40-plus Districts: Outwitted, Outplayed, Outlasted

Sometimes you enter a USTA postseason weekend knowing your team has a good shot at advancing to the next level of the competition.  You’ll still need some luck, of course, in avoiding major injuries and getting an important supertiebreaker or two to go your way, but you’re confident you’ll be in the hunt.  That’s not always the case, however. There are times when you know in advance that you’re outgunned and sense your team will need a patch of truly inspired play and large helpings of luck just to remain competitive.   Such a time came for my 40-and-over team on the second weekend of August.   And despite stretches of inspired play, and even a little bit of luck, the outcome ended up being just what we had feared: a premature conclusion to a season that had begun with such promise eleven months before. 

Don’t worry: I won’t write 4,000 words about the 40-plus districts the way I did for the 18-plus competition.  In fact, were I so inclined, I could tell the essence of our story in only seven: We just didn’t have the horses. 

Our biggest problem was a lack of available singles players.  Most guys in our age bracket would much rather play doubles than singles, so we weren’t drawing from a particularly deep pool to begin with.  Then came the disquieting news that Eric Morrow had another commitment that would keep him from playing at districts, and that Adam Lesser still hadn’t recovered from the torn labrum (in his hip; who knew?) that he had sustained in early summer.  Adam Hirshan was playing quite a bit of singles in the Lakes Region, but he still had much more confidence in his doubles game.  Neal Burns had slightly reinjured his knee in Portland at 18-plus districts, and the fear was that if he tried to play singles, he might put himself out of action for the rest of the weekend, and perhaps far longer.    That left us with two enthusiastic singles players, Jack Chen and Dave Caza.   Jack, however, would be in way over his head at districts, as despite an inspired work ethic (he spent countless summer hours practicing at Algonquin, often by himself), he remained a 4.0 player in name only.  Dave was another story.  He had torn a healthy Lesser apart in an 18s match over the winter (our club’s newly-promoted and developing 4.0s had formed their own team, on which Dave- who was neither- featured prominently), and should have been our best singles player even with all hands on deck.  Caz’s problem was that while he played great in recreational matches at Algonquin against people he was comfortable with- he often gave the club’s lower 4.5 players a run for their money- he hadn’t enjoyed the same level of success in other settings.   One problem is that his USTA opponents rarely reciprocate his line-calling generosity.  Another is that despite the SEAL stories, Dave’s as gentle a person as there is, and he doesn’t seem to enjoy matches with a lot of stress and conflict.  It seemed likely that there would be some stress and conflict here, though, as two of the four other teams in our group were from Eastern Mass: Westborough and Newburyport, along with perennial Southern Connecticut powerhouse Westport Pequods and Burlington, VT.  Unlike 18-plus districts, the 40-plus competition was held entirely in the Boston area, with the competing teams divided into three five-team flights (the geographical groupings used in the 18-plus playoffs had been eliminated, so in theory all four teams advancing to sectionals could have been from Eastern Mass: in fact, two EMA squads ended up qualifying and a third narrowly missed out on the wild-card berth awarded to the second-place team winning the most individual courts). 

We came to the Woburn Racquet Club on Saturday morning more confident in our doubles than in our singles, even in the absence of the vacationing Bruce Leibig, one of our top doubles players.  But we still knew a lot would have to go right to get a result in our opening match against a Westborough team that had come in first in its EMA flight during the regular season.  Since Westborough possessed a singles player with a gaudy record named Min Zhang, John Duckless elected to put Jack Chen at number one, hoping he’d at least draw off the opposition’s best player.  When the matches were called, we saw that both Westborough singles players were Caucasian, but that still didn’t help Jack much.  His opponent didn’t seem like anything special, but the guy quickly caught on to Jack’s unorthodox shotmaking and low-percentage run-ins and dispatched him 6-2, 6-0.  With Dave in the two spot, we thought we had a decent chance at splitting the singles, but that didn’t happen.  He got blitzed in the first set, and though he made the second closer he could never quite catch up.  Caz normally lobs with pinpoint accuracy, but on the faster Woburn surface he took a while to find his range (it didn’t help that his opponent had a strong serve and a solid volley, so he always had Dave under pressure).  By the time our doubles went on, it was clear that we would need a sweep, but with pairings of Todd/Neal and Adam/Mark Parquette in the top two spots and John Duckless and I teaming up at three, anything was possible.  John had been practicing well: he and I came within a whisker of beating Todd and Neal a few days before the districts.  He has a solid serve, closes the net very well and competes hard.  His backhand isn’t great, but on the deuce side in doubles he wouldn’t have to hit many of them (I was planning to cover most of the middle balls when we were both back).  We were assigned to the most distant court, where we faced off against two guys named Mark and Hal.  Mark was solidly built and might have been in his mid-50s; Hal was taller and at least a few years older, though he still looked fit.  He also was left-handed, which didn’t bode well for my ad-court returns.   In the warm-up Hal appeared to be a “hands” guy who was crafty and solid at the net, while Mark hit his groundstrokes hard and accurately from both sides, with a two-handed backhand.   The match started and we got a quick break, but I gave it right back, double-faulting twice en route to losing my opening service game.  (Leading up to the tournament, I was surprised by how well I had been hitting my second serve, and I kept thinking about it, to the point where I must have jinxed myself.  This just goes to show: you shouldn’t think too much in tennis!!!) Luckily John carried us through the first few games; eventually I started helping him and we were able to take control of the set.  Mark hadn’t missed a ball in the warmup, but his returns and passing shots became much less accurate once he had to hit them against volleyers, and he didn’t seem comfortable at the net himself.  Hal had a nice lob, but I’m hard to lob over and John was hitting his overhead well.  We felt like we were just hitting our stride, so we focused on staying strong in the early games of the second set.  We continued to execute well to build a comfortable lead, and after that they didn’t have the firepower to really threaten us, although there were a number of long and well-played points.  The 6-4, 6-1 win gave John and me hope, at least until we came up to Woburn’s elevated viewing area to report our scores (having been seven courts down, we hadn’t seen either of the other doubles finish).  To our dismay we found that Todd and Neal had dropped a straight-sets decision to a tough team, although they had made the second close.  Mark and Adam had also lost, in a supertiebreaker, meaning that we only had one court win against Westborough.  So after just one match our hopes of winning our flight were dim and even the wild-card berth seemed to be slipping out of reach. 

It wasn’t a happy Algonquin group that convened for lunch at an Applebee’s a short drive from the Woburn club, although an aspiring singer on the restaurant’s wait staff did his best to raise our spirits. We knew we absolutely had to win our late-afternoon match against Westport, CT, a team that had beaten a stronger Algonquin entry at sectionals three years earlier.  The Westport captain, Doug Presley, has a photographic memory and mixes up his lineup well, so we couldn’t match up to try to win at particular spots.  We just needed to win three courts, by any means necessary.  Adam played first singles and Dave second; we hoped for a split, as Westport had a ringer who was known for managing his scores and was likely to beat whichever of our guys he faced.  It turned out Presley put the ringer at 2, so poor Dave had his work cut out for him.  After running away with the first set, the guy gave Dave a 5-1 lead in the second, then won the next six games as if Dave wasn’t even there.   I later asked Dave if he felt his opponent had been trying during that 5-1 stretch.  “Well, I don’t think the gentleman wanted me to break him in that 1-4 game….”, opined Caz, ever the diplomat, but his omission of any mention of the rest of the set spoke volumes in its own right.  At first singles Westport replaced its normal #2 player with a hard-hitting but erratic lefty named Rissollo, and Adam looked to be in cruise control there with his chip-and-charge style (after winning the first set, he ended up blowing a big lead in the second but came back to win the supertiebreaker comfortably).  So we knew we had to win two of the three doubles.  With teams of Todd/Neal at 1, Gary Roberts and I at 2 and Duckless/Parquette at 3, that was certainly a possibility, but John and Mark weren’t going to be favored – and would end up losing in straights, though they played a very close first set-  so the pressure was on to win at the top of the lineup.  Todd and Neal drew none other than Alan Kravetz, my old Willows A-1 partner, and big, heavy-hitting Doug Williams.  Of all the places Alan had to move to…!  Anyway, I gave Todd and Neal what intel I could on him, which amounted to “imagine a guy who does everything well that I do well, and everything badly that I do badly”, and wished them the best.  I had my own tough opponents, Tim Trask and Jeff Seymour, to worry about.  Tim Trask is a big man with a goatee who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Ray Liotta.  He has a huge serve, which he leavens, though not quite often enough, with an occasional double fault, plus a powerful forehand and a huge overhead.  I had played one of my best matches in years at the 2013 sectionals against him and still lost.  Jeff Seymour doesn’t have a huge serve but he hits every groundstroke, and most of his volleys, at something close to the speed of light (a number of them harder than even Robbie Drouin’s best efforts, though with less spin).  He missed a lot less often than Robbie, too.  Gary and I were playing well, though, and the match was on the first court on the opposite, three-court side, with a number of spectators- a number that would grow as the match progressed- following closely.  So it became the recreational equivalent of a US Open night match, with lots of intensity on display.  They served first and we were able to break Tim thanks to a few double faults.  We kept the lead until I was serving at 4-3, when I played a bad game and was broken.  They were hitting the cover off the ball, but my hands were sharp (Gary’s are always sharp) and I could probably count my missed volleys for the match in the single digits.  At one point Jeff hammered a forehand return of Gary’s ad-court serve down the line at about 200 mph.  If I hadn’t gotten my hands up it might have gone right through me, but I managed a reflex backhand volley at Trask’s feet that went unreturned.  That’s just one example from the many great points we had.  Anyway, from 4-4 the first set went with serve to the tiebreaker, where the Westport team hit some big serves and returns to take a comfortable win.  They were sharp and I just don’t have that kind of firepower in my own game to match them. 

Gary and I were playing some inspired tennis, though, and we weren’t going to go away.  I saw Todd and Neal watching from the viewing area, and they gave me a thumbs-down; with third doubles likely also having lost, we knew we were almost certainly playing for pride (Todd and Neal in fact lost one and one, as Alan apparently couldn’t miss- both of our guys called him better than Andy Day.  So much for my scouting report!)  But I didn’t work for all those months to get my game back following knee surgery just to give up because our cause seemed lost.  As it happened we broke serve early in the second set and maintained our lead into the later stages.  In what seemed like an unwanted carbon copy of the first set, though, I was broken in my second service game and Westport drew back on serve at 3-4.  During that game, though, an incident occurred that briefly set our opponents at odds with one another and perhaps enabled us to retake the momentum at a critical time.  Gary hit a down-the-line overhead from very deep in the deuce court which landed either on or just beyond the baseline in the farthest reaches of Trask’s alley (only Hawk-Eye would have known for sure!).  Trask was sure the ball was out but Seymour was equally convinced that it was good.  We didn’t have a great view and wouldn’t have complained either way, given the speed of Gary’s shot.  They had to give us the point because they had disagreed, which in itself wasn’t a big deal: I ended up losing serve anyway.  But the CT players, especially Trask, wouldn’t let it go, and kept arguing with one another between points of the next couple of games.  In that context we were able to break Seymour, and Gary then held to even the match at a set apiece and force a match tiebreaker. 

Our momentum didn’t last long once the supertiebreaker began.  Westport once again came through with a flurry of winners while I flubbed a forehand return into the bottom of the net on one of their few soft second serves.  They went up either 5-1 or 6-1, but we rallied with one final surge to get within 6-7, with me serving two.  I made a great first-volley pickup of a Seymour bullet return on the ensuing point, but Gary ended up missing a volley later in the exchange.  On the point after that I left a second serve a little too short in the middle of the box and Trask crushed a crosscourt forehand winner into my alley.  One big serve later, it was all over: 10-6 Connecticut.  I didn’t like the result, of course, but I wasn’t too upset, either, for that was the best match I had played in a long, long time.  The spectators liked it, too: I think every single person the four of us passed on our way to the scorer’s table, even those from teams without any direct interest, told us “Wow, great match!”, an event as rare as it is telling.

Having lost both of our Saturday matches by wide margins, we knew we were out of contention for the rest of the weekend.  It was late when the Westport match finally ended and most of the guys went straight home, but Adam, Gary and I had a leisurely dinner at Joe’s Bar and Grill and rehashed the season.  Gary, who had worked at that restaurant long ago, also spent years as a pro at the Woburn club, and regaled us with stories of his time there in the 90s.  With anecdotes like the one that began “I got more (women) at that place than anywhere else on earth”, no one really paid much attention to the background music, but if Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” had been playing, it would only have been fitting.

We came back the next day and spared ourselves the indignity of finishing last in our flight by beating Vermont, 3-2.  Worried that I’d be bumped at season’s end, Todd wanted us to play one last match together, just in case, and John obliged.  We beat a big, strong lefty named Mark and a somewhat eccentric and fastidious man named Gary in a strange match: the heat and humidity were pushing 100 degrees and the Vermont guys, who had already played an early-morning match, just wilted.  We trailed 3-6, 0-3 and fought off multiple break points to hold Todd’s serve in the fourth game, then pitched a shutout for the rest of the set and took the supertiebreaker comfortably as Todd upped his level of play and I made some great volleys.  Combined with a supertiebreaker win by Caza in singles and a blowout win by Gary and Neal, stacked down at third doubles, we could take a small quantum of solace in being able to say “We’re not last!”, but that was as far as it went.  We lost our afternoon match to Newburyport (I was gassed and my knee was hurting, so I lobbied less diplomatically than I should have to sit out, and the energizer bunny known as Dave Caza thankfully agreed to go in for me) and finished fourth out of five teams in our flight. Our two Saturday opponents, Westborough and Westport, both qualified for sectionals, with Westport taking the wild-card berth.  The sectional was won by Portland, ME (surprise, surprise), who beat Wellesley, MA, in a battle of undefeated teams on the final day.  I guess after nationals a few of their ringers may have to go back to sleeper cell duty for another three years.

The 18s sectional might have been won by Portland, too, but for a bizarre sequence of events involving old friend Bryan Playford.  Bryan had played, and won, for Winchester, MA, in a 3-2 team win against Rhode Island on Friday. On Saturday morning, though, his car was rear-ended and heavily damaged en route to his match (mercifully Bryan himself was unhurt, just extremely pissed off).   He missed that match and had no transportation the next day, either, so his team, which was playing with just eight available guys, was forced to default a court both Saturday and Sunday.  To maintain a level playing field, Winchester was then retroactively docked a point in Friday’s match, too, turning a 3-2 win into a 2-3 loss and allowing Rhode Island to go into its Sunday match against Portland “unbeaten”. RI won that one 3-2 as well to eliminate Portland and claim New England’s spot at nationals.  Matt Chamberlain, to the surprise of no one, went undefeated for the weekend.

The season didn’t end the way I’d hoped in either of my two main competitions, but after my knee issues I’m just thankful to be back on the court again and playing at a strong 4.0 level.   And while trips to sectionals and nationals provide wonderful memories, I suppose you savor those memories even more when you realize they’re the exception and not the rule.  Heck, it’s probably fair to say that most of us fall short of our dreams most of the time, both in tennis and in life- if we don’t, we’re not dreaming big enough. But it’s in accepting the challenge of chasing those dreams, no matter where they may lead, that we grow into better versions of ourselves.

I’ll start chasing mine again a few days from now when New Hampshire’s 2017 USTA 40-plus competition begins.

  

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