Dealing With the Devil(s)

(The events surrounding this match took place the week of April 10, 2015)

Dealing with the devil may seem like a good idea at the time, but it never ends well. Ask Goethe’s Faust, or Damn Yankees’ Joe Hardy, or steroid-powered Sammy Sosa. Or just ask me, after an ugly, nasty week that showed both the selfishness of our own team members and the pettiness of North Shore League politics in a most unflattering light.   I wish the season had ended a week ago with our win over Winchester, but real life is rarely so tidy. So here’s the rest of the story, but first a word of warning: better keep an air-sickness bag close at hand in case it makes you want to throw up.

Our problems began almost immediately after the Winchester match. A number of our guys went to a pub in Billerica called John Ryan’s, but the celebration didn’t last long once we began to think about our lineup for the following week’s championship match at Newburyport. We had beaten Newburyport twice during the regular season, both times by three courts to two in hard-fought matches, so the prospect of playing them at their place in the finals didn’t faze us.   If we had been able to use the same lineup as against Winchester, in fact, we would have been clear favorites, our number-four ranking notwithstanding. Unfortunately, though, we didn’t have that option. Alan would be traveling for work and Ronnie had inexplicably scheduled a tropical vacation. To be fair, the playoffs had been moved up about a month since we had last appeared in them all too long ago. I myself was taken by surprise when I learned about those changes a few weeks before the end of the regular season, but of course I hadn’t scheduled a vacation for that time period either. So not only were we down a court 2 player and a court 3 player, we would be missing the two guys I was most comfortable playing with.   We hoped Brandon, who was still battling some nagging injuries, would be fit to play, but that still left us with Frank on court five, which at this stage was more or less equivalent to defaulting the court. The more we kicked it around, however, the more it became obvious that there was another alternative. We could hold our noses and ask Bryan to come back (and Bob, too, since no one else would agree to play with Bryan). It was a tough call: should we give up a court in our most important match of the year by sticking with a loyal but clearly incompetent team member, or go for the win with a self-centered, egotistical jerk who happened to be a far better player?  In the end, though, we decided to sell our souls. Somewhere Joe Hardy was probably laughing at our naivete.

Famous last words, perhaps, but the plan seemed like a sound one. Newburyport was known for putting its best team, Jim Sartori and Sunny Ahn, on court 2 in the most important matches. So we would throw Bob and Bryan on court 2, hope for the best there, and in so doing drop our other teams down to pick up likely wins on 3, 4 and 5 (we had more or less put court 1 in our column already, given Newburyport’s history). Stacking can be tough for team chemistry if the people being sacrificed resent being placed in that position.   But in Bryan’s mind, he should have been playing on court 2 all year anyway, so he didn’t even perceive it as a stack. Bob knew better, but he was willing to go along with it, and let’s face it: underdogs or no, they had a far better chance on 2 than Frank would have had on 5 (the fact that Frank, who was nominally our captain, had absolutely nothing to do with this entire discussion- wasn’t even present, in fact- probably tells you all you need to know about our team). I would play three with Branco, Mark and Justin would play four, and Dennis and either Brandon- if he was healthy- or Gary would play five.

I think it would have worked, but then the North Shore League, run by Newburyport’s own Courtney Gilman, decided to step in. The NSL makes FIFA look squeaky- clean: corruption and conflicts of interest abound, and when controversial decisions are made, the Willows, a small club without much pull, gets the shaft more often than not. Prior to their semifinal match, Newburyport had protested Westford’s lineup, which seemed to be reasonably fair but which had Marc Carey, a 5.0, on court 2 with a 4.0 partner, and two 4.5s on court 1. Marc Carey is the only court 2 player in the league better than Jim Sartori, and Newburyport wins, in part, by loading up on 2 with Sartori. So Newburyport protested, successfully, and Carey was forced to move up to court 1, which Newburyport had already essentially conceded. This left Sartori safe on court 2, where he won comfortably against two 4.5s; he’s that good. This was all “ok” in the league’s eyes, because his team had played him there a number of times during the regular season (that Carey had also played many matches on court 2 didn’t seem to matter, but then again Westford didn’t have the league coordinator in its stable of teaching pros).   So courts one and two were split, Newburyport used its depth to win on the lower courts, and that was that for Westford: a great season, surely, but not quite great enough, and one that had ended with a bitter taste.

Having used the protest to good effect the week before, Newburyport tried it again against us and was equally successful. To begin with, the league refused to accept our initial lineup on the grounds that, according to some arcane formula, Branco was too good to play on court 3 and Brandon was too good to play on court 5. It didn’t matter that Branco had played one match in six months and that Jim Sartori could probably wipe the court with him (and surely with me) with one hand behind his back. It didn’t matter that Brandon had a sore arm and that even when his arm was healthy, his net game resembled a man trying without much success to ward off an attacking vampire.   The North Shore League’s computer had spoken.

Our guys were angry, and rightfully so. You’ll see three or four lineups in any given week of league play that are more severely stacked than ours was. Nobody says anything when Chris and Elias double bagel (6-0, 6-0) two guys that can barely hold the racquet while our court two team is getting thumped.   But when you have a club with money, power and influence in a championship scenario, things change in a hurry. To Frank’s credit, he did his best to keep us together. He had us vote on whether or not to continue playing, after having agreed as a group to abide by the result. Chris and Justin voted against playing and the rest of us voted in favor. So Frank put out another lineup, this time with Branco and me on 2, Bob and Bryan on 3, and Brandon and Justin trading places on 4 and 5. Newburyport again protested, but this time the league ruled in our favor, so it looked like all systems were finally go. But then Newburyport appealed that decision (appealing didn’t seem to be an option when decisions went against us, but now, suddenly, it was in play) and the league reversed the earlier ruling just hours after making it. We would have to rework our lineup yet again.

This time all hell broke loose. Dennis, who’s a pretty outspoken guy, quit the team (or, more accurately, the league) on the spot. The rest of us were split about whether or not to play and spent most of the rest of the week debating the question. Some said that playing would lend legitimacy to a process that was rigged against us, while others, including me, thought we still had a chance, however small, and we needed to show up and do our best to beat the odds. Ultimately the threat of sanctions against other Willows teams in the event we blew off the match may have decided the issue.   We would play, and not just without Dennis but also without Brandon, who was hospitalized with a respiratory illness the day before the match. Frank would get to play after all; he’d be teamed with Gary on court 5.

The Christians might have had better odds against the lions than we had in that final match. There was a definite feeling of lambs (not-so-innocent ones, admittedly) being led to the slaughter when we walked into the packed upper lobby of the Newburyport Racquet Club. Seemingly half the population of Newburyport, and unfortunately not the prettier half, was on hand to watch their team’s moment of triumph. They yelled and screamed and pounded on the glass throughout, a display that we countered with one measly fan: Frank’s young daughter, who, as always, spent the time engrossed in her hand-held video game.   And why shouldn’t the Newburyport fans have been confident?   Their team had not only chosen its own lineup, but ours too.   Of course the matchups were in their favor, and in the end everything played out just like they wanted it to.  On court 1 Chris and Elias put the smackdown on Foster and Darke, two guys at my level, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Bob and Bryan, who had moved down to 4, played well and took care of a so-so Newburyport 4 team.   Everybody else lost. Frank and Gary were off the court in about half an hour, and that includes the warmup. Their opponents should have gotten their money back. Kevin and I lost 3 and 1. We broke Sartori twice but didn’t do anything else well. If we had played our best, we would have had only a slim chance, and we were far from at our best. Jim killed us with poaches not only off Sunny’s serves but off his returns, and made almost no errors the rest of the time. Coming onto the court, Elias challenged him about not playing court 1, and he made some lame excuse that his back had been hurting. Would that my back ever hurt like that! With the score tied, it was up to Garvin and Justin on 3 against Rob Random, a big-hitting young lefty, and Eric Russell, a savvy veteran. In the end, they had a little bit too much for our guys, winning by a break in each set. We quickly slunk away into the springtime sunshine as the whole Newburyport membership celebrated the championship they had worked so hard behind the scenes to “earn”.

It had been a great season, but not quite great enough, and it had ended with a bitter taste.

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Destination: Newburyport!

originally written April 4, 2015

I guess that headline removed all suspense, but we are in fact headed to the championship match at second-seeded Newburyport next weekend after a 5-1 victory at Winchester. Things looked bleak early on, as we lost the first set in three of the five matches and were at 5-5 in a fourth (all NSL playoff matches are two out of three sets, untimed), but we used experience, determination and heart to come back and record a memorable win. In an effort to give a better feel for all the momentum swings, I’ll detail the matchups first and then tell how I perceived them evolving while focusing on my own match, which had more than its share of drama.

Here were the matchups on all five courts:

Court 1- Chris Andros/Elias Moujaes vs Chris Das/AJ Shekar- As usual, we were favored on paper in the court 1 matchup, but the Winchester guys- both recent tennis-playing graduates of Holy Cross- had pushed Chris and Elias in a 7-5, 7-6 Willows win during the regular season. Das especially had a powerful and accurate game, so we certainly couldn’t count on an automatic point.

Court 2- Kevin Branco (6-0)/Alan Kravetz (9-5) vs Matt Williams/Richard Leaf- Branco was playing for the first time since the birth of his daughter in December, but Kevin doesn’t practice much anyway, so as long as he could still serve we had confidence in him. Alan had been playing well with me and now he had a partner who actually wanted to serve first. Winchester brought their own big-serving lefty in captain Matt Williams, while Leaf had an awkward but effective style which made him a good complementary player.

Court 3- Ron Love (6-0)/yours truly (12-5) vs Elliott Koch (9-2)/Justin Sordillo (6-4)

Ronnie and I always make a good team and we liked our chances on three. We decided earlier that morning to switch return sides with him going over to the ad side, because he said he was returning much better there than on the deuce. He can hit more winners than me and I usually have more consistency, so I wanted him to play whatever side he was most confident on.   We had our hands full with two strong opponents. Koch was an all-around player with a strong forehand, big volleys, and no real weaknesses. He had played most of the year on courts one and two and Winchester was clearly counting on him to drop down and win on three. Sordillo was more erratic than his partner and had vulnerabilities on the backhand side, but he served well and had good reflexes, including a nasty two-handed backhand overhead which would have made Venus Williams proud.

Court 4- Mark Garvin/Justin Rowland vs Chris Weiss/Sandro Attacalitile (15-4)

Garvin’s condor wingspan at the net is the perfect complement to Justin’s heavy serves and forehands and his laid back demeanor helps keep Justin’s nerves in check, so they make a good team. Even so, they had a tough matchup against Weiss, a quick and scrappy groundstroker, and Sandro, a smooth hitter with good hands at the net.

Court 5- Dennis Robertson/Gary Barros vs Mike Poppler/Mike Walsh

Poppler and Walsh are an excellent court five team- gritty guys that get the ball back (Walsh has some power too, and Poppler some height and reach). Dennis’s big forehand was the biggest weapon on the court but he needed to stay strong mentally. Gary needed to forget how badly he played the week before and get enough balls back that the opposition couldn’t win just by focusing on him. Like all the other courts, with the possible exception of 1, this match was a toss-up.

On to the match, then, and Ronnie and I were living a nightmare for the first fifteen minutes or so. Leading 40-15 in the opening game, he ultimately dropped serve on the deuce point, and after Winchester held I then played a poor game (missing a lot of first serves). When Ron dumped an easy overhead into the net at 30-40 we were down two breaks, and then we lost another game to go down 0-4. It wasn’t all due to mistakes on our part, either- the other guys just couldn’t miss! Winchester was getting big returns off both sides from Koch, a mixture of deep backhand lobs and hard topspin forehands from Sordillo, and lots of first serves and excellent reflex volleys from both of them.   They got their balls low with spin and angle and I had trouble volleying them. Ron’s volleys were sharper than mine, but they passed him down the line a few times after long, drawn-out points. I was a little bit shell-shocked: I couldn’t believe that a great season would end on such a miserable note. We needed to bring our own level of play up and hope our opponents’ level dropped. As the set wore on, Ron and I each managed to hold serve and that helped us get more of a foothold into the match. But we still couldn’t break our opponents, and when Sordillo dug out of a 0-40 deficit to hold on the deuce point (they won all three deuce points in the opening set), the first set was Winchester’s by a 6-2 count.

As we switched ends of the court (in the NSL, teams switch sides only at the beginning of a new set), I took stock of some of the other matches and the results were not encouraging. Chris and Elias looked to be winning but Branco and Alan had already lost the first set as Williams’s heavy spin serve was giving them fits. Dennis and Gary were down late in the first set and seemed likely to drop it (they did), and Mark and Justin were back and forth at four- or five-all. Our team was on the verge of getting blown out of the water, but slowly that changed. Mark and Justin ran off two consecutive games for a 7-5 first set win, and by then we had jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second.   Koch was putting away any first volley that stayed above the net, so I mixed lower balls with some lob returns over Sordillo, and we ended up breaking Elliott and then I held serve on the deuce point (Ron had held easily in the opening game). We attacked the net and they missed a few more balls then they had earlier in the match, but we still had to work hard for every point. I hit a few good overheads and some decent volleys, but our returns remained inconsistent and we couldn’t add to our lead, so my turn came to serve again in the important 4-2 game.   I wasn’t getting enough first serves in and Koch was just hammering his forehand at me, so I stayed back a few times to try to change it up. We got to deuce by winning most of the points played on Sordillo’s ad side, but Koch was waiting on the sudden victory point (he returned all of them). I tried to surprise him with a flat serve out wide, but it missed, so I then elected to come in on a meatball second serve. I got the first volley back but a couple of shots later he hit a sharply-angled forehand towards the alley. I got into position but volleyed it into the net and then angrily threw in a few curse words. After some strong serving from Sordillo, Winchester was back even at 4-4, and games went with serve to 5-5. Then it was my turn. Oh joy.   We were hanging on by a thread and I knew if I was broken again here we would almost certainly lose. I resolved to put everything I had into that game and fortunately my serves got a little steadier and my volleys a little sharper. When Sordillo’s lob at 40-30 drifted wide of Ron’s alley, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. We looked to be headed for a tiebreaker as Justin went up 40-15 on his serve, but we won my point and then Ronnie ripped a pro-level backhand crosscourt return that resulted in a clean winner even though the server stayed back. That one shot alone made switching him to the ad side worthwhile! After such a great shot there was no question he was going to take the deuce point. His return this time was a little bit more pedestrian but he got it in play and came to the net with Sordillo pinned beyond the service line. They threw up a short lob in between us. Ron had the forehand and the momentum of closing to the net and I yelled for him to take it. He snapped off a smash into the deuce court and Koch, who had retreated to try to block it back, couldn’t control his reply. Amazingly, we were even at a set apiece.

Taking stock of the matches around us during the short break before the third set, we saw that Chris and Elias had wrapped up an easier-than-expected win on 1 and Alan and Kevin had gone down to defeat on 2. 4 and 5 were both late in the second set (remember that we were up a set on 4 and down a set on 5). We couldn’t worry about them for the time being, though: we just had to take care of business on our own court. Tennis is a funny game. You might be on the verge of defeat, but if you can somehow reverse the momentum- and it’s almost never easy to do- you can take the upper hand in a hurry. After we won that second set we felt like we had the upper hand, and we played that way, breaking Koch to begin the third set. Next Ronnie held serve to consolidate the break. Then Sordillo and I both held, him much more easily than me, but we were still two games ahead. By now Mark and Justin had won another 7-5 set and given our team a 2-1 overall lead. Gary and Dennis had taken their second set and were just beginning the third. Their points seemed to be lasting longer than ours, so it was almost certain that our match would finish first. Ronnie and I, then, had the team win on our racquets, but we had to try not to think about that and just play. Luckily we were both in a patch of good play: his volleys had been superb all day, but now his returns were more consistent, and my volleys had improved while my returns stayed consistent.   We were both getting in to the net whenever possible and using our opponents’ pace to hit solid volleys until either they missed a shot or we got a put-away opportunity. The 3-1 game was critical. We didn’t necessarily expect to break Koch again but doing that would put us up by two breaks. While neither Ronnie nor I have a great serve, we were really sticking the volleys and it would have taken some doing for our opponents to come back from that large a deficit.   We played opportunistically and took the game to deuce, and then came a long, tough, well-played point. We eventually pinned Koch at the baseline on his forehand side, but he came back with a terrific lob over my head. I don’t like to let lobs bounce and sometimes that’s a weakness because it causes me to overestimate my range. In this case I was going to be in trouble no matter what I did. Elliott’s ball had a lot of topspin on it and if I let it bounce it would take off in the direction of the back fence, but it was also too far behind me for me to hit a clean overhead. I might be tall, but I can’t jump very high under the best of circumstances, and late in a match with my body’s momentum carrying me in the opposite direction was hardly the best of circumstances. So I got as much upward thrust as I could and then reached as far back as I was able. The result was a much uglier version of the old Jimmy Connors “skyhook” smash.   I got my racquet on the ball and stuck it back crosscourt on a high arc and in what seemed like slow motion. At first the ball looked to be drifting wide, but then its momentum slowed down even more, and I knew it had a chance to go in. Finally it came down about five feet past the net, landed squarely on the doubles sideline and almost immediately bounced into the side curtain, out of Elliott’s reach. It wasn’t pretty, but it may have been one of the most important shots I’ve ever hit. After that, we could feel the air go out of our opponents, and in our own minds we knew we weren’t losing.   When a shot like that goes in at such a crucial moment, you just feel like it’s your day. Ronnie held easily and after Sordillo got a game back for them, I did the same, serving out the match at love.   We were going to the finals!!!  Gary and Dennis ended up winning, too, so the final score was a deceptively lopsided 5-1. It could just as easily have gone 5-1 the other way, but I think we had a little more experience (that’s a nice way of saying that all of our guys are over 40) and we were able to use that to our advantage. Newburyport beat Westford, 4-2, so we’ll go there next week, but without Ronnie and Alan, who will both be away. After today, though, it’s hard to say anything is impossible, so we’ll do our best and let the chips fall where they may.

Zero and Zero Again

Zero and Zero Again

(originally written March 28, 2015)

Yesterday my North Shore League regular season that began in mid-September finally concluded, and the verdict was mixed. On the plus side, we qualified for the playoffs for the first time in several years despite significant internal problems, and we can be proud of that. On a less positive note, we enter the postseason as the fourth and lowest seed, meaning that all of our matches will be on the road and that our semifinal opponent will be top-ranked Winchester.   At the halfway point of the season, our positions were reversed (we sat atop the table while they were in fourth), so although all four surviving teams are evenly matched, Winchester certainly comes into the playoffs riding more momentum than we do. The thing about the postseason, though, is all you really have to do is get there: after that, it’s a matter of who can play their best when it matters most. I always ask my high school teams before we begin our playoffs what our record is, and there are usually enough veterans that before long somebody gives the right answer: “zero and zero”.   It doesn’t matter whether your team was 14-0, 8-6 or somewhere in between. You’re back to zero and zero again. Now I have to take my own teachings to heart and see if our Willows team can make a Cinderella run of its own.

Our final regular-season match was a makeup at Bass River of Beverly, which over the past few years has seen an infusion of talented players as several ex-Winchester teaching pros have found a new home there. Fortunately most of them play in the A league, but on any given day a few A players will sub in on the upper courts of the A-1.   When Bass River came to our place, Chris got his only loss of the year, as Mike Lapierre- one of the best players in Eastern Mass- filled in one court one. But there’s a limit to how many matches you can play at a lower level, and Mike had by now exceeded his quota, so Chris didn’t have to worry about facing him again. Bass River instead put two skilled but older players on court 1, and they were no match for Chris and Elias, who were both playing at the top of their game. I was back with Alan on court two and this week we faced a tough father and son team named Thayer and Trevor. Thayer was a little older than me and had a style very similar to my own, except he couldn’t really come over his backhand, which he hit one-handed. Trevor was probably in his early twenties and he had beautiful strokes, nice hands and excellent quickness around the court.   Fortunately for us his first volley wasn’t quite at the same level as everyone else’s and although he had a fast serve, he tended to double fault at inopportune times.   After I held serve on a deuce point we were able to break him to go up 2-0, but some nice lobs by Thayer mixed with drives from Trevor got them back on serve, and soon they were even at 2-2. The next four games followed the exact same pattern- we broke Trevor, but this time some abysmal net play on my part led to Alan dropping serve again, and before long we were in a 4-4 dogfight. Luckily the pattern that had been established continued once again, as I held serve and we were able to break Trevor for the set following a couple of double faults.

In the second set we built on our momentum as Alan began to serve more effectively and Trevor appeared to get frustrated and overhit a number of balls.   All four guys had smooth strokes and could volley so that made for some entertaining points, but once again we were able to break Trevor in both his service games and take the second set by a more decisive 6-2 margin. I think we probably caught Trevor on an off day: with his strokes and a couple more years of experience he could be an A-league player. But a win’s a win and we’re certainly not going to give it back.   Mark Garvin teamed with Justin for an easy win on three, and we needed it for the team result when we dropped winnable matches on four and five (Gary Barros had a miserable day on four, and we had Frank on five, so enough said there). Four, five, or six points in this match (or zero, for that matter)- it made no difference: we were going to come in fourth in the league regardless. But we got some match play in and stayed sharp for next week’s semifinal match against Winchester. It should be a great match and knowing our team and Winchester’s, there will probably be some fireworks somewhere. We’ll do our best and let the chips fall where they may. Stay tuned.