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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