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.

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