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.