USTA 40-plus Regular Season: Revenge of the King

While I was playing in the Loon Mountain tournament, the USTA 40-plus league was beginning its new season, and given our dismal showing at districts in August, my Algonquin team was eager to get started.  The big news was that three of the previous year’s eight competing teams (Executive, Concord, and the Hampton Tennis Barn) had folded, leaving just five NH entries to compete for two postseason spots.  That contraction did not result in the existing teams strengthening themselves significantly with reinforcements, as might have stood to reason.  Instead, all the Hampton players, including the dangerous Andy Montgomery, sat out the fall season entirely.  Of the former Concord team only Joe Waldvogel, who went up to play for Richard King at Mountainside, took part in league play.  And a few of Executive’s lower doubles guys moved over to the YMCA, while the crafty, hustling lefty Rick DePasquale joined our Algonquin crew.  Our only other addition was John Lombardi, an entry-level 4.0: John Duckless, who returned as captain, resisted entreaties from the sectionals-minded among us to recruit a singles stud from elsewhere, reasoning that we already had seventeen quality players.  And really, it was hard to argue with him, for we certainly had the deepest roster in the Granite State.  Mountainside would be in the postseason mix, as always, and the YMCA had made several quality additions, including my friendly rival John Smith and a former UNH player, Jeff Giampa, who was returning to competitive tennis after an extended absence.   The two remaining teams, Hampshire Hills and Seacoast, didn’t have either the depth or the overall quality to make a run at districts, but both had assets that would be difficult to overcome: HH its lightning-quick home courts and Seacoast the crafty Barry Posternak, who would be the league’s best singles player.  We were scheduled to play each of the other four teams both home and away, for a total of eight matches, with the league standings to be based on individual court wins.

Algonquin put the rest of the league on notice early, delivering a 4-0 opening-weekend beatdown to Hampshire Hills on their fabled slick courts without losing a single set, a result akin to a college basketball team going into Cameron Indoor Stadium and beating Duke by 20.  Gary Roberts/Neal Burns, Adam Hirshan/Mark Parquette and Rick Leclerc/Rick DePasquale all won comfortably, while Dave Caza’s serene approach got the better of Mike Auger’s bellowing negativity in two close sets.  Unfortunately, all that good work was undone by our next outing, a 1-3 home loss to the YMCA.  Gary’s 50th birthday party took a few of us, myself included, out of consideration for that match, and other commitments typical of an early fall weekend left us with just seven eligible players, some of them barely above 3.5-quality, against a group of hungry opponents eager to establish themselves as legitimate contenders.  Caz was our only winner, taking a decisive set and then a much closer one to take the lone singles position.  Adam H and Eric won a first-set tiebreaker against two of my opponents at Loon, John Smith and Keith Eichmann, only to be beaten badly in the second set and then drop the ensuing supertiebreaker.  That result doomed our chances, for we were only marginally competitive against superior talent at the other two doubles positions.

Despite that hiccup, we had won five of the eight courts contested in our first two matches when our main rivals, Mountainside, paid a visit to the ATC on the first weekend of October.   The absence of B. Manning proved costly to our opponents here, as they could no longer count on their customary victories at the top two doubles slots, and we came away with an important 3-1 win which put us right back in playoff position.   Caz once again came through in the singles, soundly beating a Hispanic player new to the league who had a similar style but slightly less consistency.   Todd Toler and Neal competed hard and gave Mountainside all it could handle at 1 doubles, but ultimately fell short by a break in each set against the consistency and great hands of Glenn McKune and the hard hitting of Rich Atherly.   Glenn was at the top of his form, which is saying something considering he had just finished a 36-4 season (what it might be saying- that he was a 4.5 player- went unheeded by the USTA computer, which later bumped him back down on appeal for about the 21st consecutive year).   Atherly was clearly fired up for the match but showed some signs of nerves in the late stages as Todd and Neal nearly came all the way back from a big deficit.  His characteristic glances to the crowd became less and less frequent, prompting one of his teammates in the viewing area to comment: “if my wife was here watching, Rich would be looking up here a lot more often.”  But the Algonquin comeback ultimately stalled as Glenn capped a terrific day with one last roundhouse fist pump to cap a 6-4, 6-4 Mountainside victory.

I was up next at number 2 doubles with Adam Hirshan, taking on the greatly-improved team of Jeff Adie and Scott Goodwin.  Adie used to be a soft-hitting 3.5 who wasn’t much of a threat, but he has gotten fitter in recent years while improving both his power and his consistency- which isn’t easy to do- and claimed some quality wins.   Goodwin is a great guy with a solid first serve and a strong forehand, and he and Jeff play well together.    Adam and I liked our chances, but as soon as Jeff came back to hold serve from 0-40 down in the opening game, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy.  I was playing the deuce side and struggled to return wide serves out to my forehand in the early part of the match, while Adam’s returns also lacked their usual consistency.  We weren’t having much trouble holding serve, though, and after breaking Scott we looked ready to run out the set. Then we both got careless at the net for a few points in a row to drop Adam’s serve.  But we squeaked out another break, and at 5-4 Adam held without much difficulty to win us the first set.  Our opponents began the second set as strongly as they had the first, but we eventually steadied down our returns and took advantage of Scott’s lack of comfort at the net.  We got our noses in front and then succeeded in breaking Jeff for the first time to finish off a 6-4, 6-3 win.  Our team took third doubles more decisively as Bruce Leibig and Rick DePasquale’s canny, finesse-based play blunted the power of Richard King and his partner, Paul McManus.  The overall result put us back atop the standings and went a long way towards erasing the bitter taste of our loss to the YMCA.

We reached the midway point of the season after another 3-1 win, this one against the Seacoast club of North Hampton, on a day that featured my first head-to-head matchup with big Frank Campolo since our near-brawl at the Tennis Barn three years before.   In the days leading up to our encounter, I mentally prepared for all sorts of eventualities, but the match itself turned out to be amicable and sportsmanlike.   Frank was very fair on his calls and even friendly on the changeovers.  He played well, too, but his partner, Vin Corson, wasn’t quite as consistent, and Mark Parquette and I took advantage of that.  Vin is a hard-hitting lefty who can be dangerous when his shots are going in, but he was plagued by double faults in one of his service games in each set, and that enabled Mark and I to record the only two breaks in a match that we won 6-4, 6-4.  I wasn’t happy with my returns, which I was pushing too much (I need to hit out and get a good weight transfer so I can really attack the return, and I wasn’t doing that).  But I placed my serve well and hit some big overheads, and Mark was all over the net and kept his nerve at key moments.  Adam Lesser, working his way back from an injury, picked a difficult day to make his singles debut, as he had to face the scrappy and exceptionally consistent Barry Posternak.  Adam started off well, winning the first set, but he ran out of gas midway through the second and that allowed Posternak, who never runs out of gas, to come back and win in a supertiebreaker.   Once again, though, our depth made the difference, as we then took the two lower doubles in straight sets.  Gary Roberts- called in when Jack Chen sustained a last-minute injury- teamed with Bruce Leibig to win the #2 spot by a break in each set after some terrific points.  Captain John Duckless has really improved his game, and he led John Lombardi, a newcomer who seemed most comfortable hitting forehands from the baseline, to a 6-3, 7-5 win at position three.  You could say we got lucky in the sense that our original lineup of Bruce/Duckless and Jack/Lombardi would almost certainly have lost at least one of those courts.  But give Johnny D credit for adjusting the lineup on the fly and making it work.

John continued to make all the right moves, lineup-wise, in our next match, a 4-0 win over Hampshire Hills in our home finale in mid-November.  Gary, Neal and I were all left on the bench, but our depth still carried us to a comfortable win, as John had believed it would.  He gave us an important boost with his play, too, as he and Jimmy Prieto, who had intended to sacrifice themselves up at number 1, ended up combining for a somewhat improbable 7-6, 7-5 win over a team that included Walter Meltzler, HH’s top current 4.0 doubles player.  John volleyed superbly, Jim smashed the hell out of anything he could reach, and they pulled off a major upset that had the home crowd rocking.  Todd and Bruce took care of a couple of big hitters at #2 after a close first set, while Adam Lesser and Rick Paquin, two nontraditional doubles players pairing up for the first time, used their powerful groundstrokes to demolish HH’s #3 team by the count of 6-1, 6-1.  We’ve been trying to get Eric Morrow to play more singles, and after winning the last eleven games to defeat HH’s Udo Hoerhold 7-5 6-0, he should have the confidence to do just that.  Eric later said that he had thought to himself “what would Dave do to beat this guy?” when he was struggling through the first set, though his answer- hit short, angled balls that his opponent struggled to reach- was almost certainly better than anything I would have come up with.  By the end of the match it looked like Udo just wanted to get off the court.  We’ve all been there- and I would be there again all too soon…

We knew that a win in our next match, at the YMCA, would give us a great chance of securing one of the top two places in the league, but the Y had beaten us once and was doubtless eager to do so again, albeit this time against a much stronger Algonquin lineup.  I was away for the weekend at a work-related convention and couldn’t take part, but we still rolled out Lesser for singles along with three strong doubles teams: Eric/Adam H, Todd/Neal and Gary/John D.  It turned out to be a terrific match.  The top two doubles courts  went on first, and there the teams split a pair of supertiebreakers.  Adam and Eric gave soon-to-be promoted John Smith and his partner, should-be-promoted Jeff Giampa, all they could handle before falling just short, while Todd and Neal bounced back from getting bageled (0-6) in the second set to win a classic 15-13 match tiebreak over Bob Wilkins, a big server, and John Weeks, a steady player with classic strokes.  The Y must have thought they had position 3 locked down with Keith Eichmann, but we more than matched them by putting up Gary Roberts, and he and JD took out Eichmann and Bill Berry, an entry-level 4.0 whose greatest strength is his backhand.   Adam Lesser finished off a terrific day for Algonquin by beating Mike Delaney, a grinding, steady player of the type that often gives him trouble, by the count of 7-6, 6-2.

Qualification for districts was almost a certainty after our win over the Y, but we wanted to remove all doubt in our penultimate match, held at my personal chamber of horrors, the Mountainside Racquet and Fitness Club.  I can’t remember the last time I won an individual match there, and although this time I went in playing well and feeling confident, the outcome was destined to be all too familiar.   Gary Roberts and I matched up at first doubles against two longtime adversaries, Glenn McKune and Richard King, both of whom have been discussed at length in previous posts.  To quickly recap, Glenn’s game is based on consistent, savvy play, and he may own the best pair of tennis hands in all of New England.  And while Richard relies on a big serve and an intimidating net presence, he has begun to diversify his game in recent years, with increasingly positive results.   As I warmed up for the match, I felt good:  I was moving my feet, hitting smoothly and making very few mistakes.  Then we started keeping score and everything went to shit in a hurry.  Richard slowed down his serve to give himself more time to get in to the net, where I believe he made every single one of his volleys, which happens about as frequently as Halley’s Comet passes overhead.  Glenn was Glenn.  Gary couldn’t return serve to save his life, and I did very little to help him: I was late on Richard’s shots and too far out in front of Glenn’s.  To put it mildly, that was not the convergence of factors we were hoping for, and as a result we would have been double-bageled if Gary had not held his opening service game.   We found ourselves a few games behind very quickly, and then Gary became more tentative while I started pressing, as if trying to erase our immense deficit in one fell swoop.  Anybody who thinks two-out-of-three set matches always last a long time definitely didn’t watch this one.  We had barely broken a sweat and we were already off the court.  It doesn’t get much more humiliating than that.  Glenn didn’t even need any fist pumps.  Sometimes, though, a negative result owes more to what your opponents did right than to what you did wrong, and I really think that was the case here.  So I’ll give credit to Glenn and Richard for a match well played, try to work harder on my game, and maybe have a few tactical wrinkles for them next time.  Extending the match beyond half an hour, for starters.

Embarrassing as the Mountainside match was for me personally, it didn’t negatively impact our team because the rest of the guys picked up the slack and won the other three courts.  Dave Caza beat the same opponent he had played at our place, though this time in a much closer match that ended in a supertiebreaker.  Todd and Neal beat Rich Atherly and Jeff Adie in two close sets, as Jeff apparently had an off day, and we won third doubles in straight sets behind the Ricks (Leclerc and DePasquale).  That clutch team win, combined with other results, meant that we had clinched first place in advance of the regular-season finale at Seacoast.  But we finished the season strongly nonetheless with one more 3-1 victory.  After Lesser once again lost to Barry Posternak in a supertiebreaker, we swept the doubles with Parquette/Leibig winning in two close sets, DePasquale/Paquin winning in two decisive sets and Jack Chen/John Duckless winning in a supertiebreaker.  Mountainside would later beat out YMCA for the second postseason berth, but the way the 40-plus competition is set up, we will only face the Mountain Men again if we both advance to sectionals, and I’m not sure we have the singles firepower to make a serious run at that.  But we’ll be in with a chance, and who knows what can happen?  No matter what the outcome, it has already been a successful season.  Sure, we came into league play as one of the favorites, but USTA tennis isn’t played on paper.   We got it done between the lines as our depth came through for us on many occasions and Johnny D came up with some great lineups.  And now I have eight months before districts to get better, so that I don’t suffer any more near-double-bagels.  Or a couple of weeks, anyway- then it’s Tri-Level time!

 

Loon Mountain: Off the Schneid!

In the early- and mid-1990s, before USTA team tennis became popular in this area, a much younger version of yours truly cut his teeth on competitive play in tournaments stretching to the farthest reaches of New England.   For a kid with a decidedly mediocre junior track record, and a considerably less-than-mediocre college track record, it was the perfect way to gain much-needed experience and become a tougher and more successful competitor.  Some years I played as many as 15-20 events, and even two decades on, the most frequent stops still emerge clearly from the mists of memory.  In my New Hampshire hometown, there was the Concord Men’s “B” Tournament, where as an 18-year-old in 1987 I lost my first official adult match to a man wielding a wooden racquet who asked if I wanted to volley for serve.  After a few years and many similarly humbling moments, occasionally sprinkled with a modicum of success, I moved farther afield, to places like the Franklin Open.  There, in a town full of boarded-up storefronts, a big-dreaming enthusiast named David Hannigan improbably made a tennis desert bloom to the tune of 40-player draws and a giant trophy modeled on the Wimbledon championship plate.   There was also a fitness club called The Works, in Somersworth, where the tournament director broke out a keg for the participants at noon on the first day.  As the lightest of drinkers, I knew that if I could survive the early-morning matches I was in good shape, although in later rounds I still had to withstand the rowdy cheering of the lubed-up locals rooting on their club favorites against the interloper from Concord.  My most-frequently-played indoor venue, Blue Hills in Braintree, MA, posed its own set of challenges: a lightning-fast and diabolically slick surface far more difficult to play on than that of Hampshire Hills, and a roof so leaky that the pace of tournaments typically slowed to a crawl whenever it rained or snowed, because several courts had thereby been rendered unplayable.

A decade or so ago, I began to de-emphasize tournaments in favor of USTA and North Shore League team play.  Those formats offered one-off matches played within a set block of time, which appealed to my aging body, and the chance to be part of a team again, which appealed to my still-youthful competitive spirit.  Most of my favorite tourneys, meanwhile, sadly disappeared with the passage of time.  Franklin lost its Wimbledon-of-the-Woods enthusiasm, and just a handful of locals now play for a scaled-down trophy there.  The Works replaced a couple of their Har-Tru courts with a giant water slide and stopped holding tournaments altogether, perhaps as an ironic salute to old friend Andrew Haynes, who once angrily smashed a ball into their swimming pool from long range, scattering the assembled sun worshippers.   The folks running Blue Hills, meanwhile, realized they could stop paying to fix the roof if they simply shuttered the club.  The Concord B’s still take place every June, but until very recently the tournament prohibited its champions- I somehow managed to become one in 1992- from playing the event in subsequent years.  The end result was that while I still play a handful of tournaments each year, mostly during the summer and early fall, I don’t place the same level of importance on them that I once did.  As for my level of success, let’s just say that I couldn’t remember the last time I won a men’s tournament if my life depended on it.  Couldn’t remember, that is, until mid-September, 2016, when my Steve Carell-like dry spell came to a dramatic end on the courts of Loon Mountain, NH.

The Lin-Wood Ambulance Tournament at Loon Mountain is one of the hidden jewels of New England tennis.  Under the watchful eye of tournament director Mike O’Connor, adult participants compete in a multiplicity of divisions, many of them age-based, on six clay and four hard courts.   While on many of those courts the White Mountains serve as a dramatic backdrop, natural beauty is only one of the tournament’s charms: you also get excellent tennis in an atmosphere that’s much friendlier than USTA play.   I’m surprised Loon isn’t a destination for every serious player in the Granite State, though I suppose two things may hold it back.  One is the tournament’s “Open” designation, but be advised that in New Hampshire, “Open” doesn’t always mean “Open”.   You never know who will enter the draw in any given year, but 4.5 players and even strong 4.0s can generally be very competitive at Loon.  The other drawback is the $100 entry fee (players are limited to two events but are charged the full rate even if they only compete in one).  I’ll admit I thought that was a little excessive the first time I played, in 2014.  But even if the entry fee didn’t help fund a great cause- the local ambulance service- it might in fact be a bargain: in return you get a tee-shirt, free barbecue lunches both Saturday and Sunday, a free breakfast on Sunday, and a free Saturday night banquet at a local restaurant where many prizes are raffled off to the participants at no additional cost.

I came to Loon this September as defending champion in the century mixed division, but unfortunately my usual partner Lynn Miller had an important sectional age-group tournament that weekend and was unable to make the trip north.  So I went a different route and asked my friend Alex Mezibov, a strong 4.0 out of Concord, to team up for the men’s open doubles.  Alex and I don’t play together all that much, but we had teamed up at Colby-Sawyer in the summer of 2015 with some success.  Alex has the virtue of being able to raise his game against better competition, which made him a desirable partner in an event where we projected to be one of the weaker teams.  But we ended up catching a break when Mark Blaisdell and Andy Day, who typically dominate the Loon event, stayed home, and another one when Bode Miller did the same (yes, THAT Bode Miller: the Franconia native has won several singles and doubles titles in the fall at Loon before heading off to the world’s snowiest places for his winter gig).

There were five teams in the men’s doubles draw, and the remarkably well-balanced field had no clear-cut favorite.  On Saturday morning Alex and I were to play each of the other four pairs in an eight-game, no-ad pro set.  The two teams with the best record in round-robin play would face off again the next day in a two-out-of-three set match for the championship.  Because neither of us is in tip-top shape, we knew getting off to a good start would be important: the last thing we wanted was to have to play a meaningless match or two under the noonday sun after we had already been eliminated from contention.  Our first opponents did not immediately cooperate with our vision, however, as Charles Shipman (an entry-level 4.5 with an extremely consistent lefty topspin game) and Keith Eichmann (a very solid 4.0 with a big serve and a willingness to dive on the hard courts to track balls down), both from the YMCA, quickly jumped out to a 4-1 lead.  The lone break had come against my serve, as I clumsily flubbed a couple of those low volleys which are normally my specialty.   Just as we were on the verge of getting blown out, though, Alex and I started to find the range.   After winning a deuce game on his serve, he steadied down his powerful forehand and closed tight to the net for some effective angled volleys, while I started to return and volley with more consistency and better footwork.  In a match where he otherwise played well, Keith did help us with a couple of double faults and missed overheads which enabled us to get back on serve.  From there it was anybody’s match.  Almost every point was hard-fought, and the outcome stayed in doubt until the end, but we managed to eke out another break and then Alex held serve to clinch an 8-6 win.

We rode the momentum from that comeback into our next match, where we quickly built a 4-1 lead against two players from the North Country who appeared to be in our approximate age bracket.  But nothing would come easy on this day, and our opponents, Hayden and Kevin, then blitzed us with a series of powerful serves and swing-from-the-hip groundstrokes to win four straight games.  Hayden’s strokes were a little more polished, but Kevin was a terrific athlete with tremendous natural power which made him equally dangerous.  They didn’t display much in the way of teamwork or doubles strategy, but the pure speed of shot they came at us with made it almost impossible to construct points with a series of shots the way we had in our opening match.  Their playing styles were feast-or-famine and so points were usually decided by whichever side of that fine line their shots ended up on, rather than anything we did.  I got a few of Kevin’s huge serves back by shortening my backswing and focusing on weight transfer, Alex served another strong final game, and we ended up drawing just enough errors to come out on top in another 8-6 nailbiter.

At 2-0 we now had a decent chance of making it out of the group stage, but to secure our passage we still needed to win at least one of our two remaining matches- possibly both, depending on other results- and that was no sure thing.   We next had to face the defending champions, Dana Lavoie and John Smith from the YMCA, and then a couple of twentysomething locals who had beaten Dana and John in an early-morning match.   I had come out on the short end of many matches against Dana over the years both before and after he was bumped to 4.5, and knew the dangers of his big forehand and inside-out serve all too well.  Smith, like me, seemed to be on a yo-yo between 4.0 and 4.5: I had had greater success against him because he’s more of a finesse player, but I certainly didn’t take him lightly.  When we meet, whoever plays better on that day most often comes out on top, and I was just hoping it would be me this time.   That certainly looked to be the case early on, as we took the play right to them and jumped out to an early lead, which we gradually built into a 7-3 cushion.  Alex was in his element against two guys with nice strokes, while Dana couldn’t quite crush my moderately-improved serve for winners the way he had in the past.  But to their credit, even though it didn’t seem like their day, our opponents continued to compete and good things began to happen for them.  Alex and I reached deuce in each of the next four games only to lose all of them on the sudden-victory point.  I short-armed a return on one of those deuce points and Alex tried to force the action by going for low-percentage winners on a couple of the others, but Dana and John stepped up their games, too.  Dana stopped missing almost completely and John had success volleying down the line because I was overplaying the middle.  Before too long what seemed like a comfortable win was now a 7-7 tie and our mental outlook was starting to darken considerably: we had led several of the lost games before reaching deuce and thus had already failed to capitalize on eight or nine match points.   When you miss that many opportunities, it’s only natural to start thinking about it a little bit, and that inevitably makes things even worse.  We had to collect ourselves in a hurry, because the format being used at Loon called for a tiebreaker at 7-all instead of the usual 8-all.  Alex and I showed a lot of mental toughness, though, in putting negative thoughts aside and sweeping the first six points of the tiebreaker.  Things felt smooth again and our opponents were the ones making the mistakes.  All we needed was one more point!  But Dana and John refused to fold, cutting down their errors once more, making some great gets and taking the next four points.  But they had dug a little bit too much of a hole this time and Alex and I finally got the point we needed for a 7-4 victory, breathing a huge sigh of relief in the process.

It was now getting close to noon and although we had already clinched a spot in the finals, we had one more round-robin match to go.  It was starting to get hot and neither of us relished the prospect of playing a couple of young kids, but that was our task nonetheless.  Our opponents were Bill, a ponytailed local with a deceptively tough serve, a strong forehand and excellent quickness, and Evan, a superb athlete who played with great hustle and tenacity but whose strokes and personality were less polished.  Evan had, in an earlier match against Lavoie and Smith, caused a delay of several minutes after Bill had overruled his out call (convinced his call had been the right one, and unaware that in such a situation the rules call for giving up the point, Evan had argued has case long and loudly, but ultimately to no avail, against the other three men on court with him).   Our match against him, however, contained very little negativity: it was more a case of two tired teams eager to get off the court.  While nobody played with much spark, Alex and I had more variety in our games and converted a high percentage of points at the net en route to a reasonably comfortable 8-4 win.

We would have been perfectly happy if that had been the end of our tennis day: after all, by that point we had been on court for about five hours straight.  But we still had mixed doubles to play, for Alex had teamed up with Judy, a lady on his 8.0 mixed team, in the century division, while also finding a partner for me in Judy’s friend Deb.  Deb was an older woman with a solid forehand and some savvy in her game, but she could also miss balls from anywhere on the court when she got on a bad streak, and on this day the bad streaks came with disturbing frequency at a time when I was simply too tired to help her much with well-timed poaches.  She and I had to play two ten-game pro sets on clay courts: when both had concluded, I was exhausted and my serve had been reduced to even more of a lollipop than usual, but we had somehow managed to win two matches of surpassing ugliness to advance out of our preliminary group.  Alex and Judy also won their group, meaning that we both might have to play as many as two mixed matches on Sunday in addition to the men’s final.  Since Alex and I both had pets at home that needed attention, we skipped the dinner and drove straight back (an hour’s ride for him, twice that for me).  After a lot of icing, a little sleeping and an early wake-up alarm, I was on the road the next day in far iffier weather conditions.  As we drove north of Concord, Alex’s phone began to get alerts that a heavy rainstorm was on the verge of intersecting our path, and no sooner did we arrive at the Loon tennis complex than the skies opened.  Since Noah’s Ark was nowhere to be found, we spent the next three hours hunkered down with competitors from many of the other divisions in a small building adjacent to the courts.  Despite the presence of an ESPN-connected television set, the time still passed slowly, but eventually the skies cleared as suddenly as they had emptied, and after a half hour or so spent drying the courts, it was finally showtime!

Alex and I hadn’t known the identity of our finals opponents, but we expected them to be Dana and John, and we knew we wouldn’t get anything close to thirteen match points this time around.  So if we were fortunate enough to get another lead we would have to close out the match much more efficiently.   That would not be necessary, though, because some unexpected results late in Saturday’s round robin play left Bill and Evan tied for second place with Dana and John.  And because Bill and Evan had won the head-to-head matchup, they got their ticket stamped to the finals.   To be perfectly honest, Alex and I looked at that as a major stroke of luck.   Dana and John were the stronger team, but they had fallen victim to that long argument and a few other controversial calls, as well as the dynamic retrieving game of the North Country duo, and lost an 8-6 squeaker which ultimately cost them dearly.  Still, we knew that we underestimated Bill and Evan at our own risk: not only were we giving up twenty-plus years to each of them, but since our meeting the previous day we had also played two long mixed matches and driven, in my case, an additional four hours.  Because our opponents lived nearby and had gone home during the rain delay, Alex and I got to have a long warm-up, and although I was a little stiff I could tell that I had enough gas left in the tank to play a good match.  The extra time also helped me work on my service motion, and I came away confident in my placements and my ability to generate a decent kick, both of which would be important against opponents who were most comfortable at the baseline.

The match couldn’t have begun better for us.  Bill and Evan started off somewhat nervously, perhaps because of the occasion, and we quickly got a break and then broke again at the end of a 6-3 opening-set win.   Alex’s serve and big forehand were tough for them to handle, and they weren’t doing much with my spin serve either.   My returns weren’t as sharp as they had been the day before, but I anticipated exceptionally well at the net, on several occasions covering gaps that Alex had left open and hitting winning volleys.

Although there was no further rain, the day remained extremely windy, and when Alex and I had the wind behind us we got to the net and smashed numerous overhead winners beyond the boundaries of the court.  When we were against the wind, however, our opponents could track more balls down and prolong the points, a scenario which didn’t often end well for us.  In the second set Bill and Evan settled into the match, cut down their errors and began to frustrate us by winning most of those long points.  Evan also became much more emotional after Alex hit him from close range with one of his patented Agassi-type swinging volleys.  Now I’ve seen Alex wind up that swinging volley numerous times, and I usually welcome it when I’m on the other side of the net because most of the time he has no clue where it’s going.   He’s just as likely- in truth, much more likely- to put it into the back fence as he is to hit it into his opponent’s midsection, but Evan isn’t necessarily the kind of person who sees the logic in that type of reasoning.  So he gave Alex some angry trash talk and then, to our dismay, he began to get much more active at the net.   Thus inspired, our opponents got an early break and led for much of the second set before we drew even.   At 5-5, though, I succeeding in calming my nerves and held serve, and then we capitalized on a couple of mistakes to close out the match in the game that followed.  I’d like to say I hit a screaming winner on match point, but I do a lot more screaming than winner-striking at the best of times, so I guess it’s appropriate that we won when a 30-mph second serve hit with the wind behind it carried long.   But while the last point might have been anticlimactic, we certainly earned our title, going 5-0 against a tough field.  Sure, we caught some breaks: if that tournament was played five times with the same field, each team might well win it once.   In future years, though, the names Mezibov and Page will be on the list of champions, right next to Bode Miller and Andy Day.  There won’t be an asterisk.

Any time you beat good players, your confidence grows, and I had beaten a lot of good players at Loon Mountain.  But whether there would be any lingering positive effects to carry with me into the upcoming 40-plus season was, at that point, an open question.  It wasn’t the time or the place to speculate about such things anyway.  You often hear extremely competitive people- and for better or worse I consider myself to be one of them- say that losing hurts more than winning feels good, but here’s a secret I’ve learned: once in a great while winning feels just as good as losing feels bad.   Maybe better.  Loon Mountain was one of those times for me, and I’m grateful for it.  The feeling was priceless, but it wasn’t bad to go home with two bottles of champagne either (injuries caused some of the remaining century mixed teams to retire, so Mike O’Connor let us play the mixed final later that week in Concord; Deb and I went on to beat Judy and Alex in a supertiebreaker).  With all those positive vibes going, I was on a roll as I pulled my trusty CR-V into the parking lot of my building at last: music playing, excited, and a “good tired”.  So excited, and so tired, in fact, that I didn’t zip my tennis bag quite all the way up- and when I stepped out of my car, out slid one of the champagne bottles, to splatter in a thousand pieces on the pavement.  That bit of clumsiness may have been frustrating, but it was strangely comforting, too: if it hadn’t happened, I might well have thought the whole weekend had been just a pleasant dream.