Saturday, January 18, 2014 Ludlow, MA
Sectionals are here and it’s time to see if I’ve improved enough to be a factor at this level. I came down last night to the Holiday Inn Express here in Ludlow (“Do you play tennis like Roger Federer? No, but I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express!”). There are four teams in the 4.0 men’s competition and we will play all of them in a round-robin format. We have two matches today in Enfield, CT, which is about 20 minutes from here, against CT and EMA. Tomorrow morning we play ME at the Ludlow club. All of the opposing teams look strong on paper so we are taking it one match at a time and focusing on CT, which features one player recently bumped to 4.5, another who was undefeated in 4.0 singles last year, and a third who dominated Jeff Hannum and Adam Hirshan in district play, albeit with an exceptionally strong partner. We lost our opening match in both the 18- and 40- plus sectionals last year and it was so deflating to be essentially eliminated after just a couple of hours of play. Kevin and I are teaming up in the first match and given that I’ve started slowly in similar competitions, I have resolved to focus on getting out of the blocks quickly. If I run out of gas after one match, Todd will be ready to come in against EMA (he has recovered more quickly than anticipated and is probably 75 to 80 percent, though his timing and movement are still just slightly off). I feel good injury wise (knock on wood) but was congested last night and having problems with my asthma. I took some medication, got a good breakfast from Friendly’s, and am ready to give it what I’ve got. I absolutely have to stay positive, focused, resilient and confident, keep a full service motion, watch the TV screen on my volleys and get sideways on the overheads. I’ve been returning and volleying well of late- even won at third doubles in my first two 4.5 matches , although only one of the guys I beat was actually rated 4.5. So I’ll do my best and if I follow my keys and compete hard throughout but the other guys are just better, hats off to them.
I did what I was hoping to do, but there were still plenty of challenges to overcome in the first day of play. Getting to the club in one piece was the first of them. My GPS eschewed the interstate and led me down a rural road which became suddenly less rural at what seemed like a giant five-way roundabout. I tried to keep to the center fork, which seemed to be my indicated route, but failed to yield at one intersection and nearly got sideswiped by an oncoming car. Thankfully the other driver was paying attention or my tournament might have ended before it began. Equally thankfully, the rest of the route proved much easier to follow, and I made it to the Enfield club in plenty of time for our match amid lightly falling snow. Kevin, Todd and I passed what seemed like a long time playing ping-pong and disinterestedly following matches from some of the other divisions in the upstairs lounge, which overlooked two courts on one side and four on the other. CT opted to keep the singles stud on the sidelines and go with two doubles specialists, Al Villadolid (the recently-promoted 4.5) and Lance Dellacroce (the Hannum-whooper). Al was the more athletic of the two, probably mid-30s, a fairly small guy but quick, aggressive, and hard-hitting. Lance, who played the deuce court, was about my age and chunkier and less mobile than Al, but he also had smooth, powerful strokes, nice touch and good hands. We were sent to the most distant court on the four-court side, so I didn’t have to worry about anyone watching. I felt good as I warmed up and somewhat surprisingly we got off to exactly the start I had been hoping for. I was sticking my volleys and getting my returns back and Kevin was aggressive at the net and hitting with lots of pace and spin from the baseline. The other guys were a little erratic at first and seemed surprised that we were taking the play right to them, but before they could straighten things out we ran the set out at 6-1 with three breaks of serve. With opponents of that caliber you knew it was only a matter of time before they made a run and that’s what happened midway through the second set. They started to get steadier on their returns and were able to outvolley us at the net on a number of four-player exchanges. Kevin and I both lost serve after long, frustrating games and we found ourselves down 2-5 with CT serving. At that point I had pretty much resigned myself to getting ready for the supertiebreaker (given my history in that format, a little extra mental preparation wouldn’t have hurt) but Kevin pumped us both up with his insistence that we were going to come back. The CT server, Lance, didn’t have an overpowering delivery but we had missed too many returns in the early part of the set. Here, though, we strung a few good ones together to get a break and then Kevin, still on cloud nine, came up with a big hold. Breaking Al was trickier because he was capable of some unreturnable serves and got to the net quickly, but we had some momentum by then and were able to make it happen. At 5-5 I came through with a hard-fought hold and now we were one game away from not having to worry about a supertiebreaker. On Lance’s serve we twice reached match point and I hit solid returns and came in to the net but both times I hit makeable down the line volleys long. The second one should have been a put away and I put it away all right, into the back curtain on the fly. Luckily before I could contemplate that choke too closely, Kevin got me another break point. This time I got my return low and Kevin saved me further worry by intercepting one of Lance’s volleys with a backhand volley put away into the opposite doubles alley. Yessssssss! This was going to be one sectional tournament where we made it past the first two hours! It had been a really good level of doubles: “10.0 vs 9.0”, as one of our opponents somewhat over- generously termed it, and a very clean match with minimal cheating, gamesmanship, etc. I felt especially happy because I had beaten guys who I couldn’t have beaten last August, but happiest that we now had a realistic chance to get to Indian Wells.
We had to wait a little while more before our match with EMA, which had lost to Maine in two close sets. There wasn’t time to get anything to eat, so we mainly watched some of the 3.5 matches involving people we knew from other NH clubs. It became obvious too that Todd had not wasted his time as a spectator in the CT match. He now had a number of female admirers from several of the competing teams. Fortunately I had more pressing concerns than striking out with women, as after our first-match performance Kevin and I were the clear-cut choice to keep the Indian Wells express rolling in the late match. Only no sooner did we go out to the court than I basically did everything in my power to derail that train short of waving a white flag. We were on the first court on the opposite (two-court) side, and I could immediately tell that something seemed off. Whether it was the white background or simply the speed at which our opponents hit the ball, I just couldn’t seem to groove my shots. Our opponents were Derek, a tall, athletic guy in his early 30s, and Steve, an equally tall but decidedly less athletic player who probably had 10-12 years and 40-50 lbs on me. Derek looked like someone who had played other sports in his youth and then come to tennis: not all his strokes were textbook, but he smoked his forehand, crashed the net with abandon, got the ball back with his other shots and was nearly impossible to lob. Steve had a heavy, spinning lefty serve, a hard forehand and a decent high volley. One promising sign came when he broke a string in the warm-up and proceeded to smash the offending racket for having the temerity to desert him at such an important juncture. I’m no angel: I once broke two racquets with one swing (a long and embarrassing story for another time)! But I had never seen anyone break a racquet before a match had even begun. I thought back to when I had asked Dana Lavoie (who had faced this same EMA team at last year’s sectional) for a scouting report and he had mentioned that one of the guys had a very negative attitude. He couldn’t remember any names but I had a pretty good idea he was talking about Steve. The problem was, I just couldn’t keep the ball in play enough to get him upset. They both served well and I couldn’t return either one of them to save my life. The ones I did get back were “ice cream” material for the aggressive net moves of our opponents. I couldn’t even play the net, usually my strongest area, as EMA’s pace and spin caused me to flub several volleys and overheads, to Kevin’s increasing displeasure. Displeased he may have been, but KP nonetheless raised his game another level or two to make up for my erratic play. We were down a break at 2-3 and then, in the blink of an eye, we had won the set 6-3. I think I got one return back (maybe two) in each of the return games and I held serve. Kevin did the rest. Forehands, backhands, volleys, overheads, he had them all going. My one contribution was to put us into a two-back formation on the return, chiefly so Kevin wouldn’t get killed when I was returning, but also to negate EMA’s poaching and fast closes to the net. That took away their quick-strike ability and extended the points, which played into our hands (more balls for Kevin to hit…). As the set ended in a barrage of curses from Steve, I felt like we were in good shape. I had played D-level tennis and we were still ahead. The second set confirmed that assessment. I got a few more balls in play, the two-back continued to work, and Kevin’s level stayed high. EMA no longer had the element of surprise that their unorthodox games had given them earlier, and Steve was becoming tired and discouraged, to the misfortune of those on the adjacent court who had to play a few lets in the wake of his F-bombs. We got up 3-0 with two breaks and then I felt a cramp in my right hand as I went up to the baseline to serve. Whether it was nerves, fatigue or just holding onto the racquet too hard, I was starting to go numb in that part of my body and lose control of my function. My first thought was “Oh shit: this is the only way we can lose this match!” It only really bothered me when I raised my hand up high, so given Kevin’s play and the mindset of our opponents I knew if we were to go up 4-0 they probably wouldn’t catch us. Some of the serves I hit that game weren’t pretty but the bottom line was they went in and our opponents couldn’t capitalize. Two games after that we were shaking hands (well, with Derek, anyway; Steve was off picking up his racquet).
Following the Eastern MA match, Todd, Kevin and I went back for dinner in the sports bar of their hotel, the Springfield Marriott (Stephanie had stayed home to play some USTA matches of her own). After we had eaten, we were all waiting for the elevator in the lobby- in that hotel the exit to the parking garage is on an upper floor- when we narrowly averted another unpleasant incident. Kevin is 21 and macho and doesn’t back down from anybody, so he tends to have issues with people fairly frequently. In this case he had asked me to use his phone to take a picture of him and Todd, but there was an older guy standing just behind them who was messing up the shot. The guy hadn’t put himself deliberately in our way but when Kevin asked him to move he didn’t react politely either. Kevin started giving him shit and then this guy who looked to be about 70 but mean and ornery yelled back at him and threatened him. By this time our elevator had arrived but Kevin was now pissed and had this look in his eyes that he wanted to go after the guy. Unless he had some kind of weapon or a high-level black belt, this guy would not have fared well against the three of us, but we were one match away from nationals and the last thing we needed was any kind of trouble. Thinking quickly, Todd yanked Kevin into the elevator, pressed the door shut before the old guy could react, and we had gotten past our final challenge of the day.
Winning that second match put us in the driver’s seat in the competition, as Maine had lost to CT in two close sets. If we beat Maine the next morning, we would punch our ticket to California, but even if we lost, we still had a great chance by my calculations given the low number of games (9 in two matches) and sets (none) we had lost up to that point. It wasn’t quite locked up, but it was tough to see a scenario where we would lose. Unbeknownst to me, there had been recent rule change: in the event of a tie between two teams, the head-to-head result between the teams would now supersede the fewest games and sets lost. So if ME beat us head-to-head they would get our spot if MA beat CT. If CT won that and they ended up breaking the resulting three-way tie with sets and/or games lost, we were in pretty good shape. The more I obsessed about it, the more I realized it was very simple: in the immortal words of Al Davis, “Just win, baby!” We controlled our own destiny, and I didn’t want it to come down to some tiebreaker. I wanted to be on the court and feel what it was like to win that last point and make it to a national tournament. In a must-win situation in the 4.5 team sectional final in 2006 I (as captain) had sacrificed my partner and myself against the opposition’s strongest doubles team and lost badly- but our team won 4-1 to go to nationals. This time, though, there was no Blake Wayman or Dave Taylor to cover for me. This time it would be up to me.
Sunday, January 19
Sunday came and I was a little tired and sore, but as I drove the five minutes or so to the mud-red courts of the Ludlow Tennis Center I knew there was no way I was sitting out. Kevin and I were our best hope and all we needed was one more win to bring the championship home. It was anything but a done deal. All three of the players on the Maine team were lefties with good doubles skills. I don’t really practice with any lefties other than Chris McCallum, so returning their serves (especially from the ad court, which I was now playing) presents a challenge. This is especially true when they serve well, and both of Sunday’s opponents-Phid Lawless and Alan Toothaker- served well. They were in their early to mid 50s, solid doubles players in the classic serve-and-volley mold. Lawless was taller and steadier off the ground. He had some trouble on low volleys but hit the high ones very well. Toothaker was more of a shotmaker and had a harder-hitting but more erratic game. Todd had told me that I wasn’t stepping into my returns enough yesterday, especially on the backhand side, so I resolved to do that better. I had had a wonderful individual sectional at Ludlow back in 1997, playing some of my best tennis and reaching the finals of the 4.0 division with back-to-back three-set wins over Dave Goodhue and Steve Wiles, two of my fiercest rivals at the time. So while there were no off-key singers warbling “On the Wings of Love” in the hotel lobby in 2014 and I had a lot more wraps and braces on various body parts (and less hair on my head), I also had positive memories of this club and sometimes that’s all it takes to get your mojo back. The courts at Ludlow seemed a little slower than at Enfield and it was easier to see the ball out of the background. So while I didn’t return all that accurately in the opening set, I did enough to get one break and Kevin and I had little trouble in our own service games. We took the set 6-3 but it was a comfortable-feeling 6-3. To our dismay, Maine rid us of that comfort level quickly in the second set. Kevin got a little sloppy and dropped serve in his opening game and although we were able to break back later in the set, we always had the feeling of playing from behind. Our opponents served better and upped the level of their net play to boot. On many points we played well but they were just too strong. Kevin’s game wasn’t at the level of the day before and he called a number of close balls out (I had to reverse some of them, which I don’t like to do, but in this case I thought it necessary) which seemed to anger our opponents and enhance their motivation. My returns remained erratic but I was really volleying well and hitting my overheads with authority. I ran quickly back to cover one lob from Toothaker which spun crazily, but I was still able to get my racquet on it and lift it over the Maine duo’s heads for a crosscourt winner. Don’t count me out just because you see that big knee brace I’m wearing: I’ve still got the want-to to track balls down! Later in the set I played one of the best first volleys of my life. Toothaker absolutely ripped a crosscourt forehand return from the ad court but I just knew the exact spot it was headed for (a spot that had produced many clean winners on my cream-puff serve over the years). This time I resolved to beat the ball to that spot, got my racquet and body as low and as far forward as I could, and just stuck the backhand volley crosscourt. The ball came back so hard and fast that Toothaker, who thought he had a winner, couldn’t even react to get his racquet on it. In that same service game I ranged wide on the deuce court for a low first volley, poked it low toward the net man, then flashed back to the middle before he could get his next shot through the opening and won the point again. I play more on instinct and feel than on power and I just felt a really positive flow in those moments. Still, despite all that, we weren’t able to break Maine again, so we ended up in a second-set tiebreaker.
At this point I finally realized that I needed to wait a little longer on Lawless’s serve and just react as quickly as I could on Toothakers and take it out in front with a good follow-through. I began ripping the return of serve and we got up 4-1 with me serving two. Here, though, I started to get tight, double-faulting one of the points away and losing the other. We still eventually got a match point at 6-5. At that point so many emotions started to go through my head, I was thinking of winning the match and of my mom and dad and that maybe they were watching someplace and happy. That was a big mistake because I shortened up my return of Toothaker’s serve and netted the potential match-clinching shot. We went up 7-6 but then I had to serve again and double-faulted once more, a gruesome one into the very bottom of the net this time. Somehow I came back from that choke job and hit an ace down the middle on the next point (this is not a typo…) to give us one more match point, but we lost both of our returns on Lawless’s serve and then Kevin double-faulted to end the set. We were both unhappy with our play in the tiebreaker but with so much at stake we had to put the result behind us quickly and turn things around in the supertiebreaker. I had won a few of them in matches and practices, and I was starting to get my timing on my returns, so I had some reason to be confident, but I was worried about my serve. The first few points were close and evenly played but then towards the midpoint we both had some big returns, and despite another of my double faults we went up 8-5 with Maine serving (and Kevin on deck with a chance to serve it out). After an exchange of several shots, I had a nice cross on a high floater which seemed to take Lawless by surprise and he missed the resulting volley. Now we had four match points, but all we needed was one as Kevin caught one of his big forehands perfectly to put a winner down the alley- and us onto a plane for Indian Wells!
I didn’t know what to expect, but this is what I got: probably the best feeling I’ve ever had on a tennis court. In that instant all the hours of work to come back from my injuries, all the losses, all the doubts, frustrations and fears faded away. There wouldn’t be any headlines trumpeting it, but in my own small way I was a champion. Kevin and I both let out loud yells and then did a celebratory chest bump and hugged each other. I told him “thank you for helping me experience this feeling”. Then we left the court and Todd greeted us at the door and all three of us started screaming and whooping and hollering like we had just made the Final Four. It’s a wonder we didn’t cut any of the nets down, although I’m sure the Ludlow club is just as happy we didn’t. The rest of the day was a blur. The USTA gave us silver-gray pullovers and had us pose against one of their official backdrops for our championship photograph (I even smiled in one of them, that’s how happy I was). We took many more pictures of ourselves, and some quickly became Facebook posts and Twitter tweets. We accepted congratulations from club staff (including the ubiquitous Edsel Ford) and from some of the other teams and briefly watched a few of the other divisions that hadn’t yet finished. We didn’t learn this until later, but Todd’s biggest admirer won with her 3.5 women’s team from Martha’s Vineyard, while our Algonquin friends Mark Blaisdell and Andy Day (4.5) and Mountainside’s Jeff Adie and Scott Goodwin (3.5) came up just short against teams from Connecticut. Todd and Kevin had a 4.0 match back at Algonquin to play and the drive was long, so none of us lingered. I showered and made my way to my car and then just before I got in stopped and looked up at the sky and said a few things to my parents. For such a clear day, it got rainy awfully fast right about then. Of course, it is New England, after all, and on this day Kevin, Todd and I are NEW ENGLAND CHAMPIONS!