Hope springs eternal in USTA league tennis, even in the middle of a New England winter. Especially in the middle of a New England winter, in fact, for January marks the traditional beginning of New Hampshire’s 18-and-over team competition. Your team, like mine, might have been one win away from Sectionals the previous summer before falling in humbling fashion at the final hurdle. Or it might have been winless in local league play. It really doesn’t matter. Even though they won’t be able to see bare ground for another two months, New Hampshire’s avid USTA players enter a springtime of the mind on the day the new season begins. It’s a place filled with hope: hope that your new service motion will hold up under pressure, that your new racquet will give you that little bit of extra pop, that your new off-the-radar singles stud will lead your team past a talented rival squad for the first time in years, or simply that you’ll make some new friends and learn a little bit about yourself in the process.
For some, that hopeful feeling evaporates all too quickly once match play begins, but my Algonquin men’s team had reason to believe that wouldn’t be the case this year. Although our top two singles players from 2016, Justin Toler and Aaron Diamond, had been bumped to 4.5, we remained amply provisioned for another playoff run. Christmas had, in fact, come a few weeks early for us, as not only did the rest of our squad stay at 4.0 upon the release of the year-end ratings in early December, but two longtime mainstays of our teams, Chris McCallum and Jeff Siegel, rejoined our group after being bumped down from 4.5. Bob Bondaruk, an unorthodox but effective player from the Nashua area, also came down after a couple of years of (not) trying, while Alex Mezibov defected from Concord after being frustrated by their failure to field a team at last summer’s Districts. Rob Starace was healthy again, and Aidan Connor, Justin’s heir apparent as Concord High’s number one singles player, gave us an infusion of youth. To that we added our traditional cast of characters: Todd Toler, Bruce Leibig, Neal Burns, Adam Hirshan, Mark Parquette, Adam Lesser, Gary Roberts, Eric Morrow, yours truly and the father-son duo of Brian and Dan Horan. Although we didn’t have the two near-guaranteed singles points of 2016, we were undoubtedly deeper this year, and we had been plenty deep before.
We would need every bit of that depth, however, as the New Hampshire 4.0 landscape was now more treacherous than it had been in some time. Three of the previous year’s ten teams (Executive, Seacoast and River Valley) had folded, taking two of the four Districts berths with them, since in USTA play a flight must contain at least five teams in order to yield two postseason qualifiers. NH was thereby reduced to a single qualifier from a grouping of three teams (my Algonquin team, YMCA and Hampton) and another from a grouping of four teams (Mountainside, Concord, Hampshire Hills and the other Algonquin entry). We were scheduled to play each team from our grouping twice and each team from the other grouping once, for a total of eight matches, while the teams in the larger grouping would play a total of nine. Although we would only have to finish ahead of two other teams, both were of Districts caliber. Hampton had played in Portland last summer and now boasted the best 1-2 singles punch in the league in Andy Montgomery and Barry Posternak, while the addition of Newburyport’s Sunny Ahn and old “friend” Bryan Playford gave them doubles depth that rivaled our own . With that level of talent, we could only hope Bryan’s usual chemistry-wrecking tendencies took effect sooner rather than later. And while the YMCA had lost John Smith to a year-end bump, they kept Jeff Giampa and added Chris Ramsay, formerly of Executive, and Chris Rheault, formerly of the University of Southern California men’s team (sounds like a 4.0 player, huh?). While we weren’t directly competing in the standings with the four teams in the other grouping, we would have to play against them too, and they had all improved significantly in their own right. Mountainside had to be the odds-on favorite: no one from their 2016 team got bumped (not even Glenn McCune, he of the 4.15 TLS rating), and Richard King added three excellent singles players in year-end bump-downs Mark Herbert and Tony Cortese and former college player Matt Salter. Concord had lost Alex Mezibov to our team but picked up former Algonquin players PJ Cistulli, who had just been bumped down, and Jeff Hannum, who had returned to the area after working elsewhere for a couple of years. Hampshire Hills, meanwhile, added Dave Foster and Don Sargent, a couple of longtime 4.0-4.5 yo-yo guys who had just come back down. Sargent’s son Alex, an early-thirties banger, came on board along with his dad, while Ben Lambert, who won several 4.5 matches last season, returned as a near-lock singles player. Even the other Algonquin team added a couple of solid doubles players in Mark Hamilton and Rick DePasquale, both formerly of Executive, and a singles ringer in super-steady lefty Zack Gould, considered by many to be the best high school player in the state. Clearly, the days of getting a few easy regular-season wins were over. We were going to have to be sharp from Day 1.
Knowing that was one thing, but making it happen was something else entirely. We found out the difference the hard way when we hosted Hampton in our season opener on a Sunday afternoon in late January and fell behind 2-0 after barely an hour of play. Adam Lesser, who had only taken two games in his last matchup against Andy Montgomery, was much more competitive this time and even led 5-4 in the second set. But Andy used his athletic, all-court style to pull out a well-played 6-3, 7-5 win. First doubles was less well-played, at least from our standpoint. What promised on paper to be a competitive match quickly turned in favor of our opponents as Sunny Ahn and Rob Drouin used powerful forehands and an aggressive style to hand Jeff and Todd a 6-2, 6-4 defeat. Todd struggled to stay in points from the baseline while Jeff missed an unusually high number of his patented lobs against a team whose pace and spin made lobbing a challenge. With the league standings determined by individual wins rather than team wins, we absolutely couldn’t afford a blowout loss in our opening match, and that was now a distinct possibility. But the next two matchups favored us and we were able to win them both decisively. Aidan Connor made his adult tennis debut a successful one with a straight-sets win over the dangerous but somewhat erratic Dan Witham, who hits all of his groundstrokes with two hands. Meanwhile, Neal and Rob, who had played exceptionally well together last season before Rob injured his knee, picked up where they left off, using powerful groundstrokes and strong net play to decisively beat a Hampton pair that didn’t seem to have enough firepower to really hurt them.
Getting three points from a match as opposed to two isn’t a huge difference, but nevertheless we wanted the team win and a one-court advantage against what was likely our toughest group rival, and it was up to Alex and me at third doubles to try to bring it home. The matchup wasn’t an easy one, as we were pitted against Frank Campolo and Vin Corson, who had battled Parquette and I to a near-standstill in 40s play before falling 6-4 6-4 on a day when I had the good fortune to serve atypically well. Right from the start, though, Alex’s power and shotmaking skill dictated play and took the sting out of Frank’s big forehand. I had not returned well in my previous match against these guys, so I made it a point of emphasis to really lean in and drive the returns, and as a result we were able to threaten most of their service games. Frank later said that he had played four or five days in a row and was tired; whatever the cause, his serve didn’t seem as heavy this time and we were able to take advantage, breaking them twice in the first set and four times in the second en route to a 6-3, 6-1 win. It wasn’t a perfect match: my serve was far less accurate than it had been in the earlier matchup and I was broken in two of my three service games. But Alex’s power groundstrokes, heavy serves and touch volleys mixed with my strong returns and good hands at the net proved to be a very effective combination, and we got an important team win.
We went from one districts-caliber opponent to another when we visited our perennial rivals from Mountainside in our next match. The 90-minute drive gave me plenty of time to ponder the sobering fact that I had not won a USTA match there since the Bush administration. I hoped that teaming up with Alex once again, this time at number two doubles, would be a way to change that. But before we even took the court, trouble found me once again, as it always seems to at Mountainside. The first two matches to be played were #2 singles and #1 doubles. Aidan handled Tony Cortese, a steady grinder who had played a few years at 4.5 until recently coming back down, with surprising ease in the singles match, but Jeff and Neal had their hands full with Richard King and Rich Atherley in a doubles match played on the court closest to the viewing areas. In a rather desperate attempt to change my luck, I had superstitiously stationed myself at the downstairs glass at court level to watch, while most of the other spectators were in the more comfortable area upstairs. That would become a factor late in the first set. At 4-4, King was serving from the end adjacent to the lower window when Jeff hit a lob that was called long. I had a pretty good look at where the ball landed and I thought the call was correct, but Jeff didn’t seem convinced and glanced over to me in the window while making a subtle gesture. I put my index finger up to indicate that the ball was out, but he continued to gesture. I didn’t at first realize that he was essentially asking “How far out?”, and when I did realize it, I was reluctant to take any further part, given my past history against that club, so I just shrugged. Unfortunately Jeff continued to look and gesture for another several seconds, and King eventually took notice and, as he later said “got really pissed off (at Jeff) and lost my focus”. Before he was able to get himself together his team had lost six consecutive games and Jeff and Neal were well on their way to a 6-4, 6-4 win.
So we had two points, but we didn’t rate Adam Lesser’s chances highly against Mountainside’s singles stud, Mark Herbert, and although he played a good first set Adam predictably succumbed. That left Alex and me in what seemed to be an even matchup against B Manning and Ken Limberg, while Bob Bondaruk- added to the roster at the last minute because we only had seven players available- and Adam Hirshan seemed to have a slight edge against Jeff Adie and Scott Goodwin at third doubles. As soon as our match got under way, though, I came to the disturbing realization that I couldn’t hit a backhand, which is usually one of my best shots. I don’t know if it was the way the ball skidded, or my history of defeat on those courts playing havoc with my mind, but I literally only hit one backhand drive in the court the entire match. Eventually I resorted to lobbing all my returns on that side, but with Alex ripping his returns and serving well we were able to stay even and then break Ken, who was coming off an injury and thus unusually erratic with his volleys, late in the first set to win it, 6-4. Just as we were starting to get more comfortable, though, Alex had a few careless moments which resulted in him dropping serve, and we quickly went down 1-3. With a supertiebreaker looming, though, we suddenly put together a huge closing run to take the last five games. It started when we broke B at love, as I hit an inside-out forehand winner, a lob winner and some sharp volleys (a display perhaps all the more demoralizing for our opponents given that I had done next to nothing up to that point). We pounded Ken’s forehand and made him volley up whenever we could, which allowed us to hold serve in spite of B’s patented crosscourt forehand winners, and then we broke Ken to gain the upper hand once and for all. Not since Loon had Alex and I beaten a team of that caliber, and I felt good because I had served effectively, if inelegantly, and compensated for unusually weak returns with strong net play.
It turned out our win was especially important because Bob and Adam blew a 6-2 lead in the supertiebreaker and lost at third doubles. Adam went in overconfident, since he and I had beaten Jeff and Scott during the 40s season, only to find the Mountainside duo had improved their volleying skills in the intervening time. But while it would have been nice to take four courts, make no mistake: any win at Mountainside, even one without Glenn McCune in the lineup, is a good win, and we were delighted.
Two weeks later we faced the other Algonquin entry, captained by Eric Cheli, which to that point had not won a team match but featured two dynamic singles players in Zack Gould and Dave Caza (OK, “dynamic” may not be a word often used to describe Caz in any facet of life, but the man certainly plays clean, efficient tennis). We found ourselves in the difficult position of needing to win 4-1 to match the results recorded against them by other top teams, but unsure if we had a singles player capable of beating either Zack or Dave. Luckily for us, Caz wasn’t available that day, so although Aidan came up short against Zack after a strong first set (4-6, 1-6), we were able to take the other four courts behind Lesser and the doubles combos of Neal/Rob, Brian/Dan and Chris/Adam H. First doubles was a rout, with Neal and Rob playing as if they hadn’t missed a beat, but the other matches were all close: Lesser won 4 and 4, and the other two doubles had sets that were 7-6 and 7-5, respectively. That’s more of a credit to the overall strength of the league than a knock on how our guys played. Cheli’s upgraded team would have been a threat to make districts a year ago; in 2017, they are struggling just to win more than one court a week. Charles Darwin would certainly have loved this league, where only the fittest will survive. For the seven competing teams, however, the challenge is to step cautiously and try to get through the test that each week brings without having our season blown to smithereens by a poor result. So far, thankfully, most of our Algonquin parts remain intact…