Down for the Count

The last couple of weeks have brought a predictable slacking to my fitness routine. I have allergy problems and post-nasal drip, and when a cold virus gets mixed in all too often it turns into bronchitis. Like last week. It was all I could do to keep the school-meeting-home carousel going full tilt, and my workout routine suffered, though I did play tennis (badly) three times. A nasal steroid and an inhaler stopped the illness before it got really, really yucky, but yesterday was the first day since I got back from CA that I truly felt normal. Unfortunately, my new normal includes an umbilical hernia, which I’ve had for over a year but finally got diagnosed as it’s starting to hurt more regularly. I’m going in for a surgical consult on Thursday and so for the time being I am reduced to hoping I don’t have to miss significant tennis/workout time, but nonetheless worrying that I most likely will.

Tennis is beginning to fall into a pattern: I’m able to beat up on the weaker 4.0 players but just can’t seem to win the close ones against the top guys. My first weekend back the senior team had a big home sweep against Mountainside, which luckily didn’t bring a terribly strong lineup. Jeff S and Rick both posted straight-set wins, though Jeff trailed deep in the first set against the improving Richard King before wearing the big guy down with his slices and lobs. Rick’s opponent, Tim Lesko, was aggressive but erratic, and except for one hot stretch where he won five straight games put up only sporadic resistance (6-0, 7-5). The big surprise was our number one doubles team of Adam and PJ Cistulli, a longtime friend who coaches with me at the high school level. PJ has a smooth all-around game and he and Adam meshed well together in a 6-4, 6-0 demolition of Glenn and B, who moved up to play number 1 doubles (Atherley did not play in this match and so King moved to singles). In B’s defense, he had lost a large portion of his left year in an accident at the lumber mill where he works and did well just to represent at this match, albeit in taped-up fashion. But the two veterans just didn’t have an answer for our guys’ crisp volleys and frequent poaching. I sniffled and sneezed through a comfortable but never totally secure 6-2 6-3 win with Chris McCallum against Scott Goodwin, recently promoted from 3.5, and Jon Mellen, recently returned to the court after missing several months with a back injury. Both guys had hard forehands and solid first serves, but we were much more aggressive to the net and that paid dividends. I also took my returns early and hit some forcing shots, while Chris got to the net so quickly it inspired me to do the same. I held all my serve games through good placement and a high first serve percentage, which was fortunate since the opposition atypically returned Chris’s lefty serve well and broke him twice. I didn’t have quite my full energy level but luckily it wasn’t a particularly long match. Our guys made it a clean sweep with a straight-sets win at third doubles by Duckless and newcomer Paul McManus, a solid player from the Manchester area whom I’d met (and liked) in my previous time at 4.0 years ago. Five points from any match is huge in our league, which uses individual courts won to determine the standings. Afterward I sat around talking strategy with Chris and Adam for quite a while. At the end Adam said that this might have the potential to be his all-time favorite team because it has so many excellent players and nice people. It could be right up there on my list too, although I once captained a team to the 4.5 nationals- mostly playing third doubles- and have a lot of great memories from that too. But there’s no doubt a big win against a strong time is all the more meaningful when you can share it with people you’re close to. I’m very lucky that at 43 years old I can still have that special feeling associated with being part of a successful team.

Last Saturday we were a somewhat less successful team as we lost (2-3) an early-season showdown for first place with what looks to be our toughest challenger, Hampshire Hills of Milford. You’re almost tempted to bring ice skates when playing at HH because of the slick surface, but this year I had heard they had slowed down their legendary fast courts somewhat (as a finesse player this was music to my ears). Unfortunately the rumor proved unfounded: HH had had the courts cleaned and that had temporarily made them slower. By the time of our match, the surface was obviously good and dirty again, because it was as treacherous as ever. Jeff took a close straight-sets win over HH’s stud player, Mike Auger, while Adam shifted to the singles and went aggressively to the net to claim a supertiebreaker win against Dan Protzmann, who brought some sketchy calls to the table but ultimately not enough game. Doubles, though, was a different story. Duckless and McManus got blown off the court in the first set, then made the second close but ended up falling short. Chris M and Todd (back from vacation) served for the first set but couldn’t run it out and lost the second badly against a solid pair. That left it up to yours truly, playing with PJ against Dave Freel, a quick player with a heavy topspin forehand who had been temporarily bumped to 4.5 before coming back down, and my old nemesis Tom Nieva. Hampshire Hills seems to grow Tom Nieva-like players with disturbing frequency: a big-serving lefty with a monster overhead who knows how to take advantage of the fast courts to win quick points. He’s not terribly effective off the ground, but he doesn’t have to be: he’s all over the net and he ends most points before you can really get them started. And, it must be said, he takes virtually all of the close calls on his side of the net. That certainly doesn’t make him unique, and he’s less annoying about it than most of his breed, but when you combine it with his HH-friendly game you’re facing a lethal Schwarzenegger-like cyborg opponent. He didn’t break me, but he did get the better of us, just like he did four years ago when he beat Gary Roberts and me in an 11-9 supertiebreaker on that same court which kept our team out of the districts. I still remember an easy backhand volley at match point in our favor which I failed to put away. That, thankfully, would not be repeated, but we did start well, winning the first set 6-4. Both Dave and I struggled with our serves, but since he started the set for his team we were able to break him twice while I lost my delivery only once. I was happy because in my previous losses I had always lost the first set, but unfortunately I seem to find new and unexpected ways to lose quite regularly now. This week, to give credit where it’s due, our opponents raised their level. We lost a couple of long deuce games early in the set and couldn’t get our mojo back, while they painted the lines with regularity in a 6-0 drubbing. I didn’t go into the supertiebreaker that followed expecting to lose this time; in fact, I thought our chances were better there than in a full set given the beat-down we had just absorbed and my still-under-the-weather condition. But our opponents continued their hot streak through the early part of the ‘breaker and went up 4-1. I played a couple of strong service points to draw us closer, but then Dave hit a monster overhead off of what I thought was a good lob, and we never could get back even after that, losing 6-10. Looking back on this match now, I probably lobbed too much. Yes, it’s my bread and butter, but even a mediocre overhead is almost impossible to return on that court, and those guys weren’t anything special as volleyers. I have to get more aggressive with my groundstrokes versus net players and I have to gain more confidence in my serve. I’m even thinking about taking a serve lesson at some point, that’s how desperate I am. Just by improving those two areas I could definitely be a top-flight 4.0 or low-end 4.5 again, but I’m not there yet and it’s frustrating to see another winnable match slip away. This coming weekend we go to Mountainside, so it’s conceivable things could be, in the immortal words of Chevy Chase, “deja vu all over again” unless I find a way to break out of this Groundhog-Day like pattern. For the moment, I’m still trying to prove I have what it takes.

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