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.