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.

 

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