouncements. Kevin was no Tom Brady, dispensing weekly doses of pabulum designed expressly to prevent even the most paranoid opponent from collecting any “bulletin board material” to use as extra motivation. He provided his opponents with loads of bulletin board material and couldn’t have cared less. P.T. Barnum may have coined the expression “any publicity is good publicity”, but Kevin Phelps lived out the meaning of that particular creed better than anyone I’ve known.

Like most people who conduct themselves as he did, Kevin had reasons for his behavior. His family splintered when he was very young. After that he was raised by his mother, Stephanie, who provided lots of love but had only limited success in shaping his behavior. Kevin’s relationship with his father, a former football player and coach, was much more problematic, occupying as it did that dangerous intersection between neglect and hostility. Even four years of hard work which led to Kevin’s becoming the first male NHIAA singles semifinalist in Bow High history didn’t matter to his dad, who only continued to mock Kevin for having chosen a “sissy sport”.

In recent years Stephanie Phelps began dating, and later moved in with, my good friend and USTA teammate Todd Toler, and that allowed me to keep tabs on Kevin beyond his high school days. One thing that I’ve had to come to terms with —sometimes more successfully than others — over years of teaching and coaching is that the progress of the people you work with isn’t always as linear as you’d like it to be, and Kevin was a prime example. In plain English, that means he continued to fuck up quite often. He tried to walk on to the tennis team at Division II Southern New Hampshire University, but his timing was poor: SNHU’s growing program had begun recruiting internationally, and his heart wasn’t truly in the schoolwork either. Kevin’s preferred destination was the military, but a substance-related arrest, one in a series of minor legal troubles, ruled that out. The transition to adulthood isn’t easy for even the most pulled-together teenager, and Kevin was a far cry from that, but he never inflicted lasting harm on anyone other than himself, which is more than a lot of people can say. And through it all he still had tennis talent to burn, so before long Todd recruited him to play on our adult USTA 18-plus and Tri-Level teams.

Having Kevin as a teammate was a unique experience. There he was, headgear jauntily tilted sideways, muscles jacked, just about every square inch above his waist —and God only knew how much below it —covered in ink. Wherever we went, attention was squarely focused on him, and he would have had it no other way. Even in his least competitive matches, Kevin yelled, screamed, and flexed with abandon. But the kid was a clutch performer, too, taking on some of the top 4.0s in New England and nearly always emerging victorious. One afternoon, hung over and throwing up in the service box, Kevin still rallied to win a difficult timed match on a sudden-victory point. He was remarkably fair with his own line calls, but heaven help anybody who cheated him — and since this was New England tennis, he had his fair share of dustups. I didn’t complain, for not only was he one of our most successful singles players, he also cared passionately about the team’s overall success, which is a rarer commodity in USTA team tennis than you might think. What’s more, the roving line judges were always too busy monitoring his court to catch my foot faults. Talk about a win-win. In 2013 Kevin led our 18-and-over team to the New England Sectionals and then he, Todd and I made a once-in-a-lifetime run to the Tri-Level Nationals at Indian Wells, CA, the following March (that run is chronicled, some might say ad nauseum, in earlier posts on this site). I’ll be the first to admit that Todd and I wouldn’t have gotten there on our own. Kevin’s big serve, heavy topspin forehand and in-your-face competitiveness were the biggest reasons for our success through the various levels of competition. At the New England Sectionals, he and I had to beat three top teams in a span of less than 24 hours (Todd was injured and unable to play). In one of those matches I had a stretch of about a set and a half where I literally could not have hit a ball into the ocean from close range. It didn’t matter, for Kevin just raised his game to an even more sublime level and pulled us through. In the clinching match against Maine, I played much better but began to get tight near the end. Kevin got up in my face and barked at me to finish strong — just what I needed — and we raised our level in the supertiebreaker to take the championship home. I will see his match-winning down-the-line forehand in my mind’s eye for as long as I draw breath.

I got to know Kevin better during our weeklong stay in California as we practiced, played and partied together. I shared some of my philosophies about tennis and life and he introduced me to new music (until then I had thought Logic was just a class my brother, a philosophy major, might have taken during his Dartmouth days) and gave me dating advice (you can probably imagine how that went, but it was thoughtful of him to offer). He stuck by Todd and me when our Connecticut-based “teammates” tried to throw us under the bus after some poor results, too. And though the tennis didn’t end up quite the way I would have liked, it honestly didn’t matter. We all have a special memory to cherish for the rest of our lives, and Kevin was a huge part of that.

Life pulled Kevin and me in different directions in the years that followed, and we were never teammates again. My playing time was limited by serious knee and foot injuries, and Kevin’s by school responsibilities: he had gone back to study business at Plymouth State, which has no men’s tennis team. As a result, I hadn’t seen him for some time before dropping in on his family while they were vacationing at the beach one day in the early fall of 2016. He was still Kevin that day, bursting with confidence, yet he was also growing up. He had made it through Plymouth State, gotten his Business degree, landed an entry-level sales job, and was working hard to climb the corporate ladder. He had a steady girlfriend and was talking about getting his own place. I left that night thinking Kevin was really starting to get his shit together. Given where he might have ended up, I called that a bona fide success story.

I wish that Kevin’s story ended right there, but it does not. Early last November he began vomiting and experiencing a level of abdominal pain which eventually landed him in the emergency room. Did he have some type of virus, or maybe a kidney stone like the one that had felled me in 2014? The hospital staff could provide no answers and released Kevin, only for him to collapse on his way out the door to the parking lot. After that, the pace of the diagnostic testing picked up considerably. The results of the ensuing MRI were unimaginably horrific. Kevin had a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma that had already advanced to stage 4. There is no stage 5.

Kevin underwent surgery that same night and woke up without his appendix, most of his colon, a few lymph nodes and a tumor roughly the size of an orange. That procedure saved his life in the short term, but if he refused all further treatment Kevin was still going to die sooner rather than later. His only chance was to immediately begin the most aggressive course of chemotherapy available at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It had about a 70 percent chance of success and it would be debilitating, but Kevin and his family opted for the chemo without a second thought because it was his only hope. There were no two ways about it: Kevin Phelps was in the fight of his life.

Can you imagine all that? Kevin didn’t have to imagine.  He had to dig in, start battling and hope for a positive outcome. One of our recent Presidents —one who could eloquently discuss subjects other than the female anatomy and his bank account, but I digress — said in one of his best-known speeches that “While the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice”. For Kevin and those close to him, it couldn’t start bending quickly enough.

Kevin has poured all his tenacity, competitiveness and combative spirit into beating his all-time toughest opponent for nearly three months now, and here’s the good part: he’s winning! Yes, he’s had his ups and downs, his good and bad days, but last week he finished his final course of chemo, and his doctors say there’s a great chance he is going to beat this. He posts regular, articulate, sometimes gut-wrenching updates on Facebook, and one of the most recent read: I BEAT CANCER!!!!!!!! Well, except that the font was about ten times bigger, but I’ll cut him some slack. He’s certainly earned it.

This isn’t where I ask you for money or pass along a link to a fund-raising website. Not that I’d be opposed, however awkward it might make a reader feel, if Kevin needed the help. But by happy coincidence his insurance policy has covered almost all his expenses: while the overall cost of his treatment has run upwards of a million dollars, Stephanie and Todd have only had to pay a few thousand out of pocket.  And if the chemotherapy is successful, his doctors say Kevin’s type of cancer generally doesn’t return.

The last thing I want to do is jinx Kevin, for I know better than most how relentless cancer can be. My father had tumors removed from his liver and pancreas and seemed to be cancer-free, but all too soon the disease came back, and now I spend most Father’s Days talking at a marble slab. Yet there’s now good reason to believe Kevin will someday number among the lucky ones for whom cancer represents a detour rather than an endpoint.   By the time he celebrates his 25th birthday, he will be a hardened survivor, his trademark confidence no doubt containing far more substance now that he has stared down the most feared killer of our time. What could he do with his life then? A better question would be “what couldn’t he do”? Me, I just hope Kevin gets many more years to experience life in all its joy and pain — but hopefully in a proportion weighted more towards “joy” than has lately been the case. I hope he falls in love, builds a productive career he can be proud of, perhaps one day becomes the father he never had. More selfishly, I also hope he gets back on the tennis court at some point, but even if he never takes part in another sporting event in his life, Kevin Phelps has proven this beyond the shadow of a doubt:

He’s a winner.

 

 

 

 

Fall 2017- Injured Reserve: Breaking the Arsenal Curse

I called it the Arsenal Curse, and it had been around for some time.  It didn’t refer to the on-field results of the English Premier League’s Arsenal FC, one of my two favorite professional soccer teams and the only one whose games are regularly televised in this country, although most fellow Gunners fans would agree that in recent years the team has been plenty cursed in that domain as well.  No, this was a scheduling phenomenon in which Arsenal’s weekly game times and my weekly USTA and North Shore League match times inevitably overlapped.  It didn’t matter if I was playing tennis on Saturday or on Sunday, in the morning or in the afternoon.  Every week I’d check my Premier League scheduling app with the expectancy of a young child on Christmas morning, only to be left feeling like Charlie Brown after Lucy has once again snatched the football away just before he can meet it with his outstretched leg.   I usually played only one competitive match per weekend,  yet somehow Arsenal’s contest and my own nearly always fell in similar time slots, and in my DVR-less existence, that was a big problem.

This fall the Arsenal Curse has at last been lifted.  I can tell you with authority that the team’s new East European left-back, Kolasinac, is an absolute beast.  I can tell you with equal certainty that “playmaker” Meszut Ozil is utterly useless and should be sold, or even given away, at the first possible opportunity, his supposed world-class pedigree be damned.  I can tell you- without the slightest shred of bias, mind you- that regardless of whether they are attacking or defending, the Gunners get absolutely screwed on every disputable penalty decision.  And I can tell you a lot of things about Arsenal’s longtime manager, Arsene Wenger, the gentlest of them being that he should enter an overdue retirement posthaste.  I can tell you all these things not because the scheduling issue has suddenly dematerialized, but because I have not hit a tennis ball since Labor Day.

In truth, I have not hit a tennis ball pain-free for much longer than that, so when a full summer of USTA playoffs ended in the disappointing fashion chronicled in my last entry, I decided it was time to take more drastic measures.  And it was the two tennis buddies with whom I’m in most frequent contact, Todd Toler and Andrew Haynes, who persuaded me to take those measures.  I thought- or rather knew, from a summer’s worth of evidence- that even on one healthy foot I could compete as a slightly-above-average 4.0.  But Todd and Andrew, with backgrounds in competitive hockey and competitive running, respectively, finally convinced me that it was wiser to take a more long-term view.  That meant keeping off the tennis court until I was pain-free.  It also meant seeking medical help.

Although I like some of them very much as individuals, I’m not a huge fan of doctors collectively, and as a result I try to avoid going to them if at all possible.  In this I’m hoping I take after my grandmother, who didn’t believe in seeking medical help yet managed to live deep into her 80s (she didn’t believe in paying her income taxes, either, but that didn’t turn out quite as well for her).  Yet it’s a habit that undoubtedly pleases my insurance company more than it does my future self, and which I’m therefore doing my best to modify.   So in mid-September I went to a doctor in my primary care physician’s group, and was essentially told that I had plantar fasciitis and needed to see a podiatrist.  You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to predict that outcome, but she knew more than I did about how to provide some temporary relief and it was a step in the right direction.  It would be another month before I could get in to see the podiatrist, Jeff Davis.  I considered it worth the wait, however, for Jeff is both a longtime acquaintance and a 5.0-caliber tennis player, though with the exception of one now-distant Concord A singles title he has always played purely for enjoyment.

The wait still wasn’t easy.  I’m a tennis player, not a Renaissance man.  No one’s going to mistake me for the next Leonardo da Vinci.  I don’t have a ton of hobbies.  I can’t grow anything besides fatter, which rules out gardening, and I likely have already maxed out my foreign language capacity.  I’m not much for going out to bars and clubs: my present social life can best be summed up by noting that the Saturday-night Domino’s delivery lady now greets me as warmly as she would an old friend.  And my day job drains me so completely that even getting to the gym a few times a week can be a challenge, especially without the motivation that a clear timetable of return to the tennis court would provide.  I have more time to write, but much less to write about: putting me into a world without any tennis is a little like putting Paul Gauguin into a world without any naked women.  I’d like to say I’m reading Goethe in the original German or researching a cure for cancer, but it would be more accurate to say I’m doing a lot of sports watching.   Fortunately, fall is a terrific time for that.  There’s college football: I’ve seen more games than I have in years, although it hasn’t helped me predict their outcomes any better.  There’s pro football: suffice it to say that with all my downtime, my fantasy league team won’t need another miracle to contend for a second straight championship, although its present good luck will no doubt turn when it matters most.  There’s baseball: after seeing about a dozen close plays in the decisive game of their wild-card series against the Nationals both rightly and wrongly called in their favor, I’m thinking Vladimir Putin has decreed a Cubs repeat.  You heard it here first.  And then there’s the PlayStation version of FIFA, in whose alternate universe Arsenal has currently won three consecutive Champions League titles and is hard at work on a fourth (memo to Wenger: your best bet to avoid an eventual involuntary retirement might be to clone and sign Andre Marchais, a Belgian striker who would bear a curiously striking resemblance to yours truly, if yours truly were fast and strong and able to shoot a soccer ball accurately from long distance).

In the meantime, my corner of the tennis world is going on just fine without me, just as it one day will in more permanent fashion.  Team Algonquin may have passed its peak on the New England scene- or not- but it still has more than enough talent to excel at the local level, having won its first three matches of the new 40-and-over season.  John Duckless’s excellence at lineup construction has more than compensated for his almost complete disinterest in recruiting new talent: he even fit me in for a default win, the first 6-0, 6-0 match that has gone in my favor in years.  Even with Adam Hirshan and Gary Roberts having defected to Mountainside (a move I less-than-diplomatically told Gary was the recreational equivalent of Roger Clemens signing with the Yankees), another trip to Districts looks like a strong possibility.   The results of the Willows B team, which I joined in order to team up with Andrew, who recently returned to the game after several years of pursuing other interests, have been at the opposite end of the competitive spectrum.  Still, I’d love to be part of that group even though the weekly ass-kickings they absorb would no doubt continue.  You get into a rut sometimes when you’re playing regularly, and take things for granted a little too much.   At least I do.  I’d like to think I won’t do that anymore when I’m able to get back out on the court, but it might be more realistic to hope for greater appreciation of the little moments of joy that tennis brings: the feeling, however rare, of a shot struck perfectly; the smell of a can of newly opened balls; the adrenaline-fueled high five that accompanies a critical service break. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to manage that.

I hope I can experience those things again sooner rather than later, but right now I just don’t know.  I finally did see Jeff Davis for a cortisone shot, and I have to go back for another one in two weeks.  He also took a mold for a custom set of orthotics- my first- and hopes that will provide more of a long-term solution.  He says I could be back playing around Thanksgiving and I could be out for months, even years.   Time will tell.  I know there are millions of people with far worse physical problems than me (I can still do my day job, after all), and I’m trying, though it goes somewhat against my nature, to look on the bright side.  Maybe those orthotics will one day help me hike the Appalachian Trail, or at least get back to Nationals.  Maybe the extra time away from the game now will buy my prematurely aging knees a few more years before replacement beckons.  The recent retirement from competitive play of my Willows colleague Bob Pallazola, a man not much older than me whom I competed with and against for years, certainly provides additional food for thought.  Bob’s leaving the sport against his will shows that love of the game isn’t always enough to keep even the toughest competitors on the court against that undefeated opponent, Father Time.

I’m afraid that’s something for me to ponder another day, though: right now I’m going to need to sign off.  It’s almost time for Andre Marchais to take on Chelsea.

 

 

 

 

 

Men’s 18s and 40s Districts: Twilight of the ‘Gonks?

The Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics of the 1980s, thrice NBA champions, were the best-passing basketball club I’ve ever seen, but even for them decline eventually came, and with sobering suddenness.  Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills, bridesmaids in four consecutive Super Bowls, and the Atlanta Braves baseball squads featuring the immortal mound triumvirate of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz met the same end.  All eras ultimately pass, no matter how golden, and the aftermath can be painful.   The Celtics went two decades before another Big Three won one additional banner (others may be in the offing, at least once LeBron James retires, if they can swindle the Nets and Sixers out of a few more lottery picks).  The Bills haven’t participated in a postseason game in this century, while the Braves have had more stadiums than playoff appearances in recent years.  Sic transit gloria, someone more scholarly than yours truly might say.

The effects of aging, of course, are most seriously felt in areas of life far beyond the playing fields.  Yet those of us who pursue our games passionately still feel a special kind of sadness when we realize that we are no longer the contenders we once were, not even in our own minds, where our illusions are maintained longest.  Such a realization may have hit more than one member of my Algonquin tennis crew over the past two weekends, as we finished last among five teams in our 18-and-over District competition and then third out of four teams in our 40-and-over District.  Injury-riddled, lacking our normal depth and beset by uncharacteristically inconsistent play, we rolled the competitive dice nonetheless, only to see them come up snake eyes time after time.  And so a group of friends accustomed to earning Sectionals berths, or at the very least contending seriously for them, will this year only experience Springfield as a blip in their collective rearview mirror, receding into the surrounding landscape at warp speed.  Even at 48, it was hard not to feel old.

We opened the 18-and-over competition, which was once again held in Portland, Maine, with limited optimism, as we were down to just eleven available players and many of those were operating at far less than 100 percent.  My lingering foot issue, which any number of days of rest and treatment seemed unable to completely quell, was the least of our injury woes.  Others had it worse: Rob Starace’s case of PF, more serious than my own, limited him to a single match.  Alex Mezibov’s knee had not responded as well as he had hoped to a summer of rest, although he gutted out two matches in more pain than he would ever let on.  Eric Morrow hadn’t hit a ball in four months and Jeff Siegel pulled a calf muscle a few days before the competition began, but both represented in Portland nonetheless.  The list of absences was equally lengthy and in some cases more troubling, particularly that of Adam Lesser, who simply stopped responding to all forms of communication around mid-June.

At Districts we faced a geographical distribution of teams unchanged from 2016: one from Northern Maine, one from Vermont, one from New Hampshire and one from Portland.   The only repeat opponent, however, was Gabe Gordon’s Portland/TMV powerhouse, which once again wore the favorite’s mantle, having added a few new studs to replace those who had been bumped to 4.5.

We opened on Saturday morning against Northern Maine’s Lobstoppers and found them true to their name, as in our 3-2 defeat they stopped us on almost every court by repeatedly lobbing with pinpoint accuracy.  The Lobstoppers featured three players with estimated ratings considerably above 4.00, but we somehow took two of those three down in singles as a risky strategic gamble paid off.   We put Bob Bondaruk against one of Maine’s top high school players at number one, while Aidan took on another ringer who had played mostly doubles during the season at number two.  Aidan soundly defeated his opponent, a lefty who seemed to have more power than consistency, and Bob threw the kid off just enough with his unorthodox game to win in two close sets.  As had happened against TMV last year, though, our doubles pairs couldn’t close the deal.  Jeff and I reprised our old “Twin Towers” team on court 1 against Brian, a lefty with a tricky serve and a heavy topspin forehand, and Nevin, who had an excellent angled return of serve and consistently strong volleys.  Nevin was a great guy who hustled for everything, made some incredible gets, and fist-bumped me on each changeover.  Bryan was an excellent competitor and a good guy, too, if you made allowances for him taking most of the close calls on his side of the net.  This was a winnable match the likes of which Jeff and I have won dozens of times over the years, but we just didn’t get over the hump here and lost 6-4, 6-2.  He may have borne the greater share of the blame by missing a number of easy putaways, but I was by no means faultless, as my footwork was poor and my returns less consistent than usual.  Neal and Rob got absolutely crushed by a young Japanese kid who played closer to 5.0 than to 4.0 (he went on to win all four of his matches and took at least one dynamic set of 6-2 or better in each).  So it came down to Todd and Gary on court 3, and they led by a set and a break, but then Todd’s serve and Gary’s return began to become less accurate and the second set slipped away, 7-5.  The match tiebreak went back and forth, with Algonquin holding a total of three match points, but we squandered them on a netted overhead and two netted returns of serve, and ultimately lost a 14-12 heartbreaker.

We had a few hours to regroup before our next match and we needed all of that time, for we had to both bounce back from a crushing defeat and to prepare for a highly-motivated Concord team.  Todd and Joe Waldvogel, Concord’s captain, don’t get along well, and to highlight the importance he placed on this match Joe used his eight best players (he rested some of them against the Maine teams and defeat predictably followed).   This made our task even more difficult, and given our injury and availability problems we were already fighting an uphill battle.  Bob was good for only one singles match per day, so we had to essentially throw away a winnable court by using Mark Parquette, a gutsy competitor whose singles game is more enthusiastic than it is consistent.  Meanwhile, Aidan fell victim to fatigue and the steady, athletic retrieving of Amir Alic.  Leading late in the second set after winning the first, he began cramping, failed to convert a number of match points and eventually lost the set in a tiebreaker.  His needle was running on empty in the ensuing supertiebreaker, in which he could offer only token resistance.  At third doubles Todd and Neal continued their winning partnership, defeating Mike Long and Jeff Hannum in two close sets in a match most notable for the demolition job Long performed on his racquet after dropping serve in the penultimate game.  Alex and I teamed up on court 2 against Waldvogel and PJ Cistulli in an entertaining matchup of four sometimes volatile personalities with significant, if differing, strengths: Alex’s serve and forehand, my returns and volleys, Joe’s forehand and PJ’s all-around shotmaking.   My foot was starting to get sore and Alex’s knee was bothering him much more than that; we tried to compensate for our inability to switch sides quickly by limiting the number of our poaching calls.  I played much better than I had in the first match, and that was a good thing, since Alex was way off.  In addition to his aching knee he had an arm issue which prevented him from taking his usual service motion and led to an abnormally high number of double faults.  We jumped to an early lead in the first set only to see them pull back even, but we got a critical break of Joe’s serve in the eleventh game and I served out the set from there.  In the second set Concord built a 5-1 lead as Alex’s serve went downhill and they hit a series of return winners to break me.  A number of line call disputes accompanied this momentum shift, the most severe of which came when Alex and I both called a shot wide of my ad-court doubles sideline and PJ protested vehemently.  After a couple of minutes of back-and-forth, I finally told them to call their side of the court and let us call ours, but they did not comply, and for the rest of the match whenever PJ hit a ball long he asked “How far out was that?”  I figured PJ, who’s a good guy off the court, was just trying to get into our heads, but every time that happened Alex started muttering, none too softly, things that don’t bear repeating here, and the end result was a 6-3 win for them.  We gained control of the supertiebreaker about midway through, however, and built a 9-4 lead, aided by Joe’s having pulled a leg muscle chasing a drop volley that I had mishit off my frame.  Alex and I dropped the next three points- shades of Loon Mountain- but finally won the tiebreaker 10-7 when I hit two shots off the line which were thankfully not called “out”, and Joe netted his reply to the second one.  The team match was decided at first doubles, where Algonquin Originals McCallum and Roberts took on Greg Zini, who hits a heavy ball with lots of topspin, and Jason Hall, a flatter hitter with an excellent all-around game.  Hall and Zini came out on fire and ripped through the first set, 6-1, but Chris and Gary hung around, threw in some tactical wrinkles and were able to take the second.  They then led the match tiebreaker 9-7, but for the third time in a twelve-hour span we ended up losing from match point ahead, as a blown poach let the Concord team back in and they made the most of their opportunity.

With two losses we knew we were out of already out of contention, but we still had to play two more matches the next day.  So after a late dinner Jeff, Chris and I repaired to our $125 room at the Motel 6, a room only slightly larger than a cell block and equipped with a similar amount of amenities.  Chris brought a sleeping pad and crashed on the floor, which proved a safe haven except at the moment my cell phone slipped out of my hand and nearly decapitated him.  Hopefully the others were able to ignore my inevitable snoring, although they were too polite to bring that up the next day.  In any event, we needed all the energy we could muster to get by a Vermont team that was much stronger than last year’s edition.   Casting about desperately for singles players, we found Eric Morrow willing to make the trip north, and Eric gave a recent high school graduate all he could handle before losing in two close sets.  We won the second and third doubles matches in much the same fashion, as Todd teamed with Aidan for one win while Chris and Mark overcame the dubious calls of a man with a horrific toupee for another (bald man’s wisdom: never trust the line calls of anyone wearing a rug!).  Neal gave us our match-clinching third point, beating a quick, tenacious opponent who will not be rated 3.5 for much longer in two drawn-out sets.  That took some of the sting away for poor Gary, who for the third consecutive match failed to convert a series of match points in a supertiebreaker and ended up losing, along with Siegel, to a steady, finesse-oriented slicer with great hands and a hard-hitting kid in his early 20s.

In our last match we had a chance to play spoiler against Portland, which was well ahead on individual wins but had lost 3-2 to the Lobstoppers and so could not afford another team defeat  (Lobstoppers had lost to Vermont by the same score or they would have been in the driver’s seat).   While eliminating Portland would have been gratifying, that didn’t seem likely to happen, so we decided to keep Aidan out of the singles, where a win against one of their highly-rated players would have put him at greater risk of being bumped.   Tough as it may be on your pride, in USTA tennis sometimes it’s better to come back and fight another day- or another year.  We ended up losing all five courts, and only Alex and I even managed to take a set.  We got the opener, 6-4, against Alan, a veteran with excellent hands and a consistent return, and Tyler, who played for Wheaton (MA) College and featured an explosive forehand and good doubles instincts.   In the second set they started hitting me the ball more often and it got ugly fast.  My volley was working great but I neither served nor returned well, and although Alex played much better than in our previous match his movement was still far below its normal level.  Our opponents deservedly took the second set 6-2 and then the supertiebreaker by a wide margin behind a series of great shots.   At least we had the consolation of playing some good doubles, and Eric and Gary could feel similarly, although they lost 7-5, 7-5 to Rob Drouin, who had found another team to play for after Hampton’s elimination, and Trevor Thaxter, a strong net player with lots of doubles savvy.  If I had just taken four months off, I wouldn’t have lasted half an hour against those two, but in that situation Eric played extremely well, and Gary at least had the consolation of losing in a less heartbreaking fashion.  About our other courts the less said the better: anyone who  wants to know the gory details can look them up on TennisLink.  I hate to say it, but I’m glad Portland got through to Sectionals if we couldn’t.   They were clearly the best team, and you could at least make a case that most of their guys were true 4.0s, a statement which absolutely did not apply to the Lobstoppers’ Japanese ringer.  I don’t know which hurt more at the end of the weekend, my foot or my ego, but the reality is we weren’t on Portland’s level, and while we might have reversed both of our Saturday defeats with just a smidgen of luck, the same can’t be said of our TMV beatdown.  Maybe in the near future the Districts will be reconfigured to include a different combination of states, as happens every so often, and that would seem to offer us a better chance at making Sectionals.  But in 2017 the 800-lb gorilla that is Portland sat on all of us again.

About half of our 18s team members also play on the 40s team, and there wasn’t much time for us to lick our wounds, as the latter competition held its Districts the following weekend in Eastern MA.  Once again we hurt ourselves by not bringing a full squad, as only ten of our seventeen qualified players made themselves available.  We were placed in a four-team flight with two teams from EMA, Wellesley and Nashua (although a New Hampshire city, Nashua sits on the Massachusetts border and for scheduling reasons has chosen to compete in that league), along with Wilton United of Southern Connecticut.

Wellesley looked to be a tough opening match, as they had dominated their local competition, finishing well ahead of the Westborough team that had thumped us at Districts a year ago.  On Saturday night our fears proved to be well-founded.  If the good people of Woburn, MA, ever lose interest in playing tennis, their club could easily be repurposed into a sauna, for even on a cool late-summer evening the atmosphere on the courts was absolutely sweltering.  Even hotter were the racquets of our opponents from Wellesley, who swept through us with the loss of just a single set.  Both Rick DePasquale and Dave Caza played their singles opponents tough from beginning to end but ended up losing two close sets. John Duckless and Mark Parquette stacked themselves at number one doubles, but Wellesley did something similar with their lineup, and so we were able to lead for awhile before narrowly losing the match tiebreaker.  At number three Todd tweaked his back in the warmup, but even at his best he and Neal would have been hard-pressed to get by Wellesley’s left-handed ringer and his 6’4″ partner.  As it was, they fought to the end but got only three games for their trouble.  Adam Hirshan and I got five- four of them in the opening set- against Alan, a big man with a bigger serve, and Todd, whose forehand would not have been out of place in a 5.0 league.  My first serve of the match set the tone: I kicked it nearly over Todd’s head and he responded by crushing a crosscourt forehand winner at approximately 100 mph.  Out of necessity we tried a number of different formations on both our service and return games, and those enabled us to play our opponents more or less evenly to 4-4, but then they found another gear that we didn’t possess, and it was over pretty quickly from there.

There’s nothing worse in USTA postseason play than getting shut out in your opening match, because from that position your chances of advancement are virtually nil.  But we still didn’t want to come in last two weeks running, and our match against Nashua early the next morning in Winchester seemed to offer us the best chance of escaping that fate.  Nashua had finished second in its local league, quite a distance behind the first- place team, and only gained admission to the Districts when another team withdrew at the last minute.   While few of their players were familiar to me, a friend who lives in that area said that their team was very beatable, if a little suspect on line calls.  The first part of his assessment proved to be true, and the second, whether true or not- it wasn’t in my match- played no role in any of the results.  Nashua did make it competitive, taking both singles in straight sets behind Indian players in their 40s.  They didn’t bring the same level of firepower to the doubles courts, though, and we were able to win all three of those matches.  I played number two with Neal against Paul, an old friend with lefthanded groundstrokes and a righthanded serve who plays at a number of NH clubs, and Ram, who was deceptively quick and hit a steady and powerful crosscourt forehand.  They looked like they didn’t play together often and we made quick work of them, as Neal tore the cover off the ball and I missed very little at the net.   John teamed with his good buddy Jim Prieto for a comfortable win on court one, but third doubles was closer, as Adam and Gary dropped the first set 6-1 against a team that relied heavily on lob returns.   Our guys finally decided to give the server responsibility for covering all the lobs, and that enabled them to turn the tables on Nashua and eventually win a moderately close supertiebreaker.  I asked Gary if he had been nervous when they reached match point, and he did not seem amused, but the end result gave our team its highlight of the weekend.

Highlights were few and far between in our finale later that day against the Southern CT team that ended up winning our flight.  Neal had one of them, taking the first set off a Hispanic player who had appeared unbeatable in earlier matches, but then he tweaked his knee and wasn’t the same after that.  Caz once again battled a solid player more or less evenly only to lose in straights.  Rick and Jimmy won seven games, Gary and I six, and John and Mark significantly fewer.  On my court we battled to the end against Garrett, a powerful, athletic player with a huge serve who is rated well above 4.00 on TennisRecord, and his partner Nick, who was quick, hard-hitting and aggressive.  Neither of them was super-consistent but they ended up hitting us off the court just often enough to win 6-3, 6-3.  It was a shame because I actually served well, with good spin and location, and ended up holding every time without facing any break points.  Unfortunately I didn’t poach enough to help Gary hold consistently, and he struggled with his return.  Switching sides after the first set helped us a little, as returning from the ad court opened up more angles for Gary’s backhand and he at least put a few more balls in play, but Garrett served himself out of 0-40 holes in both the first and second sets and that was all she wrote for the 2016-2017 campaign.

My foot may not have been 100 percent, but by the 40s competition it had vastly improved, and I honestly can’t think of any matches that second weekend, or even any important points, where it hindered me significantly.   I lost the matches I lost because my opponents were just better.  There was nothing unique in my situation.  Too many of my teammates lost the matches they lost because their opponents were just better.   After our dismal showings of the past two weeks, the question is whether we of Algonquin have now jumped the shark and are heading into regional irrelevance, or if by dint of greater effort and improved play we can once again contend.  I know what I’d like to believe, and although the reality may be otherwise, what choice do we truly have but to make the effort? Guys like Rob, Alex and me not only have to keep working on our games but also go to the gym more, as unpleasant as we might find that, so that maybe we’ll finally stop getting hurt.  We all need to be in the best shape we can be, for the days of winning at 75 or 80 percent health on a regional stage are over.  Some of our other guys, whom I won’t call out by name here, have a different issue: they need to step up their engagement.  Postseason playoffs should be something we all look forward to, and those who only come to those competitions once in a blue moon may want to either change their mindset or yield their places to others with greater commitment.  To call Gonk Nation a spent force on the regional level may well be premature, but as Yogi Berra used to say, “it’s getting late early”.  Let’s hope that with renewed effort we can keep the competitive darkness at bay for a while longer.

Mixed Doubles Playoffs: Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now!

Feet are a tennis player’s foundation.   We can’t hit any shot effectively unless we’re in the right position to do so, and our feet are the engines that get us there.  When we’re moving smoothly, we might begin to take them for granted, although I’ll admit my size 13’s stumble plenty on the best of days.  But if we get even a little bit sloppy about taking care of ourselves, they can make their presence felt most painfully.  You might think that after playing competitive tennis for over 30 years, I would have taken that lesson to heart.  You would be wrong.

My problems began when my trusty Adidas Barricade “Hannibal” tennis shoes, which are nearly as durable as the elephant hide their outsoles resemble, finally wore through in early June after nearly a year of heavy use.  I needed to replace them ASAP, because my USTA mixed doubles playoffs were only a couple of weeks away.  I don’t normally care much about mixed doubles, the numerous downsides of which I’ve already chronicled on several occasions.  But this year Chet Porowski recruited me for the 7.0 and 8.0 teams playing out of his club in Keene (the 7.0 team competed in the 40-and-over category) and both somehow won their respective leagues.  Our 8.0 team was composed exclusively of 4.0 players, yet balance and depth had given us the edge against competition that frequently boasted stronger individual talent.   So an upstart group that just two seasons ago had been winless in local league play was headed to Districts to take on the established New England powerhouses.  There may not have been a bigger Cinderella story since the last Caddyshack movie.

For the proverbial glass slipper to stay on our collective feet, however, I would need to find something to put on MY feet.  And despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find the Hannibals anywhere online: in a tactic used by many companies, Adidas had stopped selling them so that their newer models could gain, well, traction, in a competitive marketplace (I later found out that you can still get them on Amazon, along with just about everything else).   So I ordered a newer Barricade model that to my untrained eye appeared similar to the Hannibals, except that the ersatz elephant hide on the outsoles had been replaced by a series of scribbly lines worthy of an abstract expressionist painting.  I wore them for a couple of days before the Districts took place in Beverly, MA, and considered myself adequately prepared.  That would prove to be yet another mistaken assumption.

My feet are probably flat enough to keep me out of most military services: the foot mapping machine in my local Rite-Aid regularly prescribes me an orthotic lift nearly the height of a soapbox.  That means I can’t wear just any shoe and play my best.  And after two long matches- both of which my partner and I won in supertiebreakers- on the first day of Districts, I was ready to classify my new kicks as “just any shoe”, abstract expressionist vibe or no, because my feet hurt like hell.  I was angry at myself because I had stashed an old pair of tennis sneakers that I had previously played in without incident in my racquet bag as a precaution.   I became so engrossed in my matches, however, that I didn’t notice the pain in my feet until I had reached a point where switching shoes wouldn’t have made any difference.   But my team won both its matches, 2-1 and 3-0, meaning we only needed to pick up one court in our finale against Woburn, MA the next day to clinch a spot at Sectionals.  So I sucked it up and played a relatively clean match against a strong team which came down to yet another supertiebreaker.  This time my luck ran out and I lost, 10-8, but our third doubles team of Chris and Anna Fox won their match and punched our ticket to Springfield.

I was traveling for much of the two weeks between Districts and Sectionals and only practiced once during that time.  In fact, I tried to keep off my feet altogether as much as possible, but still I stupidly wore the ill-fitting shoes during my daily routine, so healing was slow.  The pain eventually began to concentrate in my left heel, but while its location had narrowed its intensity did not diminish.  Finally my friend Kathy, who had dealt with similar problems years ago, announced that I probably had plantar fasciitis.  I looked that up for myself and the symptoms matched, which actually made me feel better, for it meant I could start treating my foot in ways beyond simply resting.  After dealing with this condition for several weeks, I’ve found a few treatments to be most effective, and I wanted to share them here in case some combination of them can help a similarly afflicted reader.  Please bear in mind that I’m not a doctor and what has worked for me may or may not work for you (that’s a nice way of saying that you use any of the advice below at your own risk).

  • Get shoes that fit and that offer you enough support.  If your feet are in the normal range, you can probably wear just about anything.  If they’re as flat as mine, you’ll have to look a lot more carefully, but I’ve learned that K-Swiss models are generally terrific for low-arched players, and of course the Hannibals have been wonderful for me.  I’m actually planning to stockpile a bunch of them in preparation for the next time I need new kicks, kind of like Jimmy Connors buying all of the old Wilson T-2000 racquets he could get his hands on back in the day.

  • Use orthotic inserts if necessary.  You can get custom-fit orthotics at your podiatrist’s office, but those aren’t cheap and except in rare cases you’ll fare about as well by having your feet mapped on one of those machines now available at most pharmacies and then buying the orthotic that it prescribes.  Heel cups, which have sort of a padded horseshoe design, are another variation: they are the cheapest and least customized of these options.

  • As you might guess from their name, AirHeels are like AirCasts for your heel.  You tie them to your lower leg as you would an AirCast, but the air unit is positioned underneath your heel where your arch strikes the shoe.  Unless you have a really bad case of PF, you’ll probably only want to wear them when you’re exercising.

  • Night splints come in a variety of shapes and brands, but basically they’re like casts in that they immobilize your foot while you’re sleeping and thereby keep your arch from inadvertently flexing into a painful position.  Some find them uncomfortable, others find them unnecessary.  My take is this: if something can help you heal while you’re sleeping, with zero effort on your part, why not give it a shot?

  • Taking anti-inflammatories after you play or otherwise work out is important.  From my experience Aleve has been somewhat more effective against PF than Advil, but be careful to take it with food if you value your stomach lining.

  • Ice your heel after working out as you would other injured body parts.  Kathy suggested freezing a water bottle and putting it under my foot.  That allows you to roll your foot around and break down the scar tissue of the more severely injured areas at the same time the ice is reducing the swelling.  You can also roll your foot without ice using a golf ball or a similar-sized ball that has a hard and somewhat uneven surface.

  • All the temporary remedies I’ve listed are only that- temporary- so you also need to rebuild strength in your hee.  Rather than trying to decipher my labored descriptions of them, just Google “Plantar Fasciitis stretches” and you’ll find a handful that are simple, effective and require no equipment beyond a towel.  You can also press your big toe down and lift the rest of your body up so that you’re essentially standing on your big toe.  It may sound weird, but do enough reps and it really will strengthen your arches.

All well and good, you say, but how did Sectionals go?  Well, as is often the case, not quite as well as Districts.  Blessed with strong partners and opponents generally disinclined to lob, I managed to win two of my three 8.0 matches, though my feet felt no better.  My team won one of three and failed to advance out of the group stage; the winner of our flight and eventual New England runners-up, Weymouth (MA), had a number of seriously underrated players, but that’s par for the course at this level.  I took no part beyond cheering from the gallery at the 7.0 Sectionals, thanks to a flaky partner who begged off at the last minute with a series of flimsy excuses (with the short NH season we had been able to qualify only one 3.0 woman for me to play with).  Our top two teams were competitive and I think my partner and I would have been equally competitive on court three, but as it was we ended up losing two of three matches and were once again eliminated in the round-robin phase while Weymouth finished as New England champions.   Mixed or no, both teams had excellent chemistry and I really enjoyed the experience, though I drew two sobering lessons from District and Sectional play beyond “watch what you put on your feet”.  They were: (1) When you face a team with one player ranked a full point ahead of his/her partner (a 4.5 and 3.5 in 8.0 play, for example), the lower-rated player is almost always a ringer.  You rarely see a 4.5 whose true level is anything beyond a low-end 5.0, but the number of so-called 3.0 and 3.5 players who could be competitive on small-college tennis teams is staggering.  It’s a joke no one outside of Weymouth is laughing at. (2) The lines get called even tighter than during the regular season, and 80 percent of the time the woman is the one doing the hooking (the true percentage may actually be higher than that, but I don’t want to be called sexist, plus I have to account for the Joe Waldvogels of the world somewhere).   When the roving line judges are on your court, people’s calls suddenly revert to what they should be, but this isn’t the US Open, so the linesman sees no more than perhaps 15 percent of any match.   To be completely honest, some of the people I play with are just as bad as our opponents, and that can get uncomfortable too.  Unless I had a great view of the ball and was 100 percent certain, I rarely reversed a partner’s call, instead telling myself that things would even out since our opponents were probably cheating just as badly- and they almost always were.  Maybe that was the right reaction and maybe it wasn’t.  I think everybody deals with those situations in their own way, but one thing is certain: for better or worse, they’re as much a part of competitive mixed doubles as turning the score cards on a changeover.

Anyway, as the summer went on my feet made slow but steady progress and I was able to compete in two men’s District competitions in August, the details of which will follow in a future post.  I would have saved myself a lot of agony, though, if I had paid more attention to what I was wearing, or just had replacement shoes ready that I trusted.  Trust me: playing even one day with footwear that doesn’t suit you can have far-reaching consequences.  Remember that, and hopefully you’ll be able to avoid walking in my footsteps!

 

 

 

 

Ie

 

I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18-plus Matches 4-8: Slouching Towards Portland

Spring is my busiest time of year, and that inevitably takes a toll on my ability to post regular match updates.  As a result, I’m condensing the last five matches of the year into this one entry, though I’ll do my best to keep it from being even more long-winded than usual.  I will say this up front: after one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory, the battle for first place in our division- and the coveted berth at Districts that accompanied it- ultimately came down to the last court of our final match.  It doesn’t get any closer than that.

Let’s begin on March 4, though, with my Algonquin team traveling to the YMCA for a showdown that would determine first place at the midway point of the season.  After three matches we each had ten individual wins while Hampton, which had played the most difficult schedule to that point, had seven.  With a number of our guys missing due to the school vacation week, I was teamed with Chris McCallum at number one doubles.  Any faithful reader of this space knows that while Chris and I are good friends, we make a lousy doubles team.  So playing us at number one was something of a risk, but the consensus was that we were still the strongest of our three available teams.  And with YMCA’s singles firepower we felt we had to play our doubles in order of strength because we might well need to win all three.  That assessment seemed to hold true early in our match, as Chris and I saw Aidan’s aggressive game being picked apart by his onetime teaching pro Chris Rheault on the court next to ours.  We had plenty to deal with ourselves, though, against the team of Keith Eichmann, an aggressive net rusher whom I had beaten in a close match at Loon, and John Weeks, a steady player who lobbed well and got almost all of his first serves in.   The match had the potential to be volatile: Keith is an intense guy, although he directs most of that intensity at himself, and Weeks can be combative on line calls.  Chris and I, of course, get pretty worked up in our own right.  On this particular day, my Aussie pal struggled to return serve and just didn’t seem comfortable.  The Y can be a tough place to play, with kids constantly yelling and running right behind the back curtain on their way to the adjacent pool, and perhaps because he was already playing poorly that seemed to bother Chris more than usual.   In any event, our opponents played sounder, more consistent tennis than we did and deservedly took the first set 6-4.  We hadn’t yet come close to breaking them, so we faced a moment of truth midway through the second sent when we went down a number of break points on my serve.  I was serving pretty well, though, and the slowness of the ball (which threw off their timing) plus some decent kick led to them missing enough returns that we were eventually able to hold.  That kept us alive, but our returns failed to get any better, so the set went with serve until we led 5-4.  Then, out of nowhere, a great hustling get from Chris and a rare unforced error on an easy ball by our opponents gave us the set.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned about the supertiebreaker: it’s a great equalizer.  You might be outplayed almost the entire match, as we had been, but if you can eke out the second set then all of a sudden you have the momentum.  And when that happens, with the ten-point format there isn’t always enough time for your opponents to get it back.  That’s what happened here.  Well, that and the fact that I don’t think I missed a ball.  Low returns, quick volleys, overheads: I had it going and Chris saw that and managed his own game to avoid errors and let me win the points.  Before I woke up, we had won ten of them and stolen a match that we really didn’t deserve.  Even so, we weren’t about to give it back.

The team match was decided at third doubles after YMCA’s Jeff Giampa took Siegel apart at second singles, while Alex and Todd coasted at second doubles.  The last match to finish pitted Brian and Dan Horan against Jeff Hastings and Eric Murray, two excellent athletes relatively new to tennis who had recently qualified for Tri-Level Nationals at 3.5, though both are now rated 4.0.  There were no breaks of serve for most of the match but Brian and Dan were able to squeak out the first set in a tiebreaker.  With the allotted time winding down, though, they dropped serve late in the second set to go down 5-6.  The bell rang before the next game had finished, so the teams played out that game with a sudden-victory point, Hastings serving.  Win it and we win the match right then and there.  Lose it and we lose the set and then immediately play another sudden-victory point for the match.  It’s as pressure-filled a situation as you can have in league tennis, and on this occasion Hastings’s big serve let him down: he went for an ace with his first ball but missed, then double-faulted the match away.   As my good friend Chet Porowski always says, “They don’t ask how, they ask how many.”  In this case, the how may have been ugly but the how many- three- put our team in first place, and we were certainly grateful for that.

We still had only a one-court advantage over both of our divisional rivals, though, as Hampton had swept the other Algonquin team: our club mates picked a bad time to use Zack in doubles with his father, who’s a great guy but a mid-range 3.5 player at best.  So we needed a good result in our next match against Hampshire Hills.  We had the good fortune to play them at home, thereby avoiding their slick courts and also posing a Sunday conflict to an opposing team that often does not travel well (mixed doubles matches in New Hampshire are also played on Sundays, while most men’s matches, except those played at Algonquin, take place on Saturdays).  With that in mind, HH captain Walter Meltzler tried to reschedule our match, pleading an insufficient number of players.  Unlike most captains, though, Todd didn’t give in- he never asks for a reschedule and is equally loath to grant one to an opponent. Walter ended up bringing a couple of new players on board for the match and we swept them.  The only top guy who came was Mike Auger, and a red-hot Eric had Mike swearing even more quickly than usual en route to a 6-3, 6-1 win.  We also took the other matches in straight sets- only one of those sets was closer than 6-3- behind Aidan in singles and Todd/Neal, Gary/Bruce and Adam/Mark in doubles.  As it turned out, we needed all of those points because Hampton,  which had emerged as our most serious threat, drubbed YMCA 4-1.  So with three matches remaining we led the Barn by two courts and the Y by five, but nothing was settled: we would still have to play both of them a second time after traveling to Concord, the leader of the other flight.

As a high school tennis coach, the last thing I was hoping for was an April Fool’s Day snowstorm.   But though the weather was less than ideal, our match with Concord went on as scheduled and we were able to come through by the narrowest of margins.  I went to the match as a fan: on a team as deep as ours, I’ve accepted that I’m not always going to be in the lineup whether that’s due to injuries, poor play or just the need to get everyone on our roster the two matches they need to be eligible for the postseason.  I had plenty to cheer about early on as we took both of the singles.  Aidan rallied from 0-4 down to win the first set against steady, super-athletic Amir Alic, and after dropping the second he played extremely well in the supertiebreaker to come out on top.  Lesser, meanwhile, had beaten Jeff Hannum in two close sets.  Even if Adam hasn’t been at the top of his game lately, he had had success against Jeff for a number of years before Jeff moved away, and those positive memories may have worked in his favor here.  With a 2-0 lead and three solid doubles teams taking the court, we had a chance to put up a big number and solidify our hold on first place, but to Concord’s credit they clawed back.  First they took number one doubles as PJ Cistulli and Jason Hall beat McCallum and Siegel 6-4, 6-4.  Hall has great strokes even though he doesn’t play a lot, and PJ was a 4.5 for several years, but this was still a match we could have won.  Siegel came off the court bemoaning his own poor play and from what I saw, his assessment was justified.  But the reality is we wouldn’t be 4.0 players if we didn’t have our good and bad days, and Jeff is great at bouncing back quickly from the latter.

The other two doubles matches were close and each team ended up taking one of them.  Gary and Bruce lost second doubles in a 10-8 supertiebreaker: they hit a poor stretch at the wrong time against the big forehands of Joe Waldvogel and Greg Zini, and just weren’t able to come all the way back.  At third doubles Eric Morrow and Mark Parquette faced a difficult matchup against Mike Long, a superb volleyer, and Michael Constantin, a hard-hitting 3.5 lefty who has improved significantly over the past couple of years and is now competitive on the lower courts at 4.0.  Those two made for a dynamic court 3 team, especially on the fast courts of their home club, but our guys were up to the challenge.  Though Eric is best known for his strong baseline game and Mark for his aggressive presence at the net, it was a couple of well-timed lobs that won them a close first-set tiebreaker, and they ran out the second set 6-3 after Constantin’s serve deserted him in the later stages.

All five individual matches had been close and well-played, and although we could have done even better there was no reason to be upset about taking three of them, especially since Hampton lost two courts at Hampshire Hills and thus failed to make up any ground.  The YMCA, meanwhile, lost 3-2 at Mountainside to fall six individual wins behind, and with just two matches remaining seemed consigned to the role of spoiler.  Their team may have lost heart as a result, for when they came to Algonquin at the beginning of the April school vacation week they did not bring one of their strongest lineups.  Aidan Connor was our MVP in this match: not only did he reverse his earlier blowout loss to Chris Rheault, he did it after trailing 0-5 in the first set!  Aidan’s 7-5, 6-4 win was his best to date and should serve notice that he can play with any 4.0 in the state; even though Chris aggravated a minor injury late in the first set and wasn’t quite the same afterwards, it was still a gutsy comeback on Aidan’s part.  That win took some of the sting out of a disappointing second singles match where Eric just didn’t compete, which is usually his strength, and got only two games from Chris Ramsay, a solid all-around player who has spent some time at 4.5.   Jeff and Neal won comfortably against mid-range opponents, as did Gary and Adam Hirshan, but Todd and I had to fight much harder on court 3 against Dave Brown, a consistent and savvy teaching pro, and Don Redington, who hits his forehand extremely hard.  On this day Don’s extremely hard forehand was going in and Todd’s extremely hard serve was not, as he ended up with close to twenty double faults.  I was holding serve but not playing especially well otherwise, and our opponents seemed to sense that we were having an off day and raised their own level in a bid for the upset.   The first set went to a tiebreaker, and there we faced a set point at 5-6.  I ended up at the net on the deuce side and one of our opponents hit a big close-range forehand past me and somewhere around the outer edge of my alley.  The ball was by me before I could turn my head and I probably would have had to give up the point, but Todd said he saw the ball clearly out and made his call accordingly.  A couple of fans later said that it was the right call, but at the time I wasn’t sure, and I know I don’t like it when the opponent most distant from the ball takes a close call against me. To our opponents’ credit, they didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it proved to be a turning point nonetheless, as we ended up winning the ‘breaker 8-6.   Taking the first set would have been huge for Dave and Don, as it would have given them, at worst, a puncher’s chance in a supertiebreaker on a day when Todd and I weren’t playing with much confidence.  Sadly, even after getting a huge stroke of luck we didn’t have enough consistency to keep Uncle Mo in our corner, and the second set followed much the same pattern as the first: we got an occasional break and then Todd double-faulted it back to them.   At 5-5 we broke them once more and this time Todd served the match out strongly, showing that even on his worst day he’s a confident competitor who will never stop fighting.

After our narrow escape at third doubles, the Algonquin team breathed a huge sigh of relief: taking four points rather than three meant we would only need to win two courts in our regular-season finale at Hampton to secure first place. Even winning two courts, though, wouldn’t be easy.  Hampton was better than we were in singles and had become at least our equal in doubles by adding a number of strong Eastern Mass. players as the season progressed.   In fact, they would have been ahead of us in the standings already except that Playford and Sunny Ahn had both gone to the wrong club- Great Bay instead of Hampton- for a match against Mountainside, forcing David O’Connor to default two courts that they would almost certainly have won based on the matchups (Richard King, of whom no less would be expected, did not allow Hampton to change its lineup to team Bryan’s partner with Sunny’s and thereby default only one court).  With so much at stake in this match, we spent a long time deciding on our lineup but eventually opted to go for a split of the singles with Lesser at 1 and Aidan at 2, figuring that Hampton’s Andy Montgomery was untouchable at 1.   Adam had played Andy pretty closely during the season, but there was some question whether Andy had deliberately kept the score down, as his TLS rating was hovering above 4.10 at the time (a 4.00 at season’s end makes you a 4.5).  Whatever may have happened in their earlier meeting, Andy’s season was now on the line and he couldn’t afford to worry about the score, so he went out and waxed Lesser 6-0, 6-3.   Aidan got us a split of the singles by taking Posternak apart almost as easily, overwhelming Barry with his attacking style in a 6-1, 6-3 win.   Playford later said that they expected us to put Aidan at 2 but that Barry insisted on playing against him.  Barry’s a confident guy and a very good singles player, but in this case discretion might have been the better part of valor.  Aidan has improved to the point where he’s a legitimate number one player, and he just had too much firepower for Barry to handle.

We now had one point and needed just one more from our doubles teams.  Normally we feel like we can get one point in doubles against anybody (Portland being a notable exception).   But we knew that point wouldn’t come easily with a Districts berth on the line.  As we expected, they put Sunny Ahn and Rob Drouin at 1 and Bryan with Ron Konopka at 2.  Nobody knew who they would put at three, but O’Connor chose Dan Witham, the two-handed player, and Eric Russell, a savvy veteran who usually plays out of Newburyport.   We decided to put Bob and me at number 1, Jeff and Neal at 2 and Gary and Adam Hirshan at 3.  I enjoy practicing and talking tennis with Bob, but he and I don’t make a great team.  However, neither Sunny nor Rob had seen his unorthodox game and we thought that might work in our favor.  Maybe it would have on a normal day, but our problem was that Rob could do no wrong.  He always hits a lot of winners, but this time he didn’t balance them out with unforced errors.   Sunny is extremely consistent from the back of the court with hard, flat groundstrokes, and Bob was reluctant to change up our serving formations to give him a different look.   I volleyed well but my serves and returns weren’t all that sharp.  Bob swooped around the court as crazily as ever but to very little effect, as he uncharacteristically missed a number of easy putaways.  The result, quite honestly, was they grabbed us by the balls early in the match and didn’t let go until they were up 6-2, 5-1.  At that point we ran off three games in a row, but then Rob bombed us into submission with a few more big shots to serve it out.  2 and 4 may look respectable, but it really wasn’t that close, and while I was disappointed, there wasn’t much doubt we had lost to a better team on the day.

After our dismal showing, Bob and I could only hope one of our remaining two teams would come through in the clutch and bail us out.  But Jeff and Neal did little better, losing 2 and 5 as they had trouble volleying Playford’s heavy groundstrokes, while Ron Konopka’s level was the best that Jeff- who has played mixed doubles with and against him for several years- had ever seen.  That meant our season would come down to third doubles.   Although there was no shortage of court space, that match had started well after the other two (one of the players involved hadn’t arrived until the scheduled time, while the quick finishes to the singles matches allowed the other two doubles to go on early), so everyone was watching it from late in the first set on.  We still felt pretty good.  Gary had gotten in better shape, and with his talent he can usually dominate a third doubles court, while the calm and cerebral Adam is a great guy to have representing you in a pressure situation.   I don’t think either Gary or Adam would say that the return of serve is his strong point, but in this match they quickly realized that their opponents’ serves weren’t going to put them on the defensive.  This allowed them to get up to net on a regular basis, where Adam’s consistent volley placement and Gary’s imaginatively angled touch shots proved to be too much for Witham and Russell in a 6-2, 6-3 Algonquin win.  It had come down to the last court of the last match against a great team, but we would be going back to Portland after all.   Another guy who told more than his share of long stories might have said it best: “All’s well that ends well.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18-plus Matches 1-3: Tiptoeing Through the Danger Zone

Hope springs eternal in USTA league tennis, even in the middle of a New England winter.  Especially in the middle of a New England winter, in fact, for January marks the traditional beginning of New Hampshire’s 18-and-over team competition.  Your team, like mine, might have been one win away from Sectionals the previous summer before falling in humbling fashion at the final hurdle.  Or it might have been winless in local league play.  It really doesn’t matter.  Even though they won’t be able to see bare ground for another two months,  New Hampshire’s avid USTA players enter a springtime of the mind on the day the new season begins.  It’s a place filled with hope: hope that your new service motion will hold up under pressure, that your new racquet will give you that little bit of extra pop, that your new off-the-radar singles stud will lead your team past a talented rival squad for the first time in years, or simply that you’ll make some new friends and learn a little bit about yourself in the process.

For some, that hopeful feeling evaporates all too quickly once match play begins, but my Algonquin men’s team had reason to believe that wouldn’t be the case this year.  Although our top two singles players from 2016, Justin Toler and Aaron Diamond, had been bumped to 4.5, we remained amply provisioned for another playoff run.  Christmas had, in fact, come a few weeks early for us, as not only did the rest of our squad stay at 4.0 upon the release of the year-end ratings in early December, but two longtime mainstays of our teams, Chris McCallum and Jeff Siegel, rejoined our group after being bumped down from 4.5.  Bob Bondaruk, an unorthodox but effective player from the Nashua area, also came down after a couple of years of (not) trying, while Alex Mezibov defected from Concord after being frustrated by their failure to field a team at last summer’s Districts.  Rob Starace was healthy again, and Aidan Connor, Justin’s heir apparent as Concord High’s number one singles player, gave us an infusion of youth.  To that we added our traditional cast of characters: Todd Toler, Bruce Leibig, Neal Burns, Adam Hirshan, Mark Parquette, Adam Lesser, Gary Roberts, Eric Morrow, yours truly and the father-son duo of Brian and Dan Horan.  Although we didn’t have the two near-guaranteed singles points of 2016, we were undoubtedly deeper this year, and we had been plenty deep before.

We would need every bit of that depth, however, as the New Hampshire 4.0 landscape  was now more treacherous than it had been in some time.  Three of the previous year’s ten teams (Executive, Seacoast and River Valley) had folded, taking two of the four Districts berths with them, since in USTA play a flight must contain at least five teams in order to yield two postseason qualifiers.  NH was thereby reduced to a single qualifier from a grouping of three teams (my Algonquin team, YMCA and Hampton) and another from a grouping of four teams (Mountainside, Concord, Hampshire Hills and the other Algonquin entry).  We were scheduled to play each team from our grouping twice and each team from the other grouping once, for a total of eight matches, while the teams in the larger grouping would play a total of nine.  Although we would only have to finish ahead of two other teams, both were of Districts caliber.  Hampton had played in Portland last summer and now boasted the best 1-2 singles punch in the league in Andy Montgomery and Barry Posternak, while the addition of Newburyport’s Sunny Ahn and old “friend” Bryan Playford gave them doubles depth that rivaled our own .  With that level of talent, we could only hope Bryan’s usual chemistry-wrecking tendencies took effect sooner rather than later.   And while the YMCA had lost John Smith to a year-end bump, they kept Jeff Giampa and added Chris Ramsay, formerly of Executive, and Chris Rheault, formerly of the University of Southern California men’s team (sounds like a 4.0 player, huh?).  While we weren’t directly competing in the standings with the four teams in the other grouping, we would have to play against them too, and they had all improved significantly in their own right.  Mountainside had to be the odds-on favorite: no one from their 2016 team got bumped (not even Glenn McCune, he of the 4.15 TLS rating), and Richard King added three excellent singles players in year-end bump-downs Mark Herbert and Tony Cortese and former college player Matt Salter.  Concord had lost Alex Mezibov to our team but picked up former Algonquin players PJ Cistulli, who had just been bumped down, and Jeff Hannum, who had returned to the area after working elsewhere for a couple of years.  Hampshire Hills, meanwhile, added Dave Foster and Don Sargent, a couple of longtime 4.0-4.5 yo-yo guys who had just come back down.  Sargent’s son Alex, an early-thirties banger, came on board along with his dad, while Ben Lambert, who won several 4.5 matches last season, returned as a near-lock singles player.  Even the other Algonquin team added a couple of solid doubles players in Mark Hamilton and Rick DePasquale, both formerly of Executive, and a singles ringer in super-steady lefty  Zack Gould, considered by many to be the best high school player in the state.  Clearly, the days of getting a few easy regular-season wins were over.  We were going to have to be sharp from Day 1.

Knowing that was one thing, but making it happen was something else entirely.   We found out the difference the hard way when we hosted Hampton in our season opener on a Sunday afternoon in late January and fell behind 2-0 after barely an hour of play.  Adam Lesser, who had only taken two games in his last matchup against Andy Montgomery, was much more competitive this time and even led 5-4 in the second set. But Andy used his athletic, all-court style to pull out a well-played 6-3, 7-5 win.  First doubles was less well-played, at least from our standpoint.  What promised on paper to be a competitive match quickly turned in favor of our opponents as Sunny Ahn and Rob Drouin used powerful forehands and an aggressive style to hand Jeff and Todd a 6-2, 6-4 defeat.  Todd struggled to stay in points from the baseline while Jeff missed an unusually high number of his patented lobs against a team whose pace and spin made lobbing a challenge.  With the league standings determined by individual wins rather than team wins,  we absolutely couldn’t afford a blowout loss in our opening match, and that was now a distinct possibility.  But the next two matchups favored us and we were able to win them both decisively.  Aidan Connor made his adult tennis debut a successful one with a straight-sets win over the dangerous but somewhat erratic Dan Witham, who hits all of his groundstrokes with two hands.  Meanwhile, Neal and Rob, who had played exceptionally well together last season before Rob injured his knee, picked up where they left off, using powerful groundstrokes and strong net play to decisively beat a Hampton pair that didn’t seem to have enough firepower to really hurt them.

Getting three points from a match as opposed to two isn’t a huge difference, but nevertheless we wanted the team win and a one-court advantage against what was likely our toughest group rival, and it was up to Alex and me at third doubles to try to bring it home.  The matchup wasn’t an easy one, as we were pitted against Frank Campolo and Vin Corson, who had battled Parquette and I to a near-standstill in 40s play before falling 6-4 6-4 on a day when I had the good fortune to serve atypically well.  Right from the start, though, Alex’s power and shotmaking skill dictated play and took the sting out of Frank’s big forehand.  I had not returned well in my previous match against these guys, so I made it a point of emphasis to really lean in and drive the returns, and as a result we were able to threaten most of their service games.  Frank later said that he had played four or five days in a row and was tired; whatever the cause, his serve didn’t seem as heavy this time and we were able to take advantage, breaking them twice in the first set and four times in the second en route to a 6-3, 6-1 win.  It wasn’t a perfect match: my serve was far less accurate than it had been in the earlier matchup and I was broken in two of my three service games.  But Alex’s power groundstrokes, heavy serves and touch volleys mixed with my strong returns and good hands at the net proved to be a very effective combination, and we got an important team win.

We went from one districts-caliber opponent to another when we visited our perennial rivals from Mountainside in our next match.  The 90-minute drive gave me plenty of time to ponder the sobering fact that I had not won a USTA match there since the Bush administration.   I hoped that teaming up with Alex once again, this time at number two doubles, would be a way to change that.  But before we even took the court, trouble found me once again, as it always seems to at Mountainside.  The first two matches to be played were #2 singles and #1 doubles.   Aidan handled Tony Cortese, a steady grinder who had played a few years at 4.5 until recently coming back down, with surprising ease in the singles match, but Jeff and Neal had their hands full with Richard King and Rich Atherley in a doubles match played on the court closest to the viewing areas.  In a rather desperate attempt to change my luck, I had superstitiously stationed myself at the downstairs glass at court level to watch, while most of the other spectators were in the more comfortable area upstairs.   That would become a factor late in the first set.  At 4-4, King was serving from the end adjacent to the lower window when Jeff hit a lob that was called long.  I had a pretty good look at where the ball landed and I thought the call was correct, but Jeff didn’t seem convinced and glanced over to me in the window while making a subtle gesture.  I put my index finger up to indicate that the ball was out, but he continued to gesture.  I didn’t at first realize that he was essentially asking “How far out?”, and when I did realize it, I was reluctant to take any further part, given my past history against that club, so I just shrugged.  Unfortunately Jeff continued to look and gesture for another several seconds, and King eventually took notice and, as he later said “got really pissed off (at Jeff) and lost my focus”.  Before he was able to get himself together his team had lost six consecutive games and Jeff and Neal were well on their way to a 6-4, 6-4 win.

So we had two points, but we didn’t rate Adam Lesser’s chances highly against Mountainside’s singles stud, Mark Herbert, and although he played a good first set Adam predictably succumbed.  That left Alex and me in what seemed to be an even matchup against B Manning and Ken Limberg, while Bob Bondaruk- added to the roster at the last minute because we only had seven players available- and Adam Hirshan seemed to have a slight edge against Jeff Adie and Scott Goodwin at third doubles.  As soon as our match got under way, though, I came to the disturbing realization that I couldn’t hit a backhand, which is usually one of my best shots.  I don’t know if it was the way the ball skidded, or my history of defeat on those courts playing havoc with my mind, but I literally only hit one backhand drive in the court the entire match.  Eventually I resorted to lobbing all my returns on that side, but with Alex ripping his returns and serving well we were able to stay even and then break Ken, who was coming off an injury and thus unusually erratic with his volleys, late in the first set to win it, 6-4.  Just as we were starting to get more comfortable, though, Alex had a few careless moments which resulted in him dropping serve, and we quickly went down 1-3.  With a supertiebreaker looming, though, we suddenly put together a huge closing run to take the last five games. It started when we broke B at love, as I hit an inside-out forehand winner, a lob winner and some sharp volleys (a display perhaps all the more demoralizing for our opponents given that I had done next to nothing up to that point).  We pounded Ken’s forehand and made him volley up whenever we could,  which allowed us to hold serve in spite of B’s patented crosscourt forehand winners, and then we broke Ken to gain the upper hand once and for all.   Not since Loon had Alex and I beaten a team of that caliber, and I felt good because I had served effectively, if inelegantly, and compensated for unusually weak returns with strong net play.

It turned out our win was especially important because Bob and Adam blew a 6-2 lead in the supertiebreaker and lost at third doubles.  Adam went in overconfident, since he and I had beaten Jeff and Scott during the 40s season, only to find the Mountainside duo had improved their volleying skills in the intervening time.  But while it would have been nice to take four courts, make no mistake: any win at Mountainside, even one without Glenn McCune in the lineup, is a good win, and we were delighted.

Two weeks later we faced the other Algonquin entry, captained by Eric Cheli, which to that point had not won a team match but featured two dynamic singles players in Zack Gould and Dave Caza (OK, “dynamic” may not be a word often used to describe Caz in any facet of life, but the man certainly plays clean, efficient tennis). We found ourselves in the difficult position of needing to win 4-1 to match the results recorded against them by other top teams, but unsure if we had a singles player capable of beating either Zack or Dave.   Luckily for us, Caz wasn’t available that day, so although Aidan came up short against Zack after a strong first set (4-6, 1-6), we were able to take the other four courts behind Lesser and the doubles combos of Neal/Rob, Brian/Dan and Chris/Adam H.  First doubles was a rout, with Neal and Rob playing as if they hadn’t missed a beat, but the other matches were all close: Lesser won 4 and 4, and the other two doubles had sets that were 7-6 and 7-5, respectively.   That’s more of a credit to the overall strength of the league than a knock on how our guys played.  Cheli’s upgraded team would have been a threat to make districts a year ago; in 2017, they are struggling just to win more than one court a week.  Charles Darwin would certainly have loved this league, where only the fittest will survive.  For the seven competing teams, however, the challenge is to step cautiously and try to get through the test that each week brings without having our season blown to smithereens by a poor result.  So far, thankfully, most of our Algonquin parts remain intact…

 

Touched by an Angel

angel-9

(In honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to put my usual sports posts on hold in order to bring you what is probably the closest thing to a love story I’ll ever write).

For all I knew, it was just another day, a warm and comfortable fall day in coastal New England, fast turning to evening. Important moments, for better and for worse, sometimes sneak up on you unbidden at times like these.   I wasn’t thinking about anything nearly so grandiose, however: I had just arrived home from a long day at work and wanted only to eat and grab some measure of sleep before I had to wake up and do it all again. It wasn’t a more direct route, so I can’t say why I went up the back stairs to my third-floor apartment that day instead of going through the lobby. I can say that it was on those back stairs that I met the cat for the first time. He was small, skinny, sort of mottled orange in color, and extremely friendly. He rubbed up against me and I gave him kind words and gentle pats for a minute or two. Then I moved on and he did the same.

I must admit I forgot about our meeting fairly quickly, pleasant though it had been. He may have remembered it somewhat better, for a few days later I came home from work again to find him curled up in a chair in the lobby.   My landlord, Gary, uses some of that space for his office, but Gary was nowhere to be found at the time, and neither was anyone else. Yet here was this little guy, literally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and looking for all the world like he was waiting for me. Maybe he was. I recognized him right away and gave him some more kind words and friendly rubs. Then, to my astonishment, I walked up the stairs to my apartment and he followed me.

I didn’t know the lay of the land, having moved to Hampton, NH only about six weeks before, but I figured he must have belonged to one of my neighbors and just gotten bored or lonely. The prospect of a long-term relationship didn’t enter my thinking, but we cuddled and played for an hour or so. Then reality set in: the little guy started looking agitated to the point that I knew he probably had to “go”, and that was a problem. I didn’t have any other pets; truth be told, I was (and remain) so domestically challenged that I had enough trouble just taking care of myself. Panicking, I threw some old newspapers down on the floor and ineffectually tried to push the cat in their direction, but he had a better idea. He jumped into the empty bathtub and backed his butt right up to the drain. I could only hope he had a number one coming and not a number two.   Luckily, that was the case, and as the number one swirled around and disappeared, I thought to myself that this was one cool cat. I also thought, for what would not be the last time, that he was a hell of a lot smarter than me.

He didn’t stay the night: at some point he went over to the door and started meowing, and even I knew what that meant.   But the next day he was back, crying outside the building until Gary let him in, then beating a path to my door. Eventually we established something of a pattern: I let him out in the morning when I left for work and he returned that night, or sometimes the next one. As he began visiting regularly, I made my place homier for him by providing a litter box and a stash of Friskies, although he seemed to like simple attention most of all. I loved seeing him, and his visits soon became a highlight of my routine.   If he missed a day or two I’d start to worry about him, but I needn’t have, because he never stayed away for long.

When he and I met, it was hard to tell which of us needed a friend more.   2009 hadn’t been the best of years for me. I was in the process of getting divorced, and both of my parents had recently been diagnosed with the diseases that would end up killing them within a three-year span. If all that wasn’t bad enough, I was also broke. A little bit beyond broke, if you really have to know.   My new friend, though, may have been in even worse shape. For as I gradually learned from Gary and others in the neighborhood, he didn’t have a regular owner. After being mistreated by his human family of origin years before, he had taken to wandering the streets in a high-traffic area filled with drivers who were at best bikini-distracted and inattentive, at worst shitfaced and reckless.   When he tired of playing real-life Frogger, the little guy slept on or underneath the cars at a nearby parking garage. Presumably he was a light sleeper. Compared with where he was coming from, I guess my small and not-especially-tidy apartment must have seemed like paradise. Maybe he realized that, or maybe he started to bond with me, or maybe the weather just got colder. Whatever the reason, one day he decided to stay in the apartment when I left for work, and after that he never went outside under his own power again.

angel-5

He now had a home, but my little buddy still needed one more important thing: a name.   I had held off on giving him one until it was clear he was there for the duration, but after a few months I still didn’t have any idea what to call him. I knew typical cat names like Fluffy and Mittens weren’t going to cut it, and if he answered to something already, he certainly wasn’t telling me. So he remained “Bud” for the time being, but as I observed him I noticed he loved to perch on a shelf behind and slightly above my bed, as if he was watching over me. And while I’m not a particularly religious person, the circumstances of his arrival gave me pause, for at that moment I certainly needed all the help I could get. So I finally decided to call him Angel. Later, when people gave me funny looks about that, I told them Angel was actually a male name in the Hispanic world (the female equivalent is Angela). But while that was true as far as it went, it didn’t quite tell the whole story. The cat literally showed up at my doorstep at a time when I was in a really bad place, and he helped make my life better. What could be more angelic than that?

I’d love to be able to say that my life did a 180 from that point forward under Angel’s loving gaze, but this isn’t Marley and Me. I didn’t become a famous writer, buy a big house, or marry Jennifer Aniston.   With my parents’ illnesses and eventual passing, plus the financial burden of my divorce, things actually got worse before they got better.   Work, tennis and my personal life continued to have their ups and downs, too. What improved was my ability to handle the tough moments, of which there were many. When my car pulled into its parking space after a long day, the first thing I did was look up at my window, and I almost always saw Angel sitting there waiting for me. There was something very comforting in that. I could talk to him, hug him, play with him, or just savor a silent moment with him sitting nearby gently blinking his eyes in my direction, and things that were hard to bear became a little bit easier.   In bed at night I stretched my arm out as far as it could reach, which is pretty far, and a few minutes later Angel usually backed into it, lay down and fell asleep with me. I felt safe, and I’d like to think he did too. He wasn’t the most trusting soul himself, but over time he came to understand that a hand raised above his head was now there to pat him rather than to hit him, and instead of snapping he began purring with anticipation. When he reached that point, I don’t know which of us was happier.

IMG_0607[1]

That’s not to say I was any kind of cat whisperer. To be honest, I didn’t even know if Angel was male or female until my sister-in-law looked and told me. I had major issues getting him into his first carrier, one of those horrible side-entry ones: I typically had to stand it on end and dump him to the bottom, like the first bit of laundry in a laundry bag, then rush to zip it shut before he could dart back up to the opening. I ultimately got him a much more dignified top-loading carrier, but I never did catch onto things like brushing his teeth, to say nothing of trying to walk him on a leash.   I did give him plenty of food, regular medical care, lots of love, a more or less clean litter box, many hours of “pen tug-of-war” and a straight stretch of about 20 yards in the apartment on which he regularly sprinted as if being chased by a ghost only he could see. We had plenty of other fun together, too. Angel watched Animal Planet with fascination and innumerable college basketball and Red Sox games without complaint. He consistently found the sunniest spot in the apartment to plop down in, and in the dead of winter when there were no sunny spots he huddled against me so we could both stay warm. He regularly challenged me to staring contests and never lost. He loved to drink out of the kitchen faucet when it was dripping on its lowest setting, and one time when I was away Gary, who was there to feed him, swore he turned it on by himself. I actually wouldn’t have put that past him. Unlike his owner, he would have made a great politician: everyone he met became a friend, if not an admirer. Sure, he could be clumsy at times and tended to knock things over, which put him on the receiving end of an occasional F-bomb, but it was hard to stay mad at him. Even when he woke me up at night to ask for more food, he did it by licking the top of my shaved head. Human or animal, I don’t know if I’ve ever loved anyone more.

I turned 40 just before Angel came into my life, and although his age was never precisely determined, it was clear he was no spring chicken either. It wasn’t long before both of us started to feel the effects of our advancing years.   We each got fatter, but that was just the beginning. Between 2009 and 2015 I had two knee surgeries and separate operations to remove an inguinal hernia and a kidney stone. I got to the point where I actually bought a set of crutches just to be ready for the next operation, because I knew it was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, Angel’s vertical began to desert him and he botched a leap onto the kitchen counter, slamming into it jaw-first, which jarred one of his teeth loose and left him howling in agony. I kept him from choking on the remnants of the tooth, but it took a $700 veterinary visit for his mouth to be repaired. I had enough money by then that the bill wasn’t a huge problem- I had also gotten pet insurance, which I highly recommend- but even if it had been, I would have paid it willingly. Angel was my best friend, and although I never took the joy of any day for granted, I held out hope that we would have many more happy years together.

Then, early in 2015, he started losing weight and throwing up. At first, it didn’t seem like a huge issue.   Cats often vomit because of hairballs or other relatively minor conditions, and he certainly needed to drop a few pounds. His vet, a very skilled and caring man, didn’t even recommend further tests initially. But many months passed and the vomiting continued while his weight kept going down, so eventually I brought him back in. This time he was referred to a special testing center, and the results weren’t what we were hoping for. Angel had the feline equivalent of pancreatic cancer, the disease which had killed my father, and he didn’t have long to live.

I wish I had pushed for the testing to be done sooner, but from my dad’s experience I know how deadly pancreatic cancer is. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. I tend not to see things that way, though, and I felt like it was my fault. Heartbroken, I told Angel that we weren’t going to have as much time together as we wanted, but that I would give him as much love and help as I could during the time we had. Together we went to a special animal cancer center outside Boston, hoping for some kind of palliative treatment which would lessen his pain and give him a little more time. The news we got there wasn’t any better. Sitting next to each other on the examining room bench, we heard the doctor say that Angel had just a few weeks left and nothing of consequence could be done for him.   At those words, a single large tear dropped out of his left eye and ran down his cheek. A few more than that ran down my cheek.

Though he was reduced to skin and bones and had almost no appetite, Angel still fought valiantly and came back from the brink a few times in December 2015. I had a knee operation scheduled just before Christmas and perhaps he sensed that and felt he needed to stay around to help take care of me.   And sure enough, in the days after I came home from the hospital he spent hours licking my face and laying on my chest. Although his heartbeat was frail, I could still hear him purring deeply and I knew he was happy. I wish I could have held him like that forever, but we did get to spend two bonus weeks together that I will always treasure. As I got stronger, though, he got weaker, and the night before I had to go back to work, I could tell he was really struggling with the pain. Because it was a Sunday, I wasn’t able to take him to the vets to have him put to sleep. He was too weak even to crawl up on the bed by then, and he ended up passing away on the floor just below it. I tried to be there for him and comfort him in his final moments, but only he could tell you if it made any difference.

I had Angel cremated, and now I keep his ashes in a small box right next to my bed. He has been gone a year now, and although life has continued on and I even have another cat with a remarkable story of his own, I still miss Angel terribly. I’m so grateful for the kindness, joy, healing and unconditional love that he brought into my life, but without him I feel as if I’ve lost a part of myself that I’ll never get back. Maybe that’s not completely true, though.  I’m less certain than most about where my ultimate destination will be, but wherever I end up, who’s to say that place won’t have windows? And if there are windows, maybe a big orange cat is perched next to one of them even now, waiting patiently for the day when he can once again welcome me home.

angel-13

 

Fantasy Fulfillment

Let me warn you up front: despite its title, this post isn’t going to be about Sandra Bullock, Mariah Carey, or So-and-So the Naughty Nurse.   Rather, it’s devoted to a topic I’ve spent considerably more time contemplating over the past two decades, though what that says about me is an open question.  The topic, you see, is fantasy football.  And if I might be a wee bit obsessed with it, I’m certainly not alone.  According to some sources, 75 million people played fantasy football last year.  An industry-sponsored study found that the average player spends between two and three hours a week managing his team (despite efforts to make the pastime more female-friendly, the overwhelming majority of fantasy players are still male).  A significant number of those people care more about their fantasy teams than they do about their local NFL teams.  And if you’ve been in any public space on a recent fall Sunday afternoon, you know that’s saying something indeed.

I’ve been playing fantasy football in some incarnation since the mid-1990s.  For the uninitiated, the game in its most basic form consists of choosing a squad composed of one or more NFL players from each of the offensive skill positions, plus placekickers and team defenses.  Your players come from many different professional teams, but they score points for “your” team based on their individual game performance in a number of statistical categories.  In the early years, I played a variation of the game where I could choose any players I wanted, provided that the total of their preassigned value ratings fell under the fantasy “salary cap”.  The stats they accumulated each week were then rank-ordered against the lineups of 24 random strangers in my “division”, and beyond that against the lineups of everyone playing the game.   It was a decidedly low-tech era: while the initial roster selection was done online, weekly standings arrived in the mail  every Thursday  (this was, of course, before games were regularly played on Thursday nights).   When I wanted to change my lineup, I dialed a toll-free 800 number dedicated to that purpose, typed in the ID codes of the players I was changing, and then listened to a live operator repeat my transactions back to me.   If I misread or mistyped a number and it came back that I was unintentionally starting, say, Scott Mitchell over Mark Brunell, I had to do the whole process over again.  I learned the hard way not to wait until just before the games started on Sundays, when the lines were often busy, to make lineup changes.  Yet although I had never played or coached football I found success fairly quickly in this format thanks to two key factors.  The first key was finding “bargain” players who regularly outperformed their assigned numerical values.  Of course, most semi-serious fans with an understanding of basic math could do that.  The second and seemingly even more obvious key was simply paying attention.  Sometimes players got hurt, or their NFL teams went on bye weeks, and their fantasy owners didn’t realize it.  Remember, there were no smartphones- or even cell phones- back then, and dial-up internet service was cumbersome and unpredictable at the best of times.  I wouldn’t have called myself obsessed, but I might have been more detail-oriented than most, and it paid off.  I regularly finished in the top three spots in my divisions in those early years, which meant only that I made a little bit more money in prize payout than it had cost me to enter the league.  I wasn’t giving up my day job by any means.  But it feels good to be successful at anything in life, and although I didn’t share details of that success with many people, the same rule applied here.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, though, the fantasy landscape began to change, and not to my benefit.  As the internet took off, it became much easier to keep tabs on your players.  News items and injury updates even began to be posted on the game sites, right on your roster page.  Now the lazy owners could do just a little bit of work and get significantly better results.  The people I had been consistently beating suddenly became much tougher to beat.  Soon the prize payouts slowed to a trickle.  Then I sank closer to the bottom of my leagues than I was to the top.  Not long after that, I stopped playing entirely, a fantasy football dinosaur brought to extinction by the impact of the information asteroid.

Eight years ago, though, I got back into fantasy through a league that a tennis friend started at my local club, Algonquin of Hooksett, NH.  This league held a season-opening draft followed by weekly head-to-head matchups, with the top four- later the top six- of the ten competing teams reaching the playoffs.  As a result, it was, shall we say, much more personal than my previous forays into fantasy.  Most of the original league members were my USTA teammates, and all of them either were or had been competitive athletes of some kind, so trash talk was basically second nature.  Now, understand a few things: I’m white.  I’m over 40.  I’m not particularly poetic or creative.  So you’re not getting Hall of Fame-caliber trash talk here.  But bragging rights of any kind, now matter how tame the bragging, are always welcome.

It probably didn’t hurt that I had just gotten divorced (a blessing in many ways, with the fantasy impact being the least of them) and thus had more time to scour the waiver wire for available players, but I took to the new league right away.  As the years went by, the two-to-three-hour-per-week rule I cited in the opening paragraph came to be, well, a little low for me.   I bought fantasy draft magazines (yes, there are such things….).  I participated in mock drafts to get a feel for how to construct my roster.  I ran proposed in-season trades through the “trade analyzer” to make sure they were favorable to me, but not so favorable that the other party would refuse to make the deal.  I perused online fantasy columns (they weren’t hard to find: all of the major sports network sites now have fantasy sections) looking for advice about who to start each week.  I even became a regular listener, and an even more regular downloader, of a daily ESPN fantasy podcast called “Fantasy Focus”.  I commute a total of two hours to and from work every day, so this wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounds.  The show’s resident expert, Matthew Berry, who is paid very handsomely to predict fantasy outcomes-how lucky is THAT guy?- is terrific at pointing out the fantasy impact of injuries and at telling you which players to add from the waiver wire.  (He’s significantly less successful at predicting which players to start each week and which to sit, but given the courses NFL games sometimes take, Nostradamus himself might have difficulty there).  The show’s host- first the fast-talking, data-driven Nate Ravitz and later the affably patrician Field Yates- adds his own takes, and former physical therapist Stephania Bell, who manages to approach the trifecta of brilliant, beautiful and self-effacing more closely than almost anyone in sports, gives her projections about the return of injured players to game action.   All in all, I had a lot of good information coming my way.

But I still couldn’t win.  Yes, I typically finished near the top of the league, only missing the playoffs once in eight years.  Yet when the postseason came around, my teams pulled more choke jobs than baseball’s Texas Rangers.  I made one final and a number of semifinals but just couldn’t get over the top.  Along the way, I endured all-too-brief moments of elation and all-too-frequent moments of frustration.   Former Jaguars wideout Mike Sims-Walker cost me a regular-season title when he broke curfew and became a healthy scratch who no one knew had been scratched until after the game ended.  Former Texans RB Arian Foster drove me nuts with his repeated injuries: how on earth does a world-class athlete with 24/7 access to some of the most advanced training facilities on earth take two months to return from a sprained ankle?  I put up with horrific play from former Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who essentially retired a year before he stopped receiving paychecks, and former Ravens RB Ray Rice (anyone who watched Rice “run” in his last NFL season knows the team didn’t cut him just because he was caught pummeling his fiancée on a hotel security camera, though that was certainly reason enough).   Even the good players tended to let me down at the worst possible times: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, a mainstay of my fantasy teams, regularly came a cropper in Weeks 14-16, when most fantasy playoffs are held, only to bounce back and lead deep NFL playoff runs.  And the one year I managed to get Patriots QB Tom Brady on my team, he played so horribly for the first four games that I actually cut him.  Then he came back and led his NFL team to yet another Lombardi Trophy.

The trash talk that tended to flow in my direction every December was annoying but bearable.  The success of some of the rival teams, however, was more difficult to stomach.  One year the league was won by Eric, an owner so disengaged that he consistently left his starters in the lineup on their bye weeks (luckily for him, the bye weeks ended just before the fantasy playoffs began).  Another year,  “Ross” lifted the trophy, although he hadn’t actually done much of the heavy lifting: after having selected Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with his first two choices the previous fall, he blew off the draft entirely and let the computer pick what became a championship team.  It was without a doubt the best managerial decision he ever made.  And then there was my good friend and frequent USTA teammate Chris McCallum, who knows more about Australian Rules football than he does about its American cousin.  Like the kid who doesn’t study and then pulls an A on a big test, Chris mispronounces the names of half the players on his team and rarely spends a dime of his allotted free-agent acquisition budget, yet somehow things always seem to work out in his favor.  I twice lost league semifinals to him in heartbreaking fashion and then put up totals the following week which would have beaten the eventual champion.  The first of those losses came by less than half a point and was decided when a field goal on the last play of the Monday-night game sailed agonizingly wide.  Last year’s semifinal defeat was even more frustrating, since Chris’s star player, Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr, committed so many personal fouls against the defensive back covering him that the rules for mandatory ejection were changed shortly thereafter.  Even under the rules in place at the time, the officials would later be reprimanded for not throwing him out, but Beckham somehow stayed in the game and scored two late touchdowns which gave Chris the edge in a close fantasy contest.  As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I was starting to feel like I had in 1986, or 2003.  In a word, snakebitten.

When the 2016 season came around, I wasn’t feeling much more positive about my prospects.  I was assigned the tenth and final first-round pick, the least desirable drafting position; although our league uses a snake draft, meaning I would have both the 10th and 11th picks, none of the can’t-miss superstars were likely to be available by the time I made my first selection.  So while I had hoped to take wide receivers, who are less prone to injuries, with at least one of my two early picks, I ended up going with two running backs instead under the best-available-player theory: Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, who had run wild against my teams for years, and Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers, who would have been chosen much higher if he had not been suspended for the first three games of the season.  I clearly wasn’t worried about character questions, having chosen a child abuser and a drug abuser, respectively, as my top two picks.  I also drafted Drew Brees of the Saints as my main QB, Delanie Walker of the Titans as my tight end, and Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos to lead what looked to be a decidedly mediocre corps of receivers.  It didn’t take long before my team’s outlook dimmed even further: my erstwhile star player, Peterson, blew out a knee in the second game of the season, having scored a grand total of five fantasy points.  Somehow I still started out 3-1 as Brees had a couple of big games and Bell’s backup, DeAngelo Williams (in my lineup as a so-called “handcuff”, an image that was all too familiar to several of my players) put up some nice point totals in his absence.

Then things started to go badly wrong, and I lost six of my final nine games.  Brees struggled on the road.  Thomas struggled with drops, as he often had in past years.  Peterson’s “handcuff”, Jerick McKinnon, struggled just about all the time, and the players I signed in many unsuccessful attempts to replace him (Dwayne Washington, Chris Ivory, Charcandrick West and the unfortunately-named  Christine Michael, to name a few) were even less productive.  Then one day Matthew Berry announced on his podcast that the Redskins’ starter, Matt Jones, who had not been particularly effective even when 100 percent healthy, had gotten hurt, and recommended his backup, Robert Kelley, as a smart add who might be able to retain the starting job long-term.  Until that moment the only man by that name I had ever heard of was an R-and-B singer perhaps best known for having sex with underage girls.  But I was so desperate I took Berry at his word.  And while this R. Kelley was far from the world’s greatest running back, he did in fact become a starter at an important position whom I could count on for solid production with a high scoring “floor”.  That was when my season finally started to take a turn for the better.

I didn’t sense it immediately, because for most of the fall my opponents seemed to play out of their skins every single  week. It wasn’t just the Bradys and Rodgerses of the world, either.  Mid-range players like Terrance West, Jeremy Hill, Jonathan Stewart and Jimmy Graham all put up huge fantasy numbers against me.  Mark Ingram scored an otherworldly 34 points, then recorded a grand total of seven in his next two games combined. Even T.J. Yeldon reached double figures (although, to be fair, he did that in one of his other fifteen games, too).  I ended up last in the league in “points allowed”, and the only other guy within fifty points of me in that category finished way out of contention.  Even so, I managed to scrap my way 6-6 and seemed to have the fifth seed locked up, but then here came my nemesis McCallum, winning his week 12 matchup by the ridiculously low score of 62-61 thanks to two overtime field goals- how often does that happen?- the second of which bounced in off the upright as time expired.  Then he came back again with a strong Monday-night showing to beat me in the regular-season finale and take fifth place.  To get the sixth and last playoff spot, all I could do was hope Todd Cuthbert (5-7) beat Pete Brooke (6-6), which would enable me to squeak past both of them on the basis of most points scored.  Thankfully Todd’s RB Jordan Howard put up huge numbers against the awful 49ers to “earn” me the ultimate backdoor playoff ticket.

I don’t know if it was the sight of the Cubs winning the World Series earlier in the fall, or  perhaps just an irrational hope that my opponents would eventually see their point totals regress to the mean, but I actually went into the playoffs with an attitude approaching serenity.  Even so, my postseason stay promised to be brief given my opening-round matchup against Brian, a high-school coaching rival who had won three of the last four fantasy championships.    Only someone forgot to tell Le’Veon Bell he was on my fantasy team.  On a snowy day in Buffalo which slowed the Steelers’ high-powered passing attack, Bell gained almost 300 total yards and scored three touchdowns, recording almost 50 fantasy points, the highest single-game total by any player in over two years.   Brees was awful, and nobody else did a whole lot, but it didn’t matter: Bell would have won the game for me even if I had left the other eight positions open.  Brian’s two big weapons, Seattle QB Russell Wilson and Arizona RB David Johnson, were more or less kept in check, his other guys did next to nothing, and I rolled to an unexpectedly easy 113-48 victory.

My semifinal round opponent was Mike, the league commissioner and another passionate player who had never won our league championship despite several high regular-season finishes.  It was the Algonquin fantasy equivalent of Cubs vs. Indians, except that the winner of our matchup would still have plenty of time to get unlucky again in the finals.  Truth be told, bad luck had started to hit Mike well before then.  After putting together what was clearly the league’s best team and earning the top seed for the playoffs, he could only watch in agony as two of his top players, Cincinnati WR A.J. Green and San Diego RB Melvin Gordon, went down with injuries.  There weren’t any more Rob Kelley’s available on the waiver wire by then, either.  Mike ended up buying Gordon’s replacement, Kenneth Farrow, and the Buffalo defense, which was matched against winless Cleveland.  For my part, I picked up Bears WR Alshon Jeffrey, who was returning from a PED suspension, and Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel, who was assuming a more prominent role after an injury sidelined Julio Jones, along with Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor, a dual-threat QB with a very favorable matchup.  To give credit where it’s due, all were Fantasy Focus suggestions.  Taking Berry’s advice, I actually sat Brees for Taylor only to see the Saints’ QB blow up on the road for the only time all season, throwing for nearly 400 yards and four TDs without an interception.  Bad as that decision was, though, it didn’t end up costing me, because Gabriel, Kelley and Jeffrey all scored TDs and posted double-figure point totals, while Mike’s star QB, Tom Brady, was held in relative check by the Denver D, and his injury replacements weren’t as successful as he had hoped.  After a 105-47 rout, I was into the finals, glass slipper fully intact.

My opponent there was Tim, a second-year player who had rocketed from last place in 2015 all the way to the second seed behind a team heavy on Patriots, never a bad strategy in the Belichick-Brady era.  Like me, Tim had lost his top draft pick (in his case Rob Gronkowski), to a season-ending injury, but I took little comfort from that: he had beaten me during the regular season with five of his starters on their bye weeks, and this time his many remaining Patriots were facing the lowly Jets, whose effort had been conspicuously lacking for several weeks.  I went back to Brees at QB (though Taylor would end up outscoring him significantly) and used Bell and Kelley at the RB spots,  Thomas and Jeffrey at WR, Walker as the TE, and Matt Bryant of the high-powered Falcons as the kicker, along with two new additions, flex WR-RB Ty Montgomery of the Packers and the San Diego defense, which was facing Cleveland.  Tim countered with a run-heavy team led by RBs DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore and Latavious Murray and QB Cam Newton, who had had a disappointing season but was coming off a big performance in the Monday-night game.   With Christmas Day falling on a Sunday, most of the Week 16 games were played on Saturday afternoon, and Tim got off to a strong start in the early time slot, with TE Martellus Bennett and WR Julian Edelman having strong games as the Patriots predictably routed the Jets, while Redskins wideout Desean Jackson, whom I had cut earlier in the season due to the boom-or-bust nature of his play, came back to haunt me with 15-plus fantasy points.  Only Newton’s struggles against the normally vulnerable Falcons defense kept my projected scores within striking distance.  While nobody on my team had an outstanding day, with the exception of Bryant (20 pts), everyone chipped in something: 80 yards from Kelley, 95 from Jeffrey, even a garbage-time TD reception in a blowout loss from Walker, who had not caught a ball to that point in the game.  I went to the 4 pm games with a slight lead in the projections, but had only Brees going there against two RBs, a defense and a kicker for Tim (I did have Bell and Thomas playing on Sunday, while Tim would have no one left).  Here I got lucky for the third consecutive week, as none of the many touchdowns in the Colts-Raiders game were scored by Tim’s players.  Then his Cardinals defense, impregnable for most of the first half in Seattle, began to crack, while Drew Brees, after a slow start, finally got going.  When he hit Travaris Cadet for a long touchdown late in the game, I could finally, in the words of that other R. Kelly, “believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” A late-game Seahawks touchdown made it official: I would be three points ahead with two players in hand.  2016 was going to be my year after all.

I certainly won’t pretend that I’m now the Bill Belichick of fantasy football managers.  My team wasn’t close to being the most talented team.  My sit-or-start decisions were not especially prescient, and some went disastrously wrong.  No, my fantasy success this year was mainly due to lots of luck (I had the fourth-and third-best point totals in my ten-team league over the last two playoff rounds, but kept advancing) and regression to the mean (my opponents averaged the ridiculously low total of 57 points in my three playoff games).  If a field goal in a game I had no direct stake in had gone outside the uprights instead of inside them after hitting the goalpost, I may well have had a less favorable playoff draw and lost in the opening round.  What I did do well, though, was persevere.  Sometimes fantasy owners mail it in after losing their best player to injuries or dropping most of their early-season games. Other times they wouldn’t perceive themselves as mailing it in- they’ll still fill out a full lineup and even make the occasional trade- but they don’t really explore all avenues to keep improving their team.   I kept turning over my roster until I began to find guys who could contribute, and by the end of the season I might have had the deepest team in the league.  While Le’Veon Bell may be a Steeler, this New Englander is now a fan of his for life, and I’ll have a special appreciation for all the guys who contributed to my playoff run.  Come next summer, I’ll once again be reading the draft magazines, listening to the preseason podcasts and preparing to win another championship.  Because I love how that sounds, I’ll say it again: preparing to win ANOTHER championship!  For now I’m going to enjoy eight months’ worth of bragging rights and get ready for the postseason Yahoo Tournament of Champions.  Has there ever been a more unlikely entry in that distinguished competition?  Perhaps not, but I’ve come to realize the most important rule in fantasy football is this one: you just never know! After the last three weeks, who knows what could happen next?   Heck, I might almost believe I can fly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

USTA 40-plus Regular Season: Revenge of the King

While I was playing in the Loon Mountain tournament, the USTA 40-plus league was beginning its new season, and given our dismal showing at districts in August, my Algonquin team was eager to get started.  The big news was that three of the previous year’s eight competing teams (Executive, Concord, and the Hampton Tennis Barn) had folded, leaving just five NH entries to compete for two postseason spots.  That contraction did not result in the existing teams strengthening themselves significantly with reinforcements, as might have stood to reason.  Instead, all the Hampton players, including the dangerous Andy Montgomery, sat out the fall season entirely.  Of the former Concord team only Joe Waldvogel, who went up to play for Richard King at Mountainside, took part in league play.  And a few of Executive’s lower doubles guys moved over to the YMCA, while the crafty, hustling lefty Rick DePasquale joined our Algonquin crew.  Our only other addition was John Lombardi, an entry-level 4.0: John Duckless, who returned as captain, resisted entreaties from the sectionals-minded among us to recruit a singles stud from elsewhere, reasoning that we already had seventeen quality players.  And really, it was hard to argue with him, for we certainly had the deepest roster in the Granite State.  Mountainside would be in the postseason mix, as always, and the YMCA had made several quality additions, including my friendly rival John Smith and a former UNH player, Jeff Giampa, who was returning to competitive tennis after an extended absence.   The two remaining teams, Hampshire Hills and Seacoast, didn’t have either the depth or the overall quality to make a run at districts, but both had assets that would be difficult to overcome: HH its lightning-quick home courts and Seacoast the crafty Barry Posternak, who would be the league’s best singles player.  We were scheduled to play each of the other four teams both home and away, for a total of eight matches, with the league standings to be based on individual court wins.

Algonquin put the rest of the league on notice early, delivering a 4-0 opening-weekend beatdown to Hampshire Hills on their fabled slick courts without losing a single set, a result akin to a college basketball team going into Cameron Indoor Stadium and beating Duke by 20.  Gary Roberts/Neal Burns, Adam Hirshan/Mark Parquette and Rick Leclerc/Rick DePasquale all won comfortably, while Dave Caza’s serene approach got the better of Mike Auger’s bellowing negativity in two close sets.  Unfortunately, all that good work was undone by our next outing, a 1-3 home loss to the YMCA.  Gary’s 50th birthday party took a few of us, myself included, out of consideration for that match, and other commitments typical of an early fall weekend left us with just seven eligible players, some of them barely above 3.5-quality, against a group of hungry opponents eager to establish themselves as legitimate contenders.  Caz was our only winner, taking a decisive set and then a much closer one to take the lone singles position.  Adam H and Eric won a first-set tiebreaker against two of my opponents at Loon, John Smith and Keith Eichmann, only to be beaten badly in the second set and then drop the ensuing supertiebreaker.  That result doomed our chances, for we were only marginally competitive against superior talent at the other two doubles positions.

Despite that hiccup, we had won five of the eight courts contested in our first two matches when our main rivals, Mountainside, paid a visit to the ATC on the first weekend of October.   The absence of B. Manning proved costly to our opponents here, as they could no longer count on their customary victories at the top two doubles slots, and we came away with an important 3-1 win which put us right back in playoff position.   Caz once again came through in the singles, soundly beating a Hispanic player new to the league who had a similar style but slightly less consistency.   Todd Toler and Neal competed hard and gave Mountainside all it could handle at 1 doubles, but ultimately fell short by a break in each set against the consistency and great hands of Glenn McKune and the hard hitting of Rich Atherly.   Glenn was at the top of his form, which is saying something considering he had just finished a 36-4 season (what it might be saying- that he was a 4.5 player- went unheeded by the USTA computer, which later bumped him back down on appeal for about the 21st consecutive year).   Atherly was clearly fired up for the match but showed some signs of nerves in the late stages as Todd and Neal nearly came all the way back from a big deficit.  His characteristic glances to the crowd became less and less frequent, prompting one of his teammates in the viewing area to comment: “if my wife was here watching, Rich would be looking up here a lot more often.”  But the Algonquin comeback ultimately stalled as Glenn capped a terrific day with one last roundhouse fist pump to cap a 6-4, 6-4 Mountainside victory.

I was up next at number 2 doubles with Adam Hirshan, taking on the greatly-improved team of Jeff Adie and Scott Goodwin.  Adie used to be a soft-hitting 3.5 who wasn’t much of a threat, but he has gotten fitter in recent years while improving both his power and his consistency- which isn’t easy to do- and claimed some quality wins.   Goodwin is a great guy with a solid first serve and a strong forehand, and he and Jeff play well together.    Adam and I liked our chances, but as soon as Jeff came back to hold serve from 0-40 down in the opening game, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy.  I was playing the deuce side and struggled to return wide serves out to my forehand in the early part of the match, while Adam’s returns also lacked their usual consistency.  We weren’t having much trouble holding serve, though, and after breaking Scott we looked ready to run out the set. Then we both got careless at the net for a few points in a row to drop Adam’s serve.  But we squeaked out another break, and at 5-4 Adam held without much difficulty to win us the first set.  Our opponents began the second set as strongly as they had the first, but we eventually steadied down our returns and took advantage of Scott’s lack of comfort at the net.  We got our noses in front and then succeeded in breaking Jeff for the first time to finish off a 6-4, 6-3 win.  Our team took third doubles more decisively as Bruce Leibig and Rick DePasquale’s canny, finesse-based play blunted the power of Richard King and his partner, Paul McManus.  The overall result put us back atop the standings and went a long way towards erasing the bitter taste of our loss to the YMCA.

We reached the midway point of the season after another 3-1 win, this one against the Seacoast club of North Hampton, on a day that featured my first head-to-head matchup with big Frank Campolo since our near-brawl at the Tennis Barn three years before.   In the days leading up to our encounter, I mentally prepared for all sorts of eventualities, but the match itself turned out to be amicable and sportsmanlike.   Frank was very fair on his calls and even friendly on the changeovers.  He played well, too, but his partner, Vin Corson, wasn’t quite as consistent, and Mark Parquette and I took advantage of that.  Vin is a hard-hitting lefty who can be dangerous when his shots are going in, but he was plagued by double faults in one of his service games in each set, and that enabled Mark and I to record the only two breaks in a match that we won 6-4, 6-4.  I wasn’t happy with my returns, which I was pushing too much (I need to hit out and get a good weight transfer so I can really attack the return, and I wasn’t doing that).  But I placed my serve well and hit some big overheads, and Mark was all over the net and kept his nerve at key moments.  Adam Lesser, working his way back from an injury, picked a difficult day to make his singles debut, as he had to face the scrappy and exceptionally consistent Barry Posternak.  Adam started off well, winning the first set, but he ran out of gas midway through the second and that allowed Posternak, who never runs out of gas, to come back and win in a supertiebreaker.   Once again, though, our depth made the difference, as we then took the two lower doubles in straight sets.  Gary Roberts- called in when Jack Chen sustained a last-minute injury- teamed with Bruce Leibig to win the #2 spot by a break in each set after some terrific points.  Captain John Duckless has really improved his game, and he led John Lombardi, a newcomer who seemed most comfortable hitting forehands from the baseline, to a 6-3, 7-5 win at position three.  You could say we got lucky in the sense that our original lineup of Bruce/Duckless and Jack/Lombardi would almost certainly have lost at least one of those courts.  But give Johnny D credit for adjusting the lineup on the fly and making it work.

John continued to make all the right moves, lineup-wise, in our next match, a 4-0 win over Hampshire Hills in our home finale in mid-November.  Gary, Neal and I were all left on the bench, but our depth still carried us to a comfortable win, as John had believed it would.  He gave us an important boost with his play, too, as he and Jimmy Prieto, who had intended to sacrifice themselves up at number 1, ended up combining for a somewhat improbable 7-6, 7-5 win over a team that included Walter Meltzler, HH’s top current 4.0 doubles player.  John volleyed superbly, Jim smashed the hell out of anything he could reach, and they pulled off a major upset that had the home crowd rocking.  Todd and Bruce took care of a couple of big hitters at #2 after a close first set, while Adam Lesser and Rick Paquin, two nontraditional doubles players pairing up for the first time, used their powerful groundstrokes to demolish HH’s #3 team by the count of 6-1, 6-1.  We’ve been trying to get Eric Morrow to play more singles, and after winning the last eleven games to defeat HH’s Udo Hoerhold 7-5 6-0, he should have the confidence to do just that.  Eric later said that he had thought to himself “what would Dave do to beat this guy?” when he was struggling through the first set, though his answer- hit short, angled balls that his opponent struggled to reach- was almost certainly better than anything I would have come up with.  By the end of the match it looked like Udo just wanted to get off the court.  We’ve all been there- and I would be there again all too soon…

We knew that a win in our next match, at the YMCA, would give us a great chance of securing one of the top two places in the league, but the Y had beaten us once and was doubtless eager to do so again, albeit this time against a much stronger Algonquin lineup.  I was away for the weekend at a work-related convention and couldn’t take part, but we still rolled out Lesser for singles along with three strong doubles teams: Eric/Adam H, Todd/Neal and Gary/John D.  It turned out to be a terrific match.  The top two doubles courts  went on first, and there the teams split a pair of supertiebreakers.  Adam and Eric gave soon-to-be promoted John Smith and his partner, should-be-promoted Jeff Giampa, all they could handle before falling just short, while Todd and Neal bounced back from getting bageled (0-6) in the second set to win a classic 15-13 match tiebreak over Bob Wilkins, a big server, and John Weeks, a steady player with classic strokes.  The Y must have thought they had position 3 locked down with Keith Eichmann, but we more than matched them by putting up Gary Roberts, and he and JD took out Eichmann and Bill Berry, an entry-level 4.0 whose greatest strength is his backhand.   Adam Lesser finished off a terrific day for Algonquin by beating Mike Delaney, a grinding, steady player of the type that often gives him trouble, by the count of 7-6, 6-2.

Qualification for districts was almost a certainty after our win over the Y, but we wanted to remove all doubt in our penultimate match, held at my personal chamber of horrors, the Mountainside Racquet and Fitness Club.  I can’t remember the last time I won an individual match there, and although this time I went in playing well and feeling confident, the outcome was destined to be all too familiar.   Gary Roberts and I matched up at first doubles against two longtime adversaries, Glenn McKune and Richard King, both of whom have been discussed at length in previous posts.  To quickly recap, Glenn’s game is based on consistent, savvy play, and he may own the best pair of tennis hands in all of New England.  And while Richard relies on a big serve and an intimidating net presence, he has begun to diversify his game in recent years, with increasingly positive results.   As I warmed up for the match, I felt good:  I was moving my feet, hitting smoothly and making very few mistakes.  Then we started keeping score and everything went to shit in a hurry.  Richard slowed down his serve to give himself more time to get in to the net, where I believe he made every single one of his volleys, which happens about as frequently as Halley’s Comet passes overhead.  Glenn was Glenn.  Gary couldn’t return serve to save his life, and I did very little to help him: I was late on Richard’s shots and too far out in front of Glenn’s.  To put it mildly, that was not the convergence of factors we were hoping for, and as a result we would have been double-bageled if Gary had not held his opening service game.   We found ourselves a few games behind very quickly, and then Gary became more tentative while I started pressing, as if trying to erase our immense deficit in one fell swoop.  Anybody who thinks two-out-of-three set matches always last a long time definitely didn’t watch this one.  We had barely broken a sweat and we were already off the court.  It doesn’t get much more humiliating than that.  Glenn didn’t even need any fist pumps.  Sometimes, though, a negative result owes more to what your opponents did right than to what you did wrong, and I really think that was the case here.  So I’ll give credit to Glenn and Richard for a match well played, try to work harder on my game, and maybe have a few tactical wrinkles for them next time.  Extending the match beyond half an hour, for starters.

Embarrassing as the Mountainside match was for me personally, it didn’t negatively impact our team because the rest of the guys picked up the slack and won the other three courts.  Dave Caza beat the same opponent he had played at our place, though this time in a much closer match that ended in a supertiebreaker.  Todd and Neal beat Rich Atherly and Jeff Adie in two close sets, as Jeff apparently had an off day, and we won third doubles in straight sets behind the Ricks (Leclerc and DePasquale).  That clutch team win, combined with other results, meant that we had clinched first place in advance of the regular-season finale at Seacoast.  But we finished the season strongly nonetheless with one more 3-1 victory.  After Lesser once again lost to Barry Posternak in a supertiebreaker, we swept the doubles with Parquette/Leibig winning in two close sets, DePasquale/Paquin winning in two decisive sets and Jack Chen/John Duckless winning in a supertiebreaker.  Mountainside would later beat out YMCA for the second postseason berth, but the way the 40-plus competition is set up, we will only face the Mountain Men again if we both advance to sectionals, and I’m not sure we have the singles firepower to make a serious run at that.  But we’ll be in with a chance, and who knows what can happen?  No matter what the outcome, it has already been a successful season.  Sure, we came into league play as one of the favorites, but USTA tennis isn’t played on paper.   We got it done between the lines as our depth came through for us on many occasions and Johnny D came up with some great lineups.  And now I have eight months before districts to get better, so that I don’t suffer any more near-double-bagels.  Or a couple of weeks, anyway- then it’s Tri-Level time!