August 21, 2014 Hampton
I still remember August 25, 2013 like it was yesterday. One journey ended that day and another began. My Algonquin men’s 40-plus 4.0 team was at Williston-Northampton school, near Springfield, MA, for the final day of the sectional championships. Handicapped by the absence of our best player, Jeff Siegel, whose daughter had chosen an untimely moment to get married, we finished the weekend in last place after three close losses, and a season that began with high hopes ended short of our goal of reaching the national championships. If there was any consolation for me personally, it was that I had played my best tennis of the entire season that weekend. I knew I had the upside to make the jump from being a reliable 2 or 3 doubles guy to being competitive with the top players at the number one position, and with Jeff likely to be bumped to 4.5 I knew the team might need me to do just that in the new season. Although I wasn’t the captain, on our team everyone basically speaks up when they have something to contribute. So when three or four of my teammates started muttering disconsolately after our third loss, I went up to them and said (this is the slightly sanitized version): “Listen, let’s just work even harder, and we’ll make it back here again next year and then take one more step after that.” It’s not normally my M.O. to make those kinds of pronouncements, but I knew what I was capable of and I also knew how much my teammates wanted to make it back.
Well, they made it back. The 2014 sectionals begin tomorrow at Mount Holyoke College, and Algonquin will be there again. The bad news is I won’t be on the court with them. In late 2013 my game took off more quickly than I had envisioned, as regular drilling with Todd brought my volleys and overheads to another level. I put up a couple of big wins early in the new season and as a result I got the dreaded year-end bump. A higher rating is meant to be a compliment, I suppose, but I felt more guilt than anything, as if by getting moved up I’d let my team down. Mark Paquette, who was much more ratings-savvy than I was, had been warning me of the dangers of winning by wide margins, but let’s face it: wins by wide margins, or for that matter by any margin at all, had not been a regular feature of my 2013 season. I was thrilled to be playing better, and the thought of hitting a couple of balls into the back fence to win 6-3, 6-3 instead of 6-2, 6-2 never crossed my mind. I guess maybe it should have. Anyway, our team took a huge hit: Jeff, PJ, and Jerry Kingwill joined me as newly-promoted 4.5s, and just like that, Algonquin was forced to replace 50 percent of its sectionals lineup. It took the guys some time to adjust, and they missed the 18-plus playoffs despite another big season from Kevin, who won all but one of his singles matches. They won the New Hampshire 40s, though, benefiting from the league’s flexible scheduling format and the addition of a couple of key players: Greg Coache, the coach at SNHU and for many years a 4.5/5.0 player before age and injuries took something of a toll, and Kamal Gosine, a singles player from the Caribbean who somehow found a home in Franklin, NH and then worked like mad to turn himself from a 3.0 hacker into one of the best 4.0s in New England. I continued to practice with the guys on Thursday nights and even attended a few matches, but although my friendships with them remained strong, I didn’t hold the same place in the team dynamic as before, and the team didn’t hold the same significance for me either. While I still wanted the group to succeed, I no longer had anything close to the same level of personal investment, and it almost felt as if part of me had gone missing in the process.
Another August came and once again Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA was the setting for an Algonquin-Hampshire Hills showdown with a sectionals berth on the line (neither NH powerhouse had had much trouble with a weaker Vermont team in earlier matches). I went there to cheer and saw another terrific battle. HH had two dominating teams at 1 and 2 doubles, and so Chris elected to throw Bryan Playford and Joe Waldvogel at the number 1 spot against Tom Nieva and Mike McQuade. While Todd and I had been stacked against them in 2013 and pulled off the upset, Bryan and Joe couldn’t make that happen, although they played a great second set in which they deserved a better outcome than 4-6. Todd and Greg made an excellent number 2 team, but Jim McGhee, probably HH’s best player, had a strong partner in Dave Freel and our guys lost by a break in each set. Chris and Adam Hirshan played steady doubles against a weaker team at 3 to win without much difficulty, and Kamal blew out John Forsyth at 1 singles, losing only a single game. That left it up to Adam Lesser, who had won the first set decisively against Mike Auger but then lost the second badly. Adam got his game together in the supertiebreaker, though, while Mike made a few more mistakes, and the result was a 10-5 win for Algonquin.
The guys were thrilled to make it back to sectionals, and with Rick Paquin, Mark Paquette and Gary Hirshberg in addition to the eight who played against Hampshire Hills, they have the talent to go farther. They will face three strong opponents in Cedardale (Eastern MA), Portland (Maine) and Rally Point (RI), all clubs with many talented players and a history of success at this level. I’m going out to Springfield tomorrow to see the match against Cedardale, then staying overnight and watching my good friend Chet Porowski in the 3.5 competition on Saturday. Normally, the night before sectionals I’m so wired up that I have trouble sleeping, but I have far fewer nerves now. Even so, I really hope the guys play well and are able to bring the championship home. Maybe I can’t take part this time, but unfinished business is still unfinished business.
The unfinished business will have to wait a year and probably far longer as the sectionals and their aftermath dealt a near-fatal blow to the Algonquin 4.0 team. First, the guys lost all three of their matches, though each was competitive. For just an instant on Friday afternoon, however, it looked like they were going to take down mighty Cedardale on the red indoor courts of the Ludlow Tennis Center. Kamal had won the first set comfortably and was leading in the second, Lesser was cruising, first doubles was on serve late in the first set and third doubles, while not yet under way, had a very winnable matchup. Then things just fell apart. Kamal failed to convert ten match points and lost a 12-10 supertiebreakerto Kevin Greene, who seemed to get a big first serve every time he needed one. Chris and Mark on court one lost a winnable first set tiebreaker and never recovered. Todd and Greg got crushed by Cedardale’s usual number one pair, old friends Ron Love and Mike Loycano, on court 2, which took away all the significance from a dramatic ending at third doubles, where Adam Hirshan and Gary blew a 5-0 lead in the supertiebreaker and ended up losing 13-11. The outcome was a bitter pill to swallow, and when play resumed outdoors the next day the guys had clearly not digested it. With Cedardale having lost to RI earlier in the day, the door was still open for Algonquin, but eventual champion Portland quickly slammed it shut with a decisive 4-1 win in which only Kamal emerged victorious for the good guys. After watching a tired and injured Chet come up short in both his matches later Saturday, I went home before Algonguin’s Sunday loss to RI to get ready for my first workday of the new school year on Monday. But while the disappointing results on court had ended, our team took an even bigger hit off the court later in the week. Adam Hirshan, Chris, Gary, Kamal and KP were all bumped to 4.5 and I didn’t get moved back down to 4.0, though somehow Jeff Siegel did. Unless the NTRP rating algorithm comes to view us more favorably when year-end ratings come out, the Algonquin 4.0 team as we know it will be no more. Some of us have talked about playing 4.5 singles tournaments to give the computer some additional data, and others are interested in starting a new 4.5 team out of Algonquin. What seems clearest, sadly, is that my days of collecting those neon-colored USTA Sectional Championships t-shirts are probably gone forever.