Third Time Lucky

 

I might have had better odds of owning a winning Powerball ticket, given the way the previous twelve months had unfolded.  But somehow there I was in mid-July, stepping up to the baseline to serve at 9-9 in the decisive supertiebreaker, two points from a berth in the finals of the New England 40-and-over 7.0 competition.  Lurking tantalizingly beyond that was the chance to reach a USTA national team tournament for the first time since 2006 (I also made it to Nationals in the Tri-Level competition, which features a single doubles position, in 2014).

Even conceding that nothing worthwhile comes without a struggle, it had been unusually difficult for me to get to that point.   I battled plantar fasciitis throughout the summer of 2017 and eventually chose to take two and a half months off from tennis (a very small percentage of the resulting frustrations are detailed in earlier posts).  I returned to the game that December and spent two mostly pain-free months slowly recapturing my form and fitness.   Then one cold night in February I somehow forgot to pack both my sweat pants, which I warm up in on all but the hottest days, and my compression leggings, a residue of two knee operations which I now wear whenever I play.  It was amazing that I remembered my racquet, but I might have been better off forgetting that, too, because about five games into the match my Achilles tendon went “pop” and I was back on the disabled list.  Long days and nights teaching and coaching, coupled with insufficient attention to my injuries, meant that by the time my Achilles healed, my foot was hurting once more, and it would continue to hurt all summer long.

I may not have been healthy or well-conditioned or playing the way I wanted to be playing, but I did choose my teams wisely, and those teams carried my 200-plus pounds of competitive deadweight into postseason play on many different fronts.  While I wasn’t able to play any qualifying matches for the Keene 8.0 mixed team which had made such a great run to Sectionals in 2017, I did the bare minimum (generally two matches at low lineup positions) to become postseason-eligible for Keene’s 7.0 teams at both the 18-and-over and 40-and-over levels, as well as the Algonquin 4.0 teams in the same age categories.  All four teams were deep and talented enough to finish in the top two in their respective local leagues, and though I played no significant role in those triumphs, I was more than willing to be a part of their postseason runs come summer.

The 18-and-over mixed playoffs came first, but since most of our nucleus of players was over 40, our captain, Chet Porowski, viewed this as a dry run for the older age category and used it mainly to try out different combinations and get everyone some playing time.  The result was what we expected, though we hoped for better: we lost all three matches and won just one individual court.  I had one winnable match that slipped away in a supertiebreaker and one unwinnable match in which the opponents somehow passed off a recently-graduated Division II college player as a 3.5.  Her serve was better than mine, which in men’s competition isn’t saying much but should by itself disqualify a woman from carrying a 3.5 rating.   One of our women blew off our finale on Sunday, leaving us shorthanded and requiring Chet to put his considerable diplomatic skills to use when the opposing husband/wife team who were left without a match to play protested vehemently (word to the not-so-wise: just take the free point and shut up, already!).  The only other memorable moment came when I mistook the coffee dispenser on the table at IHOP for a syrup dispenser and slathered my pancakes with it.   Yep, it was a successful weekend all the way around.

We were convinced things would be different in the 40-and-over division, though, and not without reason.  We had essentially the same group of Keene-based players and me as the 18-and-overs, but fewer teams competed in the older age category, and that allowed Chet to skim off some of the female talent from other nearby clubs.  He also brought two of his tennis friends onto the team as self-rated 3.0s: one, Tom, was closer to a 4.0 in ability but hadn’t played in organized competition since high school, and the other, Scott, lacked even that background but had the athleticism and power to play like a solid 3.5.   Putting them with strong or even mid-range 4.0 women gave us two near-certain points in New Hampshire and two super-competitive courts even at the highest levels of New England tennis.  Chet’s longtime partner, Kristen, had been bumped up to 4.0 in November 2017, or we would have had three super-competitive courts, but we still got by most of the time with a patchwork of combinations on the third court, and I was part of that patchwork.  I was the only 4.0 man and had two qualified 3.0 partners.   Anne was closer to a strong 3.5 but insisted on taking all her own shots- and in mixed doubles, as I have lamented many times previously, almost every ball is hit to the woman unless she is rated a full point higher than her male partner.  Factor that in and I may have been better off with my other partner, Jackie, who also happened to be Joe Waldvogel’s daughter.  Jackie inherited Joe’s pleasant off-court personality and competitive nature but is much more generous with line calls than her father.  Although she excelled in many other sports growing up, Jackie only had about a year of tennis-playing experience, so her game was still closer to a 2.5 than a 3.5, but she was willing to be coached during matches and unafraid of hard-hit balls, and by Sectionals (there are no Districts for 40-and-over since the number of competing teams is smaller) she had also developed an extremely consistent serve.

Sectionals were held in mid-July at a handful of clubs in the Boston area, and we first needed to win our round-robin four-team flight.  Anne and I played number three against Vermont on Friday, and the match unfolded the way many 7.0 matches do: the opposing woman lobbed with exceptional consistency and called all the close balls “out”, and her male partner blanketed the net and mixed some spectacular smashes with other balls that hit the back curtain on the fly.  We made just enough shots and they missed just enough for us to win by a break in each set in a back-and-forth match.  The other two matches were also close, but we won both and so went into Saturday with lots of momentum.  We built on that momentum with an easy win against a team from the town I was born in (Torrington, CT) and a much more difficult one against Longfellow, a club located in one of Boston’s wealthy western suburbs that had been considered the favorite in our flight.  The consensus proved accurate and Longfellow also entered the final match undefeated, but Chet and his partner Sorrell came through in an exciting supertiebreaker, and that sent our team to the knockout rounds with a 2-1 win. 

Eight teams now remained in contention and the elimination rounds were all scheduled for Sunday, meaning we would have to win three matches in about a twelve-hour span to get to Nationals.   But all the rotation players on our team were available except Anne, who had gone on vacation after our Friday match, so Chet felt we had as good a chance as anyone.  Our quarterfinal matchup would quickly let us know the truth of that, for we were matched up against Cedardale, a giant all-sports club from north of Boston that traditionally fields top-notch mixed teams at all levels.  Chet’s plan was to put his strongest lineup out against Cedardale, a slightly weaker one which included Jackie and me in the semifinal, and then the best and healthiest teams left in the final.  It didn’t look like that would matter, though, as Cedardale had ringers of their own: a man somehow rated 3.0 and his steady partner decisively beat our veteran duo of Sue and Bruce at number 3.  We needed to win both the other matches, and both went to supertiebreakers, and we faced match points in at least one of them, but the teams of Tom and his partner Tina and Scott and his partner Sandy came up huge, and that sent us into the final four.  Jackie and I were going to be playing on the big stage.

Our semifinal opponent was from Woburn, MA, another big Boston-area club (this one was a tennis-only facility with a somewhat grittier reputation than Cedardale and Longfellow), and we faced them on their home courts, which could very easily have doubled as a sauna.  Jackie and I played number three and warming up I knew we were in for a tough match: the opposing man, Mark, was about as good as me and a lefty to boot.  I’m not great against lefties and I typically only won with Jackie when I was the best player on the court by some distance, and often not even then.  Even worse, before our first set concluded I saw Chet and Sorrell go down to defeat by a wide margin a few courts away.  But with our season in the balance Jackie played with determination and I directed the ball to Mark’s partner, Lori, as much as I could.  We somehow broke Mark when he served for the opening set at 5-4 and then won a tiebreaker several minutes later to take the lead.  The lead did not last long.  Instead of losing heart, as less-experienced players might have, Mark and Lori sharpened their focus and dominated us throughout the second set.  I would have put our number one team of Tom and Sandy up against any 7.0 team in the country, so although I wasn’t aware of their result at the time (they ended up winning a very close supertiebreaker), I figured our match would be decisive, and I knew we couldn’t afford to lose it.  But we recovered well from our second-set debacle, as both Jackie and I were locked in and making few mistakes on the early points of the supertiebreaker.  Doing our best to take it one shot at a time, we somehow built a 7-4 lead.  Win just three more points and at the very least we would keep our season alive.  Lori served to me in the ad court, but instead of hanging back and dictating with my groundstrokes, I came in behind the return.  Came in a little too far, it turned out, because she lobbed over Jackie.  I chased the ball down but only sent back a weak reply, and Mark put it away.  Jackie then missed her return and instead of 8-5, or even 9-4, it was anyone’s match at 7-6.  Here I played two risky points and got burned on both, first trying to poach off Lori’s return only for the ball to skitter agonizingly off the tip of my outstretched racquet, then crossing during a baseline rally between Mark and Jackie (I didn’t like our odds in that matchup…) only for him to take the ball sharply crosscourt for a winner into the space I had just vacated.  They used that momentum to take a 9-8 lead, but I put a steady serve into Lori’s box and then somehow climbed the ladder to reach a lob that seemed destined to be a winner and stick back a heavy ball that bounced high off the baseline for a winner of my own (to their credit, Mark and Lori didn’t call the ball out, as many other mixed teams would have; if they had, I wouldn’t have argued….much).

So there I was at 9-9, in the New England semifinals, stepping up to the baseline with my trusty Babolat Pure Drive in hand.  I decided to serve out wide to Mark’s backhand and come to the net, but I didn’t serve it quite wide enough, and he ripped his best backhand of the day crosscourt into the doubles alley.  I lunged for it, but instead of trying to redirect it at Lori (I had a decent chance of returning even her put-away shots), I attempted to get it back crosscourt and found only the bottom of the net.  They won the next point, too, and it was over.  I felt awful then, and worse after I found out Tom and Sandy had won.  In trying to win the match with aggressive play I had lost patience and left my team exposed.  I felt especially bad for Jackie, for she was likely to blame the loss on her own lack of skill, when in fact she had maximized her strengths and played courageously throughout; I was the one who had let the team down.   It’s a match that I still find hard to talk about, and all the harder after Woburn beat another Boston-area team in the finals to clinch a spot at Nationals.   Pushing 50, with a body increasingly inclined to betray me and a psyche struggling to grapple with the implications of that, I wondered if my last chance to make a Nationals had come and gone.

I didn’t have long to wonder, though, because I still had two more Sectionals to take part in. The first one quickly fizzled: it was the men’s 40-and-over, once again held in Woburn (among other locations), and my Algonquin team, which had come in a distant second in our local league, faced a tough flight that included Rhode Island powerhouse Rally Point, Southern Connecticut stalwarts King’s Highway, and Westford from Eastern Mass.  We had been only moderately competitive at Sectionals in 2017 and in the intervening time two of our better players, Gary Roberts and Adam Hirshan, defected to Mountainside, which ended up winning the New Hampshire league.  Even the addition of Dan Watson, a quick, fit and aggressive player who had been rated 4.5 for a time, availed us little. 

I played in our matches on the first day and we lost both decisively, winning only one of the ten contested courts.   I had tried to rest after the mixed competition, but I rested too much to stay sharp and not enough to get healthy, and the result was two disheartening losses.  Neal Burns and I had a strange match in the opener against Connecticut.  One part of the strangeness was that I did not have to face the Ray Liotta look-alike Tim Trask, my usual opponent on Doug Presley’s Pequods.  Instead our opponents were Jim, a savvy player with a big heart, and John, who hit every forehand as hard as he could, which turned out to be very hard indeed.   John missed almost all those hard forehands in the first set, which we won easily, but then found the range and the match tightened considerably.  We ended up losing the second set tiebreaker 7-5 and then the supertiebreaker by a slightly wider margin.  Although Neal didn’t help by refusing to lob Jim, a short man with a minimally competent overhead, I was the main culprit, as I lost confidence in my return and somehow contrived to double fault three times in the course of a single ten-point tiebreaker, a tiebreaker that ended with my racquet flying into the courtside wall at high speed. 

Even being teamed with Dan Watson couldn’t save me in the second match against Rhode Island: he was drained after playing singles in temperatures that hovered close to 100 degrees indoors, and I was just pissed off about my earlier result and couldn’t let it go the way I normally do.  We had our moments, but the lobbing skills of our opponents, Phil (a very nice guy with great hands) and Craig (a not-so-nice guy but a skilled and honest player), and our own inconsistent returns doomed us to a 6-3, 6-3 defeat.  Keeping my racquet in hand this time proved to be a wise choice, because mid-match I became aware of a very attractive redheaded woman seated by the upstairs window yelling encouragement to me while pumping her fists.  Once I looked up, she did it after virtually every point for the rest of the match.  Hard as it may be to believe, that kind of thing isn’t a regular occurrence at my matches, so to say it gave me some energy was an understatement.  I used that energy to draw us even at 3-3 in the second set with a well-executed lob volley to break Phil, but there weren’t many highlights after that.  She stopped me near the front desk afterward and told me how much she had enjoyed watching us compete, but although I was polite and appreciative, I was too drained and discouraged even to ask for her name.  As we had no hope of advancing, I didn’t come back the next day and watch, but my teammates didn’t do much better than I had.  We lost 1-4 to a good Westford team, but truthfully many of our guys were already more focused on the 18-and-over sectional competition the following weekend.  And what a competition that would prove to be.

My 40-and-over mixed team was a very good team, but it was my 18-and-over men’s team that was truly stacked.   We had the 2017 NH high school singles champion, Zack Gould, and the 2018 high school singles runner-up, Rohit (Ro) Yerram, both from Bedford.  We had Dan Watson and Rob Starace and Alex Mezibov and Gary Roberts and Kiran Humagai and many others, 19 in total, almost all of them high-end 4.0s.  We had Todd Toler’s superb leadership keeping everyone directed toward a common goal, even when that meant that guys who had been regular starters for years, sometimes decades- I was one of them- had to accept part-time roles.  Best of all, we had Noah Sullivan, a 20-year-old who had been a terrific player for a tiny high school and then disappeared off the map to take firefighting classes part-time at a community college.  Noah Sullivan was a little bit like Roy Hobbs with a tennis racquet, big and strong and hardworking and polite, and best of all, no one knew who he was- no one except for own Adam Hirshan, now living in the Lakes Region, who saw his potential during weeknight ladder matches at the Gilford Hills Club. 

We dominated New Hampshire with that team, though I say “we” only in the broadest sense, for Todd graciously worked around my numerous injuries to fit me into two matches at lower doubles positions and thereby preserve my postseason eligibility.  In one of those Alex Mezibov and I had the pleasure of beating longtime rival Richard King with the loss of only two games; I knew Richard wasn’t going to come back when he began bringing up the time a few years back when he had beaten me 6-1, 6-0.  I enjoyed the feeling that day, sure, since enjoyable feelings of any kind had been few and far between over the past twelve months.  Still, I knew I was more of a “depth guy” than a “rotation guy” when the postseason came. 

We had a lot of depth guys, though, and Todd rotated them all brilliantly while riding Noah, Ro and Zack hard.  The Districts in early August were proof of that.  USTA-New England rotated the District pairings, as it does every so often, and as a result we were no longer required to go to Portland but rather to Western MA, where teams from Eastern Connecticut and the host region awaited us.  The Vermont champions and the second-place team from the Granite State, Hampshire Hills, made the trip too. 

I stayed in the same lucky hotel, the Holiday Inn Express in Ludlow, as during the Tri-Level championship year of 2014, and maybe some of the mojo was still present.  More probably, though, our team was just damn good.  We started off with a bang by sweeping Eastern CT on Saturday morning, though four of the five matches were close.  Alex and I played number two against Ken, a lanky kid who looked to be just out of college, and Dow, a short, shaven-headed man about my age.  I dated Dow’s sister years ago, although I did not meet him at the time and did not tell him this when we faced off, fearing an awkward moment.  Dow turned out to have laser-like groundstrokes, a soft serve, and a forgiving nature: he stayed calm even as Alex hit him in the head three times with the windmilling crosscourt put-away volleys that are as close as the big Russian can get to hitting the ball with his arm raised high when a point is in progress (on his serve, mysteriously enough, he can raise his arm just fine).  It didn’t take long to determine that Ken was not nearly so calm: after making an error to conclude a fine match-opening point, he screamed an obscenity at high volume while smashing his racquet.  His disposition remained unchanged the rest of the way, but he had a big serve and terrific hands at the net to compensate for a so-so return game.  I don’t know if it was the heat of the day, the stickiness, or my own nerves, lack of conditioning and poor footwork, but I couldn’t hit my overhead (usually a strength) with any confidence.  Alex started well but dipped mid-match, and as a result we traded a pair of 6-3 sets.  In the supertiebreaker, though, Ken and Dow hit a number of poorly-executed, low-percentage shots and threw in a few double faults for good measure.  That allowed us to come away with a 10-3 win when in other circumstances our own increasing frustration might have fatally damaged our chances.

In the night match we traveled just over the Connecticut border to the Enfield Tennis Center to take on Hampshire Hills. Women’s 3.5 matches were being held at the same site, and we waited and waited and waited for them to finish.   The moonball-filled points seemed interminable, and in one memorable doubles match the players went to change the scorecards after every single freaking point of what ended up about a 14-12 supertiebreaker.  At least they didn’t lose track of the score, though.

Luckily the shortness of the match, once it began, more than compensated for the long wait.  Hampshire Hills had lost their opening match and seemed committed to rotating their team just as we had, because many of their top players watched from the elevated viewing area along with me and our other subs.   Hampshire Hills is a very tough opponent on their own courts no matter who they field, but elsewhere they need a strong lineup and a few breaks, and in Enfield they didn’t get either one of those things.  Only one of the courts was truly competitive, and there Zack Gould, perhaps best known for partnering with Mats Wilander’s son on the club team at Tufts University, took apart the power game of Ben Lambert, a recent four-year varsity starter at St. Michael’s College.  You could tell that Lambert was used to hitting people off the court, and almost no one with a legitimate 4.0 rating can do that to Zack: he’s too steady and absorbs pace too well.   Frustration set in for Lambert around the middle of the first set, and after that there was only going to be one winner.  10 individual matches played, and we’d won all of them: we couldn’t have asked for a better beginning. 

We were back at the Ludlow club by mid-morning for our first Sunday match against Vermont.  We weren’t taking them lightly, but shortly after the completion of that match we had to go back on court against the host team, which won a tough Western Mass league and was undefeated through the first day of District play.  With that in mind, Todd put a slightly weaker lineup out against Vermont, and it almost cost us.  Noah and Ro won easily in the singles, but Adam and Mark Parquette were beaten soundly, while Gary and Alex blew a 6-1, 4-1 lead after Gary tired and bickering set in between the two.  It was Dan Watson and Rick DePasquale who bailed us out.  Those two men couldn’t be more different- Dan is low-key and intense while Ricky’s the life of any party- but their lives have frequently been intertwined, as both married the same woman, although not simultaneously.  Here they put any personal issues aside and did what needed to be done, beating a solid team that pushed them to a first-set tiebreaker.  That made the final match a winner-take-all showdown with Western Mass.   We no longer had to worry about the margin of victory: we just needed three points.  We didn’t expect any of those three to come easily.

One reason they wouldn’t come easily was that less than half an hour after the Vermont match ended, we were being called to play again.  It’s a common scheduling trick: put the local team against what is perceived to be their biggest threat in the final match of the competition, but only after scheduling the interlopers to play another match right before that while giving the home team a long rest period.  We had faced that tactic in Maine, too, and we were as ready as we could be for it, with four fresh older guys set to take the court.  I was one of them.  Noah and Zack cruised in their singles matches, but all the doubles would be contested: Alex and I were on one, Dan and Neal on two, and Todd and Ro on three.  Pride prevents me from calling that a stack, but a more objective observer would be forgiven if he saw a hint of one.  On my court we faced Steven, a big-hitting lefty whose serve easily hit triple digits, and Chris, who hit with much less pace but used his size to good effect on high balls at the net (and if anyone’s game is suited to producing high balls to the net man, it’s a lefty who serves well over 100 mph in 4.0 tennis). Steven hit his groundstrokes hard and flat, but I was reading his returns well and making a very high percentage of first volleys, so although they held more easily, we were still in the match.  We even broke him once, when was trying to serve out the first set at 5-4, and later we broke Chris, too, and won the set 7-5.  In the second set things continued to go our way until I lost serve at 4-2.  Steven held in the blink of an eye, and then Alex hit some low-percentage shots and was broken.  The Ludlow duo served out the set from there, and the match went to the supertiebreaker.  We had some success early on, but I wasn’t volleying at quite the same level as before, and Alex missed a few makeable shots too.  Steven’s serve had a lost a few miles per hour by then, but not quite enough for us to capitalize on, and they ended up winning 10-7.  It didn’t matter, though: Todd and Ro controlled play against a very strong three team, while Dan and Neal were able to grind out a victory over the well-traveled Doug Hastings and his partner. Hastings’s matches are always full of emotional displays and this was no exception, but most of the yelling was done in a positive manner- guys pumping themselves and their partners up- so although on the temperature on that court may have been even higher than on the rest of them, there was no real conflict.   We took a picture under an improvised USTA banner, and for once I didn’t have to fake a smile when the cameras rolled.  We were going to Sectionals, and while I knew I hadn’t exactly been the chief architect of our success, it still felt pretty damn good.

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Algonquin 4.0 District Champs! (L-R Ro, Dan, Neal, Adam, Gary, Dave, Alex and Todd)

Two weeks later I was back at the Holiday Inn Express.  I was back at the Enfield Tennis Club, too, as rain at the scheduled site (The Williston-Northampton School) forced the first day of Sectionals to be played indoors.  That didn’t seem to bode well for us because we were pitted against the overwhelming favorites from Lakeville, MA, a team largely composed of recently-graduated Stonehill College players, and an indoor match would only accentuate our opponents’ youth and power.  The Lakeville tornado had ripped through Eastern Mass regular-season and District play, leaving many angry opposing teams in its wake.  Lakeville’s dominance was so extreme that several of their players were thought to have tanked just enough games in their District matches to avoid disqualification strikes from the USTA, before raising their level again at the end to win.  A group protest was filed by the captains of several of the opposing teams, but seemingly to little avail: the District results were allowed to stand, though one Lakeville singles player was barred from further 4.0 competition.   That small detail may not have helped the other Eastern Mass teams one iota, but it ended up helping us an awful lot. 

Alex and I were back at number one for this match, and we faced one of the players most frequently accused of tanking, a tall, slender late-20s banger named Devin, who according to Google was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at a small Division III school because of his tennis prowess (he now coaches the team there).  Devin was a happy-go-lucky guy who hit most balls as hard as he could- which in point of fact was very, very hard- and didn’t seem too worried when he occasionally sprayed one.  I could see why he had been accused of tanking, but you’re going to miss more shots when you play a high-risk style, and in our match, at least, I didn’t get the sense that his misses were deliberate.  His partner Larry was certainly giving 100 percent.  Although quite a bit older than Devin, Larry was still quick and athletic, and so intense that he got angry with Alex on a few occasions for not calling the score before serving.  Alex being Alex, he tried to tweak the guy after that, but Larry proved to be easier to annoy than he was to beat.  I’d say he was just as important to winning the match as Devin was, although having a huge-hitting partner likely set Larry up with opportunities he would have had more difficulty creating on his own.  We got it going a little bit in the second set, or perhaps they dropped off just enough to avoid a strike, but they were always the better team and came away with a well-deserved 6-2, 6-4 win. 

Rob and Neal also came up short against a team featuring an ex-Stonehill kid who was all over the place, but Noah and Zack came through with big wins against singles players far stronger than any they had previously faced.  Noah unleashed his full potential and dominated the number one player on a Division III team, while Zack rallied after losing the first set badly to a giant who had played collegiately someplace in Ohio not long before.  Put that guy in at third doubles and the banned player in his singles spot and they probably beat us 4-1.  But they didn’t have the giant at third doubles that day: they had two middle-aged men who really were 4.0s, and we had Ro, who may not be.  He and Todd dropped the first set but dominated the second.  Todd kept Ro smiling and loose throughout a supertiebreaker which was never close, and Al Michaels’s voice echoed in all of our heads: “Do you believe in miracles? Yesssssss!” The Lakeville Invincibles were invincible no longer.

Late the next afternoon we were back inside at Enfield, this time against a Rally Point team which had narrowly lost to Maine on day one.  We were ecstatic after beating the pre-tournament favorites but knew we couldn’t take any Rhode Island team lightly, and from my position in the upstairs gallery I watched another close match unfold.  It was close because Ocean Staters Phil and Craig did to Dan Horan and Kiran what they had done to Dan Watson and me, while Zack Gould lost for the first time all season, to Rhode Island high school state champion Matt Dubois.  But Noah won the last eight games of his match after a tight first set, and Watson/Starace and Roberts/Yerram took their matches in straight sets, though both needed to win a tiebreaker to do so.  Though it lacked the drama of the Lakeville match, the team victory was every bit as important, sending us as it did into a winner-take-all showdown against Maine on Sunday.

With so much other information packed into this post, I’ll skip over the enjoyable Saturday night banquet held at a country club on the outskirts of Springfield and get right to Sunday morning.  The rain cleared at last and we were outside at Williston-Northampton, matched against a team that had had our number in recent years.  To be fair, it wasn’t quite the same group of guys, since Gabe Gordon’s Marginal Vortex team had been forced to break up for a year after having reached Nationals in 2017.  This team was nominally based out of a club in the Portland suburbs rather than the traditional powerhouse Portland Racket/Fitness (I say nominally because all league matches are played at Racket/Fitness), but it was still Maine, and that was enough for us.  I should say that I like some of the Maine guys very, very much individually: there are some great people and terrific players that I have gone up against for years and enjoy seeing at every major competition.  But I don’t like the system they come out of.  I don’t like people scouring a state five times the size of my own for talent and concentrating the best of what they find on a single powerhouse team. I don’t like their scheduling, which always seems to be tilted ever so slightly in favor of the local team, much like what we faced in Ludlow.  I don’t like how Maine players, even those with exceptionally gaudy records, almost never get bumped.  And I don’t like how those players sometimes appear to tank meaningless matches once they’ve been eliminated from a competition in order to keep their ratings down.  In the end, though, it made no difference what I did or didn’t like, for I was on the bench: we sent out Sullivan and Gould in singles and Mezibov/Eric Morrow, Watson/Starace and Roberts/Yerram in doubles.  The lineup itself caused some drama when Todd bumped Rick DePasquale, a hero of our earlier win against Vermont, out of a promised Sunday playing slot in favor of Starace after we won our first two matches.  Rick didn’t take it well- as a competitive person myself I don’t blame him for that- and we aren’t likely to have him as a teammate very often in the future, but Dan and Rob were our best team, and with a berth at Nationals on the line it only made sense to play them together, whatever the consequences.

As it turned out, Rick and Dan might have won, but Dan and Rob did win, beating two unorthodox but dangerous players by a break in each set.  Noah won, too, against an opponent who had competed with guts and heart in his earlier matches but here shamefully tanked in an attempt to give Noah a rating strike, missing balls so often and so deliberately that Noah finally began to do the same thing.  It was undoubtedly the lowest-level number one singles match in 4.0 Sectionals history.  The third point wouldn’t be anywhere near as easy.  We lost the other two doubles, both in well-contested straight-sets matches to teams that on that day were a fraction better.  It all came down to Zack Gould against a guy I’ll just call The Jerk, though that is a far kinder sobriquet than he deserves.   The Jerk was a man-mountain who must have weighed close to 300 lbs.   He didn’t look much like a tennis player, but he hit any ball he could set up cleanly for with 5.0-level strokes.  He tried to hit some of the others with equal power, and that didn’t work out so well, but The Jerk’s playing strategy wasn’t really about movement or technique anyway.  It was about bullying, intimidation and getting inside the other player’s head, and at that he was an undisputed master.  He regularly threw his racquet and swore loudly after his own missed shots.  Far worse, he also made fun of Zack, needling him on the changeovers and in between points.  As the match progressed, The Jerk also regularly told the people cheering positively for Zack- who to that point had yelled nothing whatsoever about him- what he thought of them in the most explicit terms this side of a Ron Jeremy movie.  Before long, some of those people started to tell him very similar things right back ( I wasn’t one of them, but I’m still obviously recounting a heavily sanitized version of the actual events surrounding this match).  It got to the point where Alex and Eric on the adjacent court started swearing at The Jerk because he was constantly interrupting their points with his outbursts.  Even some of the other Maine players admitted afterward that they were embarrassed to have the guy as a teammate.

  Now let’s get one thing straight: I’m no shrinking violet on the court.  I estimate over 95 percent of my official matches conclude without any negative incidents, but over 30-plus years of competitive play that leaves plenty of exceptions.  I’m not proud of it, but in those exceptions I’ve exchanged all manner of insults, had matches that nearly came to blows, refused to shake hands with some opponents and been given the same treatment by others, broken more racquets than I can count on both hands.   Factor in conflict-ridden matches I’ve coached in, watched as a spectator or borne witness to while playing on a nearby court and I thought I’d seen it all.  I was wrong.  I’d never seen a display of bad sportsmanship anywhere close to what this jackass put on.   The volume and content of what he was saying seemed almost impossible to miss, but apparently the roving official didn’t hear him, because that good woman was nowhere to be found.  That’s right: while a boor whose actions would have made John McEnroe uncomfortable was getting away with murder, she was keeping the 3.0 women’s matches on the other bank of courts free of any foot faults. 

I probably should have just kept my mouth shut, but sometimes I can’t help myself.  It was late in the match and after getting crushed in the opening set, The Jerk had finally begun to get into Zack’s head.  Mixing nonstop trash-talk, bad line calls, gamesmanship and language that would make even our current President blush with some big serves and well-timed forehand winners, he was on the verge of taking the second set to a tiebreaker.  Zack somehow refrained from engaging with The Jerk, but he had gotten flustered and his level of play was dropping.  That’s when, seeing Todd some distance away and heading toward the other bank of courts to check on a match that was still ongoing there, I yelled “Hey Todd, get the judge!”  Loudly.  Not as diplomatic as I should have been, for sure, but the match was completely out of control at that point.  Wait a few more minutes and it might have taken a squad car to sort things out. The Jerk heard me, of course.  “Yeah, get the fucking judge, I don’t give a shit”, he screamed.  She may or may not have heard him, but the fucking judge duly appeared a couple of minutes later in the middle of the tiebreaker.   

Things had gotten so chaotic by then that it took her a few minutes to sort out all that she had somehow not heard before.  She ended up retroactively giving The Jerk a point penalty and Eric Morrow on the next court a warning for an explicit recounting of The Jerk’s behavior.   When the match finally resumed under the judge’s watchful gaze, The Jerk stopped going nuts.  He stopped winning, too.  It wasn’t rocket science: when they were able to just play tennis, the better tennis player had the advantage, and Zack dominated the last few points.  It had been a battle- almost a literal one, at that- but in the end we had achieved our dream.   We were going to Nationals!  To punch our ticket by finally breaking the Portland jinx made it all the sweeter, but it was plenty sweet regardless, and we celebrated accordingly.   The rest of the day passed in a blur as we went from Williston-Northampton to the main tournament site at Mount Holyoke College for pictures, high fives, hugs and USTA-New England champion glasses.  I loved the chemistry on our team and was thrilled to be a part of it, even though I hadn’t contributed as much on the court as I would have liked.  Given the injuries I’ve dealt with over the past few years, the sad reality is that I’m clearly much closer to the end of my competitive career than I am to the beginning.  It won’t be much of a surprise if October’s trip to Arlington, Texas represents my last experience at a USTA national tournament.  But many avid players don’t get to make a trip like that even once, so there’s no doubt I’ve been blessed to be three times lucky. 

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Algonquin 4.0 New England Champs! (L-R Ro, Alex, Noah, Kiran, Gary, Dan, Dave, Eric, Rob, Todd and Zack)