Mid-September in my neck of the woods marks the beginning of both USTA and North Shore League play. As my Willows group began preparations for the NSL season in late summer, we knew that our core needed some reinforcing: we had forfeited court five a number of times during our run to the championship match, and a significant number of the guys who had played regularly would not be returning. Most disappointing to me personally was the loss of Alan Kravetz, who had moved to take a job in Connecticut. Alan marches to his own drummer and it takes time to get to know him, but by season’s end he and I had established some chemistry and were starting to play very effectively as a team. Justin Rowland, a single dad, had responsibly opted to spend more of his weekend time with his young daughter. Dennis Robertson had quit the league in disgust over the Newburyport fiasco, although his close ties to Chris and Elias meant you could never completely write him off. Kev Branco had a young child at home and a restaurant to run. And Bryan had defected to Winchester, more or less by mutual consent: we could only hope he would poison their atmosphere as much as he had ours.
Before Frank could get too desperate, though, the landscape of the league changed dramatically: the A league folded after a number of its weaker teams either withdrew or dropped down to the A1 level. This left the Willows A team without a home, so the decision was made to bring our two teams together into a single unit that would compete in the A1s. In the blink of an eye we had too many guys rather than too few. Frank encouraged some people to consider dropping down to the B’s, but the B team was itself loaded and not particularly in need of new blood. I asked him what he role he envisioned for me, and he was very up-front, saying that he could give me a fair amount of playing time on the lower courts, but no longer an every-week guarantee. My days of playing court 2 (and in any high-stakes match likely courts 3, 4, and 5 as well) had gone as quickly as they had come. With that in mind, I decided to de-emphasize the NSL matches in favor of USTA matches in my playing schedule. So far I’ve played twice, both on court 4, losing on the final point with Bjorn Merinder (Sr) at Manchester-by-the-Sea, and winning with another of the A league refugees, Lee Jacobson, in a hard-fought match at Bass River. When all the top guys show up, our team just rips through most opponents, and as a result it’s making a beeline back to the top of the standings even though the overall level of play in the league has improved significantly. Still, to me it feels more like an all-star team now than the close-knit unit we had been in the past. It’s because of this shift in my priorities, and not because I fear drawing the ire of the Newburyport tennis team (or any other opponent, for that matter) that I’ll be writing a lot less about the NSL this winter. Rest assured that even if they go unchronicled in this space, the drama, double-dealing and outright cheating endemic to the league won’t miss a beat. They never do.
Another major reason I decided to focus more on USTA events was that my ranking had dropped back down to a 4.0 in the early start ratings that came out in September. If there was one benefit to repeatedly getting my ass kicked as part of a team that went winless in two separate leagues last year, it was this: most of our crew got the bump-down we had been hoping for. This isn’t to say we had been tanking matches: the one guy who actually employed this strategy, ironically enough, stayed at 4.5 (for obvious reasons, I won’t name him here). But age, injuries and just plain inadequate play had taken their toll, and we were back where many of us thought we should have stayed all along. The list of newly relegated 4.0s was long, featuring, in addition to yours truly: Adam Lesser, a gentle, reflective guy who had given us strong singles play in our 4.0 sectionals runs; Eric Morrow, a friend for years and a talented player who had suffered a couple of humiliating double bagels against the 4.5 singles studs; Gary Roberts, a former teaching pro with high-end talent who was returning to competitive play after a few years spent restructuring his personal life; Rob Giles, heretofore known as the guy with the X-rated plumbing stories, but also a strong returner who thrives against pace; Bruce Leibig, a crafty veteran with a tough lefty serve; and Adam Hirshan, whose committed and cerebral approach to the game have brought continued improvement well into his 50s. Magnificent we had hardly been, but we were seven nonetheless. The first thing we had to do was make sure all seven of us were on board, so Adam Hirshan and I quickly reached out to the others. Remember the movie “The Blues Brothers”? This was the tennis version of Jake getting out of Joliet and going around to various soul-food restaurants and sleazy lounges in an effort to put his old band back together. Fortunately in our case most of the guys were more than happy to come on board. Our equivalent of Mr. Fabulous, the dapper trumpet player who was reluctant to give up his new life as a maître-d’ in a fancy restaurant, was undoubtedly Gary Roberts. Gary’s one of the best-looking and sharpest-dressed guys in our league, and he’s just as talented on the tennis court as Mr. Fabulous was on the trumpet. But like his movie counterpart he is not, let us say, the most responsive individual on the planet. Gary typically won’t reply to emails or even a team text. My strategy has become to text him often enough that he eventually answers back just to get me to shut up (trust me: this works much better in the tennis world than in the dating world). So after a few messages Gary was in too.
After reconstituting our group, we were faced with another problem: we were essentially a team unto ourselves, but because of a change in scheduling, the 40-plus season was starting within a few days and the league had already been set up. Not only did Algonquin already have a team, and a solid one at that, but it had a captain, John Duckless, who wasn’t especially familiar with most of us. John was thrust into the enviable but still difficult position of having a stacked team drop into his lap, yet still needing to keep the returning players happy. From my perspective it was essentially the reverse of the NSL shift: now I was the one who would likely be displacing established guys. To John’s credit he made an effort to hold practices and socials in order to get to know his full roster, and he sought input from some of us new additions while still maintaining his own authority over the group. That’s not easy to do, and for the most part I think he has done it exceptionally well to date. John himself is an enthusiastic player who has improved over the years into a competitive in-state third doubles guy; he’s basically what I am at the 4.5 level. His buddies Jim Prieto and Jack Chen are great guys with contrasting builds and personalities (Jim supersized and garrulous, Jack small, wiry and reserved), but for the moment they won’t help us much on the court. Rick LeClerc is a former UNH linebacker who came to tennis later in life and has worked his way up to a mid-range 4.0. Mark Paquette is slightly above midrange, with tons of upside yet untapped. But the three returnees who would help us the most were Todd Toler, Neal Burns and Dave Caza. Todd is already well-known to the five or six regular readers of this space. Neal has been a reliable guy in past postseason runs for the past decade-plus and is now relatively healthy after battling a series of knee issues. Caza hasn’t gotten as many column inches as his story would warrant, but I think that’s about to change.
If I had just a fraction more hair, and it was blond instead of brown, and I swore about 1,000 times less, I could pass for Dave Caza: he’s got the same skinny build and Dumbo ears. Put a butterfly knife in our respective hands, though, and you could probably tell us apart quite easily, because rumor had it that Dave was a former SEAL assassin. There doesn’t seem to be a quieter, friendlier guy around than Dave, but that may well have been what his victims once thought just before breathing their last. His background didn’t matter to us, though: we simply hoped Dave’s ageless consistency on the singles court would prove fatal to the playoff hopes of our rivals from Mountainside and Executive.
The 4.0 40-plus season was set up in of one of the most difficult configurations in USTA play: eight teams playing each other just once each (and with only singles position at that), with only the top two making districts. A double round-robin would have been much preferable from our perspective, because we had by far the deepest roster, whereas the format we ended up with took away much of our margin for error. But it was what it was, and the in-state competition also was what it was: first-rate! Mountainside still had its four longtime mainstays: Richard King, Richard Atherley, B Manning and Glenn McKune. Executive’s Ed Ibanez, who had kept me out of the winner’s circle back at last year’s Moose Open, had somehow gotten back to 4.0 despite winning most of his 2015 matches at 4.5, and he had top-notch teammates in Dan Watson and Chris Ramsay. One of these three sectionals-caliber teams wouldn’t even get out of New Hampshire, and perhaps more than one, for there were no gimmes among the other five entrants either. Joe Waldvogel, unhappy with his role on recent Algonquin squads, had formed his own team out of Concord, and he, Peter Reid and singles player Tony Janes gave them three guys who could be competitive with anyone in the league. Seacoast of North Hampton featured a number of savvy veterans, including my near-sparring-partner, Frank Campolo, while the Hampton Tennis Barn had the best singles player in the state at this level, Andy Montgomery. The Hampshire Hills team wasn’t what it had been, as many of its key players were now 4.5s, but guys like Mike Auger, Walter Meltzer and Rick Schwerdtfeger and their club’s lightning-fast court surface meant you couldn’t count them out. Even the YMCA, which depends on college studs in singles and so is normally more dangerous in the 18-plus, had two top-rank 4.0s in Mike Delaney and John Smith.
The season kicked off in mid-September with our team traveling across greater Manchester to the YMCA. I had already committed to playing up at Loon Mountain that weekend, and a number of key guys from both teams had made similar plans, so depth came into play on both sides. It probably ended up as a wash, except that the Y was forced to play one of the matches on Friday night because of limted weekend availability, and that’s where they used their stud, Mike Delaney, at third doubles (to be fair, I think that was the only day he was available too). John and Jim did well to extend Mike and his partner to a supertiebreaker, but we ultimately dropped a point we probably wouldn’t have if the matches had been played simultaneously and with properly ordered lineups. Hopefully that won’t come back to haunt us at season’s end. We took the other three courts in straightforward fashion behind Caza in singles and Eric/Adam and Todd/Neal in doubles. And if you win three courts every time, I guess you’ll still end up in pretty good shape.
Two weeks later we hosted Seacoast, meaning that Big Frank would be waiting to welcome me back to the 4.0s. John scheduled me to play two with Neal Burns, and since I tend to mentally prepare for the toughest potential opponent, I spent a lot of time focusing on how to counter Frank’s mind games. Combine that with the excitement I felt about returning the 4.0s and I was really charged up for the match. I knew I couldn’t take anyone lightly: in my last time back at 4.0 I had lost my season opener and subsequently struggled for the rest of the season. In retrospect I was way too psyched up, so much so that I imitated Frank’s off-court behavior (at least as relayed by Greg Coache, who has been his friend since college) by getting into an argument with the driver behind me in line at Dunkin Donuts on the way to the match. After taking my money and being told by the attendant to pick up my order at the second window, I had proceeded accordingly, but the woman behind me then leaned out her window and started yelling something on the order of “hey, you missed your sandwich, tough luck” in more combinations than I would have thought possible. Explaining didn’t have any effect on her, so I finally got a little bit less conciliatory, and I may or may not have directed an unkind hand gesture back her way too. Although Frank probably would have been proud, I knew I had to calm down in a hurry before I took the court, but that proved to be easier said than done. The first two matches on court were singles and number one doubles, and we were in grave danger of losing both. Frank was playing position one against Adam Hirshan and Eric, so there was no danger of another Thrilla in Manila with me, but the big man was on his game and he had a partner who complemented him well: a little guy, mobile and calm, who looked old enough to be my dad. Adam wasn’t volleying his best, and Eric wasn’t quite as aggressive as usual, but after losing the first set they came back to win the second and had their chances in a supertiebreaker in which they led most of the way. But to give the devil his due, Frank then stepped up his game, and this combined with a key moment when he reached well over the net to hit a winner but refused to call the point in his opponents’ favor, gave the Seacoast an 11-9 win.
Adam Lesser had his own struggles in his singles match against Barry Posternak. You don’t see Barry Posternaks at the 4.5 level, but they’re very, very tough to beat at 4.0. Barry is the ultimate pusher. He gets every ball back, most with little pace but superb placement, and just often enough to flummox his opponent he will rush the net to bloop in a drop volley winner. The way to beat him is to wait for the right ball and then come to net to put the point away. But although Adam does many things well on the tennis court, transitioning to the net to hit winning volleys is not among them. So Posternak eked out an ugly first set and kept his nose in front for most of the second as well, before Adam at last started to find the range and took the last three games to steal it, 6-4. The breaker was close, but Adam won a couple of points at the net, Barry missed a couple of overheads, and that was just enough to give us a 10-7 win which evened the match at one court apiece.
Neal and I then went out and played, or rather Neal and I went out and Neal played. Our opponents were Paul, an older guy with a nice forehand and a tricky, curving serve, and Darryl, who was younger and faster and hit steady groundstrokes. At 1-1 in the first set I was characteristically broken in my opening 4.0 service game, courtesy of meatball serves, shoddy footwork and a couple of stinging crosscourt forehands from Paul. I just wasn’t moving my feet or swinging through my returns, and for most of the first set I was a major liability. The nadir came when I had an easy smash on a bounce literally right in front of the net. Paul was standing right in front of me and rather than hit him I tried to angle the ball back crosscourt, but it somehow missed by a couple of inches. Thankfully Neal’s a laid-back guy and he gave me nothing more than a raised eyebrow. We ended up getting the break back and running out the set, 6-3, but Neal was doing all the heavy lifting. In the second set I finally showed up, hitting out on my returns, chasing down some lobs and drop shots (even returning one of the latter with a savage forehand winner), volleying aggressively and amping my serve up to “adequate”. We also found some vulnerabilities in Darryl’s net game and in Paul’s movement that we were able to take advantage of. So the second set went our way by a similar score to the first (6-2) but with far less drama. As a team we picked up three points because Caza had quickly buried the butterfly knife into his unsuspecting victims, teaming up with Rick LeClerc for a 6-0, 6-0 beatdown at third doubles.
Taking six out of eight points against what are likely to be the league’s two weakest teams is nothing special, and we have a long road ahead as we attempt to reach our goals. But like the paroled Jake Blues before me, I’m thrilled to be reunited with my band with another chance to chase the dream.