18-plus Districts: There Could Be Only One (and it wasn’t us…)!

You didn’t have to be Siskel and Ebert back in 1986 to realize that a new movie called “Highlander” had some serious flaws.   The characters were one-dimensional.  The special effects were awful, even by the primitive standards of the day.  As for the plot, any reasonably intelligent person could have watched the first ten minutes of the film and predicted most of what would follow.   The story line, such as it was, followed a group of near-immortals who could only be killed by one another as they battled for supremacy throughout history.   Their method of killing, though, was decapitation with really badass swords, so a number of memorable swordfights resulted (memorable to an impressionable and somewhat nerdy teenage boy, anyway).  Most memorable of all, though, was the line the combatants screamed during and after these contests: “There can be only one!”- meaning one survivor.  That line made an otherwise bad movie stick with me for 30 years and counting.  And it could be the motto for district play in USTA tennis, too: though things may be a lot less bloody, the concept isn’t all that different.  A handful of excellent teams- more than that in Eastern MA and in some women’s divisions- enter a closed space to do battle with a different sort of weapon, and only one can survive the weekend and advance to sectionals. 

In many ways, districts are even tougher than sectionals.  Teams have to play as many as two matches a day over the course of a three-day weekend (there’s only one match per day at sectionals, which is essentially New England’s Final Four).   There are few, if any, amenities available to the players, and matches often continue late into the night.  In past years I’ve played until after midnight and then had to go back on court early the next morning.   There’s more pressure, too.  If your team makes it to sectionals, your season has been a success even if you lay an egg in Springfield.  But that’s not the case with districts, because many of the competing teams, including my own, have been put together specifically to make deep post-season runs.  So while losing at this stage remains preferable to not qualifying at all, no one’s just happy to be there. 

When 18-and-over districts took place in Portland, ME, in early August, my Algonquin men’s 4.0 team definitely wasn’t just happy to be there.  We had two very strong singles players who had just graduated from high school and nine or ten other guys capable of winning against most 4.0 doubles teams.   And unlike in some recent years, everyone was available to play, with the exception of Rob Starace and Adam Lesser, who were injured, and Greg Coache, who was busy running a residential summer tennis camp.  Although our depth was a nice luxury to have, it also posed a couple of problems: we had lots of solid options but no clearly dominant combinations, and we would also have to sit a number of talented players in every match.  During practices in the days leading up to the competition, Todd Toler and Adam Hirshan developed a positive synergy, and I played well with Gary Roberts (I had also had success with Bruce Leibig during the season, and we got in a practice match together too).  The Horans seemed most comfortable with one another, and Neal Burns and Eric Morrow were also going to be in the mix.   As for who played when, and in what position, those were questions for Todd to deal with on a match by match basis. 

At districts we played in a round-robin format against all four of the other 4.0 teams:  two from Maine, one from Vermont, and one from NH.  The other Granite State representative turned out to be not Executive but Hampton, and we opened the competition against them on Friday night at the Foreside Racquet Club in Falmouth.  Although they had come in second to Executive in the other NH flight (injuries and commitments to other USTA teams forced Executive to withdraw from district play), we didn’t underestimate the Tennis Barn.  Their roster wasn’t as deep as Executive’s, and that cost them in their local league, in which teams were ranked by total court wins.  But we knew that they’d likely have most of their top eight players available for their postseason matches, and those players were very dangerous indeed.  Their singles 1-2 punch of Andy Montgomery and Mike Armstrong would strike fear into most New England teams, but we had our own singles studs in Justin Toler and Aaron Diamond.  Justin and Andy, who are both strong all-court players, went out first and put on a nationals-caliber singles match.  In the end Justin was a little stronger (I’m sure being 25 years younger didn’t hurt either) and he claimed a 6-4, 6-4 decision.  The number two match, by contrast, featured two players most comfortable at the baseline.  But while Armstrong’s awkward style flummoxes most 4.0s, Aaron had no trouble at all with him, dropping only three games- an impressive result, but one that would ultimately prove problematic.

We thought that if Hampton played their doubles teams in order of strength, we might well lose at number one but we would have a slight edge on the other two courts.  As it happened, we took all three in close matches.  Gary and I went to court one because we felt Gary played best against good players (he was also somewhat out of shape and got fatigued chasing lobs, which guys at the lower spots tend to hit more of).  Most 4.0 men that play first doubles have pretty good serves-our opponents, Rob Drouin and Ron Konopka, certainly fell into this category- so holding my serve became more of a concern, but I had been getting better depth and spin on my ball on practice, and I felt good about my volleys.  Here, though, I started poorly, dropping my first service game at deuce.  Drouin’s returns were pro-fast if not pro-accurate, and Konopka hit flatter but also quite hard, a bad combination on a court where the lighting wasn’t anything to write home about.  I was hitting my own returns with confidence, though, and Gary was a demon at the net with aggressive poaching and little touch volleys, and as a result we broke them three times in a row to take the set 6-3 (Gary was also broken, in the fifth game, but then served out the set with ease in the ninth).  We continued to play well as the second set unfolded.  I gained confidence in my serve, and we found that if we got two or three of Drouin’s shots back, he often overhit and made mistakes.  Konopka was more consistent, but he’s a heavier guy and as the points progressed we were able to open up the court a little bit, creating gaps and sometimes forcing him to hit off-balance.  We built a 5-2 lead and I had a chance to serve it out, but here our opponents made some great shots to go up 0-40.  I stayed calm and worked my way back to deuce but they ended up getting the break.  Then we twice had match points on Drouin’s serve but both times he aced me, once flat down the middle and once with a kick serve into the side curtain.   When he finally held for 5-4, I was getting nervous.  Gary rarely gets nervous about anything but he did look tired.   He dug deep, though, and after a couple of deuces he was able to hold serve for the win without much help from his net man.  Still, all told it was the best match I had played since my injury, and for both of us it was a great feeling to beat two of the top 4.0 players in New Hampshire.  Todd and Adam came through in straight sets against veterans George Allen and Roy Urdanoff, rallying from 1-5 in the second.  At third doubles, Neal and Bruce won a tough match against Dan Witham and David O’Connor which featured lots of lobbing and long points.  You can’t get a better start in any competition than a 5-0 win against a good team, so we went to bed in our various hotel rooms (mine was at the Quality Inn in South Portland) excited and confident for day 2. 

There was no time to rest on our laurels, though, because in our late-morning match on Saturday we faced a dangerous Eastern Maine team.  Despite having lost its tournament opener 5-0 to a loaded Portland squad, the Ellsworth Tennis Center entry boasted three of the best players in the competition: Alan Toothaker, Phid Lawless and Ben Beverly, all of whom are left-handed.  Kevin Phelps and I had edged Toothaker and Lawless in an epic match at the Tri-Level sectionals in 2014, but if they played together against our Algonquin team they would be tough to beat.  Beverly is the youngest of the three and usually plays singles, where they often stack him at number two.  The question was what Ellsworth would get out of the rest of their guys, so we knew that whoever was matched up against people outside of their Big Three had to take care of business.  I ended up in the “whoever” category, as Bruce Leibig and I faced off against two guys named Glenn and Mark at second doubles.  Glenn was a lefty with excellent hands and a great lob.  His serve wasn’t that fast but he placed it very accurately out wide on the ad court, and often all I could muster was a weak lob in reply.  Mark had a style which seemed at first glance to be awkward but was in fact very effective.  He never missed his backhand return and he had excellent hands at the net along with a powerful, though inconsistent, first serve.  We ended up winning 7-5, 6-3, but we were never comfortable.  It was a completely different style of match than the one I had played against Hampton, featuring lots of precise lobbing and delicate touch shots.  In the first set we quickly got off to a 4-0 lead, but they eventually pulled even at 5 as they started to work Bruce over with their lobs and then drive the ball at him hard when they had backed him off the net.  Luckily I was able to hold serve in the eleventh game, and then Mark seemed to get a little tight and we broke him for the set.   Bruce’s lefty serve is normally deadly, but on this day he had dropped serve twice in the first set due to our opponents’ crafty play.  So at the beginning of the second set he asked me to serve first, a rare and somewhat risky move, but one which in this case worked to our advantage.  Although I was broken for the first time midway through the set, we had built another lead by that point, and I was able to serve out the match with a strong final game.  Bruce lobbed extremely well throughout and hit some terrific angle shots in the last few games, and while my serves weren’t overpowering anybody, they were setting up my volleys effectively.  So while it may have been “winning ugly”, it was still winning, and in postseason play that’s the name of the game.  

The other courts had finished by the time our match ended and the overall result was once again in our favor, this time by a 4-1 count.    Justin had an easy first set and then let up on his opponent- Eastern Maine had apparently stacked- to the point where he drew some suspicion from the people running the tournament, though no other action was taken.  Aaron took a straight-sets win over their best singles player, Beverly, though the second set was close at 6-4.  And Brian and Dan Horan used their strong serves and net savvy to good effect, beating a couple of big guys whose style seemed to closely mirror their own in a supertiebreaker.  Lawless and Toothaker had been on fire in the number one doubles, thrashing Todd and Adam 6-2, 6-2, but while they won that battle Ellsworth’s “Big Dogs” lost the war, absorbing their second team defeat in as many matches to fall out of contention. 

Very shortly after that first match concluded, Algonquin was back on the court to face a team from Burlington, VT.  Vermont had beaten Hampton, 3-2, in their morning match (they hadn’t played on Friday), so two undefeated teams were now essentially facing off for the right to challenge Portland in a winner-take-all showdown on Sunday.   If our team was to win through, we had to do it without me, as I took a pass on putting my recently-repaired knee out a second time with Portland looming the next day, especially since we were looking to rotate in a number of fresh guys, all of whom were quality players in their own right.  Somewhat more significantly, we also had to do it without Justin Toler, who had gone off to attend a Snoop Dogg concert.  His absence for the Vermont match was worrisome enough, but before the Ellsworth match Justin had also shown us some “really cool” YouTube footage of the stands at Snoop’s previous venue collapsing like an accordion under the weight of an enthusiastic crowd.  After seeing that video, the rest of us could only hope that he’d come back for Sunday’s match in one piece (he did).   For the time being we went with Aaron and Eric in the singles and doubles teams of Gary/Neal, Todd/Adam and Mark/Dan, and that lineup worked as well as we could have hoped, for we ended up sweeping Vermont 5-0.  Aaron beat a strong player decisively for the third consecutive match, and Mark and Dan routed a couple of guys who may have been closer to 3.5s than 4.0s, but the other three matches could have gone either way.   Gary and Neal beat an older man with a strange, chopping style and his big-hitting partner, though they were pressed in a long second-set tiebreaker.   Adam and Todd won by a late break in each set against a tall Hispanic player with a strong forehand and his partner, whose strokes and mannerisms were both quite unorthodox.  Eric, though, was the big story.  He had been lobbying for a week or so for a more prominent role on the team, and he was visibly angry about being left out of the lineup in the first two matches.  He may not have had his best season, but he’s a proud and competitive guy, and I had a feeling he would really play well in that singles match.  And so he did, overcoming a first-set tiebreak loss to win both his second set and supertiebreaker by wide margins against a very good player, Justin Worthley.  Even from the viewing area three courts down, Eric’s determination and tenacity shone brightly, and they brought him what was almost certainly his most satisfying win of 2016. 

It was now down to one match: Algonquin vs Portland for all the marbles!  And just as Connor McLeod in “Highlander” had to defeat the hulking and savage Kurgen to become the final immortal, our New Hampshire group was faced with a big roadblock to sectionals in the form of Gabe Gordon’s Marginal Vortex team.   That final match didn’t take place until more than 24 hours after we finished with Vermont, which was both good and bad.  On the plus side, we would be as well-rested as any team could be on the final day of an extended competition in which temperatures often exceeded 80 degrees, with high humidity.  On the flip side, I was the only player to stay overnight in Portland: the others all drove home and back again, some for the third consecutive day.  Far more difficult to overcome than travel fatigue, though, were the Portland players and, more generally, the Portland system. 

I can probably best describe the advantages of the Portland system of USTA domination by comparing it to how things work in the Granite State.  New Hampshire league tennis at every level is hotly contested by a number of clubs who are out to beat each other.   Almost all of them require that the majority- and in some cases every single one- of their USTA players be members of that club; even those team members who aren’t paying club members generally play at that facility at least somewhat regularly.  So while Kevin Durant and the Warriors, and before that Lebron James and the Heat, took the “Dream Team” concept to professional basketball, the best NH adult tennis players almost never band together.  Sure, we all try, some more effectively than others, to find “diamonds in the rough” for our respective teams, people that have just moved to the area or never played league tennis before- high school players are the new hot commodity.   But you won’t see, for example, Glenn McKune playing for Algonquin unless his regular club hasn’t fielded a team in that particular competition (with his 36-4 record he shouldn’t be playing 4.0 tennis, period, but that’s another issue…).   This philosophy results in highly competitive league seasons but it can also put our representatives at somewhat of a disadvantage against the superteams that other areas of New England, especially Portland, put together (Eastern MA, another strong area, is a district unto itself, so we only see their teams at sectionals, whereas we are regularly grouped with Maine and Vermont for district play).  Portland’s teams are based out of the Racket and Fitness Center, which is seemingly home to all the top players within about a 100-mile radius of Maine’s largest city.   At every playing level the RFC puts together a powerhouse team loaded with all the best players at that level.  Although there have been years when two or even three competitive teams faced off in their local league, such moments are few and far between.  In most cases the league season is just a vehicle to qualify the all-star team for districts.  Often there are just two Portland-based teams, with the weaker team being composed of people whose games are no threat to the stronger team or who are trying to get bumped down a level (extreme as it sounds, the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals would be a reasonable sporting comparison).  Other clubs, when they field teams at all, almost always lack the depth to compete with the Portland entry.   The few Portland players who get bumped up in any given year are remarkably successful in their appeals; many of those who aren’t seem content just to lie in wait, as if part of a tennis sleeper cell, for the required three non-playing years to elapse so their ratings can reset.  This system has worked exceptionally well for Portland, leading to a number of sectional championships.  In fact, outside of Eastern MA, which is far more populous, Portland may be as close to a dynasty as there is in New England tennis.  And to make it to sectionals we had to get past that dynasty. 

Ultimately we failed, though not for lack of trying.  Justin and Aaron both won in straight sets; once again Aaron drew the opposition’s toughest player at number two and just tore him to shreds.  But while we had considered our doubles combinations to be strong, Portland’s proved to be even stronger.  Gary and I were both playing well and thought we had a shot at number 1, but we were in way over our heads and lost 6-0, 6-2.  The main reason why was a 30-year-old Bates graduate named Matt Chamberlain, who bore a striking resemblance to Andy Murray (to our dismay, this proved to be the case even when he was hitting the ball, as he was quick and rangy around the court and virtually never missed his two-handed backhand).  Matt covered the net like a praying mantis, regularly looped a kick serve about two feet over my head- I’m 6’3”- and into the curtain, and chased down shots all over the court on the rare occasions that we were in control of the point.  I don’t mean to take away from the accomplishments of his partner, Darren Alcock, who hit hard, flat returns and closed to the net extremely well.  Darren was a good player too, but he was basically at our level, although he outplayed us on that particular day.  For his part, I don’t want to say Matt wasn’t going all out, because winning only two games in a match is humiliating enough as it is.  Winning only two games against someone who isn’t even trying might make even a reasonable person want to give up tennis for good!  But I did get the sense he could have cranked things up a notch or three if danger ever threatened.  That wasn’t the case here, because I couldn’t return his serve and Gary had what he deemed to be his worst day in some time, struggling in almost all phases of the game.   Despite the 80-degree temperatures I wasn’t even thirsty on the changeovers, so soundly were we being whupped.  At the end we could only hope our teammates would have more success.  They didn’t.  Todd and Adam felt they didn’t play well in their 6-3, 6-3 loss, but they also drew a very tough team with great hands around the net in Stephon Woods and Steve Richard.  At third doubles Todd had chosen Eric over Bruce and Dan to partner with Neal, feeling that he was playing better than the others and also was still hungry from being passed over in the earlier matches.  And Eric started off like gangbusters, leading our guys to a 6-3 first-set win against Gabe Gordon, who had a heavy forehand and an aggressive net game, and Ben Stockwell, a soft-hitting lefty with great hands and uncanny lobbing ability.  Early in the second set, though, he dropped serve after a long deuce game which saw both our guys miss a number of overheads.  As we tried to mount a comeback, Neal’s balky knee began bothering him, limiting his mobility.  Gabe also caught on to the fact that neither of our guys ever lobbed, and got very close to the net for a series of aggressive poaching winners.  Portland took the second set, 6-3, with that one break of serve, and so our team’s fate came down to the supertiebreaker.  This time when Eric went to the locker room during the set break I stayed where I was, on a long bench on the far wall of the adjacent court (our contingent occupied one of them and Portland’s the other, as the remaining matches had finished while third doubles was still in the first set).  We hoped for some magic off the racquets of Eric and Neal, who are two of the gutsiest players in New England at our level.  But none was forthcoming, as Portland played at a very high level throughout the supertiebreaker, building a big lead and ultimately taking the sectionals berth by a 10-3 count.  The result was disappointing, but there’s no question we lost to a better team on the day (Aaron ended up being disqualified for winning by excessively wide margins, so Neal and Eric don’t have to feel like they let the rest of us down; despite all of Aaron’s district results being reversed, we still came in second because our other wins had all been by 4-1 or better).  Portland has a lot of great players, but from what I saw they’re nice people, too, and when the last point ended a spontaneous display of sportsmanship occurred involving both teams.  Our guys got off our bench, their guys got off theirs, and we formed a handshake line similar to what hockey teams do at the end of a Stanley Cup playoff series.  We wished them well and they gave us credit for being worthy opponents.  I’m pretty sure Eastern Mass. has never seen the like of that in any of its district finals. 

Disappointed as we were, unlike the defeated swordsmen in “Highlander” we still got to keep our heads.  And many of us would soon be needing not just those but the rest of our bodies, too: when we straggled out of Portland on Sunday night, beaten but unbowed, 40 and over districts were less than six days away.

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Where Past Meets Present

newport-clubhouse

The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.

 

 

 

 

I’ve been playing tennis for over 35 years, always enthusiastically but with an almost complete lack of distinction.  There have, however, been a few blessed exceptions, some more deserved than others, and one of them came in July of 2005.  On a warm weekday afternoon, my longtime friend Jeff Siegel and I walked out onto the grass of the center court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI, in between matches of its annual men’s professional tournament, to be announced to the crowd and receive medals proclaiming us number one in New England.

It didn’t matter that we were lined up in the midst of perhaps 200 other people, all of whom were being recognized by USTA-New England for attaining the top ranking in one of its many competitive divisions.  It didn’t matter that Jeff and I had achieved this distinction in Men’s 4.0 doubles, a classification which to those in the know practically screams “mediocrity”.  And it certainly didn’t matter that of all those present, only our friend Andrew Haynes was truly cheering for us, and I’m pretty sure even he was mainly there to watch the professional matches.  I still got goose bumps walking onto the Hall of Fame’s hallowed turf, and years later it remains one of my biggest tennis thrills.

If that brief moment on the Newport grass proved unforgettable for me, how must it feel to be honored there as one of the game’s all-time greatest players?  Not many people alive today can answer that question, but after this year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday, July 16, you can add two more names to the list: Marat Safin and Justin Henin (Amelie Mauresmo, who was inducted last year but missed that ceremony because she was eight months pregnant, also spoke, while two greats from the past, Yvon Petra and Peggy Scriven, were recognized posthumously).

Russia’s Marat Safin burst onto the scene at the 2000 US Open.  His straight-sets demolition of heavily- favored Pete Sampras in the men’s final was one of the most surprising results in recent tennis history.  Safin just couldn’t miss that day, and in the aftermath of his big win many around the game felt he had the potential to be a dominant force for years to come.  It didn’t happen.  Although he went on to hold the number-one ranking for a time and his two-handed backhand (delivered with a signature leg kick on high balls) remained a thing of beauty, the Russian would win only one more Grand Slam title, at the 2005 Australian Open.  More often he drew attention for his epic racquet-smashing tirades on the court and his epic partying off the court.  Safin certainly squandered a fair amount of his considerable talent, but any number of people might have fallen prey to some of those same temptations if they looked like a bigger, stronger version of Leonardo DiCaprio and had millions of dollars to play with.  Myself among them…

One player who can never be accused of squandering even an ounce of her God-given talent was Justine Henin.  Despite being physically smaller than most of her contemporaries and having to overcome a number of setbacks in her personal life (her mother died of cancer when she was twelve, and she went through a divorce while competing on the WTA Tour), the gritty Belgian rode her beautiful one-handed backhand to seven Grand Slam titles, four of them at the French Open.  She also finished as the year-end number-one player three times, most recently in 2007.  Henin’s steely demeanor and laser-sharp focus made her one of the few women capable of matching the competitive toughness of the Williams sisters, against whom she had a number of dramatic and sometimes controversial matches.  My good friend Chet Porowski loved Henin so much that he even named his daughter Justine.  She’s in grade school now and already taking tennis lessons.  I’m pretty sure she’s going to have a good backhand.

A number of years had passed since I’d last been in Newport, but I attended the Friday, Saturday and Sunday sessions of this year’s event with a tennis friend and found much unchanged, along with a few new wrinkles.  Stepping inside the Hall of Fame grounds at the Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue still seems like taking a trip back in time to a more gracious and refined era.  The ornate old clubhouse, the grass courts manicured to near-perfection, and the museum which winds its way through more than a century of tennis history combine to give the Hall of Fame a sense of timeless elegance.   The museum is a gem well worth a separate visit, filled as it is with memorabilia, video highlights of great matches and small plaques which succinctly detail the careers of the enshrined legends.   During Hall of Fame week, admission is free to tournament ticket-holders, but museum hours roughly parallel those in which matches are being played.  Had I been visiting at another time of year, I would have pleasurably spent far more than 45 minutes there.

newport-grass-court

One of the Hall of Fame’s beautiful grass courts (this one isn’t used for tournament play)

 

Preserving the traditions that make the Hall of Fame special while bringing the player and fan experience into the 21st century is no easy task, but Todd Martin, who was named its CEO in 2014, appears to be as well-suited to that challenge as anyone could be.   A former US Open finalist and longtime Davis Cup stalwart, Todd was known during his playing days for unimpeachable personal integrity, a high level of patriotism and a keen appreciation for tennis history.  As an active player until 2004 and later as coach of, among others, a young Novak Djokovic, he also knows what it takes to run a player-friendly event.  In just two years at the helm of the Hall of Fame, Martin has clearly put his own stamp on the organization.  The museum was reopened last year after a full renovation and now includes many new video and interactive exhibits, allowing it to be more accessible and interesting to the casual fan.  While that change had admittedly been set in motion before Todd came on board, his imprimatur on the tournament itself has been more direct.  The main seating area, the South baseline stands, had previously consisted of row after row of uninviting and uncomfortable bleachers, but individual seats with cup holders have now been installed in their place.  The old hand-operated scoreboards at both ends of the court are still used to give set scores, but two modern digital scoreboards with replay and Hawk-Eye capability also now grace the center court.   Seats aren’t cheap, but there isn’t a bad one in the house, and with same-day ticket availability even for the finals (we got our tickets for Sunday at the end of the Saturday session), you can decide to go catch a match on the spur of the moment.  The tournament’s arrival into the modern era hasn’t come without a few drawbacks.  On past visits to Newport, I had found that the seat location listed on my ticket seemed to be little more than a suggestion: it wasn’t hard to move to an unoccupied location far superior to the one I had paid for, especially early in the week.  Unfortunately the volunteers on duty are quite a bit more vigilant now.  On the changeovers there is now piped-in music and an announcer reading “fun facts”, things that I find unnecessary but which I understand basically come with the territory at professional sports events today.  Parking in Newport, both finding a spot and then paying through the nose for it, also remains a nightmare, so the tourist bureau now encourages fans to park in a downtown garage and take a city bus or trolley to the tennis.   A round-trip bus ride plus parking for the day runs just $6 per person.  I found that to be a far better deal than paying the $75 daily rates in the lot directly across from the Casino or trying to find one of the few available parking spaces on Newport’s side streets.  If the trolley is full or you’d just rather hoof it, you can walk to the Hall of Fame from the Visitor Center in about 20 minutes without exerting yourself unduly.

It does need to be said that the Hall of Fame tournament doesn’t come at the most propitious moment in the ATP Tour calendar.  It’s now held the week after Wimbledon, when many of the top players are in recovery mode, and this year it also conflicted with Davis Cup play.  As a result, you will rarely see the very best players in action.  The top seed at Newport this year was Steve Johnson, ranked twenty-ninth in the world.  Even Donald Young, forty places below Johnson in the rankings, was able to snag the eighth and final seed in the 28-player draw.  You’re still watching great tennis, though, and for me, at least, the chance to be up close (directly behind the baseline on Friday!) more than compensated for the lack of marquee names.   The weather was terrific all week, with just one three-hour rain delay on Thursday.   Friday was the hottest of our three days, upwards of 90 degrees, but all of them were sunny and warm.  So if you don’t quite get to watch Wimbledon-caliber tennis, neither do you have to deal with Wimbledon-caliber weather!

The matches themselves were of uneven quality and not always especially competitive, but with some spectacular exceptions.  Three of the four quarterfinals were played on Friday (Marcos Baghdatis had booked his semifinal ticket on Thursday).  First up was 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, still an ace machine at age 37, against Swiss journeyman Marco Chiudinelli.  It didn’t take long to get the measure of Chiudinelli: his pre-match introduction listed as one of his major highlights that he was a friend and practice partner of Roger Federer.  I myself was a friend and high school teammate of some of the greatest tennis players in New Hampshire history.  So I know all too well that to be introduced as such (as I have occasionally been over the years, believe it or not) means that you haven’t accomplished much in your own playing career.  Unfortunately for Chiudinelli, he didn’t do anything on the court to give the lie to that modest introduction.  Karlovic served 16 aces, won over 80 percent of his first-serve points, and never faced a break point or even a deuce on his serve in an easy straight-set win.  The next match featured the tournament’s two seeded Americans, the aforementioned Steve Johnson and Donald Young.  Young didn’t have much of a serve, but he was quick around the court, with precise returns and shot patterns that troubled Johnson, particularly low, wide balls to Johnson’s forehand (Johnson preferred to hit his forehands inside-out, from the backhand corner, and was often forced to chip the wide balls back ineffectually when he reached them at all).  Although he had just made a run to the fourth round at Wimbledon, Johnson seemed uncomfortable on the grass and frustrated by the inaccuracy of his shots.  He wasn’t loud or demonstrative about it, but you can see a lot, and sense even more, from the first row.  Johnson never did get it together, and Young very quickly booked his passage to the final four.  The day’s last singles contest was also, on paper, the most evenly-matched: third-seeded Gilles Muller of Luxembourg against sixth-seeded Adrian Mannarino of France.  At 6’4” Muller was the bigger man, but both were hard-serving lefties.  Mannarino began the match with shot-making reminiscent of another streaky French lefty, Henri Leconte, and took the first set easily with two breaks of serve.  Muller wasn’t having a great day: he punctuated one lost service game by slamming a ball out of the stadium, which isn’t quite like hitting a ball out of Arthur Ashe stadium in New York but was still enough to earn him a warning from the umpire, and later absorbed a line-drive throw from a ballgirl in a particularly sensitive area.  Yes, that one.  To his credit, though, Muller persevered.  His big forehand began to find the mark more often as the match wore on, while Mannarino’s error rate increased.  Earlier in the week the Frenchman had complained about crowd movement on a secondary court (on Newport’s outer courts, which are used for early-round play, there is no spectator seating of any kind; some fans watch from behind the court at both ends, while others mill around in the background, whether or not the ball is in play).  On center court Mannarino no longer had that excuse, but he found others easily enough.  The ballgirl- not the one who had hit Muller in the nuts, in case you’re wondering- wasn’t throwing the ball to him fast enough.  The official’s call was “merde”, with a few other choice words mixed in.  The bounces were “merde”.  His forehand was “merde”.   Maybe in France this guy gets the star treatment, at least at secondary events, because of his native status.  Here he’ll be lucky to get invited back.   He lost the second and third sets as decisively as he had won the first, and Muller joined Baghdatis, Karlovic and Young in the semifinals.

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Friendship with Federer wasn’t enough to get Marco Chiudinelli into the semifinals.

 

Saturday’s semifinals, which followed the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, were both won by the bigger server, a pattern followed by all of the singles matches I saw except for the Young vs. Johnson quarterfinal.  Muller played a much cleaner match against Young than he had against Mannarino, winning 97 percent of his first-serve points, recording 18 aces (Young once again had none), and breaking serve once in each set en route to a decisive win.  The Karlovic-Baghdatis match was much closer, due in large part to the Croat’s generosity in failing to convert any of his nine break point opportunities.  Baghdatis never held a single break point, though unlike Chiudinelli he at least reached a few deuces on Karlovic’s serve.  With his serving advantage, Karlovic seemed well-positioned for success in the tiebreakers, and that was how it played out.  The tall Croat took the first-set ‘breaker easily but encountered more resistance in the second.  The key moment there came with Baghdatis serving at 6-6.  The Cypriot put a short volley to Karlovic’s backhand side and then volleyed Ivo’s reply short and crosscourt.  Conscious of the importance of the point, Karlovic ran at full speed to chase the ball down, though he did not at first seem likely to reach it.  But his long strides and long reach paid dividends, as he got to the ball just before the second bounce and shoveled it crosscourt on a short angle past Baghdatis, who appeared to be as stunned as the rest of us.   One big serve later, Karlovic was in the final.  Saturday’s schedule concluded with the doubles final featuring Australians Sam Groth and Chris Guccione, who also appeared in my “Super Saturday” post about US Open 2014.  The two Aussies had split up for much of the intervening time but recently reunited, and this week they were playing extremely well, meaning their huge serves were razor-sharp and they occasionally put a return in play.  One of their opponents, Jonathan Marray, had serious double-faulting issues, and so the occasional return in play was enough to secure a straight-set win for Groth and Guccione.   The on-court announcer, perhaps trying to be clever, asked Guccione in the post-match interview what the combo’s “secret sauce” was.  The giant Aussie replied:  “There’s no secret, really.  We have big serves, and when they’re going in, we’re pretty tough to beat.”  Chris Sporcic, an old teammate whose serve did most of his talking, too, couldn’t have put it any better.

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Secret Sauce: Sam Groth (foreground) and Chris Guccione (in blue shirt) served their way to  the doubles title.

 

 

Sunday’s singles final was preceded by a mini-tournament featuring four recently retired greats.  Although various incarnations of one have appeared over the years, a senior tour has never really caught on in tennis the way it has in golf, perhaps because the game is more physically taxing and the last thing most retired players want is to subject themselves to further punishment.  The possibility for embarrassment also exists: I remember watching a listless Bjorn Borg get routed by an Englishman with a mediocre career resume at a senior event on Cape Cod about twenty years ago.  I was too young to have seen Borg in person at his peak, and now my sole memory of that great champion, sadly, is as the guy who completely whiffed on an easy forehand.  The four retired players competing in Newport in what is now called the PowerShares Series were, thankfully, quite a bit sharper than Borg had been, and the one-day format made things more palatable to them physically, too.  Two one-set semifinals were played, with the winners then facing off in a one-set final.  The players called their own lines (challenges using Hawk-Eye were available but rarely invoked) and chatted amicably back and forth between points, which produced a much more casual vibe than at a typical tour event.  As Andy Roddick had told the Providence Journal a few days beforehand, “The difference is, now when I lose it doesn’t ruin my day.” Roddick, then, may still have found his Sunday enjoyable despite his semifinal loss to Mark Philippoussis, although early in the match he jokingly asked for the radar gun to be turned off after it timed one of his serves in the pedestrian 100 mph range.  At least I think he was joking.  In the other semifinal, Safin beat James Blake in a tiebreaker.  Given his reputation for celebrating, I wouldn’t have expected the Hall’s newest male inductee to have been particularly sharp on the day after the ceremony, but the truth is Blake was far rustier, mishitting a number of easy balls and double-faulting several times despite second-serve speeds which dropped to around 70 mph.   He did have some consolation, though.  When Safin was interviewed after the match, he said “James is good-looking man.  If he was woman, he would have been mine long time ago.”  I guess some things never change.  In the final, Philippoussis edged Safin 6-4 for his third consecutive senior tournament win.  The Aussie still regularly hit his first serve in the 130s, and of the four players his overall game seemed to have dropped off the least since his retirement, perhaps because he was never noted for his consistency to begin with.   Despite the sometimes uneven level of play in the Powershares matches, there were no cringe-worthy Borg moments, and watching four legends enjoying the game that made them famous was a nice bonus for us fans.

I had trouble deciding who to root for in the men’s singles final between Ivo Karlovic and Gilles Muller, two hungry older guys on the downsides of their careers for whom any title, even one earned at such a small tournament, would be precious.  Muller had never won a singles tournament at the ATP Tour level, and while Karlovic had collected a handful of titles, he had fallen short in the Newport final the past two years, including an agonizing third-set tiebreaker loss to doubles specialist Rajeev Ram in 2015. I ended up simply rooting for a good match, and I certainly got my wish.  This year’s final lasted close to three hours and while it may not have been one of the best-played matches I’ve ever seen, it was without a doubt one of the most dramatic.   All three sets ended in tiebreakers, with Karlovic taking the last two of those by the narrowest of margins: first 7-5, then 14-12.  It was the kind of old-school serve-and-volley tennis that you rarely see these days, even on grass.  There were only two service breaks in the match, and both came in the first few games.  We ought to thank Hall of Fame founder Jimmy Van Alen for inventing the tiebreaker- without that scoring device Karlovic and Muller might still be playing.  Heck, they might still be in the first set.  Runner-up Muller came agonizingly close to winning all three sets.  A rare lob winner, which some might claim was slightly mishit, by Karlovic at 5-5 in the second set tiebreak denied him a match-point opportunity.  Muller DID have three match points in the third-set ‘breaker, although none of those were on his own serve.  At 12-12 he missed a reasonably challenging first volley to lose what proved to be the decisive minibreak, and though he returned Karlovic’s subsequent second serve and then smacked a ferocious forehand pass attempt, the big Croat was able to knock off a reflex backhand crosscourt volley which set off a well-earned victory celebration.  At match’s end, I was genuinely happy for Karlovic but also profoundly sad for Muller.  I thought of matches where I had been achingly close to victory yet came up short.   Accessing some of those memories is still painful even though nothing life-changing was at stake.  How much emptier must that feeling be when tennis is your livelihood?  Gilles Muller has had a very respectable career, and he’ll probably never have to buy a beer in Luxembourg for the rest of his life: he has won more Davis Cup matches than anyone in the history of that country.  I’m afraid, though, that after last Sunday his best chance to win a professional singles tournament has come and gone  (I’m pleased to report that I was wrong: Muller won a hard-court event in Sydney in January 2017 and added the championship of the grass-court tournament at Rosmalen, Netherlands a few months later, en route to attaining the number 21 world ranking, his personal best, at the age of 34).

No sense ending a Newport story on a melancholy note, though.  There’s just too much fun to be had there.  The Hall of Fame marries tennis’s past and present like no other place, and during tournament week passionate fans can get an up-close view of both.  I know I won’t wait another decade-plus before making a return trip!