Moose Magic!

When I was growing up in Concord, NH, there was a guy a few years younger than me named Greg Forbes.  Greg had plenty of things going for him: he was good-looking and popular, he got straight A’s in school, and his family had more money than some Third World nations.   What he did not have was a natural gift for playing tennis.  I don’t mean to sound like I’m dissing Greg, whose high school career was much more distinguished than my own, but it was a fact that success, at least in this one endeavor, didn’t come easily for him.  He practiced hard, took lots of lessons, and ultimately played in the top two or three singles spots on some good teams, but they (and he) always fell a little bit short.   Then, in the state doubles tournament his senior year, the stars lined up just right for Greg.  He had a strong partner, a big lefty with a killer serve named Eric Simonton, and they survived some tough matches to reach the semifinals.   The top teams had all suffered upset losses in the early rounds (something almost unheard of in the Granite State, which isn’t known for the depth of its tennis talent), and the other pairs that had won through were strong but beatable.   The semis and finals were played on the same day, and that day happened to be the best of Greg’s tennis life.  Over the course of two matches he just couldn’t miss, and the result was a well-deserved, but completely unexpected, state doubles title.   Even Greg’s coach, the legendary Harvey Smith, was taken by surprise, delivering this memorable quote in the next day’s paper: “Greg Forbes absolutely loves tennis, and for this one day the game loved him back.”

Twenty years later, and a few weeks ago, I had my own Greg Forbes moment, and it couldn’t have come at a more surprising place: the Moose Open, at Sudden Pitch in Manchester.  Sudden Pitch (known in the tennis community simply as “the Pitch”) is a small outdoor club with clay courts on North River Road.  The Pitch lies just south of the Derryfield School, but the surrounding woods are so dense that you could drive by the place every day for years on your way to work and never notice it unless you knew exactly where to look.   I’m not a member there, but the Moose (a summer’s-end festival of drinking and tennis created years ago by the personable Gary Walsh, who does those two things in combination as well as anyone around) is open to all.  Well, to all men- there are no women’s divisions- and this year a total of about 60 with ratings ranging from 3.0 to 5.0 signed up for three levels of play.  The Moose has a unique format: you sign up as an individual and are placed with different randomly-drawn partners for two or three rounds of pro-set tennis.  The players with the top eight point totals then advance to the elimination phase, where #1 teams with #8, #2 with #7 and so on, and they stay together as partners to play out the semis and finals.

As a borderline 4.5, I wasn’t especially thrilled to be placed in the top flight.    I had been hoping to get a lot of match play, but there were only twelve of us in the 4.5-plus division and thus only two preliminary matches.   This was important because by any objective standard I was among the two or three weakest players of the twelve, and thus wasn’t likely to advance to the elimination rounds.    In all honesty, I was just hoping not to embarrass myself.   My goals were to hit the ball well and be at least somewhat competitive in my matches.   In my first match, though, I had the good fortune to be partnered with the highest-rated player in the field: Tomas Gonzalez, a 5.0 who twenty years ago had played Division 2 college tennis on scholarship.  Our opponents were Dave Hall and Dana Lavoie, good players but much closer to my level than to Tomas’s.  The match followed roughly this pattern throughout:  they would hit three or four hard balls at me wherever I was on the court (knowing this, I tried to get to the net as quickly as possible) but I was able to return them reasonably well.  Then they’d get sloppy or a little bit out of position and hit one to Tomas, who would promptly smack a winner.   After Dana held in the opening game, we rolled them ten straight, which almost never happens at this level because breaking serve is difficult.   I had returned and volleyed well and held serve twice, but I wasn’t fooling myself that I was responsible for the magnitude of our win.  In the 1980’s, when John McEnroe won lots of doubles tournaments with his less-skilled friend Peter Fleming, the saying went that the best doubles team in the world was John McEnroe and somebody.  He was that good.  I was pretty sure that the best doubles team at the Moose Open was Tomas Gonzalez and somebody, and I was just lucky to have been that somebody for a set.  In my second match I no longer had Tomas to lean on, and I came back to reality in a hurry.  My partner Colin Stone (a consistent and athletic lower-end 4.5) and I were no match for the team of Mark Blaisdell and John Smith.   Mark has great hands and he volleyed superbly, while Smith, a recently-promoted 4.5 with a game similar to mine, held his own and made very few mistakes.  We won just three games and it took a couple of tough holds late in the match to get even that many.  With eight out of twelve players reaching the next phase of the competition, I felt like I had chance to go on with one win, but I wasn’t sure.  I caught a break, though, because it turned out that the Moose awarded “margin of victory” bonuses!   When nine bonus points for the 10-1 win with Tomas were added to my total of thirteen games, I was able to advance comfortably as the #6 seed.  Gracias, Tomas!

The pairings for the semifinals were as follows:

#1 Tomas/#8 Bruce Leibig vs #4 Greg Meighan/#5 Ed Ibanez

#2 Andy Day/#7 Smith vs #3 Blaisdell/#6 yours truly

By late afternoon a once-hot day had cooled off and a steady rain began falling.  Clay courts can hold water for a while before becoming unplayable, and from our standpoint we hoped they would, because the conditions figured to slow down Andy’s hard-hitting game.   That’s what happened early on as he seemed to have trouble finding the range and we took the first set comfortably, 6-2.  In the second set, though, we got down an early break and then the conditions worsened to the point that it became a struggle just to stay upright.  Commissioner Walsh finally halted all play (the other match hadn’t finished either) with Andy about to serve at 3-2.  At that point the skies really opened up and got the courts so wet that no resumption of play was possible.  The next day (Sunday) had been advertised as the rain date, but Gary had also promised to finish the tournament in a single day, and as a result some guys had made other plans for Sunday.  Coordinating mutually available times proved to be challenging, and so it wasn’t until late the following week that we finally were able to complete our match.  The day was again gray and cool, but this time there was no rain in sight, so we agreed that if sets were split we would play out a full third set rather than use a supertiebreaker.   Since I was playing with Mark, another CHS grad, I wore some old crimson socks that I found in the depths of my closet, hoping that they’d bring me luck.  We were all a little slow to get warmed up and everyone held serve until Andy’s turn came again at 5-4, when we broke him at love behind some big-time scrambling.  With the finish line in sight, though, I faltered and dropped my serve for the first time in the match, and Smith played a solid game to serve out the set from there.

I was glad we were playing out the final set, because Andy had the biggest serve of any of us by far, and that would have given his team the edge in a tiebreaker.   His serve still came in heavy, but the clay court and the cold conditions took some of its speed away and I was able to find a rhythm and get it back consistently low with some pace.  I mixed in a few well-placed lobs and we broke him in his opening service game after Blaisdell had held for 1-0.   I was no longer playing not to lose, and I began hitting some great half-volleys and then closing to the net and winning the points.  When Mark served or hit a strong return I would close to the net using the US Open doubles positioning.  The extra half step towards the middle paid dividends as I reached some balls I wouldn’t have otherwise and volleyed them strongly.  I kept my hands in on hard-hit balls right at me and returned those too, including a stunning reflex volley that burned Smith.   On a number of occasions I was even able to overpower Andy with my volleys during four-player net exchanges.  I pretty much had everything working, so much so that for that one set I might have been the best 4.5 player in New Hampshire (well, if serves weren’t factored in…)!  Thankfully John Duckless was there as a spectator- he probably preferred watching us to raking leaves at home- or I would have seriously wondered if it was all a dream.  When we were putting our stuff away after shaking hands, Mark had the last word, as he usually does, telling me: “You might want to wear those socks every time you play.”

It was another week before we played the finals, and on that night I somehow forgot the socks, which I had had every intention of wearing again.  Whatever the cause, I could tell right away that the magic was gone.  By that time of year it was starting to get dark early, so we played the entire match under the lights.  I have bad eyes and too much vanity to wear glasses, so I had been hoping to avoid a night match, but the other guys couldn’t play on the weekends and in the end I had to go along with one.  The resulting number of mishit balls off my Babolat was high even by my usual unimpressive standards.  Ibanez and Meighan, who had beaten Tomas and Leibig in three close sets, might have been too good for us under any conditions, though.   Mark and I took a close first set by coming to the net whenever possible, and we went up an early break in the second, but by that point Greg had started to get more comfortable on the clay and Ed to play with more consistency.  With Mark serving at ad-in, I had an easy low smash which I let up too much on, allowing Ed to return it with a no-look windmill winner (he consistently stays in the middle of the court on his opponents’ overheads and then gets angry if you hit him; whether that played a role in my shot selection at that moment I don’t know, but I did find it annoying).  Anyway, the match went against us from that point, so I have only myself to blame.  We had a number of other chances but squandered them and lost 5-7, then 4-6 in the third.  It was a great match, but I had been the worst player on the court (though not dramatically so) and cost my team at critical times, so I really felt badly.

I can’t let it get me down, though, because overall there were far more positives than negatives to take out of the Moose Open.  It was great to be able to play at a high level in a big event with lots of spectators (mostly fellow players, but still…).  I never had the feeling of being in over my head, and most of the time I more than held my own.  I built some confidence for the upcoming season and in the process began to find a “road map” of sorts for success at the 4.5 level.  Get the first serve in with good depth and placement, and a reasonable amount of spin.  Return low and crosscourt, but don’t necessarily go for winners with that shot.  Get to the net and attack the point-ending volleys while getting the survival-mode volleys back low and/or deep.  Continue to develop the overhead as a weapon. And truly believe this is where you belong.   Because it definitely was on this one magical day when the game finally loved me back.