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!

 

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