After we had started our USTA season on the right foot with a pair of 3-1 wins in September, the weather turned cooler and the level of competition cranked up a notch. October brought a trip to Hampshire Hills and a visit from Concord, two teams which harbored postseason aspirations of their own.
Hampshire Hills had lost a number of key players to the 4.5s, but any hopes of catching them in a down year quickly dissipated when we saw that we were scheduled to travel to Milford for our lone meeting of 2015. I’ve played on some great teams that came away from those lightning-fast courts with humbling defeats. So we knew we’d have our hands full no matter what the individual matchups looked like on paper. But we brought a strong lineup and played extremely focused tennis en route to a huge sweep which put us, at least temporarily, in control of the NH 4.0 league.
My match was with Bruce Leibig on court 1 against two solid veterans with many years of districts experience, Walter Meltzer and Mike Auger. Walter’s not a big guy, but he goes for his serve and hits a hard, flat forehand that’s rendered even harder and flatter by the HH surface. We caught a break because his normal partner, Rick Schwerdtfeger, a giant with a huge serve/overhead combo, wasn’t available that day. While he is very strong in his own right, Mike is more of a singles player than Rick: he hits heavy topspin shots off both sides and is more comfortable at the baseline than at the net. Walter started off swinging from the heels and hit some big serves and bigger returns in the early part of the match, but we were able to get an early break against Mike. I then held serve after several deuces by adding a little bit of extra spin, which took the ball out of Mike’s comfort zone on the return. With Bruce serving at 3-2, HH had a break point and a chance to turn the momentum around, but Walter missed an easy put-away at the net and Bruce came back and held. I wasn’t as fortunate on my next service game, but in the meantime we had broken Mike again thanks to some great backhand lob returns from Bruce on the deuce court, so we had a little bit of margin for error. In the 3-5 game Walter’s serving cooled off and I finally connected with a couple of big returns, and that gave us the first set. Getting off to a good start on that surface is the best way to get comfortable, and Bruce and I clearly gained confidence after winning the first set. Mike picked up his serving in the second set but Walter’s game tailed off, and we were able to maintain a modest but comfortable lead throughout en route to another 6-3 win. Although I hadn’t served well or returned consistently, I did hit some big volleys, while Bruce’s finesse game was a source of great frustration for our opponents. Mike in particular was visibly angered by some of his feathery lobs, but there was nothing cheap about them: they were deliberate, well-conceived shots. Trying to outslug a big-hitting baseliner like Mike would have just been dumb, and Bruce is one of the smartest players I know.
While I had been focusing on my own match, I saw that the other doubles matches had also begun to tilt in our favor. Todd and Neal were taken to a tiebreaker in the second set by French-born Marc Fontaine and big-hitting Todd Whitney, but they came up with some big serving to end the match there. Meanwhile we had the luxury of using Rob Giles on court 3, and although Rob left his trademark belted shorts at home this time, he returned serve as strongly as ever and won in straight sets with Mark Parquette. That gave us three points, but with our league champion now determined by individual court wins, the singles match still had value. With the rest of us watching intently from windows in the lobby, Adam Lesser came through in yet another clutch situation, edging the hard-hitting German Udo Hoerhold in a 10-8 supertiebreaker. Adam deserves credit for always hitting out on his shots regardless of the situation, and that mentality paid dividends as he used the speed of the HH surface to put extra power behind a couple of big forehand winners late in the tiebreaker. We may not all have played A+ tennis, but we couldn’t have been happier with the result, one which left us in first place in the league and in control of our own destiny as the season neared its halfway point.
Another team that had enjoyed a successful early part of the season was Joe Waldvogel’s group from Concord. That came as no surprise to anyone familiar with Joe, a retired New York City firefighter who brings that same combative mentality to the tennis court. Joe’s always fired up, but all the more so against us because he had left our team a couple of years earlier after a difference of opinion about his role with then-captain Chris McCallum. Joe went back to Concord and started a team where he gets to be the marquee player, and to his credit he’s done a good job of finding some talented guys to put in the other spots. His team had pulled the biggest surprise of the early season in beating Mountainside, 3-1, as Joe stacked himself at second doubles to get a point and then his guys took singles and third doubles in supertiebreakers. Joe’s best lineup could play on even terms with anybody in the state, but depth was a major concern: when he was short-handed, he often had to resort to using mid-range 3.5s in the lower doubles positions. To Joe’s chagrin, and our good fortune, one such day came on October 25 at Algonquin. Joe himself had just had wrist surgery, and a couple of his other key guys were also unavailable. But in a local rivalry where one team has had a little bit more success than the other, you always expect the underdog team to come out fired up, and that’s what happened here. Dave Caza seemed to have a comfortable lead in the singles, but his opponent, Tony Janes, kept battling back, rallying to win the second set after losing the first. Dave got way up in the supertiebreaker, too, but once again he couldn’t close the deal as Janes raised his level and snuck out a 10-8 win. The last two points might have been Tony’s only leads in the match, but it didn’t matter: Concord was on top.
At the same time Dave was losing, Bruce and I were fighting for our lives against Mike Long and Alex Mezibov. Mike is a flat-hitting, aggressive player with a nice backhand who closes to the net very well, but normally he’s a little bit erratic, and Alex, of course, tends to be VERY erratic. On this day, though, Mike served well and played steadily, and Alex was simply the best player on the court for long stretches. Not only was he on his game strokes-wise, but he also came in with a very sound strategic plan, something he isn’t always known for but which deeply impressed me here. Since some of my opponents seem to have begun reading this blog, I won’t go too deeply into Alex’s tactics, but suffice it to say that he had clearly studied my game and took advantage of certain tendencies and shot patterns in a way that allowed him to control the points more often than not. Bruce and I wore matching red shirts and supported each other and strategized the best we could, but at times it just felt as if we had run into a buzz saw. We had an early break in the first set, but I gave it back at 4-3 with a sloppy half-volley at 30-40 and our opponents seemed to gain confidence from that. Long held with steady serving and some touch volleys by Alex, and now it was up to Bruce to keep us in the set. Luckily he came through with a strong game, and then Alex got a little tight in his service game and double faulted on break point. I was able to serve out the set from there, 7-5, but the match was far from over. Our opponents had been playing well before that, but in the second set they took their play to another level entirely, hitting winners left and right. They went up a break at 4-1 and almost broke Bruce for 5-1, but after saving a number of break points we held on by going to the Australian on Alex to take his crosscourt return away (and not a moment too soon: he must have hit at least fifteen winning returns into the crosscourt alley before we made that change). That along with an occasional two-back against Alex on my serve seemed to throw off their rhythm a little bit, and we got back even at 4-4. Once again Mike held to bring a supertiebreaker into view, but Bruce came through with a hold for 5-5. In the game that followed we carved out a break as Alex missed a couple of his trademark swinging volleys, which up until that point he had hit with uncanny precision.
It may be stating the obvious, but I knew I had to serve out the match in that 6-5 game. While Bruce and I had the momentum, the last thing we wanted was to let our big-hitting opponents get a crack at a tiebreaker and then, potentially, a supertiebreaker. I put my serve in and we won the first two points. At 30-0 I decided to come in on a serve to Mike’s forehand, which he sometimes overhits, even though Bruce was staying on the baseline. One part of the plan worked perfectly: the serve went to Mike’s forehand and he missed the next shot. When I made my split-step, though, I landed wrong, in a way that felt like gears grinding in my left knee. I knew right then that I would probably be out of action for at least a couple of weeks, but the immediate challenge was to hold serve and to do that I needed one more point. If those guys made it back to deuce and could tell I was hurt, we were in big trouble. Luckily at 40-0 I had some cushion to work with, and with Bruce lined up in Australian I spun in a serve, Alex missed his return, and Algonquin had a vital point, though at what cost remained to be seen. Mike and Alex had played well enough to win, but Bruce and I used experience, strategy and a fair amount of luck to steal the match, and as he said afterward “that isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be proud of.”
Getting a split of the early matches gave us the momentum and we were able to use our depth in the lower slots to grind out another 3-1 win. Eric and Gary had trouble with a couple of finesse guys, Adam Heard and Jim Scammon, but pulled away in the second set after winning the first in a tiebreaker. Somewhat more surprisingly, Jack Chen teamed confidently with Duckless and used aggressive net play to dominate the now-80-year-old Zane Stuart and his partner Lou Caron in a quick straight-set win. And with just three matches to go, that puts us in excellent position for a top-two finish. But my individual situation was much more uncertain: after tearing both my meniscus and my MCL (on my right knee) in 2011, I was now in the unenviable position of watching and waiting to see if I had a similar injury to my left knee, or if time, rest and rehab alone would be sufficient to put me back on the court at close to 100 percent. November would tell the tale.