It Takes All Kinds!

After surviving another February week full of snowstorms and freezing weather, our Willows team swung back into action yesterday at BSC-Lynnfield, better known as the Colonial, apparently because it used to be attached to a luxury hotel of that name (it’s now adjacent to the Sheraton).  Of all the North Shore clubs, Colonial is probably where I’ve had the most success.  One reason why is that the courts there are really slow, and since I base my game far less on power than most NSL players, that hurts other guys much more than it hurts me.   The other reason, to be completely frank, is that Colonial teams are usually not league powerhouses (I can’t remember them ever making the playoffs in any division).  So while they do have a number of good players, their guys are usually at least somewhat beatable if you’re on your game.

We needed beatable opponents in this week’s scenario because when courts 1-3 began play our team already trailed 2-0.  Frank had been unable to add to his one-match winning streak, going down to defeat with Justin in a match that started at 8 am,  and we defaulted another court because of a lack of available players.  So Alan Kravetz and I, once again playing uncomfortably high up on court 2, knew we had absolutely no margin for error.  But unlike in our two previous defeats, we weren’t matched up against ringer teaching pros or slumming court 1 players stacking themselves lower in the lineup to avoid Chris Andros.  Yesterday’s opponents were probably both somewhere in their 50s.  Barry was a big guy built like a bear and with a grouchy disposition to match.  He had a powerful first serve and a very hard, flat forehand, but he moved slowly around the court and had a weak backhand.  His partner James almost defied description, though I’ll try my best to capture his essence. With his darkly tanned skin and long, flowing blond hair, James looked a little bit like Guillermo Vilas, the Argentinean superstar of the 1970s- that is, if Guillermo Vilas had decided to cover every visible square inch of his body with some sort of piercing or tattoo.   James’s strokes were unconventional but effective- a slow, looping forehand, a heavily sliced backhand, and volleys which were hit with some kind of strange sidespin but rarely missed. His serve was not especially fast but just as he began to swing he let out a bloodcurdling scream that would have made Monica Seles envious.   When standing at the net or preparing to return serve he bounced around like Rafa Nadal.  When his partner was returning, he positioned himself right on the center service T.  Either he was trying to draw a double fault or he was protecting the middle against a strong first volley- who knows, maybe both!  He hustled for every ball, lobbed well and hit winners at opportunistic moments.   And when his team won a big point he let out a roar only slightly less deafening than the one on his serve (unforced errors were accompanied by fewer screams but many, many more obscenities).

I’m not a shrinking violet on the court but I could tell right away that trying to outdo this guy dramatically wasn’t going to work.  I just had to block all his stuff out, realize there was nothing personal behind it, and play my game the best I could.  Fortunately it was one of my better days and I was able to do exactly that.   Alan and I started off quickly, taking the first set 6-1 by getting to the net as quickly as possible and using our size (Alan is a couple of inches taller than my 6’2″) to pound overhead winners.  I had success hitting high, slow balls with some spin- including second serves- to Barry’s forehand (he would generally crank them into the back fence) and we were fortunate that those lobs of James’s that did get over us sailed a little bit long.  Those guys were already frustrated at how the match was unfolding and when Alan took a close call on the far sideline they both basically flipped out.  Alan is very serene on the court, almost hippie-like, and in this case it helped us avoid getting into some prolonged arguments which might have taken away our momentum.   And to their credit the other guys may have disagreed with a couple of calls but they didn’t turn it into a hooking battle, as is often the case in NSL matches.  Barry and James started to back up their serves better in the second set but we got an early break and unlike last week we were able to keep the lead and eventually serve it out at 6-4, as I rallied from 15-30 to hold serve in the final game.   I made some great gets tracking down lobs and also came up with a few nice reflex volleys, and James even gave me a couple of hand-on-racquet claps.  After we shook hands he couldn’t have been a nicer guy; he said what a fun match it had been and told me he had just opened an Italian restaurant in one of the suburbs north of Boston (Tremezzo in Wilmington, for anyone who’s local) and encouraged me to stop in.  I’ll try to do that because if this guy cooks with same passion that he plays tennis with, it’ll be one heck of a meal.

Today’s match encapsulated one of the things I love the most about tennis: getting to meet and compete against people who may be very different than me but have a love for the game that’s just as strong as mine.  Through tournament play and team tennis I’ve made friends with men and women from all walks of life and that has made my own life immeasurably richer.   My teammates and playing partners over the years have ranged from a Fortune 500 CEO (Gary) to a guy who worked as a janitor at the Racquet Club of Concord (Ted).    To people who’ve never really played the game, tennis may not seem particularly democratic, and to a certain extent I can see what they mean.  Gary and Ted, for example, have had far different levels of access to lessons, equipment and tennis-related travel, and so even if they hold the same USTA rating, in the long run they may not truly compete on equal footing.   But put them on the tennis court together as partners or as opponents and they are absolutely equal.   Put them on a team together and on any team worthy of the name they will be judged entirely on their loyalty, reliability and contributions to the team’s success.   My past and present teammates have included entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, machinists, newspaper editors, fellow teachers, IT workers, mechanics, used car salesmen and just about everything else you can imagine.  You learn very quickly that none of that matters when you step between the lines.  So in that sense our game is about as democratic as it gets.

Chris and Elias won a tough one, 6-4, 6-4 against a couple of big hitters, so that left the team result and the extra “team victory” point up to Mark and Brandon, and their finish couldn’t have been any more dramatic.  After dropping the first set 3-6, they won the second 6-2 but trailed 2-3 in the third when the time allotted for the match expired.   In that situation you finish the game you’re on, and Mark held serve on a sudden-victory deuce point to give them one more game than their opponents.  With fifth-place Woburn also winning by the same score, we’re still eleven points to the good with five matches remaining, including next week’s make-up at Bass River (Beverly), a club that has been my own personal house of horrors over the years.   Stay tuned next week to see if I can follow in the footsteps of the 2004 Red Sox and “Reverse the Curse”!

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New Year, New Challenges

I’m celebrating the arrival of 2015 and the second anniversary of this blog by changing the format.  Rather than put up a long War and Peace-type post every couple of months, I hope to write shorter but more regular entries.  The problem is that just as I’ve become more comfortable with writing about myself, an unfortunate thing happened.   I lost my story!  Put in a less diplomatic way it comes down to this: I can’t win and neither can my team.  At the 4.0 level I at least had interesting tennis adventures to write about, however imperfectly, but as a 4.5 I now understand how the publicist for the Washington Generals must feel after the Globetrotters have put yet another beatdown on his boys.

The New Hampshire men’s USTA 4.5 season has been under way for two and a half months, and during that time I’ve played three tri-level and three full-team matches and lost all of them (my team has also lost every single time, with the exception of one tri-level match where they had the wisdom to keep me on the sidelines).  It would be easy, but perhaps wrong, to say I’m just in over my head.   I’m certainly not one of the top 4.5s in New England, but five of my six matches have actually been close: I lost three in supertiebreakers and reached a first-set tiebreaker in two of the others (the sixth, in which I played against a guy fresh from the top six at nationally-ranked D-III program Redlands University, was understandably more lopsided).   Some days I’ve actually played great and others….. not so great.   On the great days either my partners were a little bit off or the opponents were just too strong.  On the not so great days the results have been predictable.  If I miss too many first serves or don’t get the relaxed wrist or the parabolic swing that leads to a decent kick serve, I’m volleying laser beam returns off my shoetops.   If I don’t step into my own returns, guys eat me up with their serves.  If I don’t come mentally ready to play or if I get pissed off at myself too quickly when things go wrong, I can’t compete.  These are basically the same things that held me back at the 4.0 level, but since the competition there was weaker, my strengths were enough to keep me in a match against almost anyone.  That’s not the case anymore.  If I had a partner who could carry me, things might be different, but there isn’t anyone on our team who fits that description.   At this level we’re a bunch of third doubles and second singles players, and that makes it hard to even compete, much less win.

I need to practice more, but it’s discouraging to do that and still not see results, so I end up practicing less instead.  I need to get to the gym more, but a brutally snowy New England winter has made excuses to stay home all too plentiful.   I need to revise my expectations and take pleasure in small (read: non-scoreboard) victories and gradual improvements, but for that I need to reshape my whole mindset, and I’m not there yet.  So I’ve taken what I guess amounts to the easy way out.  In addition to the USTA season, which will drag on into June, I found a league where I have a better chance to win on a team that has the potential to be a contender.   And for the next few months, at least, that’s where my story is going to head.

I wrote a little bit last year about the disintegration of my North Shore League team.   My club, North Andover (MA) Willows, had two teams at the highest level of the competition, but both were near the bottom of the standings, and if someone had accused my team of giving up on the season, I wouldn’t have argued the point.  We needed ten players each week from a player pool probably twice that size to fill five doubles courts, yet we routinely defaulted one or two courts and simply lost most of the other ones.  Those of us who showed up tried our best, and we all had a few moments when everything clicked, but on the whole we just weren’t competitive anymore.  It was the opposite of a harmonic convergence: our nucleus of guys had gotten older just as the league had gotten tougher.  After last season’s debacle the Willows decided to restructure its teams.  One of the two A teams would stay at that level and the other would drop down to A-1, and all of us would be free to choose which to play for.  Although I had had several close matches on courts 4 and 5 in the A’s, I knew my USTA team wasn’t likely to go too far, so I wanted to at least be on a North Shore team that was competitive and had decent morale.  With that in mind, after some thought I decided to swallow my pride and drop down to A-1, which depending on the opponent and the lineup position varies from a strong 4.5 level of play to a modest 4.0.

Whatever happens between now and the end of the season in May, I can say with confidence that I made the right decision.  Our team is contending for a playoff spot, the guys have enthusiasm and team spirit again, and the level of competition we see is still very good.  Last year nobody wanted to stick around and hang out after the matches, but now many of us stay for hours in the Willows bar and bond.   We owe some measure of our success to our new captain, Frank Smith.  Frank played on the B team for years before quarreling with its outspoken captain, Joe Ceppetelli.   He then came over to our team to join up with his longtime friend Steve Barretto and ultimately took over when Steve gave up the captaincy after last season.  Although Frank’s own game can best be described as a work in progress, he has a lot of enthusiasm and energy for organizing the team.  He really cares how we do, which should be a given but isn’t always in club tennis, and that rubs off on the rest of us.  As far as actually formulating lineups, Frank will never be confused with Bill Belichick, but he at least recognizes what he doesn’t know.   On our team what that means is that he puts out the lineup that Chris Andros tells him to.  Chris is the best player at the Willows: he’s small, middle-aged and not particularly fast, but he has impeccable timing, consistency, anticipation and strategic sense.  His dropping down to the A1 level was a matter of some controversy among the other clubs, who prefer to be the ones bending the rules, but it’s the decision he made and I’m glad he’s on my team.  Chris is the type of guy that you either love or hate, but I’ve always found him to be a very honest competitor and a good teammate as long as you own it when you fuck up and you don’t complain about your role.  Luckily I tend to do those things anyway and so he and I have always gotten along well.  Chris brought his doubles partner, Elias Moujaes, a Lebanese immigrant with an unorthodox game but the heart of a lion, to the A-1 team and our longtime teammate Kevin Branco- a basketball coach and restaurant owner in Chelmsford- also joined up, giving us three elite players.  Ron Love, Alan Kravetz and Mark Garvin, who are all respectable 4.5s, give us a nucleus on par with the Willows A team, and I’ve played well enough that I’m now generally put into their category, which is no small compliment.  I’ve played in most of the matches, with varying degrees of effectiveness but no lack of effort, on courts two through four.  Andros insists that I’ve been even more important to the team than him (and from Chris there is no higher praise) since I can play any position and potentially turn a 2-4 loss into a 4-2 win- the team winning the majority of the five courts gets a bonus “team victory” point, and the standings are based on total points.  I maintain that it’s simply an extension of Andy Warhol’s maxim that eighty percent of life is showing up.  Like me, Brandon Blech, Justin Rowland, Dave Neshat and my USTA teammate Bryan Playford show up regularly, and they generally have success on the middle and lower courts.  Frank suits up when we can’t find anyone else and a few other guys have come and gone, with plenty of sound and fury but without lasting harm to our overall chemistry.  And so two-thirds of the way through the twenty-match regular season we find ourselves solidly among the top four teams- playoff territory  in our eleven-team league.

In this week’s match we hosted Cedardale of Haverhill, MA as we attempted to get our season back on track (after winning ten of our first eleven matches, we had dropped the last two while experiencing lineup crises which at times felt uncomfortably like last season’s).    As has often been the case in these short-handed weeks, I was up on court 2, this time teamed with Ron Love, whom I’ve played well with in the past.  We faced John Woolley and Lenny Licari, a longtime pairing that beat Chris McCallum and Mark Paquette at 40s sectionals last summer.  John hit out on his groundstrokes off both sides and volleyed aggressively at the net, and Lenny was a savvy player with good hands.   It was an old-school match in that none of us really had an overpowering serve- there were no aces in the match and few service winners, which made for lots of tough points.  Ron typically plays the backhand side but he said he had been more comfortable on the forehand lately, so I moved over to the backhand instead.  On our team I tend to provide the consistency and Ronnie the power, but in the first set he was still finding the range on his returns and Cedardale held serve in a number of deuce games (we play no-ad scoring with a sudden-victory deuce point).  I struggled with my first serve percentage and was broken in the middle of the set, but we broke right back and then games went with serve until Lenny ‘s turn came at 5-6.  He led 40-15 but we then evened things up to force a high-pressure deuce point.  I was returning better at the time so we decided I would take it on the ad side.  Lenny had served down the middle on the 40-30 point and I had cracked a strong forehand return which led to a winning volley by Ron.  With that in mind I had a feeling he would try to go out wide on the deuce point, and so I slightly overplayed the backhand side.  As it happened he hit a very hard and well-placed serve in that direction, but luckily I was leaning that way and was able to hit a rocket back crosscourt which he couldn’t handle.  With the way the first set ended I thought Lenny and John might be discouraged, so I focused on getting a good start to the second and not giving them any free points.  Sure enough, their games dropped a little bit and we went up a break, but leading 5-2 we got sloppy and lost three consecutive games.  The lowlight came when Ronnie served at 5-3, 40-15 only for us to drop three straight points as we both butchered easy volleys.   Thankfully at 5-5 I was able to hit some better volleys and hold serve, and we then broke Lenny at love to win the match.   So while there some lapses I wasn’t thrilled about and I feel like our opponents may have played closer to their potential than we did, we were at least able to work through the rough patches and get a win- and any win on court two in this league is a good win!  Even better, our team won 5-1 to move eleven points ahead of the fifth-place team.  It’s easy to take Chris and Elias for granted- they’re such good players- but they had a tough second set today which required a 5-4 tiebreaker win (set tiebreakers here use the old nine-point system).   Brandon and Justin struggled in a loss on three but Bryan won easily with a new guy, Bill Michaud, on four.  Cedardale moved their court four team down to five because one of the guys was stuck in traffic and they were worried about a default, but although he arrived in the nick of time, Frank and Dave beat them anyway, leading by a single game at the end of the 90-minute timed match.  Filling five courts on Saturday and winning four of them was just what we needed- let’s hope we can keep it going, and going, and going!