In With a Whimper

As I prepare for this afternoon’s match at Woburn Blue, just two matches remain in the NSL regular season, which began back in mid-September.   I had some other things going on and missed last week’s home match against Westford, but I later learned it was a classic case of good news/bad news.   The good news was that we took three courts for a 4-2 win (league-leading Westford helped us a bit by choosing to rest three or four of their top players), and this result, coupled with Woburn White’s 1-5 loss against Newburyport, definitively secured us a playoff position.  The bad news was that our chemistry issues continued to worsen, which I would not have thought possible.   Chris and Elias rolled on court one while Alan and Ronnie came up with a strong performance on two, but we lost three and four by wide margins, so the team result hinged on the outcome of court 5.  Frank had Bryan playing there with Bob Pallazolla, a solid veteran with a good serve and lots of determination who unfortunately has a work schedule generally incompatible with Saturday tennis.   Realizing that his own chances for success on any court were limited, Frank had put himself and his partner on four in order to give the court five team a better shot.  He was obviously stacking, but Bryan still took offense that he was playing on court five, and behind Frank to boot.  I guess he had gotten tired of writing long emails, though, because this time he simply didn’t show up to the match.   Luckily we were playing at the Willows and Frank was able to grab a teaching pro (and longtime friend of mine), Mike Roberts, who had just finished giving some lessons.  Mike and Bob had a slow start but came through in three sets, taking the final set 6-4.  It’s a shame neither of them will be with us for the playoffs: Mike is committed to the B team (the next level down in the NSL) and Bob won’t have played in the required number of matches.   But they did put us into the playoffs with a big win, and now it’s up to the rest of us to make the most of it.  Whatever our ultimate destiny, Bryan won’t be part of it: he has officially quit the team.  With guys dropping like flies, we only had two courts filled for today’s match as of late last night.  I’d better get going to Woburn now or else Chris and Elias might be playing solo today….

Sunday, March 22, 2015

I got to Woburn just in time through some late-winter snow flurries, and our team did what it needed to.  We ended up contesting four courts and won all of them against Woburn Blue, a team near the bottom of the standings with nothing much to play for in its final match of the year.  Chris and Elias won in two close, tightly-contested sets against a talented but streaky pair that caught a hot streak, and our two fill-in teams- young teaching pros Andrew Zappala and Dom Iacovo on court three and Gary Barros/Dennis Robertson, who once again came to the rescue on four- cruised.  Frank had me with Alan on two again in order to better prepare us for the upcoming playoffs (if he had put our guys in their true order of strength, Andrew and Dom, who aren’t regular team members, would certainly have been placed ahead of us).   We went up against two guys in their mid-twenties who had played small-college tennis and were now starting careers in the greater Boston area.   I already knew one of them, Tony Collins, a super nice kid who had starred at Trinity High in Manchester and later played quite a bit of evening tennis with our Algonquin team while on breaks from college.   Tony had a huge first serve and a supersonic forehand, but his consistency and shot selection were sometimes a little suspect, so I liked our chances in a doubles environment (in singles, he would have had a clear-cut edge over both Alan and me).  His partner, Kyle, had been captain of the team at Roger Williams College in Rhode Island, but had only recently returned to competitive tennis after a couple of years away from the game.  Although not big or overpowering, Kyle was quick, served well and had more variety in his game than Tony.   In the early part of the match, though, he may not have been fully warmed up, because we ran out the first set comfortably at 6-2, breaking Tony twice and holding our own serves without much difficulty.   We kept our game plan focused on getting our first serves in and attacking the net, and in trying to hit us off the court our opponents made quite a few mistakes.  In the second set, we jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead and I thought we might be in for a stress-free day, but in NSL tennis few matches remain stress-free from start to finish.  Tony held serve on the deuce point with some great shots, and after that he and his partner played with more emotion and consistency.  The next several games all went to deuce, as my volleys were a little bit off and the other guys started to throw in some chips and lobs and reflex volleys, and to use their quickness to track balls down.  We kept our noses in front until Kyle burned me with a great lob volley during a four-player net exchange on the deuce point, putting us into another dogfight at 3 games all.  The stretch of excellent points continued on Tony’s subsequent service game and we reached another sudden-victory point, which I somewhat reluctantly agreed to return from my position on the deuce court.   Tony missed his first serve and then Alan moved forward a perceptible distance from his starting point on the service line.  It might have gotten him killed if I had sent a weak return to the opposing net man, but maybe he knew what he was doing, because Tony put his second serve into the bottom of the net.   Alan then won his own service game at deuce despite some dismal volleying on my part, and two games later I was able to hold uneventfully to complete a 6-2, 6-4 win.  I had taken a week off from doing anything tennis-related and was a little rusty with some strokes, but I felt better physically too (a season of wear and tear coupled with all-too-infrequent fitness work had begun to take a toll).  Now it will be a question of getting my strokes and competitive edge as finely-honed as possible and hoping that our team gets hot when it matters most.   Winchester has overtaken Westford for the top spot, and unless we can make up some ground on third-place Newburyport next week we will be playing them in the opening round.  They do all kinds of strange things with their lineup, and a number of them don’t hesitate to make sketchy calls, but above all they have lots of very, very good players.  We have one amazing player and nine or ten good ones, but very little margin for error if someone gets sick or hurt or decides to go on vacation.  And much like an aftershock from an earthquake, Bryan’s departure continues to have harmful ripple effects.  This week Frank learned that Bill Michaud had decided to quit the team after Big B threw him under the bus following their defeat against Woburn White two weeks ago.  Bill was a solid player who with the right partner could have won for us against anybody on court 4 or 5, and his absence will further limit our options and increase the pressure on the rest of us.  One thing’s for certain, though: whatever ultimately remains of our team come playoff time isn’t going down without a fight.   Let’s just hope that that’s true figuratively and not literally…

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Livin’ la Vida Loca

North Shore League tennis is a little bit like Russian roulette.  Play it long enough- typically not all that long- and trouble will find you.  It’s just a question of when.   Yesterday was “when” for me in what had been (at least on the court) a relatively “event”-free season.  And it was only fitting that in the “vida loca” of this most competitive and cutthroat league, my figurative “bullet to the brain” was delivered courtesy of one Richard Martin.  I kid you not, but let’s begin at the beginning.

Going into our match with fifth-place Woburn White, we knew that a win or even a close loss would basically lock up a playoff spot for our troubled but talented team.   We had nine more individual wins and they had just two matches after this one to catch us (we also had an additional make-up match in hand, the “reverse the curse” special at Bass River). A 6-0 win was Woburn’s best chance to keep their hopes alive, but instead of loading up their strength on the lower courts to get a 4-2 result, as they often did, they would have to put out strong court 1 and 2 teams and hope for a sweep.  Normally that would play right into our hands, because we have Chris Andros and they don’t, but Chris had to attend a required coaches’ training session for the upcoming high school tennis season and missed the match, so we were forced to go with a patchwork lineup.  The biggest patch of all, as usual, was on court five, where Frank and Gary lost badly.  By putting two guys on the court, though, we forced Woburn to use up a strong team that might have beaten us elsewhere in the lineup if we had defaulted five.   After last week’s debacle, Frank had sworn he would never be browbeaten into changing the lineup again, so he had Playford back on four.  Bryan’s partner, Bill Michaud, is in the process of moving to this area from someplace in the Carolinas, and plays matches for us on his intermittent northern weekends.   I’ve never been on court with Bill, but I’ve heard he’s an excellent player.   Yesterday, though, he was less excellent than normal, at least according to Bryan (add another inadequate partner to the list…) and they lost to a pair of dogged Asian baseliners in two close sets.  Bill himself apparently said only that he might not want to play in this league anymore, before quickly departing while my match was still on court.  I didn’t know those results until after the final buzzer, but I was all too aware of what had happened on court 1.  In Chris’s absence, Elias had teamed with Justin, but two steady, hustling players who were both about 6’6” and had seemingly limitless reach beat them 7-6, 6-4 at their own baseline game.   Ron and Brandon won a close one on three to avert a Woburn sweep, and that left Alan and me on two against a flame-haired lefty named Ted McCarthy and the aforementioned Rick Martin.

I had beaten Rick earlier in the season at our place, although he was clearly ill that day and made lots of errors, especially at the net.  As Ted looked to have nice strokes and Rick had been the weak link in our previous match, Alan and I began by looking to attack Rick whenever possible.   But Rick was healthy this time and much more on his game than he had been before, and some other things about the match worked in his favor too.  Rick is tall and he stands right on top of the net when his partner serves.  His other partner hadn’t had a very strong serve and Mark Garvin and I had either lobbed Rick or just driven the return crosscourt to the other guy before Rick could react.  Ted was a lefty, which from my standpoint was bad enough, and he also had a hard and heavy serve, so Rick got more sitters at the net and put many of them away.   My shoulder had been sore and my serve wasn’t up to even its usual low standards, and unfortunately Alan is one of the few people on earth who begs me to serve first, so little confidence does he have in his own delivery, which is about the level of mine.   This allowed Rick to groove his returns down the middle from the ad side- we actually had better luck serving to Ted, who seemed to prefer returning harder balls than we were giving him.   There were some terrific points but also a number of mishits and net cords, and we benefited from the majority of them in going up an early break.   But I was broken at love and then Alan lost his serve, though our two breaks of Rick’s serve kept us even at 4-4.  I then dug deep to pull out a deuce point and hold for 5-4.  “That’s why you’re serving first!” exclaimed Alan with what almost sounded like excitement, though it may have just been relief that he hadn’t been the one serving.   We then lucked into a set-winning break as we did a little bit better with our returns of Ted’s serve (admittedly, the bar had been set rather low) and he overhit a couple of his first volleys.   The first set had taken a long time and we knew that with just a two-game lead we couldn’t afford to fall behind quickly in the second, but we hoped that as is sometimes the case after losing a close first set, our opponents would be demoralized and  allow us to get the upper hand early.  This didn’t happen because they were able to hold their first two service games on the deuce point and get some momentum back.  I was doing barely enough to hold my own serve, but I didn’t help Alan much when it was his turn and a few big returns from Rick gave them a break to 4-3.   We weren’t too worried because we had had success on Rick’s serve throughout the match, but Alan seemed to be having trouble getting over the previous game and his returns weren’t what they could have been, enabling Rick to hold for 5-3 and even up the total games with maybe seven or eight minutes left.

At this point they had all the positive energy in their favor.  I had to hold serve here just to keep the match close, because Ted would be serving to us next at a moment where we might not have time to come back from a two-game deficit.   But I was tired and discouraged and in a bad place mentally: I neither felt good about my own game nor had much confidence in Alan’s ability to help me.  As if sensing this, our opponents stepped up their level of play and quickly went up 15-40, or 1-3 as we call it in this league.  But then the complexion of the match changed again.  On the 15-30 point I had hit what I thought was a good first serve and Rick missed his return, but then called the ball out.  His calls had been fine to that point and it’s hard to be sure where your own serve hits, so I didn’t say anything and we ended up losing the point after the second serve.  Although Elias’s match had finished by then, he had stayed to watch ours and was standing on the deuce side of court one next to where Rick was returning from on the ad side of court two.  I heard Elias mutter something under his breath and then when I looked at him he put his palm out, communicating to me that the serve had been good. Unfortunately Rick heard him too and just went off on him, yelling that Elias wasn’t allowed to say anything.  Elias actually shouldn’t have said anything in the first place, much less responded to Rick’s yelling, but a man who was once held prisoner by a terrorist group in his native Lebanon isn’t easily intimidated, so he yelled right back about how Rick was hooking us.   Rick started screaming “you’re awful, you want to win so fucking bad, huh, well I’m on the _______ committee and I’m gonna get your ass thrown out of this league now.”  He just kept screaming at Elias and then Ted started yelling too, so eventually I went up and yelled back at them to just knock it off and get back to playing tennis.  It was a rare case where I didn’t make a bad situation worse; before long Elias did leave the court and we got back to playing.  But I think the other guys had let things get into their head: they gave us a couple of free points with unforced errors and then I held serve on another big deuce point.   Now I was pumped up!  I had seen how badly Elias wanted us to win and I knew I had to put more of myself into the final games.  Ted was angry and serving bullets but I hit a good deep lob return and he missed the ensuing overhead.  Alan was as fired up as he gets, moving with more urgency and making some nice returns and reflex volleys of his own.  Then Ted served what should have been an ace out wide on the deuce court but somehow I got my racquet on it and floated a deep lob to the middle of the court that they couldn’t smash, and we ended up winning the point.   When we broke Ted on a double fault amid yelling and swearing on both sides I knew we had most likely broken their spirit too (with a little help from Elias), and Alan held serve comfortably as the buzzer rang to give us a three-game final margin.   The 2-4 team result keeps us seven points in front, and Woburn is playing two of the other top teams in their remaining matches, so they’re almost certainly not going to catch us now.

I made sure to fill in Frank and Gary (who is also the Willows’s general manager) about the Elias incident, just in case.  I hope he won’t be punished, but you just never know.  The big Boston-area clubs have a lot more pull than Willows does, unfortunately.  I’ll admit that what he did was technically wrong.  He shouldn’t have commented on a line call and thus played a role in the outcome of the match.  But Alan and I were on the ropes and the passion and spirit he showed gave us life when we needed it most.  Seeing how much he cared about a match he wasn’t even playing in made me care more and raise my game to a winning level, and I’m pretty sure it was that way for Alan too.  What Elias did is what good teammates do.  They find a way to make the people around them better.

There’s no “I” in “Team”!

I didn’t get to reverse the curse: the Bass River make-up match was postponed due to scheduling conflicts on both sides during the Massachusetts school vacation week, so we ended up having a bye week instead.  This was probably not a good thing, because some internal issues that had been bubbling under the surface had time to fester, and that led to problems as we prepared for our next match against last-place Woburn Red.   All year there had been rumblings that a few guys, particularly Bryan and Justin, weren’t happy with the positions they had been playing, but they hadn’t exactly been locking down those lower courts, so I never paid the rumors much heed.  A few days before the Woburn Red match, though, Bryan took matters into his own hands by writing a long, irate email to Frank saying he was sick of playing too low on the ladder and that specifically he was a far better player than me and deserved to be positioned that way.  In an attempt to placate him, Frank then made a lineup switch for the Woburn match and moved Bryan up to play with Alan on 2 while dropping me down to play with Brandon on 3.

Let me be clear: I have areas where I fall short of being an ideal team member.   During matches I can get frustrated or upset with my own play, or (less frequently but more damagingly) my partner’s.   There are times I get too serious and forget that fun and friendship are ultimately more important than winning.  But I’ve never back stabbed a teammate that way to my captain try to enhance my own playing position.  I’ve never even asked to play a higher court, period; if anything, when I’m on a losing streak I’ll often say that I think I’m playing too high!   As long as I see my name on the lineup card somewhere- anywhere- I’m happy.   After all, courts 1-5 all have equal value in this league and the goal is to win as a team.  Most of our other guys feel the same way, and what Bryan had written really made Frank and Chris angry.  And when they told me about it a few minutes before the Woburn match, it made me angry too.   I still had smoke coming out of my ears as I took the court against the team of Halim (a big server with a strong competitive spirit) and Geert (an older guy with a game more geared to slicing and lobbing).   On another day the result might have been much different, but here I had my game going on all cylinders and we were able to overwhelm them 6-3, 6-1.  I stepped into the ball well and had a number of big returns off both sides, stuck my volleys and repeatedly smashed overhead winners out of their reach (especially important since they lobbed more frequently than most of our opponents).  Brandon was feeling the effects of some minor injuries and took a little while to get warmed up, but by the second set he had his big forehand going and we ran through the Woburn guys quickly.   Chris and Elias dispatched a team that had no business playing on court 1 in something like half an hour, while Dennis Robertson and Gary Barros filled in on 4 and cruised.   Playing with a new member who had been away from tennis for a while and was understandably rusty, Frank went down in flames on five, but Bryan and Alan seemed to have things in hand on two, leading by four games in the final minutes against Woburn’s true number one team of Brett Fairbanks and Justin McCabe.   They finished poorly, though, dropping the last five games, so we had to settle for a 4-2 win against a team we really should have swept.

The real drama, though, came after the match, as Chris, Elias, Bryan and I had an animated discussion for the next two hours or so in the Willows’ upstairs bar.  “Animated discussion” is a euphemism- this was loud and contentious enough that at one point Jimmy the bartender started yelling at us to cool it, because if he’d wanted to be around that type of conflict he would have stayed home with his wife.   It was probably my fault, because early in the conversation while the others were talking among themselves, I asked Bryan point-blank if he’d been dissing me to Frank and other teammates in order to play ahead of me.  His response was essentially that he wasn’t dissing me, he was just better than me and was telling the truth.  He wanted to play against tougher competition and thought he deserved the opportunity.  After some back-and-forth I realized that we were each going to have our own opinion of who was the better player.  So I just said he could believe whatever he wanted about who was better, but if we had to team up one day I needed to know he had my back, and talking shit about me was not the way to make that happen.   At that point Andros jumped into the conversation and Bryan reiterated his complaints about being undervalued, saying that he was as good as and probably better than everyone on the team except Chris.  Andros then got really revved up and said he was sick of guys bitching and moaning and not backing it up on the court.  “That’s why our team’s not going to go anywhere this year”, he said, “because we’ve got too many guys like you who all they care about is themselves.   Dave will play any position, with any partner, and he doesn’t care because he wants to win a championship.  You’re sitting here complaining and yet you don’t have the record to back it up (Bryan was 6-6).  If you think you should be playing higher, go to the lower courts and control the game and win, and you know what, eventually you’ll play higher!  Until then just be glad that I’m playing and winning every week on court one to keep our team afloat while guys like you complain all the time and don’t contribute anything.”  And though his singsong Middle Eastern accent stayed at a much lower volume, Elias was as mad as I’ve ever seen him.   “We are all basically the same level”, he said, “and I truly believe I cannot know for sure that I am better than anyone or they are better than me.  There are so many variables- how good was your partner, how good was my partner, many things.  But I can look at the record over time and see what good players this guy has beaten or that guy has beaten, and by that I can have some idea of a player’s value.  And your record says you are six and six, Bryan.  Six and six!  It does not matter how good you think you are.  You must win.”

Bryan was not so easily deterred, listing one excuse after another for his losses.  The opponents stacked and put better teams at my position.  Dennis quit on me after he served for the match and got broken.  Alan tried to stall with the lead and that made us lose our momentum.  The opponents hit it to Brandon all the time because they knew he wasn’t very good.  Justin was playing a few days after nearly being murdered in a street fight and had trouble just standing up (ok, that one at least was valid…).  After a couple of hours, the discussion finally ran out of steam, and though I think it was valuable to talk things out in the open like that, I’m not sure how much was actually resolved.  If I have to play with Bryan again, I will.  Although we had (and probably will continue to have) differences of opinion, I at least respect the effort that he gives on the court.  Some of my teammates hold grudges a lot longer, though.  Let’s hope we’re all somehow able to put this behind us and salvage what could still be a championship season.