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.