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.”