Men’s 18s and 40s Districts: Twilight of the ‘Gonks?

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.

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