The Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics of the 1980s, thrice NBA champions, were the best-passing basketball club I’ve ever seen, but even for them decline eventually came, and with sobering suddenness. Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills, bridesmaids in four consecutive Super Bowls, and the Atlanta Braves baseball squads featuring the immortal mound triumvirate of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz met the same end. All eras ultimately pass, no matter how golden, and the aftermath can be painful. The Celtics went two decades before another Big Three won one additional banner (others may be in the offing, at least once LeBron James retires, if they can swindle the Nets and Sixers out of a few more lottery picks). The Bills haven’t participated in a postseason game in this century, while the Braves have had more stadiums than playoff appearances in recent years. Sic transit gloria, someone more scholarly than yours truly might say.
The effects of aging, of course, are most seriously felt in areas of life far beyond the playing fields. Yet those of us who pursue our games passionately still feel a special kind of sadness when we realize that we are no longer the contenders we once were, not even in our own minds, where our illusions are maintained longest. Such a realization may have hit more than one member of my Algonquin tennis crew over the past two weekends, as we finished last among five teams in our 18-and-over District competition and then third out of four teams in our 40-and-over District. Injury-riddled, lacking our normal depth and beset by uncharacteristically inconsistent play, we rolled the competitive dice nonetheless, only to see them come up snake eyes time after time. And so a group of friends accustomed to earning Sectionals berths, or at the very least contending seriously for them, will this year only experience Springfield as a blip in their collective rearview mirror, receding into the surrounding landscape at warp speed. Even at 48, it was hard not to feel old.
We opened the 18-and-over competition, which was once again held in Portland, Maine, with limited optimism, as we were down to just eleven available players and many of those were operating at far less than 100 percent. My lingering foot issue, which any number of days of rest and treatment seemed unable to completely quell, was the least of our injury woes. Others had it worse: Rob Starace’s case of PF, more serious than my own, limited him to a single match. Alex Mezibov’s knee had not responded as well as he had hoped to a summer of rest, although he gutted out two matches in more pain than he would ever let on. Eric Morrow hadn’t hit a ball in four months and Jeff Siegel pulled a calf muscle a few days before the competition began, but both represented in Portland nonetheless. The list of absences was equally lengthy and in some cases more troubling, particularly that of Adam Lesser, who simply stopped responding to all forms of communication around mid-June.
At Districts we faced a geographical distribution of teams unchanged from 2016: one from Northern Maine, one from Vermont, one from New Hampshire and one from Portland. The only repeat opponent, however, was Gabe Gordon’s Portland/TMV powerhouse, which once again wore the favorite’s mantle, having added a few new studs to replace those who had been bumped to 4.5.
We opened on Saturday morning against Northern Maine’s Lobstoppers and found them true to their name, as in our 3-2 defeat they stopped us on almost every court by repeatedly lobbing with pinpoint accuracy. The Lobstoppers featured three players with estimated ratings considerably above 4.00, but we somehow took two of those three down in singles as a risky strategic gamble paid off. We put Bob Bondaruk against one of Maine’s top high school players at number one, while Aidan took on another ringer who had played mostly doubles during the season at number two. Aidan soundly defeated his opponent, a lefty who seemed to have more power than consistency, and Bob threw the kid off just enough with his unorthodox game to win in two close sets. As had happened against TMV last year, though, our doubles pairs couldn’t close the deal. Jeff and I reprised our old “Twin Towers” team on court 1 against Brian, a lefty with a tricky serve and a heavy topspin forehand, and Nevin, who had an excellent angled return of serve and consistently strong volleys. Nevin was a great guy who hustled for everything, made some incredible gets, and fist-bumped me on each changeover. Bryan was an excellent competitor and a good guy, too, if you made allowances for him taking most of the close calls on his side of the net. This was a winnable match the likes of which Jeff and I have won dozens of times over the years, but we just didn’t get over the hump here and lost 6-4, 6-2. He may have borne the greater share of the blame by missing a number of easy putaways, but I was by no means faultless, as my footwork was poor and my returns less consistent than usual. Neal and Rob got absolutely crushed by a young Japanese kid who played closer to 5.0 than to 4.0 (he went on to win all four of his matches and took at least one dynamic set of 6-2 or better in each). So it came down to Todd and Gary on court 3, and they led by a set and a break, but then Todd’s serve and Gary’s return began to become less accurate and the second set slipped away, 7-5. The match tiebreak went back and forth, with Algonquin holding a total of three match points, but we squandered them on a netted overhead and two netted returns of serve, and ultimately lost a 14-12 heartbreaker.
We had a few hours to regroup before our next match and we needed all of that time, for we had to both bounce back from a crushing defeat and to prepare for a highly-motivated Concord team. Todd and Joe Waldvogel, Concord’s captain, don’t get along well, and to highlight the importance he placed on this match Joe used his eight best players (he rested some of them against the Maine teams and defeat predictably followed). This made our task even more difficult, and given our injury and availability problems we were already fighting an uphill battle. Bob was good for only one singles match per day, so we had to essentially throw away a winnable court by using Mark Parquette, a gutsy competitor whose singles game is more enthusiastic than it is consistent. Meanwhile, Aidan fell victim to fatigue and the steady, athletic retrieving of Amir Alic. Leading late in the second set after winning the first, he began cramping, failed to convert a number of match points and eventually lost the set in a tiebreaker. His needle was running on empty in the ensuing supertiebreaker, in which he could offer only token resistance. At third doubles Todd and Neal continued their winning partnership, defeating Mike Long and Jeff Hannum in two close sets in a match most notable for the demolition job Long performed on his racquet after dropping serve in the penultimate game. Alex and I teamed up on court 2 against Waldvogel and PJ Cistulli in an entertaining matchup of four sometimes volatile personalities with significant, if differing, strengths: Alex’s serve and forehand, my returns and volleys, Joe’s forehand and PJ’s all-around shotmaking. My foot was starting to get sore and Alex’s knee was bothering him much more than that; we tried to compensate for our inability to switch sides quickly by limiting the number of our poaching calls. I played much better than I had in the first match, and that was a good thing, since Alex was way off. In addition to his aching knee he had an arm issue which prevented him from taking his usual service motion and led to an abnormally high number of double faults. We jumped to an early lead in the first set only to see them pull back even, but we got a critical break of Joe’s serve in the eleventh game and I served out the set from there. In the second set Concord built a 5-1 lead as Alex’s serve went downhill and they hit a series of return winners to break me. A number of line call disputes accompanied this momentum shift, the most severe of which came when Alex and I both called a shot wide of my ad-court doubles sideline and PJ protested vehemently. After a couple of minutes of back-and-forth, I finally told them to call their side of the court and let us call ours, but they did not comply, and for the rest of the match whenever PJ hit a ball long he asked “How far out was that?” I figured PJ, who’s a good guy off the court, was just trying to get into our heads, but every time that happened Alex started muttering, none too softly, things that don’t bear repeating here, and the end result was a 6-3 win for them. We gained control of the supertiebreaker about midway through, however, and built a 9-4 lead, aided by Joe’s having pulled a leg muscle chasing a drop volley that I had mishit off my frame. Alex and I dropped the next three points- shades of Loon Mountain- but finally won the tiebreaker 10-7 when I hit two shots off the line which were thankfully not called “out”, and Joe netted his reply to the second one. The team match was decided at first doubles, where Algonquin Originals McCallum and Roberts took on Greg Zini, who hits a heavy ball with lots of topspin, and Jason Hall, a flatter hitter with an excellent all-around game. Hall and Zini came out on fire and ripped through the first set, 6-1, but Chris and Gary hung around, threw in some tactical wrinkles and were able to take the second. They then led the match tiebreaker 9-7, but for the third time in a twelve-hour span we ended up losing from match point ahead, as a blown poach let the Concord team back in and they made the most of their opportunity.
With two losses we knew we were out of already out of contention, but we still had to play two more matches the next day. So after a late dinner Jeff, Chris and I repaired to our $125 room at the Motel 6, a room only slightly larger than a cell block and equipped with a similar amount of amenities. Chris brought a sleeping pad and crashed on the floor, which proved a safe haven except at the moment my cell phone slipped out of my hand and nearly decapitated him. Hopefully the others were able to ignore my inevitable snoring, although they were too polite to bring that up the next day. In any event, we needed all the energy we could muster to get by a Vermont team that was much stronger than last year’s edition. Casting about desperately for singles players, we found Eric Morrow willing to make the trip north, and Eric gave a recent high school graduate all he could handle before losing in two close sets. We won the second and third doubles matches in much the same fashion, as Todd teamed with Aidan for one win while Chris and Mark overcame the dubious calls of a man with a horrific toupee for another (bald man’s wisdom: never trust the line calls of anyone wearing a rug!). Neal gave us our match-clinching third point, beating a quick, tenacious opponent who will not be rated 3.5 for much longer in two drawn-out sets. That took some of the sting away for poor Gary, who for the third consecutive match failed to convert a series of match points in a supertiebreaker and ended up losing, along with Siegel, to a steady, finesse-oriented slicer with great hands and a hard-hitting kid in his early 20s.
In our last match we had a chance to play spoiler against Portland, which was well ahead on individual wins but had lost 3-2 to the Lobstoppers and so could not afford another team defeat (Lobstoppers had lost to Vermont by the same score or they would have been in the driver’s seat). While eliminating Portland would have been gratifying, that didn’t seem likely to happen, so we decided to keep Aidan out of the singles, where a win against one of their highly-rated players would have put him at greater risk of being bumped. Tough as it may be on your pride, in USTA tennis sometimes it’s better to come back and fight another day- or another year. We ended up losing all five courts, and only Alex and I even managed to take a set. We got the opener, 6-4, against Alan, a veteran with excellent hands and a consistent return, and Tyler, who played for Wheaton (MA) College and featured an explosive forehand and good doubles instincts. In the second set they started hitting me the ball more often and it got ugly fast. My volley was working great but I neither served nor returned well, and although Alex played much better than in our previous match his movement was still far below its normal level. Our opponents deservedly took the second set 6-2 and then the supertiebreaker by a wide margin behind a series of great shots. At least we had the consolation of playing some good doubles, and Eric and Gary could feel similarly, although they lost 7-5, 7-5 to Rob Drouin, who had found another team to play for after Hampton’s elimination, and Trevor Thaxter, a strong net player with lots of doubles savvy. If I had just taken four months off, I wouldn’t have lasted half an hour against those two, but in that situation Eric played extremely well, and Gary at least had the consolation of losing in a less heartbreaking fashion. About our other courts the less said the better: anyone who wants to know the gory details can look them up on TennisLink. I hate to say it, but I’m glad Portland got through to Sectionals if we couldn’t. They were clearly the best team, and you could at least make a case that most of their guys were true 4.0s, a statement which absolutely did not apply to the Lobstoppers’ Japanese ringer. I don’t know which hurt more at the end of the weekend, my foot or my ego, but the reality is we weren’t on Portland’s level, and while we might have reversed both of our Saturday defeats with just a smidgen of luck, the same can’t be said of our TMV beatdown. Maybe in the near future the Districts will be reconfigured to include a different combination of states, as happens every so often, and that would seem to offer us a better chance at making Sectionals. But in 2017 the 800-lb gorilla that is Portland sat on all of us again.
About half of our 18s team members also play on the 40s team, and there wasn’t much time for us to lick our wounds, as the latter competition held its Districts the following weekend in Eastern MA. Once again we hurt ourselves by not bringing a full squad, as only ten of our seventeen qualified players made themselves available. We were placed in a four-team flight with two teams from EMA, Wellesley and Nashua (although a New Hampshire city, Nashua sits on the Massachusetts border and for scheduling reasons has chosen to compete in that league), along with Wilton United of Southern Connecticut.
Wellesley looked to be a tough opening match, as they had dominated their local competition, finishing well ahead of the Westborough team that had thumped us at Districts a year ago. On Saturday night our fears proved to be well-founded. If the good people of Woburn, MA, ever lose interest in playing tennis, their club could easily be repurposed into a sauna, for even on a cool late-summer evening the atmosphere on the courts was absolutely sweltering. Even hotter were the racquets of our opponents from Wellesley, who swept through us with the loss of just a single set. Both Rick DePasquale and Dave Caza played their singles opponents tough from beginning to end but ended up losing two close sets. John Duckless and Mark Parquette stacked themselves at number one doubles, but Wellesley did something similar with their lineup, and so we were able to lead for awhile before narrowly losing the match tiebreaker. At number three Todd tweaked his back in the warmup, but even at his best he and Neal would have been hard-pressed to get by Wellesley’s left-handed ringer and his 6’4″ partner. As it was, they fought to the end but got only three games for their trouble. Adam Hirshan and I got five- four of them in the opening set- against Alan, a big man with a bigger serve, and Todd, whose forehand would not have been out of place in a 5.0 league. My first serve of the match set the tone: I kicked it nearly over Todd’s head and he responded by crushing a crosscourt forehand winner at approximately 100 mph. Out of necessity we tried a number of different formations on both our service and return games, and those enabled us to play our opponents more or less evenly to 4-4, but then they found another gear that we didn’t possess, and it was over pretty quickly from there.
There’s nothing worse in USTA postseason play than getting shut out in your opening match, because from that position your chances of advancement are virtually nil. But we still didn’t want to come in last two weeks running, and our match against Nashua early the next morning in Winchester seemed to offer us the best chance of escaping that fate. Nashua had finished second in its local league, quite a distance behind the first- place team, and only gained admission to the Districts when another team withdrew at the last minute. While few of their players were familiar to me, a friend who lives in that area said that their team was very beatable, if a little suspect on line calls. The first part of his assessment proved to be true, and the second, whether true or not- it wasn’t in my match- played no role in any of the results. Nashua did make it competitive, taking both singles in straight sets behind Indian players in their 40s. They didn’t bring the same level of firepower to the doubles courts, though, and we were able to win all three of those matches. I played number two with Neal against Paul, an old friend with lefthanded groundstrokes and a righthanded serve who plays at a number of NH clubs, and Ram, who was deceptively quick and hit a steady and powerful crosscourt forehand. They looked like they didn’t play together often and we made quick work of them, as Neal tore the cover off the ball and I missed very little at the net. John teamed with his good buddy Jim Prieto for a comfortable win on court one, but third doubles was closer, as Adam and Gary dropped the first set 6-1 against a team that relied heavily on lob returns. Our guys finally decided to give the server responsibility for covering all the lobs, and that enabled them to turn the tables on Nashua and eventually win a moderately close supertiebreaker. I asked Gary if he had been nervous when they reached match point, and he did not seem amused, but the end result gave our team its highlight of the weekend.
Highlights were few and far between in our finale later that day against the Southern CT team that ended up winning our flight. Neal had one of them, taking the first set off a Hispanic player who had appeared unbeatable in earlier matches, but then he tweaked his knee and wasn’t the same after that. Caz once again battled a solid player more or less evenly only to lose in straights. Rick and Jimmy won seven games, Gary and I six, and John and Mark significantly fewer. On my court we battled to the end against Garrett, a powerful, athletic player with a huge serve who is rated well above 4.00 on TennisRecord, and his partner Nick, who was quick, hard-hitting and aggressive. Neither of them was super-consistent but they ended up hitting us off the court just often enough to win 6-3, 6-3. It was a shame because I actually served well, with good spin and location, and ended up holding every time without facing any break points. Unfortunately I didn’t poach enough to help Gary hold consistently, and he struggled with his return. Switching sides after the first set helped us a little, as returning from the ad court opened up more angles for Gary’s backhand and he at least put a few more balls in play, but Garrett served himself out of 0-40 holes in both the first and second sets and that was all she wrote for the 2016-2017 campaign.
My foot may not have been 100 percent, but by the 40s competition it had vastly improved, and I honestly can’t think of any matches that second weekend, or even any important points, where it hindered me significantly. I lost the matches I lost because my opponents were just better. There was nothing unique in my situation. Too many of my teammates lost the matches they lost because their opponents were just better. After our dismal showings of the past two weeks, the question is whether we of Algonquin have now jumped the shark and are heading into regional irrelevance, or if by dint of greater effort and improved play we can once again contend. I know what I’d like to believe, and although the reality may be otherwise, what choice do we truly have but to make the effort? Guys like Rob, Alex and me not only have to keep working on our games but also go to the gym more, as unpleasant as we might find that, so that maybe we’ll finally stop getting hurt. We all need to be in the best shape we can be, for the days of winning at 75 or 80 percent health on a regional stage are over. Some of our other guys, whom I won’t call out by name here, have a different issue: they need to step up their engagement. Postseason playoffs should be something we all look forward to, and those who only come to those competitions once in a blue moon may want to either change their mindset or yield their places to others with greater commitment. To call Gonk Nation a spent force on the regional level may well be premature, but as Yogi Berra used to say, “it’s getting late early”. Let’s hope that with renewed effort we can keep the competitive darkness at bay for a while longer.
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.”