A Difficult Passage

The absence of any blog posts for the last several months may have been a clue that my worst injury fears were realized.   I was diagnosed with a torn left medial meniscus, and just before Christmas I went to Concord Hospital to be operated on by Dr. Peter Noordsij, who had done my other knee in 2011.  I have tremendous respect for Dr. Noordsij.  He’s extremely good at what he does.  But he is a man of few words, and even fewer reassuring words.   He compared my knee to a car running on bald tires and said he wasn’t sure how much function he’d be able to restore.  I wasn’t sure whether he was being candid or simply lowering expectations so I wouldn’t come back and sue him at some later date.  In any case he needn’t have worried: I was committed to going through with the operation and hoping for the best, but no matter the outcome I wasn’t planning on suing him.  I don’t like surgery any more than the next person, but if the alternative was limping for the rest of my life and playing tennis at a 3.5 level, tops, and in significant pain to boot, then I was okay with rolling the dice.  As it turned out, Dr. Noordsij did as good a job on my left knee as he had on my right.  I was on crutches for a while, but I didn’t miss a day of work, and gradually I got stronger.  A big reason for that was my physical therapist, Minami, a spunky if somewhat sadistic young Japanese-American who created fiendishly difficult exercises to get my knee tennis-worthy again.   After two months with Minami I was back practicing, and a month after that I returned to mixed doubles competition.  I later played two 4.0 matches in the 18-plus league, just enough to qualify me for post-season play.  As usual, high school coaching took up a significant portion of my spring, and I didn’t get to play much, but I’m back working hard now.  My timing is close to where it was pre-injury, although I still need to be more decisive with my movements.   The lack of practice  didn’t help my serve, but struggling with my serve is nothing new.  I’ve read old posts in this blog to find suggestions that worked for me before, and they have started to make a postive difference.  Physically I have lost a little speed and a little acceleration that I probably won’t get back, but those weren’t really my calling cards to begin with, so I’m hoping that improving my anticipation and keeping my composure better will help make up for that.  Some days the knee hurts a little bit, even when I haven’t been playing but icing and stretching seem to help (I bought two big compression ice wraps and am now icing like never before).   I think it’s a reasonable goal to be able to play three matches in a weekend at a high 4.0 level by late summer, so I’m practicing and working out with that in mind.  I’ll probably never see a 4.5 rating again, but I’d like to remain a serviceable 4.0 for as long as I can.

Perhaps some of you are wondering, though: how did it end?  Exactly what was the exciting conclusion to the 2015 NH Men’s 40-plus 4.0 season?  Let me set the scene again.  With one match remaining, three teams were in the running for two spots at districts: Algonquin, Mountainside and Executive.   My Algonquin team had won 16 individual courts in six matches while Mountainside and Executive had each won 15.  That small advantage was negated by a number of other factors, however.  Our last match was at home against Executive, while Mountainside traveled to Seacoast, one of the league’s weakest teams.  Although Mountainside typically does not travel well, the importance of that particular match and the relative strengths of the two teams made it a near-certainty that Mountainside would take at least three of the four courts.  So we were in essence competing head-to-head with Executive for the other spot.  Yet we could not simply play for a 2-2 tie and be assured of remaining one court ahead of them, because Mountainside’s protest of my “coaching” had not yet been heard.  If Eric and Rob’s win ended up being reversed, we would lose that point, and if that left both our teams with 18 individual wins, Executive had a good possibility of edging us out on the tiebreaking criteria of team wins, although without knowing the scores from the final match we couldn’t be sure (if a match ends 2-2, a team winner is declared based on the fewest sets lost that day or, if sets are also tied, the fewest games lost).  We decided that we had to set our lineup as if we would lose the appeal, even though the team members with the most experience in USTA procedural matters did not think that was likely to happen.  That meant trying to win three courts against a team featuring Ed Ibanez, who the year before had been undefeated at the 4.5 level, and Dan Watson, one of the top 4.0s in the state.

We had one additional constraint.  Captain John Duckless had promised before the season that all team members would get to play a minimum of two matches, making them eligible for districts if we qualified (at that level some would only play if we were otherwise short-handed, but John had gone to districts once with an incomplete squad and now very reasonably preferred the better-safe-than-sorry approach).   Our two weakest players, Jack Chen and Jim Prieto, had to that point only played in one match: we had kept them on the bench hoping that we could use them in the last match with qualification already secure, a move that had now clearly backfired.   So Jack and Jim had to play, but it seemed unlikely they could beat anyone on the Executive team.  Therefore we took the risk of stacking them on court 1, knowing full well that we would then need all three of the other courts to come through.  There wouldn’t be any margin for error, but desperate times call for desperate measures.  This measure had one result we anticipated: Jim and Jack lost 2 and 2.  But Executive didn’t have too much singles firepower, and Adam Lesser picked up an easy win there.  So we went into the last two individual matches of our season, which would be played simultaneously, needing to win both to assure ourselves of a spot at districts.

We had Eric playing with Adam Hirshan at number 2 and Todd with Neal at number 3: with injuries and unavailable guys factored in, they were our two best teams.  Executive countered with Watson and captain Scott McKinney at 2 (Ibanez had played 1 with Rick DePasquale) and Mark Hamilton and Sam Heald at 3.  Both matches were close, intense affairs.  Eric and Adam were eventually able to take their first set, 6-3, while Todd and Neal were still going back and forth with the hard-hitting Executive duo.  The opening set of that match went to a tiebreaker, and when our guys- typically a very strong tiebreaker team- ended up winning it, I breathed a sigh of relief.  But that relief would be short-lived, for while Todd and Neal pulled away to take the second set by a much wider margin, Watson upped the level of his game on the other court to carry Executive to a 6-3 second-set win.  The second doubles match, and potentially our season, came down to a supertiebreaker.  Fortunately Eric and Adam have lots of confidence in each other as a team, which helped them counter McKinney’s big forehands and Watson’s blinding speed and aggressiveness around the net.  Still, the Executive pair eventually reached match point, and when a short lob bounced invitingly just in front of Watson, perhaps three feet from the net, our prospects seemed bleak.  Yet somehow he missed the shot and our guys had life.  The supertiebreaker continued to seesaw back and forth, until finally at 14-15 Watson found himself serving to Adam on the ad court.  He missed his first serve and then, to the astonishment of all present, Adam went into full Michael Chang mode, standing right on the service line in an attempt to draw a match-ending double fault.  Perhaps unnerved by this tactic, Watson hit his second serve long, and we were going back to districts!  Mountainside lost one court at Seacoast in their final match, and the coaching protest would ultimately be denied, so we actually finished in first place. It had been a much harder road than we had anticipated, but all’s well that ends well and our season had, in fact, ended well.   The first part of it, anyway: an even more challenging postseason path awaits us in August.

I won’t go into much detail about the spring season.  The North Shore league finished before I was healthy and sharp enough to return to competitive men’s play, so I didn’t get enough matches in to be eligible for the postseason.  Once again the Newburyport club won the league championship, defeating my Willows team in the final.  Our merged team had added a number of ringers, but Newburyport added ringers of their own who were just a little bit better.  There were no shenanigans that I know of this time.   I did play five mixed matches for Chet Porowski’s Keene 8.0 team, winning three of them.  I’m not generally a fan of mixed doubles, but in this case I needed the practice and Chet needed players.  The team had gone winless the previous year, but in 2016 we executed a dramatic turnaround, winning seven of our ten matches.  Most of those wins were by 2-1 scores, though, and the mixed league- like the men’s league- now ranks teams by individual court wins.  In this category we tied the YMCA team for second place, but unlike in the men’s league, team wins are not used as a tiebreaker.  We lost more sets than YMCA and that cost us a spot at districts.  I missed the first half of the season while my injury was healing and later lost a winnable match in a supertiebreaker, so I felt somewhat responsible, but the bottom line was there was plenty of blame to go around.  A number of supposedly very talented women that Chet had been counting on either didn’t play at all or played in only a bare handful of matches.  But I guess when your team has gone winless the year before, committing to make a playoff run isn’t front and center in anybody’s mind.  I  met some very nice people and got some good practice, so I was just glad to have been a part of the team, the two-hour drive each way notwithstanding.

The 18-and-over 4.0 league season also played out from January to May.  I played the minimum two matches and won once (both matches ended in supertiebreakers).  I wasn’t at full strength, and our team’s talent level made rushing back prematurely out of the question.  We took the nucleus of our fall team (basically everyone except John, Jack, Jim, Rick Leclerc and Dave Caza, who had chosen to form their own team) and then several other very strong players, most of them under 40.  Justin Toler and Aaron Diamond were generally considered to be two of the top high school players in the state; Justin ended up winning the state singles tournament while Aaron reached the semifinals.  Greg Coache, who hadn’t played the 40s season due to college coaching commitments, was back with his big kick serve, and Rob Starace came over from the Executive to join us.  Rob’s line calls may be a little sketchy at times, but he was playing as well as he ever had, and he had been a strong 4.0 for many years.  We were lucky to have him.  Lastly the father-son team of Brian and Dan Horan brought big serving, lots of size to blanket the net, and in Brian’s case, years of playing with some of the top 5.0s in the state.

New Hampshire had more 18-plus teams than 40-plus teams, so the state was divided into two five-team leagues.  Our league consisted of both Algonquin teams, the River Valley Club in Lebanon, and longtime foes Concord and Mountainside.  We played each of the other four teams twice, with the top two finishers going to districts.  As with the 40-plus team, we made qualification more difficult than we should have, losing both meetings with the River Valley team, which featured a transplanted New Zealander with 5.0-level skills.  With the exception of the other Algonquin entry, though, our league was so evenly matched that those slip-ups cost us less than they might have.  At one point, in fact, all four top teams had taken the same number of points from their first four matches.  In the second half of the season we got a 4-1 win over Concord and a 5-0 shutout against the other Algonquin team, and in a league filled with 3-2 scorelines those gave us just enough breathing room to claim first place once again.  Concord, which beat Mountainside twice, finished in second place, although Joe’s lack of depth would come back to haunt him later, when he didn’t have enough players available for districts and had to decline his invitation.  Algonquin does have enough committed guys, and we’ll be playing in Portland on the first weekend in August (the 40-plus districts are the following weekend in the Boston area).  The Portland district is never easy because Portland’s philosophy at every level is to load up one team with all their best players, and they have lots of good players.  The Northern Maine team will also be tough, led as it is by the trio of lefties Todd, Kevin and I overcame by the narrowest of margins to get to Tri-Level Nationals in 2014: Alan Toothaker, Phid Lawless and Ben Beverly.   Essex Junction, VT, is notorious for producing lefty-powered teams of its own, though I know less about their individual players this time around.  And Executive, though it lost Ed Ibanez to a year-end bump (we lost Rob Giles in the same fashion), still won the other NH league with a dangerous team featuring Dan Watson, Chris Ramsay, Mark Hamilton, and Rick DePasquale, plus a couple of Indian studs for the singles.  To say we have our work cut out for us to reach sectionals would be an understatement.  So I’d better get my butt off this computer and get working.