For the first forty years of my life, my body generally worked the way it was supposed to. Once I hit that not-so-magic number, though, the injuries and surgeries started to pile up. Among those I counted a combination torn meniscus/torn MCL in my right knee in early 2011, so I knew that while a torn MCL heals itself with time, a meniscus tear almost always needs to be surgically repaired. With that being the case, I was hoping I had torn only the MCL in the match against Concord. My current injury, which was basically an awkward landing that sounded like gears grinding in my knee, wasn’t sustained in quite the same way as the previous one, and that gave me some hope (in 2011 I heard a sound like a key turning in the back of my knee and then, a few seconds later, felt some serious pain). So I proceeded to rest and rehab my knee according to the guidelines for treating a torn MCL and crossed my fingers that that was indeed the issue. After taking three weeks off, I knew I had to play-test the knee and hope that it was starting to progress. From the beginning of the practice session, though, it was painfully obvious, in more ways than one, that the time off hadn’t helped at all. While the rest of me still felt like a smoothly functioning unit, my left leg felt separate and almost alien. I couldn’t move it the way I wanted to and I couldn’t move it, period, without extreme discomfort. It was almost certainly the meniscus after all. Fuck! There went my season.
There almost went Algonquin’s season, period, for while I was sidelined with my knee injury, our team proceeded to squander most of its once-comfortable first-place margin. We still had plenty of talented guys to put on the court, but that didn’t always translate into the results we hoped for. This was particularly true in a humbling 1-3 defeat at the Hampton Tennis Barn in early November. To be fair, Hampton was near the bottom of the standings only because the distance separating them from some of the other clubs (drives of 90 minutes or more, in a couple of cases) meant that they didn’t travel well. It was our luck, though, to play them on their home courts on a day when they brought a strong lineup. You don’t get much stronger in 40-plus 4.0 singles than their top guy, Andy Montgomery: quick and powerful, he’s by no means a 4.0 (he doesn’t look anywhere close to 40 years old, either, but I’m sure the USTA computers keep accurate track of that variable). Andy took Lesser to school in the singles match, hitting the ball as hard as Adam but with much more consistency. Always one to look on the bright side, Adam said after winning just two games that at least he wouldn’t have to worry about his rating going up anytime soon. If Montgomery had played more often- he took the court just twice all fall- Hampton would’ve been up much higher in the standings, but with strong one and two doubles teams we still had the guns to take them. Our opponents, though, gave us a taste of our own occasional medicine by putting a weaker team on court one and stacking their studs at two and three. Rob and Adam cruised, but Gary and Todd had a slip-up on two against David O’Connor and his partner Jim Ouellet. David is a tricky guy to play against, very steady and an excellent lobber despite highly unorthodox strokes that sometimes lead unwary opponents to take him lightly. Gary pulled something in his leg in the very first game and was only slightly more mobile than Hampton’s famous mermaid statue the rest of the day, while Todd didn’t return with anything close to his normal consistency. Our guys must have been 0 for 15 on break point conversions, and it’s not like their opponents were shattering any radar guns with their serves, though they placed their deliveries well. But while that result was disappointing, we still had a chance to get a split as Rick Leclerc and John Duckless made it to the supertiebreaker in a hotly contested third doubles match. They faded badly at that stage, though, as Dan Witham, who hits laser-like two-handed groundstrokes off both wings, and his crafty partner Rick Warren won the breaker quickly and decisively. Not only did we have our first loss of the season but our playoff qualification was now in jeopardy, as we led Mountainside by just one individual court win and Executive by two, with matches remaining against both of those top teams.
I would’ve liked nothing better than to play against our longtime rivals from Mountainside, but after my unsuccessful attempt at practice I knew I just wasn’t up to the task physically. So I resolved to try to help the team in any other way that I could, which as we shall see led to some problems of its own. But first things first: John asked Adam and I for help making the lineup for the trip up to King Hill Road. With Lesser unavailable, we put Caza into the singles and ultimately suggested Mark Parquette and Gary at one doubles, Eric and Rob at two and Adam Hirshan and Bruce at three. That might look like we were giving away court one, since Mountainside had been teaming Richard King and Glenn McKune there with great success (they were undefeated, including a win over Executive’s Ed Ibanez, who would be bumped to 4.5 in the year-end ratings). But we felt Gary, with his feathery volleys, matched up well with Glenn, and Mark had overpowered Richard for much of a doubles match a couple of years ago before fading late. So we had a strong doubles lineup all the way through, and with singles not being Mountainside’s strong point we felt Caza had a good shot too. Like so many things in November, though, this didn’t go quite according to plan.
I got to New London with Gary and Mark up a set and on serve late in the second (first doubles took place before the other three matches). Apparently they had really been playing well, but as soon as I showed up things began to take a turn for the worse. Serving at 5-6, Gary couldn’t convert a game point and was eventually broken, leading to one of Glenn’s annoying triple-bolo fist pumps. One set all. We began well in the supertiebreaker, though, getting a mini-break to go up 3-1 with Mark serving to Richard on the deuce court. He missed his first serve and then appeared to have hit the second in the back part of the box, only to have Glenn call it out. Gary protested strongly but Richard would not change the call, saying later that he had been focused on his return. A single questionable call like that shouldn’t be decisive when players of our experience level are involved, but on this day Gary and Mark were just not able to get past it, dropping the next several points. They tried to rally late in the breaker but by then they were just too far behind to catch up. By whatever means, Richard and Glenn had beaten us once again.
We needed two of the remaining three matches, at least, but we only had a clear edge at third doubles, where Mountainside’s Scott Goodwin and Pete Ericson competed hard but couldn’t quite match the finesse and consistency of Hirshan and Leibig, who won in straight sets. The other two courts were up for grabs based on the matchups, but the matches themselves began well for us as we took the first set in both. Mountainside never goes down without a fight, though, especially on their home courts, which have proven almost as unwelcoming for us as Hampshire Hills in recent years- and unlike at HH, we can’t blame the surface, since Mountainside’s courts don’t play much differently than our own.
Caza quickly went up a set on big-serving George Clooney look-alike Tim Lesko, but as had been the case against Concord, the butterfly knife slipped as he went in for the kill. Lesko had been making a lot of errors from the baseline, but he changed his strategy and began pushing his groundstrokes and looking to come in to the net to win points. With his opponent making fewer mistakes, Dave needed to play a little bit more aggressively to win points, and with a game based primarily on retrieving he just wasn’t able to do that. Lesko claimed a close second set and then played an excellent supertiebreaker, which he won decisively. To call a spade a spade, he also took three points of his ten on out calls of shots by Dave that my glasses-enhanced eyes (admittedly sitting three courts away) saw clearly on or inside the line. Making matters worse, Dave gives his opponents any call within about three feet of the lines on his side, which made for a huge differential in the amount of court considered “good” on each side of the net. Call it sour grapes if you will, but 10-4 with the aid of three bad calls could easily be 7-7 instead. None of that matters now, though, and Mountainside had yet another controversial win.
Eric and Rob were in a dogfight of their own with Rich Atherley, who may now be the best overall player on Mountainside (certainly he’s in the conversation with Glenn and B Manning, who was mercifully absent from this match) and his partner Eric Parenti. In the second set Atherley used big serves, hard returns off both sides, and an aggressive net game to take over the match and even it at a set all. Upstairs I could tell that Eric was really pissed off: he banged the wall loudly and then went to take a bathroom break in the locker room. He seemed like he needed settling down, so I hobbled up out of my seat and followed him to the locker room. He said he couldn’t get his return going and I just settled him down the best I could and told him to shorten up his stroke a little because those guys were serving hard. I felt like they weren’t focusing enough on Parenti (although he’s a good player in his own right, with a strong forehand, he’s much more erratic than Atherley) and I told him that too. Before I could say anything more, the locker room door opened and Richard King burst through as if he were on a SWAT team raid. “That’s coaching! That’s illegal!” he yelled. “I taped that conversation on my cell phone. If we lose this match, I’m filing an appeal”. Granted, by USTA rules virtually any interaction with a player whose match has not finished counts as coaching, which you’re not supposed to do. And if the fact that I was violating a rule wasn’t uppermost in my mind, ignorance is not an excuse. In trying to help Eric, I may well have doomed him instead and in the process earned the dubious distinction of losing a match for my team without even hitting a ball. Most people visiting this website are already well aware that they’re not reading the memoirs of Albert Einstein, but even by my own rather low standards, this was dumb!
Eric and Rob, of course, came back to rip through the supertiebreaker, so Richard being Richard, he went through with his appeal. Some of my teammates feel differently, but I don’t have a problem with him doing that. I made a mistake and I have to own it. If it costs my team a point (or, even worse, a playoff spot) then I’ll feel terrible, but we’ve lost plenty of other courts that we should have won this season and we’ll have to recognize that too, if it comes to passing out blame. Richard saw a chance to pick up a free point with no potential downside and he felt like appealing was the best way to promote his team’s interests. I opened the door for him to do so, I take responsibility for that, and I have no issue with that aspect of it. Richard being Richard again, though, he’s apparently been going around saying that his main motivation for appealing is “to teach (me) a lesson”. That does feel a little more personal, especially coming from him. Without going into chapter and verse here, let’s just say that Richard does a number of things himself-in his captain’s role, not his playing role- that could easily come under the umbrella of gamesmanship. So instead of promoting himself as some paragon of sportsmanship maybe he should just focus on helping Glenn win his appeal down from 4.5 for the 25th consecutive year, and on getting ready for the districts, because Mountainside did end up qualifying.
Would Algonquin join them in postseason play next summer for what would undoubtedly be a spirited battle with a little extra juice on both sides? Would I or my team get a suspension or other sanction from the USTA? What would happen to my left knee? All will be revealed in due time, but as I grimly drove out of the Mountainside parking lot that day in late November, the only thing I knew for sure was that 2015 couldn’t end soon enough…