Summer of “Love”, part 1

Roger Federer (serving on left) vs Novak Djokovic in the 2014 BNP Paribas Open final at Indian Wells, CA

Roger Federer (serving on left) vs Novak Djokovic in the 2014 BNP Paribas Open final at Indian Wells, CA

August 8, 2014

Summer vacation always flies by, and this year has been no exception.  When you teach for a living and mid-June rolls around, summer stretches out before you with endless possibilities, but then it seems to pass in the blink of an eye.  Even when you know it happens that way and you’re doing your best not to blink.  Anyway, here are some of the tennis-related things I’ve been up to this summer:

First, I need to go back and recap what happened after my last post.  In late January and February I had just made Tri Level Nationals and was playing some really good tennis.  There are occasional stretches- I wish they were more frequent, but I’m lucky to have them at all-, when I seem to be in the right place for almost every shot, when my timing on poaches is precise, and when my strokes feel smooth and easy with limited physical discomfort.  Late winter 2014 happened to be one of those fortunate periods.  I was playing on Dana Lavoie’s YMCA 4.5 team, mostly at second and third doubles, and being competitive in just about all my matches.  Even when I wasn’t winning, I felt like I belonged at that level.   The team wasn’t all that successful because the league was fairly strong and most of the players in Dana’s pool weren’t committed to showing up regularly, but that worked in my favor too- otherwise I would have been on the bench the majority of the time.  I was also on the Willows team in what was now the North Shore “A” league on Saturdays.  When the 5.0+ league, which was one level above ours, disbanded before the 2013-2014 season, many of our competitors picked up guys from that league who still wanted to play high-caliber matches.  But because Willows is a smaller club without true open-level players and the membership fee is fairly steep (which means people rarely join for league play alone- yours truly being an exception), we just carried over our nucleus from the A-1 days with no real additions.  As the other teams began to field 5.0s on the upper courts and strong EMA 4.5s on courts 3-5, our record plummeted.  Worse, guys got discouraged and stopped showing up for the matches.  Our captain- one of the best human beings I’ve ever met- was dealing with the loss of a parent and increased responsibilities at his church, and as a result he lost interest in the team at a time when we especially needed a firm guiding hand.    The upshot is that we often ended up defaulting two or three courts in any given week and were firmly entrenched in last place.  One memorable Saturday at Cedardale I found myself on court 2 with Brandon, a canny 4.0 with a game roughly similar to mine (better forehand, weaker volleys, but the same basic level), against Robbie Newton, a well-established 5.0, and his solid 4.5 partner Matt Nardone.  They killed us in the first set but whether they got merciful and let up or we just came on strong for a while, we actually led 4-1 in the second.  When we were switching sides and out of earshot of our opponents, I whispered to Brandon that we should take a picture of the score cards!  Of course we didn’t win another game after that, so in the unlikely event I get a 4-1 lead on Robbie Newton again, I’ll just keep my big mouth shut.   I was usually paired with players of equal or even lesser ability and we didn’t win much, but if I played well I was very competitive on courts 3-5 and my game was growing.   I was okay with that, because there were still the Tri Level nationals to get ready for. 

Then during my February school vacation, disaster struck.  I was up skiing in North Conway when I awoke one night to a pain in my left abdomen roughly similar, I would imagine without direct experience, to being stabbed.    I could barely move, much less ski, and nothing I tried eased the pain, which on a scale of 1 to 10 might have been an 8- and I’m like a Russian figure skating judge: I don’t give 10s!  I had no idea what was wrong, but I knew it was something serious and without being overly dramatic there were moments when I wondered if that was what dying felt like.  Finally I was able to drive to the local emergency room, which thankfully was just a few minutes down the road, and after almost a full day of tests, doctors there diagnosed me with a kidney stone.    I got lots of medications and had to spend another day or so taking them before I felt strong enough to drive home.   The stone wouldn’t pass on its own for several days after that and eventually I needed surgery.  A friendly receptionist helped me score an early appointment, but the operation still came less than a week before I had to head to CA.  While I was under anesthesia, the doctors found that the stone had in fact passed at some unknown time, but I now had post-operative pain plus residual soreness from the kidney stone to deal with.  I didn’t care, though- I had worked my butt off to qualify for this trip and there was no way I wasn’t going!

So I went, and I didn’t regret it.  Too much time has passed for me to be able to recount that trip the way I’d like to here, but suffice it to say it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Todd, Stephanie (Todd’s girlfriend), Kevin and I stayed in a villa in the middle of the desert and had a blast.  We had barbecues and drank lots of margaritas and swam in the pool and watched the pro tennis matches from the Indian Wells tournament, which was being played concurrently with our competition, from reserved seats in the upper reaches of the stadium.   We went to a local park every day, sometimes before dawn, to practice and get used to the thin desert air and also reacclimated to playing outdoors, which we hadn’t done since sectionals in August.  It was hot, of course, but the desert heat was a dry heat and therefore much more bearable than it would have been otherwise.  I tried my best to get my conditioning and timing back but did not fully succeed.  My serve was out of sync, my returns didn’t have the sharpness I had had before my kidney issue, and I was less aggressive at the net.  Per doctor’s orders I was drinking much more water- and far less soda- than I had previously, but I wasn’t at full strength and could only play in one match per day.  It was still amazing to warm up in the shadow of the main stadium at Indian Wells and play on the secondary courts, some of them smaller-scale stadiums in their own right with capacities of a few thousand people, though most of those came to our matches disguised as empty seats.  Occasionally a fan would wander in unaware, watch a point or two and quickly depart in search of the level of tennis he had paid $50 to see.  In our three matches we went 2-1 as a team thanks to the success of our 3.5 and 4.5 teammates, but Kevin, Todd and I lost all three of our individual matches (I played in two of them, once with Kevin and once with Todd).  Our opponents were players of our general level and courteous, friendly people who seemed just as thrilled to be there as we were.  Most of the matches were close and all were competitive.  It was just on us to get better results than we did, and we have to own our failure.  Our team missed getting out of the group stage and qualifying for the semifinals because we had won fewer individual courts than a New York team that we had beaten head-to-head.  Apparently head-to-head is only used is a tiebreaker when it works against us (think back to sectionals)!  Kevin, Todd and I unfortunately grew  to strongly dislike many of our so-called teammates- the feeling was undoubtedly mutual- for reasons that aren’t worth going into now, but I guess that happens when you ‘re thrown together on that type of an  “all-star” team and aren’t truly invested in each other’s success.  My trip was still wonderful in the aggregate.  Federer got on a roll and reached the men’s final, where he played an epic match against Djokovic that was decided in a third-set tiebreaker, and I was actually THERE screaming for him (it didn’t help…)!  That same day I also got to play tennis on grass with my friend Rob Giles, who was vacationing in Indian Wells and got Todd, Kevin and I to make up a foursome at his luxury hotel, which had many different kinds of court surfaces.  I had played on grass once before at the Hall of Fame in Newport so I knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as the pros at Wimbledon make it look, but it turned out to be a heck of a lot of fun anyway.  We were out of our competition by then and it was the one day I actually played well- took the returns early and compactly and volleyed everything that I could before it hit the ground and died.  Maybe we should have some of our USTA matches on grass 🙂

Back in NH, I transitioned directly into the high school coaching season, which ended with our team losing a hard-fought semifinal to our bitter rivals from Keene.  It was an up and down year, to say the least, but our guys grew and we had a big 5-4 win in the first playoff round against Exeter, which had beaten us earlier in the season and eliminated us from the playoffs the previous two years.  High school coaching could be a topic for its own blog, but it never will in my case, because I wouldn’t want any of the players stumbling upon it and reading my candid assessments.  The version they get in practice is probably candid enough for most of their tastes.   Anyway, after the season ended in early June I staggered across the finish line to summer and spent about three weeks on the beach before I even thought about picking up a tennis racquet. 

 When the game is in your blood, though, you can’t stay away.  Summer tennis where I live doesn’t include USTA regular-season matches, but there are quite a few weekend tournaments you can play to stay sharp for the really important stuff.   My favorite is held at Colby-Sawyer College in New London in late July, and that’s where I made my return after practicing for a few weeks.  Colby-Sawyer is located near many scenic mountains and lakes (the view from the courts over the surrounding mountains is spectacular, even when no leaves are changing color), so lots of highly competitive and skilled senior players live in the area for at least part of the year.  Throw in kids from the rapidly-improving Division 3 program at Colby-Sawyer, where the men’s team reached the NCAA’s last spring, and the usual suspects you find almost anywhere trophies are given out- local teaching pros and serious USTA players, most with ratings of 4.0 and higher- and you’ve got the makings of some terrific tennis.  What elevates the tournament even more is that the non-tennis stuff is also first class: the setting is beautiful, there are plenty of refreshments and food available for players and spectators, and sometimes a trainer from the school will even be on hand to ice you down after a long match.  Barry Schoonmaker coached successfully at Cornell for many years before signing on to lead the Colby-Sawyer program, and he does a great job running the event, which is all doubles in various divisions- you can play a maximum of two events, only one of them mixed.   There are a number of friendly and welcoming volunteers who assist Barry and help players feel at home, and even a roving USTA umpire to make things official (on my court, where she seems to be as permanent a fixture as the net post, she’s “Miss Foot Fault”!).  Even if the tennis wasn’t good it would still be worth playing there.  My two events were the men’s open doubles and the century mixed doubles.  In the men’s I teamed up with my good friend and former coaching colleague and USTA teammate, PJ Cistulli.  PJ and I are roughly comparable skill-wise and we have similar games in that we both hit a pretty flat ball and like to come to the net.   He has a little more power than me and probably a little more variation in his level – a higher ceiling than me but a lower floor, if you will.  We generally make a strong team, but since everyone in this tournament is at least a 4.0, we knew we would be tested right away.  That proved to be true in our first round matchup against two of the current Colby-Sawyer players.  One was an incoming freshman from Rhode Island with a smooth style and excellent groundstrokes (including returns of serve).  He had all the shots, but his serves and volleys, although technically sound, weren’t that authoritative and you could tell he probably hadn’t spent a lot of time playing doubles.   His partner was a returning player from the lower end of the ladder whose first serve was much harder than his second.  This kid’s strokes were less conventional but he had a decent net game and a hard forehand, and although he wasn’t particularly fast he hustled and chased down a lot of balls.  Their team hit with more pace off the ground and ours was a little stronger at the net and at times more consistent.   The first set was close throughout with a few breaks of serve, but we were able to get the last one to go ahead 5-4 and then PJ served it out for a one-set lead.   The second set began just as evenly, but the kids started making more winners and fewer errors and took the last four games in quick succession for a 6-2 win.   They had the momentum and we had a total of about 65 years on them, so we were fortunate to be able to play a supertiebreaker instead of a full third set (what are the odds I’d ever have said that, given my usual attitude toward supertiebreakers….).   You could tell they probably didn’t use the shortened format in their college matches because they gave away several points with silly mistakes and allowed us to build a 6-1 lead.  But then they got hot and ran off five straight to even the score, with the weaker player, who during the rest of the match had only converted about 20 percent of his first serves, hitting two unreturnable ones here.  In the next sequence, though, we were able to win both of our service points and take a 9-6 lead.  The big server was up again and we had decided to play two-back on his first serve since that was where he could hurt us the most, and then attack on his soft second serve.   But he wasn’t giving us a look at many second serves in the supertiebreaker, and he started off his turn with a blur on the ad side that I couldn’t handle.  Then at 7-9 he nailed another bomb which hit near the convergence of the two lines in PJ’s forehand corner and took off into the doubles alley.  At our level you really couldn’t hit a better serve.  But somehow PJ anticipated it and blocked a flat forehand which streaked past the netman and down the alley for a match-clinching winner.   From our point of view it was a great way to end a highly competitive match! 

Our success would not last, because in our next match we met up with Colby-Sawyer’s top player, Nate Taschereau, and his partner Cardell Bailey, an athletic and skilled incoming freshman from inner-city Boston.   Although college kids sometimes take older players lightly, I knew we wouldn’t have that advantage because not only had Nate played singles on my YMCA 4.5 team but I had beaten him and another teammate in the 2013 tournament with my friend and “3.5” (according to USTA) player Chet Porowski.   While PJ was an upgrade over Chet, Nate’s game was much stronger than it had been last year and his partner was an even bigger upgrade than mine.   Whereas last year the other kid didn’t have great strokes and his game broke down under pressure, Bailey had big serves and hard groundstrokes along with a nice touch at the net.   We didn’t play badly but we still lost 6-3, 6-2 (they next beat the number one seeds in a closer match and then won the final by about the same score they had recorded against us).  I served and returned reasonably well and we had some success with the Australian formation, especially on Bailey’s ad side (against Taschereau we were better off playing straight up because of the quality of his down-the-line forehand).   We tried playing two-back on the return and hit some good lobs, and there were lots of terrific “hands” points with all four guys at the net  (we even won our share!).  Ultimately though they had a little too much power for us and because of that they were able to win points more easily than we were.  We needed to hit two or three great shots to win a point whereas they could get the job done with one big one.  That made a difference in a number of long deuce games, most of which ended up in their favor.   Still, I felt we had done the best we could and at least made it a competitive match where they had to work hard to beat us.   Tennis is a game of levels and there’s always someone younger and stronger and better than you, and I guess that helps you stay humble.  I myself would rather just be really good and take the risk that my personality would keep me humble on its own, even if that might not end up happening! 

My other event at Colby-Sawyer was the century mixed doubles, which I played at the invitation of a  coaching friend named Lynn Miller from Wheaton College, a small school just south of Boston.   Lynn has been at Wheaton forever- when it first went coed in the late 80s she actually coached a couple of guys from Concord that I had grown up and played high school tennis with.  She’s just a few years from retirement now but still regularly scouts all the high school tournaments, which is where I’ve come to know her.  Lynn and her life partner have a summer place in Sutton, near Colby-Sawyer, and she still has a 4.5 rating, so I was more than willing to team up with her.   I have to admit when I first heard about the century format (combined age of 100 or greater) I thought to myself: “I’m really going to need an old partner!”  Then I did the math, never my strength in the first place, and realized all I needed was a 55-year old.  That was probably more humbling in its way than the doubles match I described above.  Anyway, since Lynn is 63 (and hopefully not reading this, since I just gave away her age), we were good to go. She’s a precise person who wanted to make sure we were fully prepared, even though on paper we looked to be one of the stronger teams.  So I organized three or four practice matches where we played against all-male combinations.  That way I figured it would seem easier when we did end up having women thrown into the mix.  It turned out to be a smart plan which I would use again, but it needed fine tuning.  Playing against two strong men was too much of a mismatch.  Lynn has great hands and a pretty good lefty spin serve despite her slight build, but she doesn’t hit very hard and most teams composed of two 4.0-plus men overpowered her.  If we got a 3.5 as one of the opponents, however (thank you, Mike Constantin, for your flexibility and good spirits) we had a chance to win.

Lynn and I had never played together before and the practice matches gave us a chance to get familiar with each other’s games and come up with tactics tailored to our strengths.  Since Lynn had a lefty serve with decent spin, we could each serve away from the sun and if that meant her starting the set we wouldn’t be at too much of a disadvantage.  I also learned to be more aggressive about taking the middle balls (especially  volleys) than I am in men’s doubles.  I typically play mixed doubles- when I play it at all- exactly as if there were four men on the court.  I don’t step in front of my partner to take extra shots, and for the most part I direct the ball to the best percentage spot and don’t worry about the gender of the opponent standing there.   My other problem is I don’t have an overpowering game and it can take me several shots to win a point even if I do go at the woman, whereas the other man often needs just one hard shot at my partner.  So I’m constructing long points and hitting the ball to what I think are the most strategic places and in many cases the other guy is just bashing every shot at my woman as hard as he can.   It’s not hard to predict the most likely outcome, and unless my partner is either really good or really cute, I don’t tend to enjoy mixed all that much.   Lynn, though, encouraged me to be a little bit more assertive than in a men’s match while still letting her play her game; it can be a difficult balance to strike but overall we came a long way in just a few days of playing together.

The draw in the century mixed was small- three teams- so we ended up using a round robin format.  We played the first two matches and had the bye third, meaning we could clinch the championship before the final round started if we won twice.  Our first opponents looked to be in their mid to late 50s; the male, Dave, was from Woodstock, VT and his partner, Anne, was visiting from the Philly area.  Dave’s strokes were unconventional but he got most shots back, served effectively, and hit 95 percent of the balls- and every lob- to Lynn.  From that alone I could tell he was a more regular mixed doubles player than me!   His game and shot selection would have given us trouble except that his partner wasn’t strong enough to hold her own.  I could hit the ball slightly to the side of her and win the point most of the time, and she kept returning my kick serve into the back fence (she also had trouble just getting out of the way of Lynn’s spinner).   She was a very nice lady and she did get somewhat more comfortable as the match progressed, but we were never in any jeopardy and although many of the points were long we came away with a 6-1, 6-1 win.  That put us into our final match against my old friend Zane Stuart and his partner Beth Moore. 

While Ponce de Leon may have failed in his quest to find the fountain of youth, Zane, who’s pushing 80, has had considerably more success.  I’ve known him since he was 55 and he doesn’t look or even play tennis any differently now than he did then.  Of course Grecian formula may have something to do with the looks part, but that doesn’t work for serves and forehands or I would have started using it long ago myself.  Zane’s serve (low and with some kind of reverse lefty spin, though he is right-handed) is hard to return and his forehand is still a weapon at the 4.0 level, though his movement and some of his other shots probably put him closer to a 3.5 now.   Luckily I have played with and against him often and because of that the parts of his game that others might find especially challenging don’t bother me that much.   For example I know to bend lower than normal on my backhand return and exaggerate the lift on my swing in order to counteract his spin.  I also know his shot patterns- if he’s in the ad court and gets a short forehand he will go hard down the alley 99 percent of the time, and he doesn’t split step coming to the net so if you can lob over him you’ll almost certainly win the point.  I told Lynn about these tendencies and we both used them to our advantage.  Zane’s partner, Beth, was much stronger than the previous woman- I would call her a solid 3.5, but in NH she might even be able to play a low doubles position at 4.0.  She had steady groundstrokes, a tricky underhand second serve and pretty good form at the net, but I was getting increasingly comfortable with my poaching and I may have intimidated her some, because at times she missed or backed away from what seemed like makeable volleys.   Lynn volleyed Zane’s hard forehands extremely well and we were able to use our advantage in court coverage to hit quite a few balls out of their reach.  So while the level of tennis was considerably better than in our opening match, the score ended up the same, 6-1, 6-1 in our favor, and Lynn and I were champions!   I enjoyed playing with her and hope to do it again; we can team up in this particular format as long as we’re both able bodied and for the next few years at least I think we have a chance to do quite well.    That is, unless Nate Taschereau got his killer forehand from his grandmother…

Colby-Sawyer College: A beautiful spot for tennis (and almost anything else)

Colby-Sawyer College: a beautiful spot for tennis (and almost anything else)