This summer has been a slow one for me tennis-wise. My two main objectives were to improve my fitness, which had deteriorated sharply during a very busy springtime of coaching, and to improve my serve, which any semi-regular reader of this blog knows has been an ongoing struggle. Somewhat surprisingly, I feel like I’ve actually made progress in both areas. While I’ll never be mistaken for a bodybuilder, I have at least gotten perceptibly fitter thanks to a combination of gym workouts, practices and matches in brutally hot summer weather, and some moderately challenging hiking in the mountains north and west of my home.
While putting in the time and effort will almost certainly make you fitter, that same formula has done little to improve my serve over the years. Back in the day, it was actually something of a weapon, but those days are long gone now, and after injuring my shoulder nearly a decade ago, I’ve put in untold hours and tried many different motions without lasting success. The delivery I had used during the 2014-2015 season began with my racquet already dropped behind my shoulder a la Jay Berger or, more recently, Sara Errani, two otherwise solid pros best known for having meatball serves. My serve wasn’t great either, but against players rated 4.0 and below the rest of my game was usually strong enough to compensate. 4.5 competition was a different story: one of many reasons for my 1-12 record was that I lost my serve too often and didn’t get nearly as many free points with it as my opponents did with theirs. Sensing my frustration, Todd Toler convinced me to make one final effort at incorporating a full motion. He came up with a drill in which he weighted a towel by knotting it at one end and had me swing the towel over and over again, in an effort to get me to swing more loosely, letting gravity and the weight of the racquet do more of the work. He also got me to close my stance somewhat and put my backswing on more of a diagonal path, as apparently I had been coming around from too far to the right of my body and thereby inhibiting my motion. Then he told me to practice as much as I could over the summer, since I had more free time and empty outdoor courts were easy to find. So I became a fixture at a number of local parks and public courts, swinging the weighted towel to warm up and then trying to use the same principles to make my serve smoother. The towel drill really helped, and thanks to my strength work I could take a full swing without pain, but progress still came slowly. Eventually, though, it did begin to come. After a couple of weeks, I could make about one in four serves the “right” way. Slowly, and somewhat less linearly than I would have hoped, my ratio of “good serves” (ones that kicked up nicely and with good carry) to “bad serves” (my usual waist-high batting-practice fastball) continued to improve. If I lagged my tossing arm a bit, not raising it until my racquet had passed behind my right hip, and if I remembered to swing smoother instead of harder, and if I put the toss nice and high for both first and second serves, it really did work! That’s a lot of ifs, of course, and forgetting (or even imperfectly executing) any of those elements fouled everything up, but when I got them right, my serve was probably 30 percent better overnight. I wouldn’t exactly say I began to look forward to going out and practicing my serve, but I did dread it a little bit less than I had.
During this time period I limited my match play because I didn’t want to fall back into bad habits for the sake of short-term results. As July moved into August, though, I returned to Colby-Sawyer College in New London for my lone summer tournament, the Chargers Classic. In last year’s “Summer of ‘Love’” post, I described at some length what makes this tournament special. I won’t repeat myself here, but suffice it to say that all of the many positives were once again in evidence, even if the turnout was slightly lower than normal (the tournament was held later in the summer than usual, and as a result several regulars had conflicts with USTA district play). The Chargers Classic has an almost infinite number of divisions, but to facilitate scheduling each player can participate in only two: mine were the men’s open doubles and the century mixed.
My original partner for the men’s doubles was my good friend and USTA teammate Chris McCallum. Chris and I actually make a terrible doubles pairing: I don’t think we’ve ever beaten a team featuring even one 4.5-caliber player. But without any USTA summer playoffs this year, we both needed some competitive play, and I figured at the very least it would make for a good story, because any tale involving Chris is bound to be entertaining. But Chris’s elbow had gotten progressively more sore over the summer, and a couple of days before the tournament his doctor told him that he would almost certainly need surgery unless he took a clean break from tennis for a couple of months. Chris reluctantly complied; having undergone three surgeries in the past four years myself, I doubtless would have done the same. By that time, though, the draw had already been set, and the tournament committee- which to my good fortune did not seem aware of what a lousy team Chris and I made- had seeded us second behind Andy Day and Larry Barnes. Finding a substitute partner on the eve of a tournament is never an easy task, but this time I got lucky. I knew that Alex Mezibov, a friend from Concord who helps out with the CHS tennis team as a semi-regular hitting partner, was already playing in the open mixed, and I was able to talk him into filling in for Chris too. Alex isn’t as good as Chris, but he is a nationals-level 3.5 (he and Chet Porowski made their own Indian Wells tri-level trip earlier this year) who has also had some respectable results at 4.0 in the past. He’s an aggressive player who takes a lot of risks, but if his shots are going in he’s very dangerous. He also has quite a bit of self-confidence and tends to play well against better players- important characteristics for this tournament, since most of the other guys were rated 4.5. The draw worked in our favor too. Only six teams entered, and we had, based on Chris’s rating, received a bye into the semifinals as the #2 seeds.
Our good luck didn’t stop there. Our semifinal opponents were Ben Taylor, a very strong 4.5 in his late 20s who may be one of the most friendly and happy-go-lucky people on the planet, and Andy Johnston, who had been a strong high school player a few years back but had since taken some time away from the game. Ben has always had a big forehand and a nice serve, but recently he’s gotten much more aggressive at the net, and with well-timed poaches he minimized the number of balls that Johnston had to hit, which was especially important since Andy was serving into a blinding sun and had difficulty tracking the path of our returns. Ben’s heavy spins and strong net play always give me trouble, Alex was missing more than he thought he should have, and as a result they destroyed us 6-1 in the first set. We made the second a little more competitive but were still down 3-5 with Andy serving for the match. Here’s where the good luck came in: after finally reaching match point following a number of deuces, our opponents came up to the net and retired (full disclosure: they had told us about this ahead of time, although you always wonder…). Neither of them could come back for the final, which had been set for the next morning, so they allowed us to go through in their place. We certainly appreciated their sportsmanlike gesture, but in a larger sense I’m not sure about the ethics of signing up to play in a tournament you know you won’t be able to finish. I don’t object to this when you’re likely to lose in an early round, which is commonly my own situation, but when you’re a legitimate contender I think the dynamic changes. If our opponents had stayed out of the tournament completely, the draw might have been rebalanced and given a more deserving team than Alex and me a chance to be in the finals. Still, we weren’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. As my man Chet always says, “they don’t ask how, they ask how many”! Ironically, Chris’s name was still on the draw sheet (the message I had left about my change of partner apparently hadn’t been passed along), and it had advanced through the bracket with mine: McCallum/Page in the finals at last! So that night I called Chris and said “You and I just doubled our lifetime win total today. If you don’t believe me, check Monday’s paper…”
Alas, Monday’s paper would not report a tournament championship for McCallum and Page. In the finals Alex and I faced a father and son team who were summering on one of the nearby lakes and had just beaten Andy and Larry in a supertiebreaker. The father, Matthew, is a few years older than me and lives and works in Hong Kong most of the year. I learned later that he played Ivy League tennis at Brown back in the day. Max, his son, is a teenager who trains at a high-powered junior academy in California. Matthew had relatively flat strokes and great hands at the net, while Max was quick around the court, with a heavy serve and an excellent topspin forehand. Going into the match, I thought Alex and I could potentially get blown out if we were off our games, and we went down two breaks in a hurry, which seemed to confirm my worst fears. But we were going to the net aggressively and we got one of the breaks back by winning our share of those bang-bang net points where all four guys are volleying. They ultimately served out the set at 6-3, but we had been competitive and both of us seemed to gain confidence from that. I was returning well, serving adequately and sticking my volleys, and Alex hit some big down-the-line returns and closed well to the net. We stayed on serve throughout the set and even had a chance to go up 5-3, but Alex pushed an easy volley wide on break point with a big section of court open. They ended up holding, and at 4-4 we lost a long deuce game on Alex’s serve. He tends to struggle with closing on short sitters, and in that game he missed a swinging volley and also let a slightly lower ball bounce a foot or two from the net and then missed an easy forehand. I’m not selling him out: if I had a better serve and had served first, that would have taken the pressure off him, and in any case I might have moved more to try to help him hold. However it came about, the end result was unsatisfying for us, as our opponents promptly served out the match at love. Still, we had put up a good fight, which is more than many observers would have predicted following our semifinal match, and I don’t think either of us was disappointed in our play. I do admit, though, to occasionally wondering what might have happened if Chris had waited another few days to see that doctor…
While reaching the men’s open final, however dubiously, had been a pleasant surprise, my expectations were higher for the century mixed, where Lynn Miller and I were the defending champions. Last year’s matches hadn’t been particularly difficult, but in this year’s four-team draw our semifinal opponents quickly got our attention, breaking me twice en route to a 4-1 first-set lead. Barry, a finesse player in his 60s with good hands and an unorthodox game, dug out lots of balls and his partner, Diana, who was slightly younger, hammered her groundstrokes with both pace and precision. Lynn, who knew them both, hadn’t thought we’d have much trouble, but she was out of sync early in the match and I pressed in an effort to compensate and missed a number of easy shots. We kept waiting for Diana to miss and she never seemed to (I found out after the match that she was rated 4.5, so it was probably just a typical day for her). Luckily neither of them had a great serve or an overpowering net game and that allowed us to find the range and work our way back into the set. We started communicating better and I became more aggressive at the net, while Lynn just got more balls in play. At 4-4 I held for the first time and then we broke them for the set. After completing that big comeback, Lynn and I were much more comfortable, and we led throughout the second set en route to a 6-2 win.
Our biggest challenge was yet to come, though, as in the finals we were matched against the father-daughter team of Whitey Joslin and Laura Joslin-King. The Joslins are NH tennis royalty. Whitey, a longtime teaching pro now retired and approaching 80, ran the Racquet Club of Concord along with his wife Sue when I was a teenager, and in later years became the owner of Mountainside in New London. All of their children were good tennis players, but the best was Laura, now a strong 4.5 player in her early 50s, who has teamed with Whitey to win a total of 11 National Father-Daughter tournaments over the years. Despite their impressive resumes, and even more to their credit, Whitey and Laura have always been nice, genuine, down-to-earth people. Make that nice, genuine, down-to-earth and extremely competitive people! Our match would turn out to be a classic.
Lynn and I had based our game plan around making Whitey move and taking advantage of the openings that that created. It wouldn’t be easy to do. Whitey isn’t the typical senior player getting by on slicing, lobbing, and metronomic consistency. He regularly hits some shots harder than I do despite being thirty-plus years older, and although he plays primarily father-daughter events now, he could still hold his own in most men’s 4.0 matches. Laura plays a lot of 8.0 and 9.0 mixed doubles, and she’s far more comfortable at the net than most women, but she’s also short, so Lynn and I thought our lobs would be effective too. Their game plan, or at least the strategy they ended up using, seemed to revolve around minimizing my touches and overpowering Lynn with hard-hit groundstrokes and volleys. This wasn’t immediately effective because Lynn began the match playing at a very high level, and as a result we got off to an early lead and made it hold up throughout the opening set. We broke Whitey in all three of his service games en route to a 6-3 win, drawing an uncharacteristic racket throw from the legend as the set concluded. It was our serve to begin the second set, and I should have gone for the jugular and insisted on taking the balls. I had held comfortably in both of my first-set service games while Lynn had had more difficulty, often resorting to an underhand second serve, with varying degrees of success. But the sun was again a major factor, and we both would have had to serve into it if I had gone first. So she began the set, and Whitey and Laura quickly got a break which put them right back into the match. They went to the Australian formation on their own service games and, while it didn’t really bother my returns, it did take some of my crosscourt angles away. Even more importantly, it seemed to give them renewed energy, and Laura began to regularly control the points on Lynn’s return side with strong net play. We rallied back to 4-4, though, putting us just a hold and a break from winning the tournament. We would get neither. First Lynn was broken to 15: her underhand serve lost its potency as the Joslins dialed up the pace on their returns to take control of the points quickly. Whitey then held serve, and in the blink of an eye we had fallen from the threshold of victory into a dangerous winner-take-all match tiebreaker.
Whitey and Laura have much more experience playing together than Lynn and me, and now the momentum had swung their way too. This combination would be too much for us to overcome. Whitey set the tone on the first point, chipping a hard crosscourt forehand return into the alley past my outstretched racquet. I remember it vividly because it was the only time all day I had missed a first volley behind my serve, and the timing couldn’t have been worse (I’m not sure even Tim Duncan could have reached it, though, given how well it was struck)! We hung around for a while and made the second switch in the Coman tiebreak format down just 3-2. But Whitey and Laura came up big in the middle of the ‘breaker and built a lead we couldn’t overcome. The final was 10-5. Lynn was disappointed because her level off play had dropped considerably after the first set, but in truth I could have done a lot more to help her. In future matches I need to serve first more often (always?) regardless of the sun, and hit my groundstrokes harder. When I lack confidence in them, I tend to resort to the “slice-and-hope” strategy of chipping balls, coming to the net and hoping for the best. If my approach sits up too much, however, we’re in big trouble: even though I can get most hard-hit passing shots back (in doubles, at least), the play leaves my partner a sitting duck. While better strategic play could have helped us bag a huge win, we certainly gave Whitey and Laura a battle, which is something they rarely get in local century play. Lynn and I used the experience we gained to our advantage a few weeks later, as we won four matches- some of them hard-fought- to take the century title at Loon Mountain, just north of Plymouth. Whitey and Laura didn’t make that trip, so a rematch will likely have to wait until next summer. In the meantime, though, there’s lots more tennis to be played. Stay tuned!