Tri-Level Triumph!

I thought I’d made my last trip to Springfield for sectionals after getting the dreaded year-end bump to 4.5.  Then I found out I still had one last shot, for I was entered in a relatively new form of USTA competition called Tri-Level, which is based entirely on the early start ratings (meaning I was still, for these purposes, a 4.0).   Tri-Level, at least in New England,  is basically a multi-stage tournament to identify the best doubles teams at the 3.5, 4.0 and 4.5 levels.  You can have up to four players on your “team”, but they all need to play a certain number of matches,  so in practice teams are generally composed of two or three players, and you have the ability to progress through your local “league” to sectionals and even Nationals, just as in regular USTA league play.  I had never taken part in Tri-Level, but Todd had played several times and thought it would give us some good practice for our league matches, if nothing else.  We took on a third player, Dan Horan, because Todd was scheduled to have hernia surgery in mid-December and so would likely be unavailable, or at least limited, if we were to qualify for the January sectional. 

In NH this year there were two round-robin qualifying tournaments (or, in USTA parlance, “local leagues”), one in early November at Mountainside and one on Thanksgiving weekend at the YMCA.  Due to scheduling conflicts on the earlier date, we signed up for the Thanksgiving tournament.  That turned out to be a wise move, because the Mountainside qualifier featured four strong teams, all of which would likely have been favored against our triumvirate.   Chris, Adam Hirshan and Bryan from our Algonquin team went up and actually came in last, so strong was the competition.   Glenn McKune and B Manning from the host club emerged victorious (3-0 match record), defeating their USTA teammates King and Atherley (2-1) in the decisive final match.    

Thanksgiving travels and prior commitments limited the YMCA draw to just two teams, but it would still be no easy task to get by the host entry of Dana Lavoie, Mike Delaney and John Smith.  Dana and Mike lost only once last season at #1 doubles, including a win over Siegel and me (even though my game had seemingly improved since then, Siegel was probably two or three tenths stronger than Todd on the USTA scale, so we still had our work cut out for us).  Neither would we have any respite against John Smith, who had just been bumped down from 4.5.   We caught what turned out to be a big break, though, when the Y was unable to field a team on Saturday, which was the only day Dan could play.  This allowed Todd, after some searching, to add the much stronger Kevin Phelps (home from Plymouth State for Thanksgiving) to our roster in Dan’s place.   In accordance with USTA local regulations which require at least four matches in a two-team “league”, we would play twice on Friday and twice more on Sunday and follow normal USTA tiebreaking procedures if it ended at two wins apiece.

For the Friday matches I was scheduled to play with Todd first and with Kevin second, while the Y put their strongest team of Dana and Mike in for both matches.  Given that I would have to play twice, and at least once more on Sunday, I came out with the mentality of pacing myself instead of going full-bore from the start as in a one-off USTA match.  This turned out to be a costly error.  We squandered a couple of break points on Dana’s serve in the opening game and then before we knew what hit us we were down 0-4.  Actually, we did know what was hitting us: Dana’s inside-out serve and supersonic forehand (which combined both pace and heavy topspin), and Mike’s laser-beam backhand.  We just couldn’t stop them.   I wasn’t serving well and they were crushing the returns, particularly Dana, whose ball we both struggled to volley.  Todd served better than me but had problems with his return.   I didn’t have the same level of play as the previous weekend at Hampshire Hills and I didn’t have the competitive fire to get back into it the way I should have either.  We dropped the first set 6-2 but the second was only one break’s difference (6-3).  With just a little more energy and conviction we might have brought it to 5-5, at which point anything is possible, no matter how badly you’ve been outplayed previously.  I didn’t hold serve the entire match and as sometimes happens I let my discouragement with my serving seep into the other parts of my game and affect them negatively. I didn’t even have the spirit to get angry and fired up.  Todd persevered mentally and played reasonably well but he’s just not good enough yet to carry me against a team of that caliber.  We were outclassed in every phase of the game and at times came close to being embarrassed.  It was the worst beginning imaginable.

In USTA play there’s no room for ego, and I knew I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to keep playing that day.  Todd and I both agreed we had a better chance with him partnering Kevin, and that ended up being the case.  The Y guys don’t volley that well and Kevin’s heavy topspin down the line returns bothered them.  During the points he was able to go toe-to-toe from the baseline with them and even force some weak returns which Todd could take advantage of.  Both our guys served well and we were able to come through with a hard-fought 6-4, 6-4 win.  So at the half-way point, we each had one team win and we were also even on sets, but they had won three more total games to take a slight lead.  On Saturday, with no matches scheduled, we strategized back and forth via text message about our lineup choices for Sunday.  We felt we needed Kevin in the lineup for both matches, so the question became which match to play Todd with him and which to play me.   While neither of us knew what role, if any, Smith might play, we both thought the Y would use their strongest lineup in the second match, so given what had happened on Friday we decided to put Todd and Kevin second.  I was discouraged by my performance on Friday but determined to make amends, and Todd’s confidence and game were in a good place (Kevin’s confidence is pretty much always boundless…). 

Sunday came and the Y’s lineup played right into our hands, as they used Smith with Delaney for the first match and with Dana for the second.  While Mike and Dana are both excellent players, with all things being equal I would rather face Mike.  He hits a slightly slower ball with less spin which is easier to volley, and his serve is even weaker than mine.   And even though Smith had been a 4.5, I’d never faced him, so I didn’t have any negative preconceptions of how the match might go.  He turned out to be a solid player with nice strokes, but nothing really special or overpowering.  I gave Kevin his preferred deuce court, where his forehand is most effective, and took the ad side.  We both returned well, and his attitude was positive and supportive throughout, which helped me get my confidence back.  I committed to being aggressive at the net, and I found plenty of opportunities to poach off of his heavy groundstrokes.  When the time came, I watched the f’ing ball as well as I could, took it out in front and volleyed to the open space (they were generally in a one-up, one-back formation, which made this easier).  After losing my first service game, I also switched to starting from the backscratch position a la Jay Berger in the 1980s.  It didn’t look pretty, but it gave my serve a better kick and made it harder for them to hit attacking returns.  They are both tough competitors and they never gave up, but the momentum stayed on our side and when the dust cleared we had a 6-1, 6-2 win.  At the end Kevin was even more amped than usual and I was thrilled to have bounced back strong.

With Kevin and Todd set to take on Smith and Lavoie, the odds were now in our favor due to the decisive nature of my win with Kevin.  We could win through to the next round of the competition in one of three ways: 1) a straight-up victory by any score, 2) a loss in which we won one set or 3) a loss in which we won at least seven total games.  It still wouldn’t be easy, as Dana is capable of running up some big numbers and we couldn’t afford to lose by more than one break per set.  Thankfully our guys came out and picked up where they left off on Friday with a dominating first set performance, winning 6-2 to end the suspense quickly.  After that, the other guys (Smith in particular) raised their level while Todd let down and Kevin made a few too many mistakes, and we ended up losing in a supertiebreaker.

It was a great team win, made bittersweet by the USTA bumping me up to 4.5 in the year-ends the following day, which meant that the Tri-Level competition would be my swan song in 4.0 play.   And even our success there promised to be short-lived, for we hadn’t made it to Springfield yet.  Since each New England state could send just one entry at each level to sectionals, we had to play off against Glenn and B, the winners of the other flight and clearly the state’s top 4.0 team, for the right to represent New Hampshire.  Todd, Kevin and I pressed for a two-out-of three match series, which seemed only fair given that we had had to play four matches against the Y team just to make it out of our flight.  To our dismay, though, the decision was made to have a single-match playoff.  Even worse, the playoff was set for a Sunday in early December when I had committed to attend a presentation in Haverhill that was dedicated to my father and his historical work.   Given the way Todd and Kevin had played in the qualifier, plus the fact that Todd would likely have to miss sectionals, it was only right to have those two team up for the winner-take-all showdown anyway, but I regretted not being able to watch and cheer them on from the sidelines.

A few days before the Championship match, something strange happened.  I had shared my disappointment with the scheduling format in a short email to Adam Hirshan, who serves as NH’s Tri-Level coordinator.  Adam’s reply contained nothing beyond the usual formalities, but below his e-signature was a long sequence of prior messages between him and Mountainside, and in one of them B noted that because of an availability conflict with the date of sectionals, he and Glenn would default to us if they reached match point.  I mentioned it to Todd and we considered how to take this news.   With so much at stake, we couldn’t discount the possibility that it was some kind of bluff or gamesmanship on their part, although B is known as a straight shooter.  We decided that he and Kevin would approach the situation as if Mountainside was playing to win and we needed to have that same win-or-else mentality.  I found out later that it had been a terrific match.  Todd and Kevin played great to win the first set, but B and Glenn, who don’t get rattled easily, came back to take the second comfortably.  In the supertiebreaker, B and Glenn led 8-5 when a return by Kevin that seemed to have been a winner was called out by B. At that point B and Glenn came to the net and defaulted (I later learned that B is in an MBA program at the University of Chicago and needs to be out there on the weekend of Jan. 17-19, when sectionals will be played).  Our guys were a little confused about the score at first but eventually realized the situation and accepted the default. 

I guess making it to sectionals on an opponent’s match-point default isn’t exactly the ideal scenario.  Still, it wasn’t as if were down 1-6, 1-5 at that point.  Kevin and Todd had been competitive in forcing a supertiebreaker (B and Glenn rarely lose sets) and even there they still had a small chance of winning from 5-9, and a greater chance from 6-8 if they had gotten the call on Kevin’s shot reversed- they certainly would have argued the point had the match not ended right then.  Maybe B and Glenn should have defaulted at the local level to allow King and Atherley to progress and possibly beat us, but they didn’t.  We had to work hard and play well just to get out of our flight and have a chance to benefit from our opponents’ largesse in the final.  And in the next four weeks Todd will bring his usual intensity and focus to rehabbing from his surgery while Kevin and I will try to keep our own games as sharp as possible.  When the time comes, I think if our games and mind-sets are right, we have as good a chance as anyone to make it to Indian Wells and the Nationals.  I know I’d better approach it with a sense of urgency, too, since it’ll most likely be my last real chance to make it to any kind of Nationals for a very long time. 




Out With a Bang

I meant to publish the previous post last month but it inadvertently stayed in draft form until just now, which means there’s a double dose of posting coming up on this Christmas Eve! The world’s no doubt waiting with baited breath.

The 4.0 season couldn’t have started any more promisingly. Our first match was against another team representing our own club, and we swept all five courts without losing a set. This match was a little bit awkward because Chris had sent some of the weaker players from our 2013 team over to the club’s other entry to give them increased playing time, and now we were facing them in the very first match of the year. Most of their guys were quite frankly closer to 3.5 than to 4.0, though, so the awkwardness didn’t end up costing us any courts. Rick at 2 singles, Brian Horan and Chris at 1 doubles and Mark Paquette and Mark Lande at 3 doubles all cruised. Adam Lesser rallied from set point down to defeat lob-crazy Ken Gould 7-5, 6-2, and Todd and I got by Dan Piatt and Paul McManus, 6-2, 7-5. We started off comfortably in control but we both missed a lot of returns and in the second set that nearly cost us because it let the other team hang around. My serve had more oomph than last year and we were holding comfortably throughout until 4-4 in the second, when our opponents got two balls right on the baseline, a mishit winner and a net cord winner to break Todd. I was pissed at our misfortune, but Todd settled me down and we broke Paul in a long deuce game. He was one of the guys who played on our team last year and although he played a terrific match overall I felt like he got tight at that juncture and maybe had that slight hesitation about whether or not he could actually beat us (believe me, I’ve been there…). Then I held after being down 0-40 and surviving many more deuces. Missing two such golden chances seemed to deflate our opponents and Piatt (who had had a big first serve and a heavy, consistent forehand throughout) dropped serve to 15, ending on a double fault. It wasn’t pretty, but they all count…

Thankfully, we raised our level of play significantly in our next match, against River Valley Club (in between, the team had also beaten Manchester Executive 3-2 in an away match I missed because of a Haverhill commitment). Scores of 6-0, 6-0 are rare in league play because most everyone plays at a reasonably similar level, but we were able to record one against RVC. I really had my serves kicking up high, with good movement, and few of them even came back. My returns were low and precise, and my volleys were sharp and firm. Todd was on his game too. While with that type of play we would have been competitive with just about any 4.0s in the country, our margin of victory was also attributable to the quality of the opposition. Both men were gracious, friendly people, but when your opponents start asking you for tips on improving their games during the middle of a match, you know you’re not in the most competitive situation imaginable. I also helped settle down Chris, who along with Waldvogel was trailing 1-4 in the opening set of the 1 doubles match. I went over to him when we were both changing sides and he was kind of wide-eyed and panicky, saying he just couldn’t get anything going. I had seen the other team was a baseline-oriented team so I just told him that if he got more active at the net he could take over the match. He seemed to be more positive and aggressive afterwards, while Joe’s play, which at that point had plenty of room to improve, also got better. They stayed in the set and then got more intense after absorbing a series of questionable calls. Ultimately they took the set in a tie-break, after which the opponent who had been making most of the bad calls self-destructed in a series of screams and racquet throws, and the second set went quickly in our favor. We won the overall team match 4-1, with Rick at 2 singles and Paquette/Hirshan at 3 doubles cruising against players of a similar caliber to what Todd and I had faced. Neal lost at 1 singles to Rick Hines, a deceptively good singles player recently bumped down from 4.5, after a close first set. Rick gets everything back and has an amazing backhand; the only real way to beat him is from the net, and that’s not where Neal is most comfortable. Still, we took the overall match 4-1, and it’s tough to complain about that outcome.

At that point we had three wins in three matches, by an average score of 4-1, but those wins had come against what were quite possibly the league’s three worst teams. The road to the Nationals was about to get a lot bumpier as we were scheduled for back to back matches at Mountainside and at Hampshire Hills. The Mountainside match was, for me personally, the low point of the fall season, and yet it started so auspiciously… First of all, we caught the home team on a rare King-less day, as Richard was accompanying his wife to a national tournament she was playing in with her father. For Mountainside, a team so dependent on number 1 and 2 doubles, to be missing one of those four players was a huge break for us. The match began with singles, and our good fortune seemed to be continuing, as Lesser demolished Tim Lesko and Rick was up a set and a break against Jon Mellen, who to that point had never beaten him. One of Rick’s strengths under normal circumstances is his ability to beat the guys he should beat, and it’s also rare that he blows a lead, but that’s what happened here. Mellen got more conservative with his error-prone backhand, allowing him to extend points and ultimately win many of them when Rick missed some sitters and put aways near the net. The match went to a supertiebreaker and here again Rick led comfortably (8-4) but could not close the deal, and Mellen came back to win 11-9.

When you’ve played competitive tennis for almost 30 years, you have to be able to put the negative outcome of a teammate’s match behind you and just do your own thing, but I failed miserably. I could tell early in our match against Ken Limburg and Rich Atherley that things weren’t right. Normally low volleys are my bread and butter, but I was missing them repeatedly, and my service returns lacked rhythm. Then I started forcing things and getting more and more frustrated. Todd kept telling me “be more aggressive at the net, be more aggressive”, and I tried, but in doing so I took my eye off the ball and looked too much at the opposing players, resulting in innumerable mishits and a failure to execute even the simplest put-aways. Todd’s return was off, and his dislike for the opponents didn’t help him stay calm, but make no mistake: this one was on me. We lost the first set 6-4 and then fell behind 4-0 in the second with Limburg giving us his Cheshire cat smile and Atherley smirking to his girlfriend in the gallery in between points. If there had been a hole in the vicinity big enough to fit me, I would gladly have gone in and not come out. Lacking any such cover, I redoubled my efforts, but it just wasn’t to be as the second set ultimately went to Mountainside by 6-3. As Chris and Bryan had gotten blitzed by the Algonquin-killers, Glenn McKune and B Manning, we came away from the mountains tasting our first defeat of the season, despite Adam Hirshan and Neal pulling out a close third doubles match. If I had to distill the lessons of this match into a quick sound-bite, it would be “keep your on the eye on the fucking ball- and be aggressive with your feet by taking the volleys more out in front”.

There was no time for gnashing of teeth, though, as two short weeks later we made the journey to the hockey rink that is Hampshire Hills. While HH brought both strength (a top-flight lineup) and numbers (several guys not playing came to the match just to cheer), we had to endure several last-minute cancellations even to field eight players, although perhaps not the eight we would have normally chosen.
The result was predictable: a beat-down the likes of which the Algonquin team had not suffered in quite some time. Wily veteran John Forsyth used his 30-plus years of experience on the HH surface to get revenge for 40-plus districts on Adam Lesser at 1 singles, while Rick came up short on court 2 despite a typically workmanlike effort. Lacking confidence in our doubles pairings, we went with a 2-3 stack and threw Paquette and Lande on court 1 against our friends from districts, Nieva and McQuade. Paquette really did play well but the HH team blended power and consistency whereas our guys didn’t have much besides power. The second set was competitive but the outcome was never truly in doubt. Third doubles was a disappointment. Playford got psyched out by the unconventional surface and before he got his bearings he and Hirshan were down a set. One loose service game in the second was all it took a decent, but beatable, HH pair to nail down win number 4.

If there was one consolation about this HH match, it was that I finally came up with some truly kick-ass tennis, turning back the clock six or seven years to when I was a solid 4.5. Let’s just say that as bad as I was against Mountainside, I was that good at Hampshire Hills. Occasionally (though all too infrequently), all tennis players get the feeling of being in the zone, and that’s what happened to me. The ball doesn’t look bigger, but the court on the other side of the net looks gigantic. I used every bit of that ocean of blue to good effect as we beat Tim Poole and Rick Schwerdtfeger, two strong 3.8- level players, 6-2, 6-2. Although we are friends off the court, Chris and I had not played well together as a team in our previous matches, but this time I suggested I switch to the ad court because my return could be more of a weapon there. That turned out to be the case, as I took the ball early and kept it low, and although Chris struggled to get his backhand return crosscourt he did a good job lobbing and hitting it down the line, where the opposing net man wasn’t able to do much with the resulting high backhand volleys. I volleyed exceptionally well, taking the ball out in front and stepping when I could, and keeping my eye squarely on the f-ing ball to boot. The other guys were big hitters and one time Rick smashed a forehand right at me but I took it early on my backhand volley with a little step and BAM! winner down the middle before they could react. I probably couldn’t replicate that shot if I tried, and Chris just gave me a look like “is this really you?”. I was feeling it so much that I tried a wide serve on the deuce court with some nasty spin and hit it perfectly for an ace. At that point all you can do is smile and enjoy the ride and hope the match ends before the clock strikes midnight. In this case, luckily, that’s what happened.

Just when I felt like I was beginning to play the kind of tennis I had been working for so long to bring out, reality dealt my hopes for a return to Springfield a crushing blow ten times the velocity of that Rick Schwerdtfeger forehand. For in USTA play, the early start ratings for a given year are only valid until the year-end ratings come out in December. Normally there are very few changes from early start to year-end, and that held true in 2013. In fact, only two NH players went from 4.0 to 4.5 during this time frame: Peter Rouvalis and me. I tried appealing, hoping I was only a fraction above the 4.5 threshold, only to learn that for a benchmarked player who had participated (however ineptly) at sectionals, that’s not an option until one calendar year has passed. I didn’t know what had caused my rating to spike: my big win at HH? a win at nationals by a guy on the EMA 40-plus team that PJ and I had crushed at sectionals? Regardless of the reason I was bumped, the whole process discouraged me greatly. I had had a losing record (when districts and sectionals were factored in) in 2013 and now with my game finally making the necessary strides, I won’t be able to make another run at nationals with a group of guys that I really enjoy playing with. And, of course, the diary of a 4.5 nobody will be much less interesting….

There was, however, one last order of business at 4.0. Apparently when you get bumped up by a year-end rating, you have a ten-day grace period during which you can still play at the lower level. It makes some sense because a team may have already put its lineup out for a match just a few days hence, only to have one or more of those guys unexpectedly bumped. And so, with mixed emotions, I went to the Hampton Tennis Barn not long ago hoping I could make one last contribution to a districts berth for the Algonquin 4.0 team. That contribution would not come without a fight, literally. Todd and I were matched at second doubles against two guys named Mike and Frank, neither of whom I had any prior experience with. Frank had a heavy serve and a nice forehand, and Mike had good feet and a hard forehand, but they are just run of the mill 4.0s, at best. I was locked in and hitting well, and Todd and I really should have taken them out quickly, but he was sick and had trouble seeing the ball against the background of the Hampton club, so we found ourselves in a long and increasingly contentious match. We took the first set 6-3, but it was anyone’s match, especially as Frank began hooking us on a number of calls. I’ll be very honest here: I’m an intense player to begin with, and I get even more fired up when I believe (rightly or wrongly) that a guy is cheating me. I’ve played competitive tennis for a long time and I’ve seen guys in tournaments and in the super competitive Eastern MA league pull all kinds of shit and generally speaking I just will no longer take it lying down. I wouldn’t classify myself as a macho or tough person but in those types of environments only the strong survive, so that’s the competitive frame of reference that I have. Midway through the second set, with me serving at 1-2, 40-0, Frank loudly announced that he was going to be calling foot faults on me from now on. I know I foot fault, particularly when I get tired, and I understand it’s against the rules, so I can’t get angry at someone for calling it, although I think it’s a cheap way to win and have never, ever called it on an opponent, even one who was calling it on me. I respect opponents more if they at least call it from the beginning of the match, but a lot of guys save that stuff for a last resort when losing is imminent, and clearly Frank fell into that category. I was a little flustered and went from 40-0 to deuce, then several deuces, but finally held with a sharp volley and pumped my fists and smacked the ball to an unoccupied area of our opponents’ court. Only Frank took exception to that with a sharp remark, at which point we started debating what was and wasn’t an appropriate way to return a ball to the other side. He wouldn’t let it go, and I started to really get angry and went back up to the net and argued with him some more. Things got hot and heavy at that point between all four guys and at one point he told us to “Screw off” so I not so cleverly countered back with “Fuck you”. Frank then completely lost what few marbles he had, first yelling out “he’s swearing, he’s swearing”- maybe in an attempt to get us disqualified- then asking repeatedly if I wanted to fight, saying he, Frank, loved to fight. Back in the day, God only knows what I might have done at that point, even though Frank was a big guy and the outcome of any fight wouldn’t have been a given either way. This time, though, I stayed composed enough to just walk back to the baseline and get back to tennis. They went up 4-2 as Todd continued to struggle with his game, and we were both now seething mad at Frank, who threatened no further violence but continued to hook us with abandon. Eventually Todd started getting the ball in play, and I followed the formula of serving (or returning) down the middle of the court and playing volleys conservatively and far from the lines until either I had an easy put away or they screwed up. And by doing that we took four games in a row to win the match. There was no fighting either at or after the handshake. Frank was even apologetic by that point but Todd and I just shook his hand in silence. I was glad that we recovered our composure in time to win, but unhappy with myself for letting a player of so little talent get into my head to the point that he had a chance of winning the match. I actually wished I hadn’t played at all, because it left a bitter taste in my mouth. The only saving grace was a 4-1 win for the team as Phelps overcame a hangover, part of which he deposited in one of his service boxes, to beat steady Barry Posternak while Lesser destroyed Dan Witham, whose two-handed laser beams availed him little against Adam’s precision. Hirshan and Dan Horan won a close one played the following day which apparently featured another near-fight, as the normally gentle giant Horan blew his top over yet more questionable Hampton calls. Chris and Paquette had taken our habitual hit at 1, losing a close match against a strong team I hadn’t seen before, Dave Storck and Derrick Field. 4-1 at Hampton, then, but Algonquin may have won the battle and lost the war with the loss of both Peter and me. A subsequent 3-2 win at YMCA got them (no longer “us”, alas…) to the season’s midpoint just one court win behind both HH and Mountainside, and although both those return matches will be played in Hooksett, it will be a challenge for Chris and the guys just to make it back to post-season play. For me personally, I may not be thrilled about being bumped, but it is what it is and like it or not I will have to find new goals and work just as hard, if not harder, to achieve them as I did during my time at 4.0. Exactly what they are, I don’t know yet, but I’ve come too far now not to put everything I’ve got into setting them and then trying to make them come true.

The Rest of the Story

It’s been a busy fall, and clearly not a particularly prolific one from a writing standpoint, but this is a story I’m committed to telling and I’ll try to fill in the three intervening months here. Suffice it to say that the sectional experience was less fulfilling than the district experience tennis-wise, although no less enjoyable outside the lines. Our 18s team placed third and our 40s team placed fourth (known less diplomatically as “last”, since only four teams make it to sectionals). I had a couple of tough matches in the 18s, losing in straight- if competitive- sets to teams from EMA (the eventual winners) and CT before my resting my still-sore hamstring the final day to get ready for the senior league matches the following weekend. One of the CT opponents actually parked with a handicapped sticker, an embarrassment I’m still trying to live down, but give the guy credit- he couldn’t cover much ground but he had great hands and a strong partner. As a team we were playing short-handed, since Peter’s shoulder didn’t heal in time for him to take part. This forced us to try a number of other guys at 2 singles, none of whom was particularly effective. We did get a 3-2 win over CT, if only because one of their singles players was involved in an accident traveling to the match and had to default, but the EMA team made up mostly of Asian guys in their 20s (with a couple of former Harvard tennis benchwarmers mixed in) deserved its championship. Our 40s team had higher hopes, but was operating with a significant drawback of its own: Siegel, our best player, missed the entire weekend because his daughter was getting married. His absence hurt us because we lost our matches 4-1 (a closer-than-normal 4-1), 3-2 and 3-2. My hamstring was almost healed by this point and I played my best tennis of the season by far, although the results didn’t fully reflect it. Todd and I lost on day one to a solid team from Portland, ME, after blowing a 9-6 lead in the supertiebreaker, then PJ and I destroyed what must have been eventual-champion EMA’s third best team, after which Todd and I lost to a strong team from Southern CT. I couldn’t miss against CT but Todd was really off and that cost us. Still, I came away from the sectionals believing that I could play with any 40-plus player in NE at 4.0 and with some work could do the same at 18-plus.
I would have liked to have had an off-season to work on beefing up my serve and putting more stick on my volleys and overheads. New Hampshire, though, is somewhat unique in that the 18-plus league season starts in September, meaning that barely a month after we walked off the court in Springfield we were already beginning the process of trying to get back there again. The New Hampshire 18s league promises to be extremely challenging this year: one eight-team flight in a home-and-away round-robin format, with teams ranked by individual courts won, and only the top two progressing to districts. The composition of our team changed slightly, and not for the better, as Siegel and Kingwill were both bumped to 4.5, as were PJ Cistulli and Colin Stone, strong players who had committed to our 18s campaign before the USTA algorithm intervened. The dissolution of the Concord team, and our close ties with a number of their guys, compensated somewhat as we were able to add most of their top players (many of whom had played senior league with us last year): Adam Lesser for singles, Neal Burns and Gary Hirshberg for all-around duty, and doubles specialists Joe Waldvogel and Greg Coache. A couple of new guys, Mark Paquette and Bryan Playford, also added quality depth, but we still lacked that Siegel star-power to beat the top doubles teams in New England. I thought if I could make some improvements I had a chance to be competitive at that level, but certainly to go from a reliable second and third doubles guy to a winner at number 1 against all comers isn’t an easy jump to make. Nonetheless, Todd and I continued to practice regularly, although with his strong technical background and eye for stroke flaws it probably benefited me more than it did him. I haven’t yet been able to master the new service motion, but after considerable experimenting and frustration I found that by starting with my racket in the “Y” position and abbreviating the motion (down with a backscratch and then up, up and away!) I was able to get greater movement and kick, and even a bit more pace. I still can’t get it right all the time, and the location can be hit or miss, but I get more service winners than I used to, and it’s tougher for guys to hit clean winners or forcing shots off the return. My overhead has made more progress. As long as I remember to get a full sideways turn and go to the Y quickly, I hit them with much more pop and snap than I did before. This works in practice and on high lobs in matches, where I can set up. Sometimes when I get tired or when a lob comes off a quick exchange I revert to my old motion; that’s an area I’m still working on. With help from Adam and Todd I am also trying to take my volleys more out in front and closer to my body (when I keep my right elbow tucked into the right side of my stomach this seems to work best), with the image of keeping the ball in front of me like I’m watching a TV screen, and adding a step on slowly hit balls. I also need to hit higher volleys at the net man rather than go back crosscourt, but I still have the habit of watching the man and as a result mishitting the volley when I try to do this. I have to stick to watching the ball and trust that if I have the right technique, a good shot will follow. After a lifetime of hitting with bad technique, this isn’t as easy as it might sound. I’ve started to have better results in practice, winning more often and playing more authoritatively, but in the matches themselves it hasn’t always gone that way. I guess I just have to keep at it, believe in what I’m doing, and eventually some of these adjustments will become more like second-nature. At least it feels good to have a plan for improvement after eight or ten years of stagnant (at best) play, and I’m lucky that I have teammates who can give me that kind of input. I’ve tried to become more of a leader on our team too. One thing I’ve come to realize is that in order to really lead others, you have to have your own shit together. So I’ve worked at being calmer on the court, coming to practices and matches earlier, and giving guys strategic advice and pep talks in ways that don’t sound like criticism. I did smash one racquet to pieces after a particularly frustrating practice match, so obviously I’m not exactly Arthur Ashe out there yet. But whereas last year I felt like I was just getting my bearings by returning to USTA play on a new team, this year I’m one of the established players in the nucleus of that team and I can more directly impact our success or failure, and I need to raise my standard of play and of leadership accordingly.