Here is my wrap-up of our 18- and 40-plus district adventures (I chose to post them belatedly just in case a future opponent stumbled across them on the internet before sectionals):
I’m getting ready to travel to East Hartford, CT, for our 18-and-over district playoffs this weekend. We are in one of two three-team flights and will play two matches tomorrow, one against each of the other teams in our flight. The winner of our flight plays the winner of the other flight on Sunday morning, and the winner of that match goes on to sectionals. The Concord team is in the other flight, and Hampshire Hills qualified from the other NH league but was unable to field a team this weekend. As a result our Saturday opponents are both from CT, and I know almost nothing about them. From studying their results on tennis link it appears the Newington team is strong in singles and the Simsbury team is strong in doubles. We have one advantage in that Newington and Simsbury play one another early tomorrow morning, so we will get to scout both. It’s tough to predict what will happen so we have to take one match at a time and hope it works out. Kevin Phelps and Peter Rouvalis, two college-age kids, will be our singles players and we will rotate seven guys among the six doubles spots: McCallum, Siegel, Toler, Hirshan, Hannum, Dan Horan and me. Chris and Jeff S. are teaming up for the first match along with Dan and Todd, while I’m teamed with Adam. Adam and I have played well lately, taking Chris and Jeff to two supertiebreakers (in one we missed two makeable shots at 8-8 in the breaker, and in the other we led by a set and 5-3 before those guys raised their games just in the nick of time). I just got my #1 racquet restrung and have played with it a couple of times. My return feels good but I have to remember to take my volleys out in front, and put some angle on my overheads since I don’t have great power. My serve remains a work in progress. I still haven’t mastered the new motion but I’ve at least gotten to the point where I can place the ball fairly accurately with some spin, start most points on even terms and occasionally force errors or set up putaways for the net man. I have to remember to keep my arm motion loose and confident, which will generate the spin I need for my second serve. I am resolved to stay mentally strong and supportive of my partner no matter what, and am determined to win a supertiebreaker, which has been my downfall this season. The other day I won a normal tiebreaker (with Chris against Dan and Todd), so that was at least a step in the right direction. I need to be sharp because Adam is teamed with Hannum in the second match and I will either sit out or play with one of our other four guys. It basically depends on the results of the first match, how everybody feels and who is playing well. As a competitor I hope to get in there somewhere but ultimately it isn’t my decision. I’m leaving in a few minutes to meet Chris and Jeff in Bedford, NH. From there we’ll carpool down to East Hartford. I’ve worked hard to have this opportunity and I have three goals for this weekend: enjoy the team experience, play hard and positively at all times, and play as well as I can. I’ll update periodically over the weekend in an attempt to give anyone reading a feel for the district experience.
Friday, 11:30 pm
I met Chris and Jeff in the parking lot of Macy’s and we drove down through heavy Eastern MA end-of-the-workday traffic to East Hartford, CT, where most of our team is staying at the Comfort Inn just off I-84. I have a room to myself today, but if we make the finals, Jeff Hannum (who’s coming in for tomorrow afternoon’s match) will also stay here tomorrow night. The East Hartford Racquet Club, which we saw from the highway, looks to be about ½ mile down the street from us, so at least we won’t have to worry about getting lost going to the matches. After bringing our bags into the hotel and getting settled in briefly, the three of us went out for dinner with Dan Horan and two players from the 4.5 team, Rob Giles and Kiran Humagai, who had come down well in advance of their 5pm Saturday start. Our group went to a large seafood place called The Chowder Pot, which happened to be offering a four-course dinner special for just $20 (drinks, which for some of our guys cost more than the food, were not included). All six of us got some variation of the special, and I had a delicious prime rib along with clam chowder, Caesar salad, and caramel cheesecake. Rob Giles is a plumber by trade, and he told of acquiring another man’s plumbing business and then receiving phone calls late at night for “assistance” by women who turned out to be scantily clad- and disappointed that Rob wasn’t his predecessor, who apparently had a very full toolkit. Jeff told a story about going on vacation in Florida with his wife and another couple. Late one night he heard a knock at his hotel room door and answered it in his underwear. Unfortunately it wasn’t his friends standing there but a hooker who took one look at Jeff and said “I think I’ve got the wrong room…”. I told of visiting a strip club before another tennis competition years ago and making friends with a dancer who ended up coming to the tennis club to watch my match the next day. I guess it wasn’t the most family-friendly dinner table conversation… Eventually we went back to the hotel and Chris, Jeff and I walked across the street to an adjacent Margarita’s where Adam and Todd were drinking with their significant others. The ladies went back to their rooms but we stayed another hour or so strategizing for the upcoming competition and sharing stories. Our guys are energized and I think we all feel good and are excited to get going. Hopefully that will translate into success on the court. Finally it was time to get ready for bed. Adam and Todd had driven over to Margarita’s as going there by foot required running across several lanes of fast-moving traffic. They may have drunk a bit too much because they drove right up to the door of the Ramada Inn next door and started waving at us like a bunch of idiots as we walked towards the Comfort. A few minutes later they realized they were in the wrong hotel and drove back over to some hard core razzing from the rest of us. I think all things considered, it’s best that we don’t have the 8:00 AM match…
(due to time constraints I wrote the rest of the story after returning home, but I won’t spoil the suspense…)
We didn’t have the 8:00 match- Simsbury and Newington, the other two teams in our flight, did, probably as a courtesy to us since we had had much farther to travel. Chris and I went over to watch part of it after a big and reasonably good continental breakfast in the hotel dining area. I talked for a few minutes with Edsel Ford, the tournament director, whom I’d met playing 4.5 singles tournaments over a decade ago but not seen in many years. The club is tucked away between a small industrial park and the highway, and set up like most others I’ve seen in that part of CT, with the lobby, pro shop etc in an upper area and the courts below ground level. There were six courts in all, with clear glass viewing areas in the lobby behind most of the baselines. At that time of day there were few spectators aside from the members of the participating teams, but Chris and I somehow got to talking with a super-sized man in his early 40s who reminded me of the RCC know-it-all Jamie Burr. This guy (we never did exchange names) told us that he was friends with many of the Newington players, who had been urging him to join their team for next year. He called himself an expert singles player, although at first glance he didn’t appear particularly fit or agile. When asked his rating the man hemmed and hawed to an unusual degree- clearly either he didn’t have one or it wasn’t as high as he would have liked. He did have some knowledge of tennis strategy, which he was eager to pass on, and some knowledge of the Newington players, about whom he was understandably less forthcoming. Still, we could see for ourselves that they had two excellent singles players- a big, fast, aggressive lefthanded baseliner and a crafty veteran with great racket control and ball placement. Their doubles, though, was just barely playing on even terms with Simsbury, despite the fact that they had stacked what was clearly their worst team at #1 in an effort to take the lower spots. With the team score at 1-1 and the remaining matches all close, Chris and I had to go back to the hotel to hold a team meeting and get ready for our own match against the loser of Simsbury/Newington.
In Chris and Jeff’s room we shared our observations with the rest of the guys (except Peter, who was staying elsewhere, and Hannum, who hadn’t arrived yet) and Chris passed out both the official districts t-shirts and the bright orange towels we received for winning the NH league. After some discussion we decided to play Kevin at 1 singles and Peter at 2, thinking Peter would be better against pushers and Kevin against more powerful hitters. It ended up being a sound decision and we stuck with it throughout the tournament. The doubles was more problematic because one team played it straight and the other stacked, and we weren’t sure which we would be facing. Finally Adam suggested leaving Dan and Todd at 1 regardless- they’d have a chance to win against the sacrificial lambs of the stack team (Newington) and would leave the other spots in good shape against Simsbury. Jeff and Chris would play 2 and Adam and I 3. When we arrived at the club, we found out that Newington had won all three of the close matches in supertiebreakers, meaning we would face Simsbury first. Then we waited and waited- and then waited some more. Ok, a lot more. USTA competitions have a set schedule, but they often fall behind, and number three doubles (the last match called) has the longest wait of all. While we waited we saw a match featuring the two CT teams in Concord’s flight, Rocky Hill and Middlebury. The Middlebury team was undefeated and had eight players with dynamic ratings above 4.0, which made them the favorite to come out of that flight. They won both singles easily but Rocky Hill pulled the upset by sweeping the doubles, winning #3 in a supertiebreaker. I didn’t realize it at the time- nobody did- but that ended up being a very beneficial result for us.
Finally it was showtime. Kevin and Peter quickly got off to comfortable leads, but the surprise was that Peter had the more contentious match (Kevin is usually much more of a vocal, in-your-face player). His opponent, a low-end 4.0 in his mid-50s, didn’t like Peter hitting the ball hard in the warmup. He didn’t like Peter toweling off between points. He didn’t like Peter returning his faulted first serves. There may have been a few other things I forgot to mention. Basically he didn’t like the fact that Peter was kicking his ass. He even came up and complained to Edsel, one of the more laid-back tournament directors you’ll find (no enforced limits on warmup times, swearing, foot faults etc). Peter dealt with it all as if it was another Nashua South or Manchester Central gamesmanship-fest and took an easy win. Kevin cruised against a solid chip-and-charge veteran who couldn’t match his firepower from the back of the court. We still needed one more point. It didn’t come easily. At first doubles Dan and Todd were badly beaten by Simsbury’s two singles players from the morning match. Dan’s first service point was an omen of things to come- he missed his first serve and then hit a 100-mph second ball that missed by ten feet. They were out of sync as a team, both blaming the other afterward, and from what I saw it was hard to disagree with either of them.
Adam and I had a much closer but equally frustrating match. We played two guys who at first glance were not especially impressive. One played aggressively at the net and volleyed well with quick hands, but was slow and erratic at the baseline. His partner, a mustachioed older guy (early 60s, I later learned) looked even less athletic, had no volley or overhead to speak of, and would probably not have broken the speed limit in any municipality outside of 25-mph Maine with his serve. My own serve looked like Andy Roddick’s by comparison, and that’s a statement I can rarely make. This guy did, however, hit a hard, heavy topspin forehand and a pinpoint backhand lob, both of which he would use to good effect. The match showed what happens when you put four guys on the court who specialize in making their opponents look bad but aren’t much for making themselves look good- it was U-G-L-Y. We had the best chance to carry the play because we were more of a classic take-the-net doubles team. But I was tentative with my returns and slow to move to short balls (including short serves), and Adam returned erratically and had problems volleying. On the plus side, I actually served fairly well and wasn’t broken at all in the match. Given the mediocre quality of our opponents’ serves, that alone should have almost guaranteed us a win, but unfortunately it didn’t. The first set was back and forth until we took the tiebreaker 7-3 behind a few strong shots. We breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that with our sea legs under us we could cruise through the second. It was to be a much choppier voyage, though, as the Mustache came alive with a series of forehand winners to give Simsbury a quick 3-0 lead. I finally got my game going enough to lead us on a surge, sparked by one lunging crosscourt backhand winner at a super-acute angle off a Simsbury drop volley. We evened up the set at 4-4 and then squandered some chances to break the clean-shaven player, which would have allowed us to serve for the match. The set went to another tiebreaker and our opponents chose this critical moment to give us two extremely questionable calls, one on what appeared to be a clean ace hit by Adam and another on one of his volleys that seemed to us to have hit the baseline. To be fair, these guys’ calls were generally reasonable, but the two they missed could well have been the difference in a tiebreaker that ended 5-7.
Anyone who’s even a cursory reader of this blog knows how I feel about supertiebreakers. All of my USTA league losses (for both 18s and 40s) this season have come in that accursed format. My only supertiebreaker victory came when my partner, the worst player on our team, somehow channeled Roger Federer for a five-minute stretch. I can’t even win them against my teammates in practice. I’m at the point where I’d gladly stake my fate on a rock-paper-scissors game or even a coin toss instead, if only those options existed. Lacking the big serve to win free points outright, I told myself before districts to try to at least minimize my double faults and avoid the stupid errors that are so costly in a short format. I also told myself to embrace the challenge of winning a supertiebreaker in postseason play when it matters most. I did both of those things better in East Hartford than I did during most of the season, but the result was all too familiar. I really thought I was going to reverse the curse. We got up 5-1 and seemed to be cruising. Then there was a long point, a few shots we could and maybe should have put away at the net, followed by a crazily angled forehand winner from the Mustache. That seemed to give Simsbury the momentum and we just couldn’t get it back. The points in a supertiebreaker often blur together and this was no exception. The next thing I knew, clean-shaven Kevin was serving at 9-8. He hit a safe delivery, maybe 60 mph with light spin. Nobody in his right mind wants to hit a second serve at 9-8 in a supertiebreaker. But Adam’s crosscourt backhand return went about 20 feet high and into the side curtain. It seemed to take forever to land but in the EHTC there was no sudden gust of wind to bring it back down between the lines. We could only hope that Chris and Jeff had done their jobs against a fairly strong #2 team. There had been very little cheering or even engagement from the gallery during our supertiebreaker and I took that as a hopeful sign that we already had three points, but the walk to the scorer’s table was still agonizing. I had a horrible feeling that my blowing a very winnable match had ended my team’s season. Luckily that wasn’t the case. Jeff and Chris had won 6-2, 7-6, and we were on to a winner-take-all flight final against Newington.
Although our second match was slated to begin at 3:30, my doubles match started so late and took so long that it didn’t finish until almost 3:00. No time for lunch then- we had to make do with Jeff Siegel’s giant baggie of trail mix, of which I ate considerably more than my share. The good news for me was that in the general consensus of those watching I had done reasonably well in a losing effort and would not have to sit out the second match. Chris asked me point blank who I would rather play with, Dan or Todd. I’ve been a captain and that should be the captain’s decision, tough as it is. I kind of hemmed and hawed and said I’d be comfortable returning from either side (that part was true) and would have confidence with either guy. I know Todd much better and have coached with him, so on a personal level I had more confidence playing with him, but I didn’t think it was fair to Dan for me to base a lineup decision that shouldn’t even have been mine to make on that alone. Luckily Jeff Siegel was sitting nearby and when I asked for his views he said that he thought Todd had looked a little sharper than Dan against Simsbury. Chris then muttered something like “yeah, Dan gets a little crazy in these competitions, we’ll go with Todd”. That hardly sounded like a vote of confidence, and so Todd and I were scheduled to play number 1, the theory being that if Newington stacked again, we could win, and if they didn’t, well, there were four other courts and we’d just have to get three of them.
I barely had enough time to get a quick shower and change before returning to the court. There was just one small problem: my underwear was soaked through, and my extra pairs were back at the hotel in my suitcase. Given the time constraints, even taking ten minutes to go there and back again was out of the question. My shorts didn’t have liners and I was reluctant to go commando, since getting hit is a regular part of the game in doubles. Luckily Chris Mc came to the rescue with one of his backup outfits- a small, banana-sack thing that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the French-Canadians at Old Orchard Beach. Since there were no women’s matches taking place on nearby courts, though, I figured the tightness of the fit wouldn’t be an issue.
We got lucky, I suppose: they stacked again. Our opponents were two guys who looked to be rapidly approaching retirement age. Ren, a tall, smooth-stroking, and exceptionally gracious man who had grown up on the South Side of Manchester, was in fact already retired. David, his partner, was very short and not much younger. I’d noticed that almost all of his shots in his morning match were touch shots, drops and angles, so we were much more ready for his unorthodox game than would normally have been the case. Later I’d learn that he was the team captain and lowest-rated player, and in the lineup this weekend only because Ren’s regular partner was injured and unable to play. Todd and I brought close to our A games, though, so we might have won regardless. The final was 2 and 2, and it may not have been that close. Hard-hit balls a step or two to the side of both men worked well for us. On David they usually went unreturned. Ren would often get the first one back but then be left just a little out of position for the next shot, leaving a gap that his partner couldn’t close. David’s serve was even slower than the Mustache’s, and with much less spin. It was basically a slow-setting ball-machine feed that didn’t land quite as deep as it should have. He actually held the first time he served because it fouled us up so much. On his next service game I went up to the 10-and-under line halfway between the service line and the baseline and took his serve on the rise for the rest of the match. He never came close to holding again. Our own service games went smoothly, except one glitch from Todd in the opening game of the second set where he lost focus and hit a couple of double faults. We were cruising, hitting smoothly and having fun, and then….oh, shit! I chased a lob down, turned to see where it landed, and felt my hamstring tighten when I tried to turn back around. It wasn’t a tear, not that pop or click you hear when something’s really gone wrong and you know it may be weeks, months, or a lot longer before you’ll be the same. This was a more common injury resulting mainly from fatigue and lack of flexibility, one not unfamiliar to me from my tournament-playing days. I couldn’t walk it off. I couldn’t stretch it out on the changeovers. Neither Advil nor my Tiger Balm concoction could make it go away. I just very calmly told Todd what had happened and said while I’d still signal at the net, there just wouldn’t be any more signals that said “poach”. Oh, and he’d have to cover all the lobs that got over my head. Having covered lobs for other people for years, I didn’t feel guilty about that part. So I moved less, hit the balls that came to me the best I could, and we still won comfortably. I was under no delusions, though: the championship match, if we got there, would be an entirely different story.
To make a long story slightly less long, we did get there. Kevin trailed 2-5, 0-40 against the strong lefty baseliner but came back, won the set and let loose a primal scream I could hear clear as a bell four courts away. They played another seven games, but the match was over after that. Peter wore down the smooth-stroking veteran after a tough 7-5 opening set. Siegel and McCallum dominated a decent team that just couldn’t move or hit quite well enough to threaten them. Hannum and Hirshan lost a 10-8 supertiebreaker that they probably shouldn’t have lost, to a couple of seniors who had played together for over 30 years, but it didn’t really matter. We were going to be playing on Sunday.
Both Connecticut teams had beaten Concord, so that meant Rocky Hill was also going to be playing on Sunday. They were an impressive squad that drew talent from all over: many of their players also competed in the New York and Southern Connecticut leagues, and there was even one guy from Rhode Island. The singles players didn’t look unbeatable by any means, but they were steady and tenacious. Doubles was a different story. All three of their pairs were solid, and two looked almost untouchable. One featured a giant with a cannonball serve that wouldn’t have been out of place on the satellite tour. The other, featuring two super athletes with all the shots, had beaten Greg Coache and Joe Waldvogel of Concord 6-0, 6-1. Both Greg and Joe were coming off injuries, they’d just had a long first match, and neither is particularly fit even in the best of times, but they also had both been competitive 4.5 players not so long ago. When Coache got off the court and said no two guys on our team could beat that pair, and PJ Cistulli said the same about the giant and his partner, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Pairing-wise, the only real decision to be made was whether to use Hannum or Horan. Todd and I had surpassed expectations, Chris and Jeff had been stellar, and Adam had lost two matches by a total of four points. Chris’s solution was to put Adam, Jeff and Dan in a room together (without him) and figure out which two would play. We didn’t want to throw away a court and it was the general consensus that for our combination to have any chance of winning, Adam needed to be out there. But no agreement was reached on who his partner should be. So with a berth at sectionals on the line, Adam Hirshan put two fingers behind his back and called “odds or evens”. Jeff Hannum correctly called “evens” and got the spot. Sometimes fact really is stranger than fiction…
Algonquin had a superb showing across the board in USTA-NH this season, as the 3.5 and 4.5 teams also qualified for the districts and played at EHTC. I didn’t know any of the 3.5s, but I’ve played with just about all of the 4.5s, and they’re good guys, so although evening was fast approaching, most of us stayed to watch their match against Simsbury. This was high-quality tennis across the board, with a blend of smoothness and power on most courts that’s rarely seen at the 4.0 level. The Algonquin team prevailed by taking four matches by razor-thin margins (Rob, the plumber, was in a little bit over his head and lost his doubles match badly). Larry Barnes and Todd Cuthbert at number one doubles had the most controversial ending. At 9-8 for Algonquin in the supertiebreaker, a shot from Barnes appeared to hit inside the far baseline but was called long by Connecticut. Fans in the gallery started screaming and yelling and then Larry barked something at his opponents, after which the four players came to net and shook hands. CT ultimately had given our guys the call, although some arguing and general bad feeling between the two teams continued in the lobby afterwards. At least the team match ended 4-1 so that one controversial point had not determined the overall outcome.
The 4.5s went their own way after the match and our group ended up going to a place called Max Burger in West Hartford. West Hartford and East Hartford have absolutely nothing in common except “Hartford”. East Hartford was perhaps best described by one of our Saturday opponents, who advised us that we might not want to walk around a whole lot after dark there. I never felt unsafe in the small corner of it that I spent time in, but it was certainly a gritty place with little scenic beauty; even the Margaritas we visited on Friday night had a definite “gangsta” vibe. Upscale, yuppified, and prosperous, West Hartford had more in common with Beverly Hills than with its Eastern counterpart, and while I haven’t seen many upscale burger places, I can now add Max Burger to that short list. Not only was I one of the oldest people in the joint (our contingent- Kevin and Peter aside- looked to be the only people north of 30 there) but in my cargo shorts and shower sandals one of the worst dressed. Who knew you had to look like you were auditioning for a remake of “Friends” just to go grab a burger?! It wasn’t a big deal, though: underdressed though we may have been, all of us were thrilled about our two wins and just enjoying the moment. And I must say, the burgers were thick and delicious. We got back to our hotel sometime between 10:30 and 11 after some adventures with Chris’s GPS, which had a tendency to show the route branching off into many different directions simultaneously. The rest of us shared plenty of opinions on his gadget, few of them positive, but in the end it got us where we needed to go. I stretched my hamstring the best I could for several minutes while talking with Hannum, who by virtue of having chosen “evens” needed a place to crash. He was soon asleep on his bed but I took considerably longer to drift off, until at last exhaustion overwhelmed nerves, excitement and pain.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
I get up at 5:40 am for work, so I don’t often need an alarm to wake me for other purposes. Waking up may not have been difficult, but getting up sure was. Any minimal progress my stretching had made seemed to have completely vanished, and I was tight as a drum on my upper left side. I didn’t feel like I could drop out, though. Horan and Todd had mixed like oil and water and our other two teams were set. Any other subs we might have had were three hours away, likely sound asleep, and a cut or two below Dan. Justifiably or not, I felt like I still gave us the best chance to win. I resolved to hit a little harder than normal, try to get the points over with quickly one way or the other, and let Todd chase down anything out of reach. I didn’t say this publicly, but I really hoped to draw one of the two Rocky Hill superteams, take the hit, and free up one of our other teams to beat the weakest of the three CT pairs. We ate breakfast at the hotel again more or less uneventfully and then packed our stuff up and headed to the club. The exchange of lineups provided the day’s first drama. Because CT had used their strongest teams at 1 and 2 throughout the opening flight, Chris put Todd and me at 1, Adam and Jeff H at 2, and himself with Jeff S at 3. The Rocky Hill captain seemed to have anticipated us, though, dropping the giant’s pair to 2 and the two superstuds to 3. That left me facing the relatively vulnerable opponents, in what seemed a must-win situation, at about 70 percent strength. Perfect.
The match played out like a district final should, with four nip-and-tuck matches out of five. The exception was 2 doubles, which started on the adjacent court towards the end of our first set and, disconcertingly, had already finished before the end of our second. Hannum and Hirshan got smashed 1 and 2 by the giant and his steady, smooth partner. The result was not totally unexpected, but the pressure on the rest of us ramped up accordingly. Kevin ran into a scrappy older guy who dived for several balls on the hard indoor surface. He pulled through 4 and 4 after a long struggle. There were no macho celebrations at the end this time, though- he just gave his opponent major props for displaying such great hustle. Somewhat to my surprise, my own match became even tighter than my hamstring. Todd and I played a shaven-headed, bearded guy named Chris with a supersonic forehand and a big first serve, and an Asian named Jeff with heavy groundstrokes and extremely quick feet. Jeff’s shoulder didn’t seem to be fully right, as his serves came in soft and he had no overhead to speak of, but it was his third match of the weekend too. Unfortunately his other shots were still hit at a blistering pace. All of the early games were close, drawn-out affairs except my opening serve, which I lost at 15 (ah, a return to normalcy at last…), but CT won the lion’s share and went up 4-1. We started returning better and getting into the net more effectively, though, and brought the set to a tiebreaker. Despite my limited mobility I found I could still volley well, and I mixed lob and drive returns to combat the aggressive poaching of our opponents. With more of the same plus solid serving and overheads from Todd, we came through with a 7-4 win. I hoped that our comeback would demoralize our opponents, but with so much at stake they simply redoubled their efforts. In what was becoming an all-too-familiar pattern (“déjà vu all over again”, Chevy Chase might have called it), we quickly found ourselves down 3-0 as Chris and Jeff started hitting hard forehand winners between us in places I might not have reached even at 100 percent, and on this day could only lunge at in futility and increasing pain. Somehow we dug deep and won three straight games. I could still volley, including one lunging high backhand that I nailed deep and sharply crosscourt driving Chris into the side curtain. Our return game picked up too. We seemed to have regained the momentum. Then it was my turn to serve again. I knew if we won this game we had a very good chance of winning the match, so I put a little extra into it, but our opponents stepped up their returns too. As had been the case for most of the match, I was forced to stay back on my second serve to Jeff, whose returns were too heavy and sharply angled for me to reach coming in. Now Chris started hitting his backhand return better too. Todd and I battled, with some great volleying and even reasonably effective serves, including a few that went unreturned. After several deuces, though, we lost the game, and, ultimately, the set, 6-4. To the supertiebreaker again, then, with a sectional berth at stake. Oh boy. I thought about minimizing stupid errors, putting first serves in and focusing as sharply as I could. I told myself all the work I’d done would pay off this one time. It didn’t. We got up 5-2 and I really thought it would happen. Then, in an eerie similarity to the Simsbury match, there came a crazy point, a mishit topspin lob by Jeff that my outstretched racquet could only wave at. No chance of either of us hitting it on the bounce given the amount of spin. Momentum back in the opponents’ corner. Again. I can’t remember the points in detail, and I remember being nervous as hell and taking a little extra time, but I didn’t choke. I got my serves in, stuck most of my volleys and returned as well as I could. Todd got a little tight with some of his shots, though, and the other guys began coming up big, beating me on a volley exchange or two and placing some other balls just out of my reach. Before I knew it I was down 7-9 and serving, just like I’ve been practicing all summer long. It’s funny how you can imagine being in that situation so many times, and then one day all of a sudden it’s real and you’re tired and sore and more scared than anything, but still trying to execute what you spent all those hours practicing. I took a deep breath, put the serve to the backhand where I wanted it and we got the point. 8-9 and time to switch sides with Chris serving to Todd on the ad court. He went for a big ace and missed. His second serve was soft, as it had been throughout, and Todd got his backhand return past the net man and worked his way in. He volleyed the next ball long, though, and it was over. It had been a terrific match, competitive and hard fought but with mutual respect and good sportsmanship on both sides. I was heartbroken but I guess I was drained or something; I didn’t throw the racquet or even swear, just went up to the net and wished the other guys luck at sectionals if their team won, as now seemed likely. I felt like I wanted to cry right there on the court. After all the injuries and struggles, to come back and get this close but ultimately blow it for the guys was just not something I could deal with very well. The walk up to the lobby was even harder than it had been against Simsbury. Yet the result ended up the same- somehow we had won and were sectionals bound!!!!! I let out an impassioned “yesss” on hearing the result and only later learned the improbable details. Peter had pulled a muscle in his shoulder and been reduced to serving a ping-pong tap and hitting everything with his two-handed backhand because he didn’t have enough strength to hit his forehand. Somehow he rallied to win even after dropping the first set. That kid has a ton of heart. Jeff and Chris had benefited from a cramp suffered by one of the supermen early in the match, allowing our guys to win a set and then squeak through in a 10-8 supertiebreaker. It was all almost too crazy to believe, but somehow we were going to Springfield.
I rode with Hannum on the return trip, as Chris had to bring Dan Horan since the 4.5 players Dan had come down with didn’t play until much later (they ended up losing, 4-1, and did not make sectionals). Most of us stopped to eat at a Jewish deli called Rein’s a few exits up I-84. I had the “regular” size bologna and liverwurst sandwich and given the size of it, I could only imagine how big the “large” would have been. As we ate we enjoyed the win and started thinking about our next challenge, the 40 and over districts next weekend in the Boston area. I was happy with my play and my attitude, although less thrilled with my results. While it would have been nice to contribute more, I think I strengthened my position in the lineup with solid play, even at less than 100 percent strength, and I formed a strong partnership with Todd which may continue at sectionals. As a team win it was absolutely thrilling. A lot of things broke right for us: overtaking Concord on the last day of the regular season to get in a weaker flight, then the upset loss suffered by Middlebury- the one team with singles players better than our own- then the supertiebreaker wins by Peter and third doubles. With so much good luck it would be almost wrong to complain about my own close losses. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to win a big match for us down the road. Even to be playing at this level, given where I was physically a couple of years ago, is a huge thrill and a terrific opportunity, and I have to savor it as best I can. For the moment I have to get healthy. The adventure continues next weekend…
Saturday, August 10. Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA
I didn’t get to train for the 40-and-over districts the way I would have liked. In fact, I didn’t pick up a racquet all week. Instead I spent a couple of days resting and then worked on rehabbing my hamstring, which was stubbornly refusing to heal. It’s ironic that I worked really hard on getting stronger and improving my game, but a lack of stretching did me in. Well, a lack of stretching, a four-hour-plus match, and less-than-optimal hydration. Fortunately, our 40s team is deeper than our 18s team and the districts had a shorter format, so I held out hope that we’d get past this stage of the competition whether I was able to play or not. We were scheduled to play two teams, Hampshire Hills and Simsbury, CT, in a one-day round-robin format, with the winner advancing to sectionals. Both opponents were familiar to us: HH was in our local league and we had faced the nucleus of the Simsbury team last weekend in the 18s competition. We considered HH the stronger of the two teams, so Chris and Adam, with my input, decided on the risky strategy of playing our two strongest singles guys against them and the third and fourth best players against CT (he had promised the weaker guys a match, so we had to fit them in somewhere). I asked to be scheduled for only one match, which turned out to be the later contest against HH with Todd as my partner. Even so, as the days passed, I began to doubt whether I could manage even that much. Part of me didn’t even want to take the risk, with the 18 and over sectionals scheduled for the following week. One day, looking for hamstring treatments online, I came across a website of an Australian Rules football player who had pulled a hamstring and then been able to compete just a couple of days later (in contrast with the average recovery time of 2-3 weeks). In addition to icing and stretching, which I was already doing, his regimen included regular treatments from an electrical stimulator machine and wearing a neoprene compression sleeve over the injury during play. I didn’t have a lot of faith in either of those measures but saw little downside in at least trying them. So on Friday afternoon I went on a shopping spree: one compression sleeve still on the rack at Dick’s, and more miraculously a small stimulator right there for the taking at CVS. I grabbed both immediately, before someone else could walk by and snatch them away. What I really wanted was a new hamstring, but regrettably there were none available. Once back home, I used the stimulator the recommended three times per day. It was a pocket sized unit with pads connecting to it that you attach to your skin in the afflicted area. I looked and felt like a gigantic lab rat awaiting the next electric shock, but it did seem to help a little. It was in that condition, hoping for the best but fearing the worst, that I made the hour’s drive down to Manchester, MA.
Manchester is an upper-class beachside enclave on the North Shore, out on the far eastern extension of route 128 near Gloucester. The Manchester Athletic Club (MAC) is a well-known junior development center staffed with pros from the Nick Bollettieri Academy, and there are seven indoor courts plus several outdoor hard courts. One of the hard courts is a full pro-size stadium, home to World Team Tennis’s Boston Lobsters. Put another way, whether we had clicked our heels or not, it quickly became apparent that we weren’t in East Hartford anymore. Regardless of the teams involved, all of the different districts took place in Eastern MA. So it was that the MAC hosted 4.0 men from NH and Northern CT, but 4.0 women from VT, Southern CT and Eastern CT. It was these women who had to finish before we could begin our early-morning match with Simsbury. In the case of one moonball-filled singles match, the wait seemed interminable, but eventually we got onto that court too. We were hoping for a split of the singles, since we knew CT was going to be missing some key players (they had told us so last weekend) and probably wouldn’t take more than one doubles court. And despite some dicey moments, a split is exactly what we got, with both matches ending in supertiebreakers. Hannum took the first set in a tiebreaker but then began to hit just a few too many errors against Tim Ruark, a solid all-court player with a good serve and forehand. A late break doomed him in the second, and in the match tiebreaker both men began to make nervous errors, but Jeff had a few more of them (once again including some ill-timed double faults) and lost 10-7. Luckily Rick Paquin, our bulldog number two singles player, evened things up not long afterward. After a dreadful first set in which he missed a number of shots he usually nails, Rick got his game in gear late in the second and then used some sharply angled passing shots in the supertiebreaker to down his net-rushing opponent, Scott Mason, also by a 10-7 count. That appeared to give us a little breathing room, as all three doubles pairs (PJ/Neal, Chris/Jeff S, and Adam/Jerry Kingwill) won their first sets easily. CT made the second sets competitive on every court but never had enough firepower to really threaten us. Adam and Jerry were pushed to a second-set tiebreaker by the Mustache and a fellow baseline-hugger, but Adam closed to the net well and Jerry’s combination of power and touch proved to be too much for the Simsbury duo. We were one team win away from Sectionals, and my gamble had paid off. Adam Lesser and Neal would be well rested for Hampshire Hills.
If the good news was that we were one step closer to our goal, the bad news was that we had to wait over seven hours to play our other match. Normally at these competitions you either have one match per day or you’re basically playing all day long. Here we had a long lull, but it really wasn’t worth driving home either, so we were stuck. I tried to get someone else to play for me in the night match, but it was Hannum’s birthday, PJ had family coming in and Rick is allergic to doubles. Everyone else who was available was already in the lineup. I had heard, rightly or wrongly, that a defaulted court in Championship tournaments results in your team’s disqualification, so I had no choice but to suck it up and play. Let’s just say the muscle stimulator got plenty of work in those intervening seven hours. If an opponent happened to see me clicking on it, I was prepared to say it was a Walkman-type device. Luckily no one questioned me, since I would have been hard pressed to explain why the wires were attached to my legs instead of to my ears.
In the meantime, we went down to the waterfront area of Manchester and ate on the patio of a Mexican place. I love Mexican food, but it rarely loves me back, so this time I chose what looked to be the least, umm, “watery” option- steak fajitas. Chris ordered a guacamole-slathered specialty which resembled a giant green turd and made me very glad I’d chosen something I could recognize. We listened as Jerry, a native South African, told stories from a recent trip home with his wife and kids which included a multi-day safari. Then he and Chris (an Australian) tried to explain cricket to the rest of us. I’m afraid it was a losing battle. The most memorable part was the story of former teammate Pete Brooke (now returned to Australia) once taking a line drive in the lower midsection from point-blank range in a cricket game, after which his balls turned black and he had to be rushed to the hospital. Luckily Pete’s ability to have children was not compromised. I’m sure he would have enjoyed being part of this team, but he was certainly there today in spirit. Anyone who has busted people’s balls as much as Pete has surely wouldn’t mind hearing about his own balls being busted.
As it was warm and sunny out and we saw “beach parking” signs for Singing Beach everywhere, we decided to go and see what all the fuss was about. Although there was water all around, it still turned out to be a 15-minute walk to the beach. Maybe it’s called Singing Beach because your feet are screaming at you by the time you finally get there. The beach turned out to be tucked away in a cove, and you had to pay just to get in, even if you didn’t park there. Luckily one of my teammates talked the future yuppie at the gate into letting us in just to walk around for a few minutes. What a contrast with Hampton! This was a quiet spot with a relatively sparse crowd, a snack bar selling beach t-shirts more tastefully than most such places, and a view of some impressive cliff-side mansions off in the distance. The policeman patrolling the area told us he actually was required to cover up his tattoos while on duty. Where I live that would never happen in a million years! We took in the rarefied atmosphere for 20 minutes or so and then made the long walk back, stopping at an excellent mom-and-pop-type ice cream shop near the water. All in all, it was a peaceful interlude before the drama of our final match.
That final match could have been somewhat less dramatic if Hampshire Hills had lost to CT, but our in-state rivals came back from match point down on both singles courts to eke out a 3-2 win. Instead of needing to win just two courts, then, we had to win the match outright. We still had a couple of women’s matches to wait through as we planned our strategy. Chris has an unsurpassed knack for always talking to the hottest woman, in this case drawing a hug from the 8 am Southern CT moonballer before she went off to play her late afternoon match. I settled for a “good luck” before each of our respective matches throughout the day from her friendly, but much less hot, captain. It was decided that since I wasn’t at full strength anyway, Todd and I should be sacrificed in the number 1 doubles spot against what was likely to be the team of Tom Nieva and Mike McQuaid. This prediction turned out to be spot on. Tom I described in detail earlier in the season, and unfortunately he hadn’t shrunk any since. I’d never met Mike, but the scouting reports said that he had all the shots. His only weaknesses seemed to be his movement and his overhead. Clearly this would be a difficult matchup even at full strength, and I might have been 75 percent at best. I resolved to be aggressive to the net where I could, try to anticipate a la my old friend Chris Sporcic, and let balls go that were clearly out of reach. Our chances were better in the other matchups, but a team victory was far from a given. Lesser, a lawyer off the Concord 4.0 team, would face over-65 finesse wizard John Forsyth in one singles match while Neal squared off with David Spokane, a tall, smooth-stroking player. Chris and Jeff were paired off with HH’s weakest doubles team, a couple of guys not far above 3.5 who had caught on to our stacking strategy and were basically throwing themselves away. At number three Jerry and Adam would play Meltzer and McGhee, a couple of dangerous players but by no means unbeatable. I thought we needed either second singles or third doubles and that both would be hard-fought, but Siegel was adamant that we were going to win 4-1. I was pretty sure I knew who the one was.
Off we went to the court, in our case to a bubble beyond the five main courts which was used only when play had fallen behind schedule. The court and surrounding area seemed to be regulation size but the ceiling was low, which didn’t bode well for my lob return. Warming up I moved slowly but hit the ball fairly well, except on my overheads, which seemed to come directly out of the lights. Maybe I just wasn’t used to playing with lights that actually worked, but in any case it was an adjustment. Our opponents had the greater adjustment early on, though, as we took the first four games. Nieva got sloppy with some volleys, Todd was sharp with his net play and although I didn’t have great timing on my returns, I hit just enough of them well to create some openings. I was also able to outvolley their guys at the net more often than not and realized they were old and slow just like me. They got more into the match after that but we still held serve the rest of the way to take the set 6-2. This match was winnable after all! I knew it wouldn’t be easy, though: I was 0-2 lifetime vs Nieva despite winning the first set in both matches. Here once again the HH giant came on as the match progressed. Todd had a couple of double faults in our opening service game and in the blink of an eye we were down 0-3, but we broke Nieva with a couple of well-placed lobs (my intel on McQuade’s overhead had proved correct) to get back on serve. Then Todd again struggled with his serve and we lost the break once more, only this time we could not get it back as our opponents showcased some strong serve-and-volley play and ran out the set 6-3. If there was a silver lining, it was that I had placed my serve well and held quite easily throughout the match, so I wasn’t as negative about the upcoming supertiebreaker as I might have been otherwise. But it would still be an uphill climb.
Looking around as we toweled off before the match tiebreaker, I saw that Chris and Jeff had already won easily and Neal had pulled out a close one (down 0-3 in the second but came back to win 4 and 4). The other two matches were still going on but were too far away for me to see the score cards. Maybe we needed them, maybe we didn’t, but we had a chance to make them academic with a win. Piece of cake, right? Only HH continued their run of second-set form by jumping out to a 6-2 lead. Having lost two similar leads last weekend, I wasn’t conceding, but I knew we’d have to pick up our own level quickly. Just in the nick of time our games got sharper. Todd won a service point and somehow we won both of Nieva’s serves. I’m still not sure how. Then I won both of mine and suddenly we were up 7-6 and pumping our fists. Serving to Todd, McQuade then double faulted into the bottom of the net as my Chet Porowski hand-hex, discreetly folded into the side of my shorts, finally paid off. Maybe fate was finally on my side. On the next point I got my return back and they hit a volley long. 9-6 with Todd serving two! We were going to do this! Only he got tight, missed both first serves badly and couldn’t get his first volley in off either of the ensuing second serves (to their credit, our opponents also hit two of their better returns). Now it was still 9-8 but Nieva was serving, and he won both of his points. 9-10 with me serving. This was beyond awful. I could see it in my mind’s eye already, the point lost, the match lost, maybe the season lost. I felt like Charlie Brown just after Lucy has snatched the football away from him once again. Then Todd walked up to me and asked where I wanted to serve the next point. I shrugged dejectedly and said “I don’t fucking know”. All I knew was that it didn’t really matter where the ball went, there was no way we were winning the point. But just as a season’s worth of failure was about to drag me under once again, Todd, as he should have, got right up in my face and started yelling “Come on man, we’re going to fucking win this match, now let’s go”. I sobered up and the nightmare passed. I went up to the line and hit a decent spin serve with some depth, and McQuade’s crosscourt backhand return carried well wide. 10-10. The point I served to Nieva was much harder-fought, but Todd ended it with a crosscourt volley into McQuade’s alley with all four of us at the net- the shot of the match. We switched sides again at 11-10. My heart was in my chest. McQuade had a decent serve and another double fault was probably too much to ask for. He got the serve in this time and Todd put his backhand return in play. What happened next will always be in dispute, but both Todd and I saw the HH volley just beyond Todd’s baseline. We had given them a number of close calls throughout the match because we couldn’t be sure the balls were out. On this one we were both sure, but they certainly weren’t. I wish we’d had a replay available, but lacking that our call stood. We were going to the sectionals. Adam Lesser ended up winning his match in two long sets and the third doubles guys lost in straight sets, so the final score was 4-1. Jeff Siegel made note of that fact for quite some time afterwards.