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”!