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.

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