Feet are a tennis player’s foundation. We can’t hit any shot effectively unless we’re in the right position to do so, and our feet are the engines that get us there. When we’re moving smoothly, we might begin to take them for granted, although I’ll admit my size 13’s stumble plenty on the best of days. But if we get even a little bit sloppy about taking care of ourselves, they can make their presence felt most painfully. You might think that after playing competitive tennis for over 30 years, I would have taken that lesson to heart. You would be wrong.
My problems began when my trusty Adidas Barricade “Hannibal” tennis shoes, which are nearly as durable as the elephant hide their outsoles resemble, finally wore through in early June after nearly a year of heavy use. I needed to replace them ASAP, because my USTA mixed doubles playoffs were only a couple of weeks away. I don’t normally care much about mixed doubles, the numerous downsides of which I’ve already chronicled on several occasions. But this year Chet Porowski recruited me for the 7.0 and 8.0 teams playing out of his club in Keene (the 7.0 team competed in the 40-and-over category) and both somehow won their respective leagues. Our 8.0 team was composed exclusively of 4.0 players, yet balance and depth had given us the edge against competition that frequently boasted stronger individual talent. So an upstart group that just two seasons ago had been winless in local league play was headed to Districts to take on the established New England powerhouses. There may not have been a bigger Cinderella story since the last Caddyshack movie.
For the proverbial glass slipper to stay on our collective feet, however, I would need to find something to put on MY feet. And despite my best efforts, I couldn’t find the Hannibals anywhere online: in a tactic used by many companies, Adidas had stopped selling them so that their newer models could gain, well, traction, in a competitive marketplace (I later found out that you can still get them on Amazon, along with just about everything else). So I ordered a newer Barricade model that to my untrained eye appeared similar to the Hannibals, except that the ersatz elephant hide on the outsoles had been replaced by a series of scribbly lines worthy of an abstract expressionist painting. I wore them for a couple of days before the Districts took place in Beverly, MA, and considered myself adequately prepared. That would prove to be yet another mistaken assumption.
My feet are probably flat enough to keep me out of most military services: the foot mapping machine in my local Rite-Aid regularly prescribes me an orthotic lift nearly the height of a soapbox. That means I can’t wear just any shoe and play my best. And after two long matches- both of which my partner and I won in supertiebreakers- on the first day of Districts, I was ready to classify my new kicks as “just any shoe”, abstract expressionist vibe or no, because my feet hurt like hell. I was angry at myself because I had stashed an old pair of tennis sneakers that I had previously played in without incident in my racquet bag as a precaution. I became so engrossed in my matches, however, that I didn’t notice the pain in my feet until I had reached a point where switching shoes wouldn’t have made any difference. But my team won both its matches, 2-1 and 3-0, meaning we only needed to pick up one court in our finale against Woburn, MA the next day to clinch a spot at Sectionals. So I sucked it up and played a relatively clean match against a strong team which came down to yet another supertiebreaker. This time my luck ran out and I lost, 10-8, but our third doubles team of Chris and Anna Fox won their match and punched our ticket to Springfield.
I was traveling for much of the two weeks between Districts and Sectionals and only practiced once during that time. In fact, I tried to keep off my feet altogether as much as possible, but still I stupidly wore the ill-fitting shoes during my daily routine, so healing was slow. The pain eventually began to concentrate in my left heel, but while its location had narrowed its intensity did not diminish. Finally my friend Kathy, who had dealt with similar problems years ago, announced that I probably had plantar fasciitis. I looked that up for myself and the symptoms matched, which actually made me feel better, for it meant I could start treating my foot in ways beyond simply resting. After dealing with this condition for several weeks, I’ve found a few treatments to be most effective, and I wanted to share them here in case some combination of them can help a similarly afflicted reader. Please bear in mind that I’m not a doctor and what has worked for me may or may not work for you (that’s a nice way of saying that you use any of the advice below at your own risk).
Get shoes that fit and that offer you enough support. If your feet are in the normal range, you can probably wear just about anything. If they’re as flat as mine, you’ll have to look a lot more carefully, but I’ve learned that K-Swiss models are generally terrific for low-arched players, and of course the Hannibals have been wonderful for me. I’m actually planning to stockpile a bunch of them in preparation for the next time I need new kicks, kind of like Jimmy Connors buying all of the old Wilson T-2000 racquets he could get his hands on back in the day.
Use orthotic inserts if necessary. You can get custom-fit orthotics at your podiatrist’s office, but those aren’t cheap and except in rare cases you’ll fare about as well by having your feet mapped on one of those machines now available at most pharmacies and then buying the orthotic that it prescribes. Heel cups, which have sort of a padded horseshoe design, are another variation: they are the cheapest and least customized of these options.
As you might guess from their name, AirHeels are like AirCasts for your heel. You tie them to your lower leg as you would an AirCast, but the air unit is positioned underneath your heel where your arch strikes the shoe. Unless you have a really bad case of PF, you’ll probably only want to wear them when you’re exercising.
Night splints come in a variety of shapes and brands, but basically they’re like casts in that they immobilize your foot while you’re sleeping and thereby keep your arch from inadvertently flexing into a painful position. Some find them uncomfortable, others find them unnecessary. My take is this: if something can help you heal while you’re sleeping, with zero effort on your part, why not give it a shot?
Taking anti-inflammatories after you play or otherwise work out is important. From my experience Aleve has been somewhat more effective against PF than Advil, but be careful to take it with food if you value your stomach lining.
Ice your heel after working out as you would other injured body parts. Kathy suggested freezing a water bottle and putting it under my foot. That allows you to roll your foot around and break down the scar tissue of the more severely injured areas at the same time the ice is reducing the swelling. You can also roll your foot without ice using a golf ball or a similar-sized ball that has a hard and somewhat uneven surface.
All the temporary remedies I’ve listed are only that- temporary- so you also need to rebuild strength in your hee. Rather than trying to decipher my labored descriptions of them, just Google “Plantar Fasciitis stretches” and you’ll find a handful that are simple, effective and require no equipment beyond a towel. You can also press your big toe down and lift the rest of your body up so that you’re essentially standing on your big toe. It may sound weird, but do enough reps and it really will strengthen your arches.
All well and good, you say, but how did Sectionals go? Well, as is often the case, not quite as well as Districts. Blessed with strong partners and opponents generally disinclined to lob, I managed to win two of my three 8.0 matches, though my feet felt no better. My team won one of three and failed to advance out of the group stage; the winner of our flight and eventual New England runners-up, Weymouth (MA), had a number of seriously underrated players, but that’s par for the course at this level. I took no part beyond cheering from the gallery at the 7.0 Sectionals, thanks to a flaky partner who begged off at the last minute with a series of flimsy excuses (with the short NH season we had been able to qualify only one 3.0 woman for me to play with). Our top two teams were competitive and I think my partner and I would have been equally competitive on court three, but as it was we ended up losing two of three matches and were once again eliminated in the round-robin phase while Weymouth finished as New England champions. Mixed or no, both teams had excellent chemistry and I really enjoyed the experience, though I drew two sobering lessons from District and Sectional play beyond “watch what you put on your feet”. They were: (1) When you face a team with one player ranked a full point ahead of his/her partner (a 4.5 and 3.5 in 8.0 play, for example), the lower-rated player is almost always a ringer. You rarely see a 4.5 whose true level is anything beyond a low-end 5.0, but the number of so-called 3.0 and 3.5 players who could be competitive on small-college tennis teams is staggering. It’s a joke no one outside of Weymouth is laughing at. (2) The lines get called even tighter than during the regular season, and 80 percent of the time the woman is the one doing the hooking (the true percentage may actually be higher than that, but I don’t want to be called sexist, plus I have to account for the Joe Waldvogels of the world somewhere). When the roving line judges are on your court, people’s calls suddenly revert to what they should be, but this isn’t the US Open, so the linesman sees no more than perhaps 15 percent of any match. To be completely honest, some of the people I play with are just as bad as our opponents, and that can get uncomfortable too. Unless I had a great view of the ball and was 100 percent certain, I rarely reversed a partner’s call, instead telling myself that things would even out since our opponents were probably cheating just as badly- and they almost always were. Maybe that was the right reaction and maybe it wasn’t. I think everybody deals with those situations in their own way, but one thing is certain: for better or worse, they’re as much a part of competitive mixed doubles as turning the score cards on a changeover.
Anyway, as the summer went on my feet made slow but steady progress and I was able to compete in two men’s District competitions in August, the details of which will follow in a future post. I would have saved myself a lot of agony, though, if I had paid more attention to what I was wearing, or just had replacement shoes ready that I trusted. Trust me: playing even one day with footwear that doesn’t suit you can have far-reaching consequences. Remember that, and hopefully you’ll be able to avoid walking in my footsteps!
Spring is my busiest time of year, and that inevitably takes a toll on my ability to post regular match updates. As a result, I’m condensing the last five matches of the year into this one entry, though I’ll do my best to keep it from being even more long-winded than usual. I will say this up front: after one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory, the battle for first place in our division- and the coveted berth at Districts that accompanied it- ultimately came down to the last court of our final match. It doesn’t get any closer than that.
Let’s begin on March 4, though, with my Algonquin team traveling to the YMCA for a showdown that would determine first place at the midway point of the season. After three matches we each had ten individual wins while Hampton, which had played the most difficult schedule to that point, had seven. With a number of our guys missing due to the school vacation week, I was teamed with Chris McCallum at number one doubles. Any faithful reader of this space knows that while Chris and I are good friends, we make a lousy doubles team. So playing us at number one was something of a risk, but the consensus was that we were still the strongest of our three available teams. And with YMCA’s singles firepower we felt we had to play our doubles in order of strength because we might well need to win all three. That assessment seemed to hold true early in our match, as Chris and I saw Aidan’s aggressive game being picked apart by his onetime teaching pro Chris Rheault on the court next to ours. We had plenty to deal with ourselves, though, against the team of Keith Eichmann, an aggressive net rusher whom I had beaten in a close match at Loon, and John Weeks, a steady player who lobbed well and got almost all of his first serves in. The match had the potential to be volatile: Keith is an intense guy, although he directs most of that intensity at himself, and Weeks can be combative on line calls. Chris and I, of course, get pretty worked up in our own right. On this particular day, my Aussie pal struggled to return serve and just didn’t seem comfortable. The Y can be a tough place to play, with kids constantly yelling and running right behind the back curtain on their way to the adjacent pool, and perhaps because he was already playing poorly that seemed to bother Chris more than usual. In any event, our opponents played sounder, more consistent tennis than we did and deservedly took the first set 6-4. We hadn’t yet come close to breaking them, so we faced a moment of truth midway through the second sent when we went down a number of break points on my serve. I was serving pretty well, though, and the slowness of the ball (which threw off their timing) plus some decent kick led to them missing enough returns that we were eventually able to hold. That kept us alive, but our returns failed to get any better, so the set went with serve until we led 5-4. Then, out of nowhere, a great hustling get from Chris and a rare unforced error on an easy ball by our opponents gave us the set.
Here’s one thing I’ve learned about the supertiebreaker: it’s a great equalizer. You might be outplayed almost the entire match, as we had been, but if you can eke out the second set then all of a sudden you have the momentum. And when that happens, with the ten-point format there isn’t always enough time for your opponents to get it back. That’s what happened here. Well, that and the fact that I don’t think I missed a ball. Low returns, quick volleys, overheads: I had it going and Chris saw that and managed his own game to avoid errors and let me win the points. Before I woke up, we had won ten of them and stolen a match that we really didn’t deserve. Even so, we weren’t about to give it back.
The team match was decided at third doubles after YMCA’s Jeff Giampa took Siegel apart at second singles, while Alex and Todd coasted at second doubles. The last match to finish pitted Brian and Dan Horan against Jeff Hastings and Eric Murray, two excellent athletes relatively new to tennis who had recently qualified for Tri-Level Nationals at 3.5, though both are now rated 4.0. There were no breaks of serve for most of the match but Brian and Dan were able to squeak out the first set in a tiebreaker. With the allotted time winding down, though, they dropped serve late in the second set to go down 5-6. The bell rang before the next game had finished, so the teams played out that game with a sudden-victory point, Hastings serving. Win it and we win the match right then and there. Lose it and we lose the set and then immediately play another sudden-victory point for the match. It’s as pressure-filled a situation as you can have in league tennis, and on this occasion Hastings’s big serve let him down: he went for an ace with his first ball but missed, then double-faulted the match away. As my good friend Chet Porowski always says, “They don’t ask how, they ask how many.” In this case, the how may have been ugly but the how many- three- put our team in first place, and we were certainly grateful for that.
We still had only a one-court advantage over both of our divisional rivals, though, as Hampton had swept the other Algonquin team: our club mates picked a bad time to use Zack in doubles with his father, who’s a great guy but a mid-range 3.5 player at best. So we needed a good result in our next match against Hampshire Hills. We had the good fortune to play them at home, thereby avoiding their slick courts and also posing a Sunday conflict to an opposing team that often does not travel well (mixed doubles matches in New Hampshire are also played on Sundays, while most men’s matches, except those played at Algonquin, take place on Saturdays). With that in mind, HH captain Walter Meltzler tried to reschedule our match, pleading an insufficient number of players. Unlike most captains, though, Todd didn’t give in- he never asks for a reschedule and is equally loath to grant one to an opponent. Walter ended up bringing a couple of new players on board for the match and we swept them. The only top guy who came was Mike Auger, and a red-hot Eric had Mike swearing even more quickly than usual en route to a 6-3, 6-1 win. We also took the other matches in straight sets- only one of those sets was closer than 6-3- behind Aidan in singles and Todd/Neal, Gary/Bruce and Adam/Mark in doubles. As it turned out, we needed all of those points because Hampton, which had emerged as our most serious threat, drubbed YMCA 4-1. So with three matches remaining we led the Barn by two courts and the Y by five, but nothing was settled: we would still have to play both of them a second time after traveling to Concord, the leader of the other flight.
As a high school tennis coach, the last thing I was hoping for was an April Fool’s Day snowstorm. But though the weather was less than ideal, our match with Concord went on as scheduled and we were able to come through by the narrowest of margins. I went to the match as a fan: on a team as deep as ours, I’ve accepted that I’m not always going to be in the lineup whether that’s due to injuries, poor play or just the need to get everyone on our roster the two matches they need to be eligible for the postseason. I had plenty to cheer about early on as we took both of the singles. Aidan rallied from 0-4 down to win the first set against steady, super-athletic Amir Alic, and after dropping the second he played extremely well in the supertiebreaker to come out on top. Lesser, meanwhile, had beaten Jeff Hannum in two close sets. Even if Adam hasn’t been at the top of his game lately, he had had success against Jeff for a number of years before Jeff moved away, and those positive memories may have worked in his favor here. With a 2-0 lead and three solid doubles teams taking the court, we had a chance to put up a big number and solidify our hold on first place, but to Concord’s credit they clawed back. First they took number one doubles as PJ Cistulli and Jason Hall beat McCallum and Siegel 6-4, 6-4. Hall has great strokes even though he doesn’t play a lot, and PJ was a 4.5 for several years, but this was still a match we could have won. Siegel came off the court bemoaning his own poor play and from what I saw, his assessment was justified. But the reality is we wouldn’t be 4.0 players if we didn’t have our good and bad days, and Jeff is great at bouncing back quickly from the latter.
The other two doubles matches were close and each team ended up taking one of them. Gary and Bruce lost second doubles in a 10-8 supertiebreaker: they hit a poor stretch at the wrong time against the big forehands of Joe Waldvogel and Greg Zini, and just weren’t able to come all the way back. At third doubles Eric Morrow and Mark Parquette faced a difficult matchup against Mike Long, a superb volleyer, and Michael Constantin, a hard-hitting 3.5 lefty who has improved significantly over the past couple of years and is now competitive on the lower courts at 4.0. Those two made for a dynamic court 3 team, especially on the fast courts of their home club, but our guys were up to the challenge. Though Eric is best known for his strong baseline game and Mark for his aggressive presence at the net, it was a couple of well-timed lobs that won them a close first-set tiebreaker, and they ran out the second set 6-3 after Constantin’s serve deserted him in the later stages.
All five individual matches had been close and well-played, and although we could have done even better there was no reason to be upset about taking three of them, especially since Hampton lost two courts at Hampshire Hills and thus failed to make up any ground. The YMCA, meanwhile, lost 3-2 at Mountainside to fall six individual wins behind, and with just two matches remaining seemed consigned to the role of spoiler. Their team may have lost heart as a result, for when they came to Algonquin at the beginning of the April school vacation week they did not bring one of their strongest lineups. Aidan Connor was our MVP in this match: not only did he reverse his earlier blowout loss to Chris Rheault, he did it after trailing 0-5 in the first set! Aidan’s 7-5, 6-4 win was his best to date and should serve notice that he can play with any 4.0 in the state; even though Chris aggravated a minor injury late in the first set and wasn’t quite the same afterwards, it was still a gutsy comeback on Aidan’s part. That win took some of the sting out of a disappointing second singles match where Eric just didn’t compete, which is usually his strength, and got only two games from Chris Ramsay, a solid all-around player who has spent some time at 4.5. Jeff and Neal won comfortably against mid-range opponents, as did Gary and Adam Hirshan, but Todd and I had to fight much harder on court 3 against Dave Brown, a consistent and savvy teaching pro, and Don Redington, who hits his forehand extremely hard. On this day Don’s extremely hard forehand was going in and Todd’s extremely hard serve was not, as he ended up with close to twenty double faults. I was holding serve but not playing especially well otherwise, and our opponents seemed to sense that we were having an off day and raised their own level in a bid for the upset. The first set went to a tiebreaker, and there we faced a set point at 5-6. I ended up at the net on the deuce side and one of our opponents hit a big close-range forehand past me and somewhere around the outer edge of my alley. The ball was by me before I could turn my head and I probably would have had to give up the point, but Todd said he saw the ball clearly out and made his call accordingly. A couple of fans later said that it was the right call, but at the time I wasn’t sure, and I know I don’t like it when the opponent most distant from the ball takes a close call against me. To our opponents’ credit, they didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it proved to be a turning point nonetheless, as we ended up winning the ‘breaker 8-6. Taking the first set would have been huge for Dave and Don, as it would have given them, at worst, a puncher’s chance in a supertiebreaker on a day when Todd and I weren’t playing with much confidence. Sadly, even after getting a huge stroke of luck we didn’t have enough consistency to keep Uncle Mo in our corner, and the second set followed much the same pattern as the first: we got an occasional break and then Todd double-faulted it back to them. At 5-5 we broke them once more and this time Todd served the match out strongly, showing that even on his worst day he’s a confident competitor who will never stop fighting.
After our narrow escape at third doubles, the Algonquin team breathed a huge sigh of relief: taking four points rather than three meant we would only need to win two courts in our regular-season finale at Hampton to secure first place. Even winning two courts, though, wouldn’t be easy. Hampton was better than we were in singles and had become at least our equal in doubles by adding a number of strong Eastern Mass. players as the season progressed. In fact, they would have been ahead of us in the standings already except that Playford and Sunny Ahn had both gone to the wrong club- Great Bay instead of Hampton- for a match against Mountainside, forcing David O’Connor to default two courts that they would almost certainly have won based on the matchups (Richard King, of whom no less would be expected, did not allow Hampton to change its lineup to team Bryan’s partner with Sunny’s and thereby default only one court). With so much at stake in this match, we spent a long time deciding on our lineup but eventually opted to go for a split of the singles with Lesser at 1 and Aidan at 2, figuring that Hampton’s Andy Montgomery was untouchable at 1. Adam had played Andy pretty closely during the season, but there was some question whether Andy had deliberately kept the score down, as his TLS rating was hovering above 4.10 at the time (a 4.00 at season’s end makes you a 4.5). Whatever may have happened in their earlier meeting, Andy’s season was now on the line and he couldn’t afford to worry about the score, so he went out and waxed Lesser 6-0, 6-3. Aidan got us a split of the singles by taking Posternak apart almost as easily, overwhelming Barry with his attacking style in a 6-1, 6-3 win. Playford later said that they expected us to put Aidan at 2 but that Barry insisted on playing against him. Barry’s a confident guy and a very good singles player, but in this case discretion might have been the better part of valor. Aidan has improved to the point where he’s a legitimate number one player, and he just had too much firepower for Barry to handle.
We now had one point and needed just one more from our doubles teams. Normally we feel like we can get one point in doubles against anybody (Portland being a notable exception). But we knew that point wouldn’t come easily with a Districts berth on the line. As we expected, they put Sunny Ahn and Rob Drouin at 1 and Bryan with Ron Konopka at 2. Nobody knew who they would put at three, but O’Connor chose Dan Witham, the two-handed player, and Eric Russell, a savvy veteran who usually plays out of Newburyport. We decided to put Bob and me at number 1, Jeff and Neal at 2 and Gary and Adam Hirshan at 3. I enjoy practicing and talking tennis with Bob, but he and I don’t make a great team. However, neither Sunny nor Rob had seen his unorthodox game and we thought that might work in our favor. Maybe it would have on a normal day, but our problem was that Rob could do no wrong. He always hits a lot of winners, but this time he didn’t balance them out with unforced errors. Sunny is extremely consistent from the back of the court with hard, flat groundstrokes, and Bob was reluctant to change up our serving formations to give him a different look. I volleyed well but my serves and returns weren’t all that sharp. Bob swooped around the court as crazily as ever but to very little effect, as he uncharacteristically missed a number of easy putaways. The result, quite honestly, was they grabbed us by the balls early in the match and didn’t let go until they were up 6-2, 5-1. At that point we ran off three games in a row, but then Rob bombed us into submission with a few more big shots to serve it out. 2 and 4 may look respectable, but it really wasn’t that close, and while I was disappointed, there wasn’t much doubt we had lost to a better team on the day.
After our dismal showing, Bob and I could only hope one of our remaining two teams would come through in the clutch and bail us out. But Jeff and Neal did little better, losing 2 and 5 as they had trouble volleying Playford’s heavy groundstrokes, while Ron Konopka’s level was the best that Jeff- who has played mixed doubles with and against him for several years- had ever seen. That meant our season would come down to third doubles. Although there was no shortage of court space, that match had started well after the other two (one of the players involved hadn’t arrived until the scheduled time, while the quick finishes to the singles matches allowed the other two doubles to go on early), so everyone was watching it from late in the first set on. We still felt pretty good. Gary had gotten in better shape, and with his talent he can usually dominate a third doubles court, while the calm and cerebral Adam is a great guy to have representing you in a pressure situation. I don’t think either Gary or Adam would say that the return of serve is his strong point, but in this match they quickly realized that their opponents’ serves weren’t going to put them on the defensive. This allowed them to get up to net on a regular basis, where Adam’s consistent volley placement and Gary’s imaginatively angled touch shots proved to be too much for Witham and Russell in a 6-2, 6-3 Algonquin win. It had come down to the last court of the last match against a great team, but we would be going back to Portland after all. Another guy who told more than his share of long stories might have said it best: “All’s well that ends well.”