Loon Mountain: Off the Schneid!

In the early- and mid-1990s, before USTA team tennis became popular in this area, a much younger version of yours truly cut his teeth on competitive play in tournaments stretching to the farthest reaches of New England.   For a kid with a decidedly mediocre junior track record, and a considerably less-than-mediocre college track record, it was the perfect way to gain much-needed experience and become a tougher and more successful competitor.  Some years I played as many as 15-20 events, and even two decades on, the most frequent stops still emerge clearly from the mists of memory.  In my New Hampshire hometown, there was the Concord Men’s “B” Tournament, where as an 18-year-old in 1987 I lost my first official adult match to a man wielding a wooden racquet who asked if I wanted to volley for serve.  After a few years and many similarly humbling moments, occasionally sprinkled with a modicum of success, I moved farther afield, to places like the Franklin Open.  There, in a town full of boarded-up storefronts, a big-dreaming enthusiast named David Hannigan improbably made a tennis desert bloom to the tune of 40-player draws and a giant trophy modeled on the Wimbledon championship plate.   There was also a fitness club called The Works, in Somersworth, where the tournament director broke out a keg for the participants at noon on the first day.  As the lightest of drinkers, I knew that if I could survive the early-morning matches I was in good shape, although in later rounds I still had to withstand the rowdy cheering of the lubed-up locals rooting on their club favorites against the interloper from Concord.  My most-frequently-played indoor venue, Blue Hills in Braintree, MA, posed its own set of challenges: a lightning-fast and diabolically slick surface far more difficult to play on than that of Hampshire Hills, and a roof so leaky that the pace of tournaments typically slowed to a crawl whenever it rained or snowed, because several courts had thereby been rendered unplayable.

A decade or so ago, I began to de-emphasize tournaments in favor of USTA and North Shore League team play.  Those formats offered one-off matches played within a set block of time, which appealed to my aging body, and the chance to be part of a team again, which appealed to my still-youthful competitive spirit.  Most of my favorite tourneys, meanwhile, sadly disappeared with the passage of time.  Franklin lost its Wimbledon-of-the-Woods enthusiasm, and just a handful of locals now play for a scaled-down trophy there.  The Works replaced a couple of their Har-Tru courts with a giant water slide and stopped holding tournaments altogether, perhaps as an ironic salute to old friend Andrew Haynes, who once angrily smashed a ball into their swimming pool from long range, scattering the assembled sun worshippers.   The folks running Blue Hills, meanwhile, realized they could stop paying to fix the roof if they simply shuttered the club.  The Concord B’s still take place every June, but until very recently the tournament prohibited its champions- I somehow managed to become one in 1992- from playing the event in subsequent years.  The end result was that while I still play a handful of tournaments each year, mostly during the summer and early fall, I don’t place the same level of importance on them that I once did.  As for my level of success, let’s just say that I couldn’t remember the last time I won a men’s tournament if my life depended on it.  Couldn’t remember, that is, until mid-September, 2016, when my Steve Carell-like dry spell came to a dramatic end on the courts of Loon Mountain, NH.

The Lin-Wood Ambulance Tournament at Loon Mountain is one of the hidden jewels of New England tennis.  Under the watchful eye of tournament director Mike O’Connor, adult participants compete in a multiplicity of divisions, many of them age-based, on six clay and four hard courts.   While on many of those courts the White Mountains serve as a dramatic backdrop, natural beauty is only one of the tournament’s charms: you also get excellent tennis in an atmosphere that’s much friendlier than USTA play.   I’m surprised Loon isn’t a destination for every serious player in the Granite State, though I suppose two things may hold it back.  One is the tournament’s “Open” designation, but be advised that in New Hampshire, “Open” doesn’t always mean “Open”.   You never know who will enter the draw in any given year, but 4.5 players and even strong 4.0s can generally be very competitive at Loon.  The other drawback is the $100 entry fee (players are limited to two events but are charged the full rate even if they only compete in one).  I’ll admit I thought that was a little excessive the first time I played, in 2014.  But even if the entry fee didn’t help fund a great cause- the local ambulance service- it might in fact be a bargain: in return you get a tee-shirt, free barbecue lunches both Saturday and Sunday, a free breakfast on Sunday, and a free Saturday night banquet at a local restaurant where many prizes are raffled off to the participants at no additional cost.

I came to Loon this September as defending champion in the century mixed division, but unfortunately my usual partner Lynn Miller had an important sectional age-group tournament that weekend and was unable to make the trip north.  So I went a different route and asked my friend Alex Mezibov, a strong 4.0 out of Concord, to team up for the men’s open doubles.  Alex and I don’t play together all that much, but we had teamed up at Colby-Sawyer in the summer of 2015 with some success.  Alex has the virtue of being able to raise his game against better competition, which made him a desirable partner in an event where we projected to be one of the weaker teams.  But we ended up catching a break when Mark Blaisdell and Andy Day, who typically dominate the Loon event, stayed home, and another one when Bode Miller did the same (yes, THAT Bode Miller: the Franconia native has won several singles and doubles titles in the fall at Loon before heading off to the world’s snowiest places for his winter gig).

There were five teams in the men’s doubles draw, and the remarkably well-balanced field had no clear-cut favorite.  On Saturday morning Alex and I were to play each of the other four pairs in an eight-game, no-ad pro set.  The two teams with the best record in round-robin play would face off again the next day in a two-out-of-three set match for the championship.  Because neither of us is in tip-top shape, we knew getting off to a good start would be important: the last thing we wanted was to have to play a meaningless match or two under the noonday sun after we had already been eliminated from contention.  Our first opponents did not immediately cooperate with our vision, however, as Charles Shipman (an entry-level 4.5 with an extremely consistent lefty topspin game) and Keith Eichmann (a very solid 4.0 with a big serve and a willingness to dive on the hard courts to track balls down), both from the YMCA, quickly jumped out to a 4-1 lead.  The lone break had come against my serve, as I clumsily flubbed a couple of those low volleys which are normally my specialty.   Just as we were on the verge of getting blown out, though, Alex and I started to find the range.   After winning a deuce game on his serve, he steadied down his powerful forehand and closed tight to the net for some effective angled volleys, while I started to return and volley with more consistency and better footwork.  In a match where he otherwise played well, Keith did help us with a couple of double faults and missed overheads which enabled us to get back on serve.  From there it was anybody’s match.  Almost every point was hard-fought, and the outcome stayed in doubt until the end, but we managed to eke out another break and then Alex held serve to clinch an 8-6 win.

We rode the momentum from that comeback into our next match, where we quickly built a 4-1 lead against two players from the North Country who appeared to be in our approximate age bracket.  But nothing would come easy on this day, and our opponents, Hayden and Kevin, then blitzed us with a series of powerful serves and swing-from-the-hip groundstrokes to win four straight games.  Hayden’s strokes were a little more polished, but Kevin was a terrific athlete with tremendous natural power which made him equally dangerous.  They didn’t display much in the way of teamwork or doubles strategy, but the pure speed of shot they came at us with made it almost impossible to construct points with a series of shots the way we had in our opening match.  Their playing styles were feast-or-famine and so points were usually decided by whichever side of that fine line their shots ended up on, rather than anything we did.  I got a few of Kevin’s huge serves back by shortening my backswing and focusing on weight transfer, Alex served another strong final game, and we ended up drawing just enough errors to come out on top in another 8-6 nailbiter.

At 2-0 we now had a decent chance of making it out of the group stage, but to secure our passage we still needed to win at least one of our two remaining matches- possibly both, depending on other results- and that was no sure thing.   We next had to face the defending champions, Dana Lavoie and John Smith from the YMCA, and then a couple of twentysomething locals who had beaten Dana and John in an early-morning match.   I had come out on the short end of many matches against Dana over the years both before and after he was bumped to 4.5, and knew the dangers of his big forehand and inside-out serve all too well.  Smith, like me, seemed to be on a yo-yo between 4.0 and 4.5: I had had greater success against him because he’s more of a finesse player, but I certainly didn’t take him lightly.  When we meet, whoever plays better on that day most often comes out on top, and I was just hoping it would be me this time.   That certainly looked to be the case early on, as we took the play right to them and jumped out to an early lead, which we gradually built into a 7-3 cushion.  Alex was in his element against two guys with nice strokes, while Dana couldn’t quite crush my moderately-improved serve for winners the way he had in the past.  But to their credit, even though it didn’t seem like their day, our opponents continued to compete and good things began to happen for them.  Alex and I reached deuce in each of the next four games only to lose all of them on the sudden-victory point.  I short-armed a return on one of those deuce points and Alex tried to force the action by going for low-percentage winners on a couple of the others, but Dana and John stepped up their games, too.  Dana stopped missing almost completely and John had success volleying down the line because I was overplaying the middle.  Before too long what seemed like a comfortable win was now a 7-7 tie and our mental outlook was starting to darken considerably: we had led several of the lost games before reaching deuce and thus had already failed to capitalize on eight or nine match points.   When you miss that many opportunities, it’s only natural to start thinking about it a little bit, and that inevitably makes things even worse.  We had to collect ourselves in a hurry, because the format being used at Loon called for a tiebreaker at 7-all instead of the usual 8-all.  Alex and I showed a lot of mental toughness, though, in putting negative thoughts aside and sweeping the first six points of the tiebreaker.  Things felt smooth again and our opponents were the ones making the mistakes.  All we needed was one more point!  But Dana and John refused to fold, cutting down their errors once more, making some great gets and taking the next four points.  But they had dug a little bit too much of a hole this time and Alex and I finally got the point we needed for a 7-4 victory, breathing a huge sigh of relief in the process.

It was now getting close to noon and although we had already clinched a spot in the finals, we had one more round-robin match to go.  It was starting to get hot and neither of us relished the prospect of playing a couple of young kids, but that was our task nonetheless.  Our opponents were Bill, a ponytailed local with a deceptively tough serve, a strong forehand and excellent quickness, and Evan, a superb athlete who played with great hustle and tenacity but whose strokes and personality were less polished.  Evan had, in an earlier match against Lavoie and Smith, caused a delay of several minutes after Bill had overruled his out call (convinced his call had been the right one, and unaware that in such a situation the rules call for giving up the point, Evan had argued has case long and loudly, but ultimately to no avail, against the other three men on court with him).   Our match against him, however, contained very little negativity: it was more a case of two tired teams eager to get off the court.  While nobody played with much spark, Alex and I had more variety in our games and converted a high percentage of points at the net en route to a reasonably comfortable 8-4 win.

We would have been perfectly happy if that had been the end of our tennis day: after all, by that point we had been on court for about five hours straight.  But we still had mixed doubles to play, for Alex had teamed up with Judy, a lady on his 8.0 mixed team, in the century division, while also finding a partner for me in Judy’s friend Deb.  Deb was an older woman with a solid forehand and some savvy in her game, but she could also miss balls from anywhere on the court when she got on a bad streak, and on this day the bad streaks came with disturbing frequency at a time when I was simply too tired to help her much with well-timed poaches.  She and I had to play two ten-game pro sets on clay courts: when both had concluded, I was exhausted and my serve had been reduced to even more of a lollipop than usual, but we had somehow managed to win two matches of surpassing ugliness to advance out of our preliminary group.  Alex and Judy also won their group, meaning that we both might have to play as many as two mixed matches on Sunday in addition to the men’s final.  Since Alex and I both had pets at home that needed attention, we skipped the dinner and drove straight back (an hour’s ride for him, twice that for me).  After a lot of icing, a little sleeping and an early wake-up alarm, I was on the road the next day in far iffier weather conditions.  As we drove north of Concord, Alex’s phone began to get alerts that a heavy rainstorm was on the verge of intersecting our path, and no sooner did we arrive at the Loon tennis complex than the skies opened.  Since Noah’s Ark was nowhere to be found, we spent the next three hours hunkered down with competitors from many of the other divisions in a small building adjacent to the courts.  Despite the presence of an ESPN-connected television set, the time still passed slowly, but eventually the skies cleared as suddenly as they had emptied, and after a half hour or so spent drying the courts, it was finally showtime!

Alex and I hadn’t known the identity of our finals opponents, but we expected them to be Dana and John, and we knew we wouldn’t get anything close to thirteen match points this time around.  So if we were fortunate enough to get another lead we would have to close out the match much more efficiently.   That would not be necessary, though, because some unexpected results late in Saturday’s round robin play left Bill and Evan tied for second place with Dana and John.  And because Bill and Evan had won the head-to-head matchup, they got their ticket stamped to the finals.   To be perfectly honest, Alex and I looked at that as a major stroke of luck.   Dana and John were the stronger team, but they had fallen victim to that long argument and a few other controversial calls, as well as the dynamic retrieving game of the North Country duo, and lost an 8-6 squeaker which ultimately cost them dearly.  Still, we knew that we underestimated Bill and Evan at our own risk: not only were we giving up twenty-plus years to each of them, but since our meeting the previous day we had also played two long mixed matches and driven, in my case, an additional four hours.  Because our opponents lived nearby and had gone home during the rain delay, Alex and I got to have a long warm-up, and although I was a little stiff I could tell that I had enough gas left in the tank to play a good match.  The extra time also helped me work on my service motion, and I came away confident in my placements and my ability to generate a decent kick, both of which would be important against opponents who were most comfortable at the baseline.

The match couldn’t have begun better for us.  Bill and Evan started off somewhat nervously, perhaps because of the occasion, and we quickly got a break and then broke again at the end of a 6-3 opening-set win.   Alex’s serve and big forehand were tough for them to handle, and they weren’t doing much with my spin serve either.   My returns weren’t as sharp as they had been the day before, but I anticipated exceptionally well at the net, on several occasions covering gaps that Alex had left open and hitting winning volleys.

Although there was no further rain, the day remained extremely windy, and when Alex and I had the wind behind us we got to the net and smashed numerous overhead winners beyond the boundaries of the court.  When we were against the wind, however, our opponents could track more balls down and prolong the points, a scenario which didn’t often end well for us.  In the second set Bill and Evan settled into the match, cut down their errors and began to frustrate us by winning most of those long points.  Evan also became much more emotional after Alex hit him from close range with one of his patented Agassi-type swinging volleys.  Now I’ve seen Alex wind up that swinging volley numerous times, and I usually welcome it when I’m on the other side of the net because most of the time he has no clue where it’s going.   He’s just as likely- in truth, much more likely- to put it into the back fence as he is to hit it into his opponent’s midsection, but Evan isn’t necessarily the kind of person who sees the logic in that type of reasoning.  So he gave Alex some angry trash talk and then, to our dismay, he began to get much more active at the net.   Thus inspired, our opponents got an early break and led for much of the second set before we drew even.   At 5-5, though, I succeeding in calming my nerves and held serve, and then we capitalized on a couple of mistakes to close out the match in the game that followed.  I’d like to say I hit a screaming winner on match point, but I do a lot more screaming than winner-striking at the best of times, so I guess it’s appropriate that we won when a 30-mph second serve hit with the wind behind it carried long.   But while the last point might have been anticlimactic, we certainly earned our title, going 5-0 against a tough field.  Sure, we caught some breaks: if that tournament was played five times with the same field, each team might well win it once.   In future years, though, the names Mezibov and Page will be on the list of champions, right next to Bode Miller and Andy Day.  There won’t be an asterisk.

Any time you beat good players, your confidence grows, and I had beaten a lot of good players at Loon Mountain.  But whether there would be any lingering positive effects to carry with me into the upcoming 40-plus season was, at that point, an open question.  It wasn’t the time or the place to speculate about such things anyway.  You often hear extremely competitive people- and for better or worse I consider myself to be one of them- say that losing hurts more than winning feels good, but here’s a secret I’ve learned: once in a great while winning feels just as good as losing feels bad.   Maybe better.  Loon Mountain was one of those times for me, and I’m grateful for it.  The feeling was priceless, but it wasn’t bad to go home with two bottles of champagne either (injuries caused some of the remaining century mixed teams to retire, so Mike O’Connor let us play the mixed final later that week in Concord; Deb and I went on to beat Judy and Alex in a supertiebreaker).  With all those positive vibes going, I was on a roll as I pulled my trusty CR-V into the parking lot of my building at last: music playing, excited, and a “good tired”.  So excited, and so tired, in fact, that I didn’t zip my tennis bag quite all the way up- and when I stepped out of my car, out slid one of the champagne bottles, to splatter in a thousand pieces on the pavement.  That bit of clumsiness may have been frustrating, but it was strangely comforting, too: if it hadn’t happened, I might well have thought the whole weekend had been just a pleasant dream.

 

40-plus Districts: Outwitted, Outplayed, Outlasted

Sometimes you enter a USTA postseason weekend knowing your team has a good shot at advancing to the next level of the competition.  You’ll still need some luck, of course, in avoiding major injuries and getting an important supertiebreaker or two to go your way, but you’re confident you’ll be in the hunt.  That’s not always the case, however. There are times when you know in advance that you’re outgunned and sense your team will need a patch of truly inspired play and large helpings of luck just to remain competitive.   Such a time came for my 40-and-over team on the second weekend of August.   And despite stretches of inspired play, and even a little bit of luck, the outcome ended up being just what we had feared: a premature conclusion to a season that had begun with such promise eleven months before. 

Don’t worry: I won’t write 4,000 words about the 40-plus districts the way I did for the 18-plus competition.  In fact, were I so inclined, I could tell the essence of our story in only seven: We just didn’t have the horses. 

Our biggest problem was a lack of available singles players.  Most guys in our age bracket would much rather play doubles than singles, so we weren’t drawing from a particularly deep pool to begin with.  Then came the disquieting news that Eric Morrow had another commitment that would keep him from playing at districts, and that Adam Lesser still hadn’t recovered from the torn labrum (in his hip; who knew?) that he had sustained in early summer.  Adam Hirshan was playing quite a bit of singles in the Lakes Region, but he still had much more confidence in his doubles game.  Neal Burns had slightly reinjured his knee in Portland at 18-plus districts, and the fear was that if he tried to play singles, he might put himself out of action for the rest of the weekend, and perhaps far longer.    That left us with two enthusiastic singles players, Jack Chen and Dave Caza.   Jack, however, would be in way over his head at districts, as despite an inspired work ethic (he spent countless summer hours practicing at Algonquin, often by himself), he remained a 4.0 player in name only.  Dave was another story.  He had torn a healthy Lesser apart in an 18s match over the winter (our club’s newly-promoted and developing 4.0s had formed their own team, on which Dave- who was neither- featured prominently), and should have been our best singles player even with all hands on deck.  Caz’s problem was that while he played great in recreational matches at Algonquin against people he was comfortable with- he often gave the club’s lower 4.5 players a run for their money- he hadn’t enjoyed the same level of success in other settings.   One problem is that his USTA opponents rarely reciprocate his line-calling generosity.  Another is that despite the SEAL stories, Dave’s as gentle a person as there is, and he doesn’t seem to enjoy matches with a lot of stress and conflict.  It seemed likely that there would be some stress and conflict here, though, as two of the four other teams in our group were from Eastern Mass: Westborough and Newburyport, along with perennial Southern Connecticut powerhouse Westport Pequods and Burlington, VT.  Unlike 18-plus districts, the 40-plus competition was held entirely in the Boston area, with the competing teams divided into three five-team flights (the geographical groupings used in the 18-plus playoffs had been eliminated, so in theory all four teams advancing to sectionals could have been from Eastern Mass: in fact, two EMA squads ended up qualifying and a third narrowly missed out on the wild-card berth awarded to the second-place team winning the most individual courts). 

We came to the Woburn Racquet Club on Saturday morning more confident in our doubles than in our singles, even in the absence of the vacationing Bruce Leibig, one of our top doubles players.  But we still knew a lot would have to go right to get a result in our opening match against a Westborough team that had come in first in its EMA flight during the regular season.  Since Westborough possessed a singles player with a gaudy record named Min Zhang, John Duckless elected to put Jack Chen at number one, hoping he’d at least draw off the opposition’s best player.  When the matches were called, we saw that both Westborough singles players were Caucasian, but that still didn’t help Jack much.  His opponent didn’t seem like anything special, but the guy quickly caught on to Jack’s unorthodox shotmaking and low-percentage run-ins and dispatched him 6-2, 6-0.  With Dave in the two spot, we thought we had a decent chance at splitting the singles, but that didn’t happen.  He got blitzed in the first set, and though he made the second closer he could never quite catch up.  Caz normally lobs with pinpoint accuracy, but on the faster Woburn surface he took a while to find his range (it didn’t help that his opponent had a strong serve and a solid volley, so he always had Dave under pressure).  By the time our doubles went on, it was clear that we would need a sweep, but with pairings of Todd/Neal and Adam/Mark Parquette in the top two spots and John Duckless and I teaming up at three, anything was possible.  John had been practicing well: he and I came within a whisker of beating Todd and Neal a few days before the districts.  He has a solid serve, closes the net very well and competes hard.  His backhand isn’t great, but on the deuce side in doubles he wouldn’t have to hit many of them (I was planning to cover most of the middle balls when we were both back).  We were assigned to the most distant court, where we faced off against two guys named Mark and Hal.  Mark was solidly built and might have been in his mid-50s; Hal was taller and at least a few years older, though he still looked fit.  He also was left-handed, which didn’t bode well for my ad-court returns.   In the warm-up Hal appeared to be a “hands” guy who was crafty and solid at the net, while Mark hit his groundstrokes hard and accurately from both sides, with a two-handed backhand.   The match started and we got a quick break, but I gave it right back, double-faulting twice en route to losing my opening service game.  (Leading up to the tournament, I was surprised by how well I had been hitting my second serve, and I kept thinking about it, to the point where I must have jinxed myself.  This just goes to show: you shouldn’t think too much in tennis!!!) Luckily John carried us through the first few games; eventually I started helping him and we were able to take control of the set.  Mark hadn’t missed a ball in the warmup, but his returns and passing shots became much less accurate once he had to hit them against volleyers, and he didn’t seem comfortable at the net himself.  Hal had a nice lob, but I’m hard to lob over and John was hitting his overhead well.  We felt like we were just hitting our stride, so we focused on staying strong in the early games of the second set.  We continued to execute well to build a comfortable lead, and after that they didn’t have the firepower to really threaten us, although there were a number of long and well-played points.  The 6-4, 6-1 win gave John and me hope, at least until we came up to Woburn’s elevated viewing area to report our scores (having been seven courts down, we hadn’t seen either of the other doubles finish).  To our dismay we found that Todd and Neal had dropped a straight-sets decision to a tough team, although they had made the second close.  Mark and Adam had also lost, in a supertiebreaker, meaning that we only had one court win against Westborough.  So after just one match our hopes of winning our flight were dim and even the wild-card berth seemed to be slipping out of reach. 

It wasn’t a happy Algonquin group that convened for lunch at an Applebee’s a short drive from the Woburn club, although an aspiring singer on the restaurant’s wait staff did his best to raise our spirits. We knew we absolutely had to win our late-afternoon match against Westport, CT, a team that had beaten a stronger Algonquin entry at sectionals three years earlier.  The Westport captain, Doug Presley, has a photographic memory and mixes up his lineup well, so we couldn’t match up to try to win at particular spots.  We just needed to win three courts, by any means necessary.  Adam played first singles and Dave second; we hoped for a split, as Westport had a ringer who was known for managing his scores and was likely to beat whichever of our guys he faced.  It turned out Presley put the ringer at 2, so poor Dave had his work cut out for him.  After running away with the first set, the guy gave Dave a 5-1 lead in the second, then won the next six games as if Dave wasn’t even there.   I later asked Dave if he felt his opponent had been trying during that 5-1 stretch.  “Well, I don’t think the gentleman wanted me to break him in that 1-4 game….”, opined Caz, ever the diplomat, but his omission of any mention of the rest of the set spoke volumes in its own right.  At first singles Westport replaced its normal #2 player with a hard-hitting but erratic lefty named Rissollo, and Adam looked to be in cruise control there with his chip-and-charge style (after winning the first set, he ended up blowing a big lead in the second but came back to win the supertiebreaker comfortably).  So we knew we had to win two of the three doubles.  With teams of Todd/Neal at 1, Gary Roberts and I at 2 and Duckless/Parquette at 3, that was certainly a possibility, but John and Mark weren’t going to be favored – and would end up losing in straights, though they played a very close first set-  so the pressure was on to win at the top of the lineup.  Todd and Neal drew none other than Alan Kravetz, my old Willows A-1 partner, and big, heavy-hitting Doug Williams.  Of all the places Alan had to move to…!  Anyway, I gave Todd and Neal what intel I could on him, which amounted to “imagine a guy who does everything well that I do well, and everything badly that I do badly”, and wished them the best.  I had my own tough opponents, Tim Trask and Jeff Seymour, to worry about.  Tim Trask is a big man with a goatee who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Ray Liotta.  He has a huge serve, which he leavens, though not quite often enough, with an occasional double fault, plus a powerful forehand and a huge overhead.  I had played one of my best matches in years at the 2013 sectionals against him and still lost.  Jeff Seymour doesn’t have a huge serve but he hits every groundstroke, and most of his volleys, at something close to the speed of light (a number of them harder than even Robbie Drouin’s best efforts, though with less spin).  He missed a lot less often than Robbie, too.  Gary and I were playing well, though, and the match was on the first court on the opposite, three-court side, with a number of spectators- a number that would grow as the match progressed- following closely.  So it became the recreational equivalent of a US Open night match, with lots of intensity on display.  They served first and we were able to break Tim thanks to a few double faults.  We kept the lead until I was serving at 4-3, when I played a bad game and was broken.  They were hitting the cover off the ball, but my hands were sharp (Gary’s are always sharp) and I could probably count my missed volleys for the match in the single digits.  At one point Jeff hammered a forehand return of Gary’s ad-court serve down the line at about 200 mph.  If I hadn’t gotten my hands up it might have gone right through me, but I managed a reflex backhand volley at Trask’s feet that went unreturned.  That’s just one example from the many great points we had.  Anyway, from 4-4 the first set went with serve to the tiebreaker, where the Westport team hit some big serves and returns to take a comfortable win.  They were sharp and I just don’t have that kind of firepower in my own game to match them. 

Gary and I were playing some inspired tennis, though, and we weren’t going to go away.  I saw Todd and Neal watching from the viewing area, and they gave me a thumbs-down; with third doubles likely also having lost, we knew we were almost certainly playing for pride (Todd and Neal in fact lost one and one, as Alan apparently couldn’t miss- both of our guys called him better than Andy Day.  So much for my scouting report!)  But I didn’t work for all those months to get my game back following knee surgery just to give up because our cause seemed lost.  As it happened we broke serve early in the second set and maintained our lead into the later stages.  In what seemed like an unwanted carbon copy of the first set, though, I was broken in my second service game and Westport drew back on serve at 3-4.  During that game, though, an incident occurred that briefly set our opponents at odds with one another and perhaps enabled us to retake the momentum at a critical time.  Gary hit a down-the-line overhead from very deep in the deuce court which landed either on or just beyond the baseline in the farthest reaches of Trask’s alley (only Hawk-Eye would have known for sure!).  Trask was sure the ball was out but Seymour was equally convinced that it was good.  We didn’t have a great view and wouldn’t have complained either way, given the speed of Gary’s shot.  They had to give us the point because they had disagreed, which in itself wasn’t a big deal: I ended up losing serve anyway.  But the CT players, especially Trask, wouldn’t let it go, and kept arguing with one another between points of the next couple of games.  In that context we were able to break Seymour, and Gary then held to even the match at a set apiece and force a match tiebreaker. 

Our momentum didn’t last long once the supertiebreaker began.  Westport once again came through with a flurry of winners while I flubbed a forehand return into the bottom of the net on one of their few soft second serves.  They went up either 5-1 or 6-1, but we rallied with one final surge to get within 6-7, with me serving two.  I made a great first-volley pickup of a Seymour bullet return on the ensuing point, but Gary ended up missing a volley later in the exchange.  On the point after that I left a second serve a little too short in the middle of the box and Trask crushed a crosscourt forehand winner into my alley.  One big serve later, it was all over: 10-6 Connecticut.  I didn’t like the result, of course, but I wasn’t too upset, either, for that was the best match I had played in a long, long time.  The spectators liked it, too: I think every single person the four of us passed on our way to the scorer’s table, even those from teams without any direct interest, told us “Wow, great match!”, an event as rare as it is telling.

Having lost both of our Saturday matches by wide margins, we knew we were out of contention for the rest of the weekend.  It was late when the Westport match finally ended and most of the guys went straight home, but Adam, Gary and I had a leisurely dinner at Joe’s Bar and Grill and rehashed the season.  Gary, who had worked at that restaurant long ago, also spent years as a pro at the Woburn club, and regaled us with stories of his time there in the 90s.  With anecdotes like the one that began “I got more (women) at that place than anywhere else on earth”, no one really paid much attention to the background music, but if Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” had been playing, it would only have been fitting.

We came back the next day and spared ourselves the indignity of finishing last in our flight by beating Vermont, 3-2.  Worried that I’d be bumped at season’s end, Todd wanted us to play one last match together, just in case, and John obliged.  We beat a big, strong lefty named Mark and a somewhat eccentric and fastidious man named Gary in a strange match: the heat and humidity were pushing 100 degrees and the Vermont guys, who had already played an early-morning match, just wilted.  We trailed 3-6, 0-3 and fought off multiple break points to hold Todd’s serve in the fourth game, then pitched a shutout for the rest of the set and took the supertiebreaker comfortably as Todd upped his level of play and I made some great volleys.  Combined with a supertiebreaker win by Caza in singles and a blowout win by Gary and Neal, stacked down at third doubles, we could take a small quantum of solace in being able to say “We’re not last!”, but that was as far as it went.  We lost our afternoon match to Newburyport (I was gassed and my knee was hurting, so I lobbied less diplomatically than I should have to sit out, and the energizer bunny known as Dave Caza thankfully agreed to go in for me) and finished fourth out of five teams in our flight. Our two Saturday opponents, Westborough and Westport, both qualified for sectionals, with Westport taking the wild-card berth.  The sectional was won by Portland, ME (surprise, surprise), who beat Wellesley, MA, in a battle of undefeated teams on the final day.  I guess after nationals a few of their ringers may have to go back to sleeper cell duty for another three years.

The 18s sectional might have been won by Portland, too, but for a bizarre sequence of events involving old friend Bryan Playford.  Bryan had played, and won, for Winchester, MA, in a 3-2 team win against Rhode Island on Friday. On Saturday morning, though, his car was rear-ended and heavily damaged en route to his match (mercifully Bryan himself was unhurt, just extremely pissed off).   He missed that match and had no transportation the next day, either, so his team, which was playing with just eight available guys, was forced to default a court both Saturday and Sunday.  To maintain a level playing field, Winchester was then retroactively docked a point in Friday’s match, too, turning a 3-2 win into a 2-3 loss and allowing Rhode Island to go into its Sunday match against Portland “unbeaten”. RI won that one 3-2 as well to eliminate Portland and claim New England’s spot at nationals.  Matt Chamberlain, to the surprise of no one, went undefeated for the weekend.

The season didn’t end the way I’d hoped in either of my two main competitions, but after my knee issues I’m just thankful to be back on the court again and playing at a strong 4.0 level.   And while trips to sectionals and nationals provide wonderful memories, I suppose you savor those memories even more when you realize they’re the exception and not the rule.  Heck, it’s probably fair to say that most of us fall short of our dreams most of the time, both in tennis and in life- if we don’t, we’re not dreaming big enough. But it’s in accepting the challenge of chasing those dreams, no matter where they may lead, that we grow into better versions of ourselves.

I’ll start chasing mine again a few days from now when New Hampshire’s 2017 USTA 40-plus competition begins.

  

18-plus Districts: There Could Be Only One (and it wasn’t us…)!

You didn’t have to be Siskel and Ebert back in 1986 to realize that a new movie called “Highlander” had some serious flaws.   The characters were one-dimensional.  The special effects were awful, even by the primitive standards of the day.  As for the plot, any reasonably intelligent person could have watched the first ten minutes of the film and predicted most of what would follow.   The story line, such as it was, followed a group of near-immortals who could only be killed by one another as they battled for supremacy throughout history.   Their method of killing, though, was decapitation with really badass swords, so a number of memorable swordfights resulted (memorable to an impressionable and somewhat nerdy teenage boy, anyway).  Most memorable of all, though, was the line the combatants screamed during and after these contests: “There can be only one!”- meaning one survivor.  That line made an otherwise bad movie stick with me for 30 years and counting.  And it could be the motto for district play in USTA tennis, too: though things may be a lot less bloody, the concept isn’t all that different.  A handful of excellent teams- more than that in Eastern MA and in some women’s divisions- enter a closed space to do battle with a different sort of weapon, and only one can survive the weekend and advance to sectionals. 

In many ways, districts are even tougher than sectionals.  Teams have to play as many as two matches a day over the course of a three-day weekend (there’s only one match per day at sectionals, which is essentially New England’s Final Four).   There are few, if any, amenities available to the players, and matches often continue late into the night.  In past years I’ve played until after midnight and then had to go back on court early the next morning.   There’s more pressure, too.  If your team makes it to sectionals, your season has been a success even if you lay an egg in Springfield.  But that’s not the case with districts, because many of the competing teams, including my own, have been put together specifically to make deep post-season runs.  So while losing at this stage remains preferable to not qualifying at all, no one’s just happy to be there. 

When 18-and-over districts took place in Portland, ME, in early August, my Algonquin men’s 4.0 team definitely wasn’t just happy to be there.  We had two very strong singles players who had just graduated from high school and nine or ten other guys capable of winning against most 4.0 doubles teams.   And unlike in some recent years, everyone was available to play, with the exception of Rob Starace and Adam Lesser, who were injured, and Greg Coache, who was busy running a residential summer tennis camp.  Although our depth was a nice luxury to have, it also posed a couple of problems: we had lots of solid options but no clearly dominant combinations, and we would also have to sit a number of talented players in every match.  During practices in the days leading up to the competition, Todd Toler and Adam Hirshan developed a positive synergy, and I played well with Gary Roberts (I had also had success with Bruce Leibig during the season, and we got in a practice match together too).  The Horans seemed most comfortable with one another, and Neal Burns and Eric Morrow were also going to be in the mix.   As for who played when, and in what position, those were questions for Todd to deal with on a match by match basis. 

At districts we played in a round-robin format against all four of the other 4.0 teams:  two from Maine, one from Vermont, and one from NH.  The other Granite State representative turned out to be not Executive but Hampton, and we opened the competition against them on Friday night at the Foreside Racquet Club in Falmouth.  Although they had come in second to Executive in the other NH flight (injuries and commitments to other USTA teams forced Executive to withdraw from district play), we didn’t underestimate the Tennis Barn.  Their roster wasn’t as deep as Executive’s, and that cost them in their local league, in which teams were ranked by total court wins.  But we knew that they’d likely have most of their top eight players available for their postseason matches, and those players were very dangerous indeed.  Their singles 1-2 punch of Andy Montgomery and Mike Armstrong would strike fear into most New England teams, but we had our own singles studs in Justin Toler and Aaron Diamond.  Justin and Andy, who are both strong all-court players, went out first and put on a nationals-caliber singles match.  In the end Justin was a little stronger (I’m sure being 25 years younger didn’t hurt either) and he claimed a 6-4, 6-4 decision.  The number two match, by contrast, featured two players most comfortable at the baseline.  But while Armstrong’s awkward style flummoxes most 4.0s, Aaron had no trouble at all with him, dropping only three games- an impressive result, but one that would ultimately prove problematic.

We thought that if Hampton played their doubles teams in order of strength, we might well lose at number one but we would have a slight edge on the other two courts.  As it happened, we took all three in close matches.  Gary and I went to court one because we felt Gary played best against good players (he was also somewhat out of shape and got fatigued chasing lobs, which guys at the lower spots tend to hit more of).  Most 4.0 men that play first doubles have pretty good serves-our opponents, Rob Drouin and Ron Konopka, certainly fell into this category- so holding my serve became more of a concern, but I had been getting better depth and spin on my ball on practice, and I felt good about my volleys.  Here, though, I started poorly, dropping my first service game at deuce.  Drouin’s returns were pro-fast if not pro-accurate, and Konopka hit flatter but also quite hard, a bad combination on a court where the lighting wasn’t anything to write home about.  I was hitting my own returns with confidence, though, and Gary was a demon at the net with aggressive poaching and little touch volleys, and as a result we broke them three times in a row to take the set 6-3 (Gary was also broken, in the fifth game, but then served out the set with ease in the ninth).  We continued to play well as the second set unfolded.  I gained confidence in my serve, and we found that if we got two or three of Drouin’s shots back, he often overhit and made mistakes.  Konopka was more consistent, but he’s a heavier guy and as the points progressed we were able to open up the court a little bit, creating gaps and sometimes forcing him to hit off-balance.  We built a 5-2 lead and I had a chance to serve it out, but here our opponents made some great shots to go up 0-40.  I stayed calm and worked my way back to deuce but they ended up getting the break.  Then we twice had match points on Drouin’s serve but both times he aced me, once flat down the middle and once with a kick serve into the side curtain.   When he finally held for 5-4, I was getting nervous.  Gary rarely gets nervous about anything but he did look tired.   He dug deep, though, and after a couple of deuces he was able to hold serve for the win without much help from his net man.  Still, all told it was the best match I had played since my injury, and for both of us it was a great feeling to beat two of the top 4.0 players in New Hampshire.  Todd and Adam came through in straight sets against veterans George Allen and Roy Urdanoff, rallying from 1-5 in the second.  At third doubles, Neal and Bruce won a tough match against Dan Witham and David O’Connor which featured lots of lobbing and long points.  You can’t get a better start in any competition than a 5-0 win against a good team, so we went to bed in our various hotel rooms (mine was at the Quality Inn in South Portland) excited and confident for day 2. 

There was no time to rest on our laurels, though, because in our late-morning match on Saturday we faced a dangerous Eastern Maine team.  Despite having lost its tournament opener 5-0 to a loaded Portland squad, the Ellsworth Tennis Center entry boasted three of the best players in the competition: Alan Toothaker, Phid Lawless and Ben Beverly, all of whom are left-handed.  Kevin Phelps and I had edged Toothaker and Lawless in an epic match at the Tri-Level sectionals in 2014, but if they played together against our Algonquin team they would be tough to beat.  Beverly is the youngest of the three and usually plays singles, where they often stack him at number two.  The question was what Ellsworth would get out of the rest of their guys, so we knew that whoever was matched up against people outside of their Big Three had to take care of business.  I ended up in the “whoever” category, as Bruce Leibig and I faced off against two guys named Glenn and Mark at second doubles.  Glenn was a lefty with excellent hands and a great lob.  His serve wasn’t that fast but he placed it very accurately out wide on the ad court, and often all I could muster was a weak lob in reply.  Mark had a style which seemed at first glance to be awkward but was in fact very effective.  He never missed his backhand return and he had excellent hands at the net along with a powerful, though inconsistent, first serve.  We ended up winning 7-5, 6-3, but we were never comfortable.  It was a completely different style of match than the one I had played against Hampton, featuring lots of precise lobbing and delicate touch shots.  In the first set we quickly got off to a 4-0 lead, but they eventually pulled even at 5 as they started to work Bruce over with their lobs and then drive the ball at him hard when they had backed him off the net.  Luckily I was able to hold serve in the eleventh game, and then Mark seemed to get a little tight and we broke him for the set.   Bruce’s lefty serve is normally deadly, but on this day he had dropped serve twice in the first set due to our opponents’ crafty play.  So at the beginning of the second set he asked me to serve first, a rare and somewhat risky move, but one which in this case worked to our advantage.  Although I was broken for the first time midway through the set, we had built another lead by that point, and I was able to serve out the match with a strong final game.  Bruce lobbed extremely well throughout and hit some terrific angle shots in the last few games, and while my serves weren’t overpowering anybody, they were setting up my volleys effectively.  So while it may have been “winning ugly”, it was still winning, and in postseason play that’s the name of the game.  

The other courts had finished by the time our match ended and the overall result was once again in our favor, this time by a 4-1 count.    Justin had an easy first set and then let up on his opponent- Eastern Maine had apparently stacked- to the point where he drew some suspicion from the people running the tournament, though no other action was taken.  Aaron took a straight-sets win over their best singles player, Beverly, though the second set was close at 6-4.  And Brian and Dan Horan used their strong serves and net savvy to good effect, beating a couple of big guys whose style seemed to closely mirror their own in a supertiebreaker.  Lawless and Toothaker had been on fire in the number one doubles, thrashing Todd and Adam 6-2, 6-2, but while they won that battle Ellsworth’s “Big Dogs” lost the war, absorbing their second team defeat in as many matches to fall out of contention. 

Very shortly after that first match concluded, Algonquin was back on the court to face a team from Burlington, VT.  Vermont had beaten Hampton, 3-2, in their morning match (they hadn’t played on Friday), so two undefeated teams were now essentially facing off for the right to challenge Portland in a winner-take-all showdown on Sunday.   If our team was to win through, we had to do it without me, as I took a pass on putting my recently-repaired knee out a second time with Portland looming the next day, especially since we were looking to rotate in a number of fresh guys, all of whom were quality players in their own right.  Somewhat more significantly, we also had to do it without Justin Toler, who had gone off to attend a Snoop Dogg concert.  His absence for the Vermont match was worrisome enough, but before the Ellsworth match Justin had also shown us some “really cool” YouTube footage of the stands at Snoop’s previous venue collapsing like an accordion under the weight of an enthusiastic crowd.  After seeing that video, the rest of us could only hope that he’d come back for Sunday’s match in one piece (he did).   For the time being we went with Aaron and Eric in the singles and doubles teams of Gary/Neal, Todd/Adam and Mark/Dan, and that lineup worked as well as we could have hoped, for we ended up sweeping Vermont 5-0.  Aaron beat a strong player decisively for the third consecutive match, and Mark and Dan routed a couple of guys who may have been closer to 3.5s than 4.0s, but the other three matches could have gone either way.   Gary and Neal beat an older man with a strange, chopping style and his big-hitting partner, though they were pressed in a long second-set tiebreaker.   Adam and Todd won by a late break in each set against a tall Hispanic player with a strong forehand and his partner, whose strokes and mannerisms were both quite unorthodox.  Eric, though, was the big story.  He had been lobbying for a week or so for a more prominent role on the team, and he was visibly angry about being left out of the lineup in the first two matches.  He may not have had his best season, but he’s a proud and competitive guy, and I had a feeling he would really play well in that singles match.  And so he did, overcoming a first-set tiebreak loss to win both his second set and supertiebreaker by wide margins against a very good player, Justin Worthley.  Even from the viewing area three courts down, Eric’s determination and tenacity shone brightly, and they brought him what was almost certainly his most satisfying win of 2016. 

It was now down to one match: Algonquin vs Portland for all the marbles!  And just as Connor McLeod in “Highlander” had to defeat the hulking and savage Kurgen to become the final immortal, our New Hampshire group was faced with a big roadblock to sectionals in the form of Gabe Gordon’s Marginal Vortex team.   That final match didn’t take place until more than 24 hours after we finished with Vermont, which was both good and bad.  On the plus side, we would be as well-rested as any team could be on the final day of an extended competition in which temperatures often exceeded 80 degrees, with high humidity.  On the flip side, I was the only player to stay overnight in Portland: the others all drove home and back again, some for the third consecutive day.  Far more difficult to overcome than travel fatigue, though, were the Portland players and, more generally, the Portland system. 

I can probably best describe the advantages of the Portland system of USTA domination by comparing it to how things work in the Granite State.  New Hampshire league tennis at every level is hotly contested by a number of clubs who are out to beat each other.   Almost all of them require that the majority- and in some cases every single one- of their USTA players be members of that club; even those team members who aren’t paying club members generally play at that facility at least somewhat regularly.  So while Kevin Durant and the Warriors, and before that Lebron James and the Heat, took the “Dream Team” concept to professional basketball, the best NH adult tennis players almost never band together.  Sure, we all try, some more effectively than others, to find “diamonds in the rough” for our respective teams, people that have just moved to the area or never played league tennis before- high school players are the new hot commodity.   But you won’t see, for example, Glenn McKune playing for Algonquin unless his regular club hasn’t fielded a team in that particular competition (with his 36-4 record he shouldn’t be playing 4.0 tennis, period, but that’s another issue…).   This philosophy results in highly competitive league seasons but it can also put our representatives at somewhat of a disadvantage against the superteams that other areas of New England, especially Portland, put together (Eastern MA, another strong area, is a district unto itself, so we only see their teams at sectionals, whereas we are regularly grouped with Maine and Vermont for district play).  Portland’s teams are based out of the Racket and Fitness Center, which is seemingly home to all the top players within about a 100-mile radius of Maine’s largest city.   At every playing level the RFC puts together a powerhouse team loaded with all the best players at that level.  Although there have been years when two or even three competitive teams faced off in their local league, such moments are few and far between.  In most cases the league season is just a vehicle to qualify the all-star team for districts.  Often there are just two Portland-based teams, with the weaker team being composed of people whose games are no threat to the stronger team or who are trying to get bumped down a level (extreme as it sounds, the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals would be a reasonable sporting comparison).  Other clubs, when they field teams at all, almost always lack the depth to compete with the Portland entry.   The few Portland players who get bumped up in any given year are remarkably successful in their appeals; many of those who aren’t seem content just to lie in wait, as if part of a tennis sleeper cell, for the required three non-playing years to elapse so their ratings can reset.  This system has worked exceptionally well for Portland, leading to a number of sectional championships.  In fact, outside of Eastern MA, which is far more populous, Portland may be as close to a dynasty as there is in New England tennis.  And to make it to sectionals we had to get past that dynasty. 

Ultimately we failed, though not for lack of trying.  Justin and Aaron both won in straight sets; once again Aaron drew the opposition’s toughest player at number two and just tore him to shreds.  But while we had considered our doubles combinations to be strong, Portland’s proved to be even stronger.  Gary and I were both playing well and thought we had a shot at number 1, but we were in way over our heads and lost 6-0, 6-2.  The main reason why was a 30-year-old Bates graduate named Matt Chamberlain, who bore a striking resemblance to Andy Murray (to our dismay, this proved to be the case even when he was hitting the ball, as he was quick and rangy around the court and virtually never missed his two-handed backhand).  Matt covered the net like a praying mantis, regularly looped a kick serve about two feet over my head- I’m 6’3”- and into the curtain, and chased down shots all over the court on the rare occasions that we were in control of the point.  I don’t mean to take away from the accomplishments of his partner, Darren Alcock, who hit hard, flat returns and closed to the net extremely well.  Darren was a good player too, but he was basically at our level, although he outplayed us on that particular day.  For his part, I don’t want to say Matt wasn’t going all out, because winning only two games in a match is humiliating enough as it is.  Winning only two games against someone who isn’t even trying might make even a reasonable person want to give up tennis for good!  But I did get the sense he could have cranked things up a notch or three if danger ever threatened.  That wasn’t the case here, because I couldn’t return his serve and Gary had what he deemed to be his worst day in some time, struggling in almost all phases of the game.   Despite the 80-degree temperatures I wasn’t even thirsty on the changeovers, so soundly were we being whupped.  At the end we could only hope our teammates would have more success.  They didn’t.  Todd and Adam felt they didn’t play well in their 6-3, 6-3 loss, but they also drew a very tough team with great hands around the net in Stephon Woods and Steve Richard.  At third doubles Todd had chosen Eric over Bruce and Dan to partner with Neal, feeling that he was playing better than the others and also was still hungry from being passed over in the earlier matches.  And Eric started off like gangbusters, leading our guys to a 6-3 first-set win against Gabe Gordon, who had a heavy forehand and an aggressive net game, and Ben Stockwell, a soft-hitting lefty with great hands and uncanny lobbing ability.  Early in the second set, though, he dropped serve after a long deuce game which saw both our guys miss a number of overheads.  As we tried to mount a comeback, Neal’s balky knee began bothering him, limiting his mobility.  Gabe also caught on to the fact that neither of our guys ever lobbed, and got very close to the net for a series of aggressive poaching winners.  Portland took the second set, 6-3, with that one break of serve, and so our team’s fate came down to the supertiebreaker.  This time when Eric went to the locker room during the set break I stayed where I was, on a long bench on the far wall of the adjacent court (our contingent occupied one of them and Portland’s the other, as the remaining matches had finished while third doubles was still in the first set).  We hoped for some magic off the racquets of Eric and Neal, who are two of the gutsiest players in New England at our level.  But none was forthcoming, as Portland played at a very high level throughout the supertiebreaker, building a big lead and ultimately taking the sectionals berth by a 10-3 count.  The result was disappointing, but there’s no question we lost to a better team on the day (Aaron ended up being disqualified for winning by excessively wide margins, so Neal and Eric don’t have to feel like they let the rest of us down; despite all of Aaron’s district results being reversed, we still came in second because our other wins had all been by 4-1 or better).  Portland has a lot of great players, but from what I saw they’re nice people, too, and when the last point ended a spontaneous display of sportsmanship occurred involving both teams.  Our guys got off our bench, their guys got off theirs, and we formed a handshake line similar to what hockey teams do at the end of a Stanley Cup playoff series.  We wished them well and they gave us credit for being worthy opponents.  I’m pretty sure Eastern Mass. has never seen the like of that in any of its district finals. 

Disappointed as we were, unlike the defeated swordsmen in “Highlander” we still got to keep our heads.  And many of us would soon be needing not just those but the rest of our bodies, too: when we straggled out of Portland on Sunday night, beaten but unbowed, 40 and over districts were less than six days away.

Where Past Meets Present

newport-clubhouse

The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.

 

 

 

 

I’ve been playing tennis for over 35 years, always enthusiastically but with an almost complete lack of distinction.  There have, however, been a few blessed exceptions, some more deserved than others, and one of them came in July of 2005.  On a warm weekday afternoon, my longtime friend Jeff Siegel and I walked out onto the grass of the center court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI, in between matches of its annual men’s professional tournament, to be announced to the crowd and receive medals proclaiming us number one in New England.

It didn’t matter that we were lined up in the midst of perhaps 200 other people, all of whom were being recognized by USTA-New England for attaining the top ranking in one of its many competitive divisions.  It didn’t matter that Jeff and I had achieved this distinction in Men’s 4.0 doubles, a classification which to those in the know practically screams “mediocrity”.  And it certainly didn’t matter that of all those present, only our friend Andrew Haynes was truly cheering for us, and I’m pretty sure even he was mainly there to watch the professional matches.  I still got goose bumps walking onto the Hall of Fame’s hallowed turf, and years later it remains one of my biggest tennis thrills.

If that brief moment on the Newport grass proved unforgettable for me, how must it feel to be honored there as one of the game’s all-time greatest players?  Not many people alive today can answer that question, but after this year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday, July 16, you can add two more names to the list: Marat Safin and Justin Henin (Amelie Mauresmo, who was inducted last year but missed that ceremony because she was eight months pregnant, also spoke, while two greats from the past, Yvon Petra and Peggy Scriven, were recognized posthumously).

Russia’s Marat Safin burst onto the scene at the 2000 US Open.  His straight-sets demolition of heavily- favored Pete Sampras in the men’s final was one of the most surprising results in recent tennis history.  Safin just couldn’t miss that day, and in the aftermath of his big win many around the game felt he had the potential to be a dominant force for years to come.  It didn’t happen.  Although he went on to hold the number-one ranking for a time and his two-handed backhand (delivered with a signature leg kick on high balls) remained a thing of beauty, the Russian would win only one more Grand Slam title, at the 2005 Australian Open.  More often he drew attention for his epic racquet-smashing tirades on the court and his epic partying off the court.  Safin certainly squandered a fair amount of his considerable talent, but any number of people might have fallen prey to some of those same temptations if they looked like a bigger, stronger version of Leonardo DiCaprio and had millions of dollars to play with.  Myself among them…

One player who can never be accused of squandering even an ounce of her God-given talent was Justine Henin.  Despite being physically smaller than most of her contemporaries and having to overcome a number of setbacks in her personal life (her mother died of cancer when she was twelve, and she went through a divorce while competing on the WTA Tour), the gritty Belgian rode her beautiful one-handed backhand to seven Grand Slam titles, four of them at the French Open.  She also finished as the year-end number-one player three times, most recently in 2007.  Henin’s steely demeanor and laser-sharp focus made her one of the few women capable of matching the competitive toughness of the Williams sisters, against whom she had a number of dramatic and sometimes controversial matches.  My good friend Chet Porowski loved Henin so much that he even named his daughter Justine.  She’s in grade school now and already taking tennis lessons.  I’m pretty sure she’s going to have a good backhand.

A number of years had passed since I’d last been in Newport, but I attended the Friday, Saturday and Sunday sessions of this year’s event with a tennis friend and found much unchanged, along with a few new wrinkles.  Stepping inside the Hall of Fame grounds at the Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue still seems like taking a trip back in time to a more gracious and refined era.  The ornate old clubhouse, the grass courts manicured to near-perfection, and the museum which winds its way through more than a century of tennis history combine to give the Hall of Fame a sense of timeless elegance.   The museum is a gem well worth a separate visit, filled as it is with memorabilia, video highlights of great matches and small plaques which succinctly detail the careers of the enshrined legends.   During Hall of Fame week, admission is free to tournament ticket-holders, but museum hours roughly parallel those in which matches are being played.  Had I been visiting at another time of year, I would have pleasurably spent far more than 45 minutes there.

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One of the Hall of Fame’s beautiful grass courts (this one isn’t used for tournament play)

 

Preserving the traditions that make the Hall of Fame special while bringing the player and fan experience into the 21st century is no easy task, but Todd Martin, who was named its CEO in 2014, appears to be as well-suited to that challenge as anyone could be.   A former US Open finalist and longtime Davis Cup stalwart, Todd was known during his playing days for unimpeachable personal integrity, a high level of patriotism and a keen appreciation for tennis history.  As an active player until 2004 and later as coach of, among others, a young Novak Djokovic, he also knows what it takes to run a player-friendly event.  In just two years at the helm of the Hall of Fame, Martin has clearly put his own stamp on the organization.  The museum was reopened last year after a full renovation and now includes many new video and interactive exhibits, allowing it to be more accessible and interesting to the casual fan.  While that change had admittedly been set in motion before Todd came on board, his imprimatur on the tournament itself has been more direct.  The main seating area, the South baseline stands, had previously consisted of row after row of uninviting and uncomfortable bleachers, but individual seats with cup holders have now been installed in their place.  The old hand-operated scoreboards at both ends of the court are still used to give set scores, but two modern digital scoreboards with replay and Hawk-Eye capability also now grace the center court.   Seats aren’t cheap, but there isn’t a bad one in the house, and with same-day ticket availability even for the finals (we got our tickets for Sunday at the end of the Saturday session), you can decide to go catch a match on the spur of the moment.  The tournament’s arrival into the modern era hasn’t come without a few drawbacks.  On past visits to Newport, I had found that the seat location listed on my ticket seemed to be little more than a suggestion: it wasn’t hard to move to an unoccupied location far superior to the one I had paid for, especially early in the week.  Unfortunately the volunteers on duty are quite a bit more vigilant now.  On the changeovers there is now piped-in music and an announcer reading “fun facts”, things that I find unnecessary but which I understand basically come with the territory at professional sports events today.  Parking in Newport, both finding a spot and then paying through the nose for it, also remains a nightmare, so the tourist bureau now encourages fans to park in a downtown garage and take a city bus or trolley to the tennis.   A round-trip bus ride plus parking for the day runs just $6 per person.  I found that to be a far better deal than paying the $75 daily rates in the lot directly across from the Casino or trying to find one of the few available parking spaces on Newport’s side streets.  If the trolley is full or you’d just rather hoof it, you can walk to the Hall of Fame from the Visitor Center in about 20 minutes without exerting yourself unduly.

It does need to be said that the Hall of Fame tournament doesn’t come at the most propitious moment in the ATP Tour calendar.  It’s now held the week after Wimbledon, when many of the top players are in recovery mode, and this year it also conflicted with Davis Cup play.  As a result, you will rarely see the very best players in action.  The top seed at Newport this year was Steve Johnson, ranked twenty-ninth in the world.  Even Donald Young, forty places below Johnson in the rankings, was able to snag the eighth and final seed in the 28-player draw.  You’re still watching great tennis, though, and for me, at least, the chance to be up close (directly behind the baseline on Friday!) more than compensated for the lack of marquee names.   The weather was terrific all week, with just one three-hour rain delay on Thursday.   Friday was the hottest of our three days, upwards of 90 degrees, but all of them were sunny and warm.  So if you don’t quite get to watch Wimbledon-caliber tennis, neither do you have to deal with Wimbledon-caliber weather!

The matches themselves were of uneven quality and not always especially competitive, but with some spectacular exceptions.  Three of the four quarterfinals were played on Friday (Marcos Baghdatis had booked his semifinal ticket on Thursday).  First up was 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, still an ace machine at age 37, against Swiss journeyman Marco Chiudinelli.  It didn’t take long to get the measure of Chiudinelli: his pre-match introduction listed as one of his major highlights that he was a friend and practice partner of Roger Federer.  I myself was a friend and high school teammate of some of the greatest tennis players in New Hampshire history.  So I know all too well that to be introduced as such (as I have occasionally been over the years, believe it or not) means that you haven’t accomplished much in your own playing career.  Unfortunately for Chiudinelli, he didn’t do anything on the court to give the lie to that modest introduction.  Karlovic served 16 aces, won over 80 percent of his first-serve points, and never faced a break point or even a deuce on his serve in an easy straight-set win.  The next match featured the tournament’s two seeded Americans, the aforementioned Steve Johnson and Donald Young.  Young didn’t have much of a serve, but he was quick around the court, with precise returns and shot patterns that troubled Johnson, particularly low, wide balls to Johnson’s forehand (Johnson preferred to hit his forehands inside-out, from the backhand corner, and was often forced to chip the wide balls back ineffectually when he reached them at all).  Although he had just made a run to the fourth round at Wimbledon, Johnson seemed uncomfortable on the grass and frustrated by the inaccuracy of his shots.  He wasn’t loud or demonstrative about it, but you can see a lot, and sense even more, from the first row.  Johnson never did get it together, and Young very quickly booked his passage to the final four.  The day’s last singles contest was also, on paper, the most evenly-matched: third-seeded Gilles Muller of Luxembourg against sixth-seeded Adrian Mannarino of France.  At 6’4” Muller was the bigger man, but both were hard-serving lefties.  Mannarino began the match with shot-making reminiscent of another streaky French lefty, Henri Leconte, and took the first set easily with two breaks of serve.  Muller wasn’t having a great day: he punctuated one lost service game by slamming a ball out of the stadium, which isn’t quite like hitting a ball out of Arthur Ashe stadium in New York but was still enough to earn him a warning from the umpire, and later absorbed a line-drive throw from a ballgirl in a particularly sensitive area.  Yes, that one.  To his credit, though, Muller persevered.  His big forehand began to find the mark more often as the match wore on, while Mannarino’s error rate increased.  Earlier in the week the Frenchman had complained about crowd movement on a secondary court (on Newport’s outer courts, which are used for early-round play, there is no spectator seating of any kind; some fans watch from behind the court at both ends, while others mill around in the background, whether or not the ball is in play).  On center court Mannarino no longer had that excuse, but he found others easily enough.  The ballgirl- not the one who had hit Muller in the nuts, in case you’re wondering- wasn’t throwing the ball to him fast enough.  The official’s call was “merde”, with a few other choice words mixed in.  The bounces were “merde”.  His forehand was “merde”.   Maybe in France this guy gets the star treatment, at least at secondary events, because of his native status.  Here he’ll be lucky to get invited back.   He lost the second and third sets as decisively as he had won the first, and Muller joined Baghdatis, Karlovic and Young in the semifinals.

chiudinelli

Friendship with Federer wasn’t enough to get Marco Chiudinelli into the semifinals.

 

Saturday’s semifinals, which followed the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, were both won by the bigger server, a pattern followed by all of the singles matches I saw except for the Young vs. Johnson quarterfinal.  Muller played a much cleaner match against Young than he had against Mannarino, winning 97 percent of his first-serve points, recording 18 aces (Young once again had none), and breaking serve once in each set en route to a decisive win.  The Karlovic-Baghdatis match was much closer, due in large part to the Croat’s generosity in failing to convert any of his nine break point opportunities.  Baghdatis never held a single break point, though unlike Chiudinelli he at least reached a few deuces on Karlovic’s serve.  With his serving advantage, Karlovic seemed well-positioned for success in the tiebreakers, and that was how it played out.  The tall Croat took the first-set ‘breaker easily but encountered more resistance in the second.  The key moment there came with Baghdatis serving at 6-6.  The Cypriot put a short volley to Karlovic’s backhand side and then volleyed Ivo’s reply short and crosscourt.  Conscious of the importance of the point, Karlovic ran at full speed to chase the ball down, though he did not at first seem likely to reach it.  But his long strides and long reach paid dividends, as he got to the ball just before the second bounce and shoveled it crosscourt on a short angle past Baghdatis, who appeared to be as stunned as the rest of us.   One big serve later, Karlovic was in the final.  Saturday’s schedule concluded with the doubles final featuring Australians Sam Groth and Chris Guccione, who also appeared in my “Super Saturday” post about US Open 2014.  The two Aussies had split up for much of the intervening time but recently reunited, and this week they were playing extremely well, meaning their huge serves were razor-sharp and they occasionally put a return in play.  One of their opponents, Jonathan Marray, had serious double-faulting issues, and so the occasional return in play was enough to secure a straight-set win for Groth and Guccione.   The on-court announcer, perhaps trying to be clever, asked Guccione in the post-match interview what the combo’s “secret sauce” was.  The giant Aussie replied:  “There’s no secret, really.  We have big serves, and when they’re going in, we’re pretty tough to beat.”  Chris Sporcic, an old teammate whose serve did most of his talking, too, couldn’t have put it any better.

groth-guccione-full-size

Secret Sauce: Sam Groth (foreground) and Chris Guccione (in blue shirt) served their way to  the doubles title.

 

 

Sunday’s singles final was preceded by a mini-tournament featuring four recently retired greats.  Although various incarnations of one have appeared over the years, a senior tour has never really caught on in tennis the way it has in golf, perhaps because the game is more physically taxing and the last thing most retired players want is to subject themselves to further punishment.  The possibility for embarrassment also exists: I remember watching a listless Bjorn Borg get routed by an Englishman with a mediocre career resume at a senior event on Cape Cod about twenty years ago.  I was too young to have seen Borg in person at his peak, and now my sole memory of that great champion, sadly, is as the guy who completely whiffed on an easy forehand.  The four retired players competing in Newport in what is now called the PowerShares Series were, thankfully, quite a bit sharper than Borg had been, and the one-day format made things more palatable to them physically, too.  Two one-set semifinals were played, with the winners then facing off in a one-set final.  The players called their own lines (challenges using Hawk-Eye were available but rarely invoked) and chatted amicably back and forth between points, which produced a much more casual vibe than at a typical tour event.  As Andy Roddick had told the Providence Journal a few days beforehand, “The difference is, now when I lose it doesn’t ruin my day.” Roddick, then, may still have found his Sunday enjoyable despite his semifinal loss to Mark Philippoussis, although early in the match he jokingly asked for the radar gun to be turned off after it timed one of his serves in the pedestrian 100 mph range.  At least I think he was joking.  In the other semifinal, Safin beat James Blake in a tiebreaker.  Given his reputation for celebrating, I wouldn’t have expected the Hall’s newest male inductee to have been particularly sharp on the day after the ceremony, but the truth is Blake was far rustier, mishitting a number of easy balls and double-faulting several times despite second-serve speeds which dropped to around 70 mph.   He did have some consolation, though.  When Safin was interviewed after the match, he said “James is good-looking man.  If he was woman, he would have been mine long time ago.”  I guess some things never change.  In the final, Philippoussis edged Safin 6-4 for his third consecutive senior tournament win.  The Aussie still regularly hit his first serve in the 130s, and of the four players his overall game seemed to have dropped off the least since his retirement, perhaps because he was never noted for his consistency to begin with.   Despite the sometimes uneven level of play in the Powershares matches, there were no cringe-worthy Borg moments, and watching four legends enjoying the game that made them famous was a nice bonus for us fans.

I had trouble deciding who to root for in the men’s singles final between Ivo Karlovic and Gilles Muller, two hungry older guys on the downsides of their careers for whom any title, even one earned at such a small tournament, would be precious.  Muller had never won a singles tournament at the ATP Tour level, and while Karlovic had collected a handful of titles, he had fallen short in the Newport final the past two years, including an agonizing third-set tiebreaker loss to doubles specialist Rajeev Ram in 2015. I ended up simply rooting for a good match, and I certainly got my wish.  This year’s final lasted close to three hours and while it may not have been one of the best-played matches I’ve ever seen, it was without a doubt one of the most dramatic.   All three sets ended in tiebreakers, with Karlovic taking the last two of those by the narrowest of margins: first 7-5, then 14-12.  It was the kind of old-school serve-and-volley tennis that you rarely see these days, even on grass.  There were only two service breaks in the match, and both came in the first few games.  We ought to thank Hall of Fame founder Jimmy Van Alen for inventing the tiebreaker- without that scoring device Karlovic and Muller might still be playing.  Heck, they might still be in the first set.  Runner-up Muller came agonizingly close to winning all three sets.  A rare lob winner, which some might claim was slightly mishit, by Karlovic at 5-5 in the second set tiebreak denied him a match-point opportunity.  Muller DID have three match points in the third-set ‘breaker, although none of those were on his own serve.  At 12-12 he missed a reasonably challenging first volley to lose what proved to be the decisive minibreak, and though he returned Karlovic’s subsequent second serve and then smacked a ferocious forehand pass attempt, the big Croat was able to knock off a reflex backhand crosscourt volley which set off a well-earned victory celebration.  At match’s end, I was genuinely happy for Karlovic but also profoundly sad for Muller.  I thought of matches where I had been achingly close to victory yet came up short.   Accessing some of those memories is still painful even though nothing life-changing was at stake.  How much emptier must that feeling be when tennis is your livelihood?  Gilles Muller has had a very respectable career, and he’ll probably never have to buy a beer in Luxembourg for the rest of his life: he has won more Davis Cup matches than anyone in the history of that country.  I’m afraid, though, that after last Sunday his best chance to win a professional singles tournament has come and gone  (I’m pleased to report that I was wrong: Muller won a hard-court event in Sydney in January 2017 and added the championship of the grass-court tournament at Rosmalen, Netherlands a few months later, en route to attaining the number 21 world ranking, his personal best, at the age of 34).

No sense ending a Newport story on a melancholy note, though.  There’s just too much fun to be had there.  The Hall of Fame marries tennis’s past and present like no other place, and during tournament week passionate fans can get an up-close view of both.  I know I won’t wait another decade-plus before making a return trip!

 

A Difficult Passage

The absence of any blog posts for the last several months may have been a clue that my worst injury fears were realized.   I was diagnosed with a torn left medial meniscus, and just before Christmas I went to Concord Hospital to be operated on by Dr. Peter Noordsij, who had done my other knee in 2011.  I have tremendous respect for Dr. Noordsij.  He’s extremely good at what he does.  But he is a man of few words, and even fewer reassuring words.   He compared my knee to a car running on bald tires and said he wasn’t sure how much function he’d be able to restore.  I wasn’t sure whether he was being candid or simply lowering expectations so I wouldn’t come back and sue him at some later date.  In any case he needn’t have worried: I was committed to going through with the operation and hoping for the best, but no matter the outcome I wasn’t planning on suing him.  I don’t like surgery any more than the next person, but if the alternative was limping for the rest of my life and playing tennis at a 3.5 level, tops, and in significant pain to boot, then I was okay with rolling the dice.  As it turned out, Dr. Noordsij did as good a job on my left knee as he had on my right.  I was on crutches for a while, but I didn’t miss a day of work, and gradually I got stronger.  A big reason for that was my physical therapist, Minami, a spunky if somewhat sadistic young Japanese-American who created fiendishly difficult exercises to get my knee tennis-worthy again.   After two months with Minami I was back practicing, and a month after that I returned to mixed doubles competition.  I later played two 4.0 matches in the 18-plus league, just enough to qualify me for post-season play.  As usual, high school coaching took up a significant portion of my spring, and I didn’t get to play much, but I’m back working hard now.  My timing is close to where it was pre-injury, although I still need to be more decisive with my movements.   The lack of practice  didn’t help my serve, but struggling with my serve is nothing new.  I’ve read old posts in this blog to find suggestions that worked for me before, and they have started to make a postive difference.  Physically I have lost a little speed and a little acceleration that I probably won’t get back, but those weren’t really my calling cards to begin with, so I’m hoping that improving my anticipation and keeping my composure better will help make up for that.  Some days the knee hurts a little bit, even when I haven’t been playing but icing and stretching seem to help (I bought two big compression ice wraps and am now icing like never before).   I think it’s a reasonable goal to be able to play three matches in a weekend at a high 4.0 level by late summer, so I’m practicing and working out with that in mind.  I’ll probably never see a 4.5 rating again, but I’d like to remain a serviceable 4.0 for as long as I can.

Perhaps some of you are wondering, though: how did it end?  Exactly what was the exciting conclusion to the 2015 NH Men’s 40-plus 4.0 season?  Let me set the scene again.  With one match remaining, three teams were in the running for two spots at districts: Algonquin, Mountainside and Executive.   My Algonquin team had won 16 individual courts in six matches while Mountainside and Executive had each won 15.  That small advantage was negated by a number of other factors, however.  Our last match was at home against Executive, while Mountainside traveled to Seacoast, one of the league’s weakest teams.  Although Mountainside typically does not travel well, the importance of that particular match and the relative strengths of the two teams made it a near-certainty that Mountainside would take at least three of the four courts.  So we were in essence competing head-to-head with Executive for the other spot.  Yet we could not simply play for a 2-2 tie and be assured of remaining one court ahead of them, because Mountainside’s protest of my “coaching” had not yet been heard.  If Eric and Rob’s win ended up being reversed, we would lose that point, and if that left both our teams with 18 individual wins, Executive had a good possibility of edging us out on the tiebreaking criteria of team wins, although without knowing the scores from the final match we couldn’t be sure (if a match ends 2-2, a team winner is declared based on the fewest sets lost that day or, if sets are also tied, the fewest games lost).  We decided that we had to set our lineup as if we would lose the appeal, even though the team members with the most experience in USTA procedural matters did not think that was likely to happen.  That meant trying to win three courts against a team featuring Ed Ibanez, who the year before had been undefeated at the 4.5 level, and Dan Watson, one of the top 4.0s in the state.

We had one additional constraint.  Captain John Duckless had promised before the season that all team members would get to play a minimum of two matches, making them eligible for districts if we qualified (at that level some would only play if we were otherwise short-handed, but John had gone to districts once with an incomplete squad and now very reasonably preferred the better-safe-than-sorry approach).   Our two weakest players, Jack Chen and Jim Prieto, had to that point only played in one match: we had kept them on the bench hoping that we could use them in the last match with qualification already secure, a move that had now clearly backfired.   So Jack and Jim had to play, but it seemed unlikely they could beat anyone on the Executive team.  Therefore we took the risk of stacking them on court 1, knowing full well that we would then need all three of the other courts to come through.  There wouldn’t be any margin for error, but desperate times call for desperate measures.  This measure had one result we anticipated: Jim and Jack lost 2 and 2.  But Executive didn’t have too much singles firepower, and Adam Lesser picked up an easy win there.  So we went into the last two individual matches of our season, which would be played simultaneously, needing to win both to assure ourselves of a spot at districts.

We had Eric playing with Adam Hirshan at number 2 and Todd with Neal at number 3: with injuries and unavailable guys factored in, they were our two best teams.  Executive countered with Watson and captain Scott McKinney at 2 (Ibanez had played 1 with Rick DePasquale) and Mark Hamilton and Sam Heald at 3.  Both matches were close, intense affairs.  Eric and Adam were eventually able to take their first set, 6-3, while Todd and Neal were still going back and forth with the hard-hitting Executive duo.  The opening set of that match went to a tiebreaker, and when our guys- typically a very strong tiebreaker team- ended up winning it, I breathed a sigh of relief.  But that relief would be short-lived, for while Todd and Neal pulled away to take the second set by a much wider margin, Watson upped the level of his game on the other court to carry Executive to a 6-3 second-set win.  The second doubles match, and potentially our season, came down to a supertiebreaker.  Fortunately Eric and Adam have lots of confidence in each other as a team, which helped them counter McKinney’s big forehands and Watson’s blinding speed and aggressiveness around the net.  Still, the Executive pair eventually reached match point, and when a short lob bounced invitingly just in front of Watson, perhaps three feet from the net, our prospects seemed bleak.  Yet somehow he missed the shot and our guys had life.  The supertiebreaker continued to seesaw back and forth, until finally at 14-15 Watson found himself serving to Adam on the ad court.  He missed his first serve and then, to the astonishment of all present, Adam went into full Michael Chang mode, standing right on the service line in an attempt to draw a match-ending double fault.  Perhaps unnerved by this tactic, Watson hit his second serve long, and we were going back to districts!  Mountainside lost one court at Seacoast in their final match, and the coaching protest would ultimately be denied, so we actually finished in first place. It had been a much harder road than we had anticipated, but all’s well that ends well and our season had, in fact, ended well.   The first part of it, anyway: an even more challenging postseason path awaits us in August.

I won’t go into much detail about the spring season.  The North Shore league finished before I was healthy and sharp enough to return to competitive men’s play, so I didn’t get enough matches in to be eligible for the postseason.  Once again the Newburyport club won the league championship, defeating my Willows team in the final.  Our merged team had added a number of ringers, but Newburyport added ringers of their own who were just a little bit better.  There were no shenanigans that I know of this time.   I did play five mixed matches for Chet Porowski’s Keene 8.0 team, winning three of them.  I’m not generally a fan of mixed doubles, but in this case I needed the practice and Chet needed players.  The team had gone winless the previous year, but in 2016 we executed a dramatic turnaround, winning seven of our ten matches.  Most of those wins were by 2-1 scores, though, and the mixed league- like the men’s league- now ranks teams by individual court wins.  In this category we tied the YMCA team for second place, but unlike in the men’s league, team wins are not used as a tiebreaker.  We lost more sets than YMCA and that cost us a spot at districts.  I missed the first half of the season while my injury was healing and later lost a winnable match in a supertiebreaker, so I felt somewhat responsible, but the bottom line was there was plenty of blame to go around.  A number of supposedly very talented women that Chet had been counting on either didn’t play at all or played in only a bare handful of matches.  But I guess when your team has gone winless the year before, committing to make a playoff run isn’t front and center in anybody’s mind.  I  met some very nice people and got some good practice, so I was just glad to have been a part of the team, the two-hour drive each way notwithstanding.

The 18-and-over 4.0 league season also played out from January to May.  I played the minimum two matches and won once (both matches ended in supertiebreakers).  I wasn’t at full strength, and our team’s talent level made rushing back prematurely out of the question.  We took the nucleus of our fall team (basically everyone except John, Jack, Jim, Rick Leclerc and Dave Caza, who had chosen to form their own team) and then several other very strong players, most of them under 40.  Justin Toler and Aaron Diamond were generally considered to be two of the top high school players in the state; Justin ended up winning the state singles tournament while Aaron reached the semifinals.  Greg Coache, who hadn’t played the 40s season due to college coaching commitments, was back with his big kick serve, and Rob Starace came over from the Executive to join us.  Rob’s line calls may be a little sketchy at times, but he was playing as well as he ever had, and he had been a strong 4.0 for many years.  We were lucky to have him.  Lastly the father-son team of Brian and Dan Horan brought big serving, lots of size to blanket the net, and in Brian’s case, years of playing with some of the top 5.0s in the state.

New Hampshire had more 18-plus teams than 40-plus teams, so the state was divided into two five-team leagues.  Our league consisted of both Algonquin teams, the River Valley Club in Lebanon, and longtime foes Concord and Mountainside.  We played each of the other four teams twice, with the top two finishers going to districts.  As with the 40-plus team, we made qualification more difficult than we should have, losing both meetings with the River Valley team, which featured a transplanted New Zealander with 5.0-level skills.  With the exception of the other Algonquin entry, though, our league was so evenly matched that those slip-ups cost us less than they might have.  At one point, in fact, all four top teams had taken the same number of points from their first four matches.  In the second half of the season we got a 4-1 win over Concord and a 5-0 shutout against the other Algonquin team, and in a league filled with 3-2 scorelines those gave us just enough breathing room to claim first place once again.  Concord, which beat Mountainside twice, finished in second place, although Joe’s lack of depth would come back to haunt him later, when he didn’t have enough players available for districts and had to decline his invitation.  Algonquin does have enough committed guys, and we’ll be playing in Portland on the first weekend in August (the 40-plus districts are the following weekend in the Boston area).  The Portland district is never easy because Portland’s philosophy at every level is to load up one team with all their best players, and they have lots of good players.  The Northern Maine team will also be tough, led as it is by the trio of lefties Todd, Kevin and I overcame by the narrowest of margins to get to Tri-Level Nationals in 2014: Alan Toothaker, Phid Lawless and Ben Beverly.   Essex Junction, VT, is notorious for producing lefty-powered teams of its own, though I know less about their individual players this time around.  And Executive, though it lost Ed Ibanez to a year-end bump (we lost Rob Giles in the same fashion), still won the other NH league with a dangerous team featuring Dan Watson, Chris Ramsay, Mark Hamilton, and Rick DePasquale, plus a couple of Indian studs for the singles.  To say we have our work cut out for us to reach sectionals would be an understatement.  So I’d better get my butt off this computer and get working.

From Bad to Worse

For the first forty years of my life, my body generally worked the way it was supposed to. Once I hit that not-so-magic number, though, the injuries and surgeries started to pile up.  Among those I counted a combination torn meniscus/torn MCL in my right knee in early 2011, so I knew that while a torn MCL heals itself with time, a meniscus tear almost always needs to be surgically repaired.   With that being the case, I was hoping I had torn only the MCL in the match against Concord.  My current  injury, which was basically an awkward landing that sounded like gears grinding in my knee, wasn’t sustained in quite the same way as the previous one, and that gave me some hope (in 2011 I heard a sound like a key turning in the back of my knee and then, a few seconds later, felt some serious pain).  So I proceeded to rest and rehab my knee according to the guidelines for treating a torn MCL and crossed my fingers that that was indeed the issue.  After taking three weeks off, I knew I had to play-test the knee and hope that it was starting to progress.   From the beginning of the practice session, though, it was painfully obvious, in more ways than one, that the time off hadn’t helped at all.  While the rest of me still felt like a smoothly functioning unit, my left leg felt separate and almost alien.  I couldn’t move it the way I wanted to and I couldn’t move it, period, without extreme discomfort.  It was almost certainly the meniscus after all.  Fuck!  There went my season.

There almost went Algonquin’s season, period, for while I was sidelined with my knee injury, our team proceeded to squander most of its once-comfortable first-place margin. We still had plenty of talented guys to put on the court, but that didn’t always translate into the results we hoped for. This was particularly true in a humbling 1-3 defeat at the Hampton Tennis Barn in early November.  To be fair, Hampton was near the bottom of the standings only because the distance separating them from some of the other clubs (drives of 90 minutes or more, in a couple of cases) meant that they didn’t travel well.  It was our luck, though, to play them on their home courts on a day when they brought a strong lineup.  You don’t get much stronger in 40-plus 4.0 singles than their top guy, Andy Montgomery: quick and powerful, he’s by no means a 4.0 (he doesn’t look anywhere close to 40 years old, either, but I’m sure the USTA computers keep accurate track of that variable).  Andy took Lesser to school in the singles match, hitting the ball as hard as Adam but with much more consistency.  Always one to look on the bright side, Adam said after winning just two games that at least he wouldn’t have to worry about his rating going up anytime soon.  If Montgomery had played more often- he took the court just twice all fall- Hampton would’ve been up much higher in the standings, but with strong one and two doubles teams we still had the guns to take them.  Our opponents, though, gave us a taste of our own occasional medicine by putting a weaker team on court one and stacking their studs at two and three.   Rob and Adam cruised, but Gary and Todd had a slip-up on two against David O’Connor and his partner Jim Ouellet.  David is a tricky guy to play against, very steady and an excellent lobber despite highly unorthodox strokes that sometimes lead unwary opponents to take him lightly.   Gary pulled something in his leg in the very first game and was only slightly more mobile than Hampton’s famous mermaid statue the rest of the day, while Todd didn’t return with anything close to his normal consistency.   Our guys must have been 0 for 15 on break point conversions, and it’s not like their opponents were shattering any radar guns with their serves, though they placed their deliveries well. But while that result was disappointing, we still had a chance to get a split as Rick Leclerc and John Duckless made it to the supertiebreaker in a hotly contested third doubles match.   They faded badly at that stage, though, as Dan Witham, who hits laser-like two-handed groundstrokes off both wings, and his crafty partner Rick Warren won the breaker quickly and decisively.   Not only did we have our first loss of the season but our playoff qualification was now in jeopardy, as we led Mountainside by just one individual court win and Executive by two, with matches remaining against both of those top teams.

I would’ve liked nothing better than to play against our longtime rivals from Mountainside, but after my unsuccessful attempt at practice I knew I just wasn’t up to the task physically. So I resolved to try to help the team in any other way that I could, which as we shall see led to some problems of its own.  But first things first:  John asked Adam and I for help making the lineup for the trip up to King Hill Road.  With Lesser unavailable, we put Caza into the singles and ultimately suggested Mark Parquette and Gary at one doubles, Eric and Rob at two and Adam Hirshan and Bruce at three.   That might look like we were giving away court one, since Mountainside had been teaming Richard King and Glenn McKune there with great success (they were undefeated, including a win over Executive’s Ed Ibanez, who would be bumped to 4.5 in the year-end ratings).  But we felt Gary, with his feathery volleys, matched up well with Glenn, and Mark had overpowered Richard for much of a doubles match a couple of years ago before fading late.  So we had a strong doubles lineup all the way through, and with singles not being Mountainside’s strong point we felt Caza had a good shot too.   Like so many things in November, though, this didn’t go quite according to plan.

I got to New London with Gary and Mark up a set and on serve late in the second (first doubles took place before the other three matches).   Apparently they had really been playing well, but as soon as I showed up things began to take a turn for the worse.  Serving at 5-6, Gary couldn’t convert a game point and was eventually broken, leading to one of Glenn’s annoying triple-bolo fist pumps.   One set all.  We began well in the supertiebreaker, though, getting a mini-break to go up 3-1 with Mark serving to Richard on the deuce court.  He missed his first serve and then appeared to have hit the second in the back part of the box, only to have Glenn call it out.  Gary protested strongly but Richard would not change the call, saying later that he had been focused on his return. A single questionable call like that shouldn’t be decisive when players of our experience level are involved, but on this day Gary and Mark were just not able to get past it, dropping the next several points.   They tried to rally late in the breaker but by then they were just too far behind to catch up.  By whatever means, Richard and Glenn had beaten us once again.

We needed two of the remaining three matches, at least, but we only had a clear edge at third doubles, where Mountainside’s Scott Goodwin and Pete Ericson competed hard but couldn’t quite match the finesse and consistency of Hirshan and Leibig, who won in straight sets. The other two courts were up for grabs based on the matchups, but the matches themselves began well for us as we took the first set in both.  Mountainside never goes down without a fight, though, especially on their home courts, which have proven almost as unwelcoming for us as Hampshire Hills in recent years- and unlike at HH, we can’t blame the surface, since Mountainside’s courts don’t play much differently than our own.

Caza quickly went up a set on big-serving George Clooney look-alike Tim Lesko, but as had been the case against Concord, the butterfly knife slipped as he went in for the kill. Lesko had been making a lot of errors from the baseline, but he changed his strategy and began pushing his groundstrokes and looking to come in to the net to win points. With his opponent making fewer mistakes, Dave needed to play a little bit more aggressively to win points, and with a game based primarily on retrieving he just wasn’t able to do that.  Lesko claimed a close second set and then played an excellent supertiebreaker, which he won decisively.   To call a spade a spade,  he also took three points of his ten on out calls of shots by Dave that my glasses-enhanced eyes (admittedly sitting three courts away) saw clearly on or inside the line.  Making matters worse, Dave gives his opponents any call within about three feet of the lines on his side, which made for a huge differential in the amount of court considered “good” on each side of the net. Call it sour grapes if you will, but 10-4 with the aid of three bad calls could easily be 7-7 instead.  None of that matters now, though, and Mountainside had yet another controversial win.

Eric and Rob were in a dogfight of their own with Rich Atherley, who may now be the best overall player on Mountainside (certainly he’s in the conversation with Glenn and B Manning, who was mercifully absent from this match) and his partner Eric Parenti. In the second set Atherley used big serves, hard returns off both sides, and an aggressive net game to take over the match and even it at a set all.  Upstairs I could tell that Eric was really pissed off: he banged the wall loudly and then went to take a bathroom break in the locker room.  He seemed like he needed settling down, so I hobbled up out of my seat and followed him to the locker room.  He said he couldn’t get his return going and I just settled him down the best I could and told him to shorten up his stroke a little because those guys were serving hard.  I felt like they weren’t focusing enough on Parenti (although he’s a good player in his own right, with a strong forehand, he’s much more erratic than Atherley) and I told him that too.  Before I could say anything more, the locker room door opened and Richard King burst through as if he were on a SWAT team raid.  “That’s coaching!  That’s illegal!” he yelled.  “I taped that conversation on my cell phone.  If we lose this match, I’m filing an appeal”. Granted, by USTA rules virtually any interaction with a player whose match has not finished counts as coaching, which you’re not supposed to do.  And if the fact that I was violating a rule wasn’t uppermost in my mind, ignorance is not an excuse. In trying to help Eric, I may well have doomed him instead and in the process earned the dubious distinction of losing a match for my team without even hitting a ball.   Most people visiting this website are already well aware that they’re not reading the memoirs of Albert Einstein, but even by my own rather low standards, this was dumb!

Eric and Rob, of course, came back to rip through the supertiebreaker, so Richard being Richard, he went through with his appeal. Some of my teammates feel differently, but I don’t have a problem with him doing that.  I made a mistake and I have to own it.  If it costs my team a point (or, even worse, a playoff spot) then I’ll feel terrible, but we’ve lost plenty of other courts that we should have won this season and we’ll have to recognize that too, if it comes to passing out blame.  Richard saw a chance to pick up a free point with no potential downside and he felt like appealing was the best way to promote his team’s interests.  I opened the door for him to do so, I take responsibility for that, and I have no issue with that aspect of it.  Richard being Richard again, though, he’s apparently been going around saying that his main motivation for appealing is “to teach (me) a lesson”.   That does feel a little more personal, especially coming from him.  Without going into chapter and verse here, let’s just say that Richard does a number of things himself-in his captain’s role, not his playing role- that could easily come under the umbrella of gamesmanship. So instead of promoting himself as some paragon of sportsmanship maybe he should just focus on helping Glenn win his appeal down from 4.5 for the 25th consecutive year, and on getting ready for the districts, because Mountainside did end up qualifying.

Would Algonquin join them in postseason play next summer for what would undoubtedly be a spirited battle with a little extra juice on both sides? Would I or my team get a suspension or other sanction from the USTA?  What would happen to my left knee?  All will be revealed in due time, but as I grimly drove out of the Mountainside parking lot that day in late November, the only thing I knew for sure was that 2015 couldn’t end soon enough…

Santa and me

Ho ho ho! Merrrrrrry Christmas!

Here We Go Again…

After we had started our USTA season on the right foot with a pair of 3-1 wins in September, the weather turned cooler and the level of competition cranked up a notch.  October brought a trip to Hampshire Hills and a visit from Concord, two teams which harbored postseason aspirations of their own.

Hampshire Hills had lost a number of key players to the 4.5s, but any hopes of catching them in a down year quickly dissipated when we saw that we were scheduled to travel to Milford for our lone meeting of 2015.   I’ve played on some great teams that came away from those lightning-fast courts with humbling defeats.  So we knew we’d have our hands full no matter what the individual matchups looked like on paper.  But we brought a strong lineup and played extremely focused tennis en route to a huge sweep which put us, at least temporarily, in control of the NH 4.0 league.

My match was with Bruce Leibig on court 1 against two solid veterans with many years of districts experience, Walter Meltzer and Mike Auger.  Walter’s not a big guy, but he goes for his serve and hits a hard, flat forehand that’s rendered even harder and flatter by the HH surface.  We caught a break because his normal partner, Rick Schwerdtfeger, a giant with a huge serve/overhead combo, wasn’t available that day.  While he is very strong in his own right, Mike is more of a singles player than Rick: he hits heavy topspin shots off both sides and is more comfortable at the baseline than at the net.  Walter started off swinging from the heels and hit some big serves and bigger returns in the early part of the match, but we were able to get an early break against Mike.   I then held serve after several deuces by adding a little bit of extra spin, which took the ball out of Mike’s comfort zone on the return.   With Bruce serving at 3-2, HH had a break point and a chance to turn the momentum around, but Walter missed an easy put-away at the net and Bruce came back and held.  I wasn’t as fortunate on my next service game, but in the meantime we had broken Mike again thanks to some great backhand lob returns from Bruce on the deuce court, so we had a little bit of margin for error.  In the 3-5 game Walter’s serving cooled off and I finally connected with a couple of big returns, and that gave us the first set.  Getting off to a good start on that surface is the best way to get comfortable, and Bruce and I clearly gained confidence after winning the first set.  Mike picked up his serving in the second set but Walter’s game tailed off, and we were able to maintain a modest but comfortable lead throughout en route to another 6-3 win.  Although I hadn’t served well or returned consistently, I did hit some big volleys, while Bruce’s finesse game was a source of great frustration for our opponents.  Mike in particular was visibly angered by some of his feathery lobs, but there was nothing cheap about them: they were deliberate, well-conceived shots.  Trying to outslug  a big-hitting baseliner like Mike would have just been dumb, and Bruce is one of the smartest players I know.

While I had been focusing on my own match, I saw that the other doubles matches had also begun to tilt in our favor.  Todd and Neal were taken to a tiebreaker in the second set by French-born Marc Fontaine and big-hitting Todd Whitney, but they came up with some big serving to end the match there.  Meanwhile we had the luxury of using Rob Giles on court 3, and although Rob left his trademark belted shorts at home this time, he returned serve as strongly as ever and won in straight sets with Mark Parquette.  That gave us three points, but with our league champion now determined by individual court wins, the singles match still had value.   With the rest of us watching intently from windows in the lobby, Adam Lesser came through in yet another clutch situation, edging the hard-hitting German Udo Hoerhold in a 10-8 supertiebreaker.  Adam deserves credit for always hitting out on his shots regardless of the situation, and that mentality paid dividends as he used the speed of the HH surface to put extra power behind a couple of big forehand winners late in the tiebreaker.   We may not all have played A+ tennis, but we couldn’t have been happier with the result, one which left us in first place in the league and in control of our own destiny as the season neared its halfway point.

Another team that had enjoyed a successful early part of the season was Joe Waldvogel’s group from Concord.  That came as no surprise to anyone familiar with Joe, a retired New York City firefighter who brings that same combative mentality to the tennis court.  Joe’s always fired up, but all the more so against us because he had left our team a couple of years earlier after a difference of opinion about his role with then-captain Chris McCallum.    Joe went back to Concord and started a team where he gets to be the marquee player, and to his credit he’s done a good job of finding some talented guys to put in the other spots.  His team had pulled the biggest surprise of the early season in beating Mountainside, 3-1, as Joe stacked himself at second doubles to get a point and then his guys took singles and third doubles in supertiebreakers.   Joe’s best lineup could play on even terms with anybody in the state, but depth was a major concern:  when he was short-handed, he often had to resort to using mid-range 3.5s in the lower doubles positions.  To Joe’s chagrin, and our good fortune, one such day came on October 25 at Algonquin.  Joe himself had just had wrist surgery, and a couple of his other key guys were also unavailable.  But in a local rivalry where one team has had a little bit more success than the other, you always expect the underdog team to come out fired up, and that’s what happened here.   Dave Caza seemed to have a comfortable lead in the singles, but his opponent, Tony Janes, kept battling back, rallying to win the second set after losing the first.  Dave got way up in the supertiebreaker, too, but once again he couldn’t close the deal as Janes raised his level and snuck out a 10-8 win.  The last two points might have been Tony’s only leads in the match, but it didn’t matter: Concord was on top.

At the same time Dave was losing, Bruce and I were fighting for our lives against Mike Long and Alex Mezibov.   Mike is a flat-hitting, aggressive player with a nice backhand who closes to the net very well, but normally he’s a little bit erratic, and Alex, of course, tends to be VERY erratic.  On this day, though, Mike served well and played steadily, and Alex was simply the best player on the court for long stretches.  Not only was he on his game strokes-wise, but he also came in with a very sound strategic plan, something he isn’t always known for but which deeply impressed me here.   Since some of my opponents seem to have begun reading this blog, I won’t go too deeply into Alex’s tactics, but suffice it to say that he had clearly studied my game and took advantage of certain tendencies and shot patterns in a way that allowed him to control the points more often than not.  Bruce and I wore matching red shirts and supported each other and strategized the best we could, but at times it just felt as if we had run into a buzz saw.  We had an early break in the first set, but I gave it back at 4-3 with a sloppy half-volley at 30-40 and our opponents seemed to gain confidence from that.  Long held with steady serving and some touch volleys by Alex, and now it was up to Bruce to keep us in the set.  Luckily he came through with a strong game, and then Alex got a little tight in his service game and double faulted on break point.   I was able to serve out the set from there, 7-5, but the match was far from over.  Our opponents had been playing well before that, but in the second set they took their play to another level entirely, hitting winners left and right.  They went up a break at 4-1 and almost broke Bruce for 5-1, but after saving a number of break points we held on by going to the Australian on Alex to take his crosscourt return away (and not a moment too soon: he must have hit at least fifteen winning returns into the crosscourt alley before we made that change).   That along with an occasional two-back against Alex on my serve seemed to throw off their rhythm a little bit, and we got back even at 4-4.   Once again Mike held to bring a supertiebreaker into view, but Bruce came through with a hold for 5-5.  In the game that followed we carved out a break as Alex missed a couple of his trademark swinging volleys, which up until that point he had hit with uncanny precision.

It may be stating the obvious, but I knew I had to serve out the match in that 6-5 game.  While Bruce and I had the momentum, the last thing we wanted was to let our big-hitting opponents get a crack at a tiebreaker and then, potentially, a supertiebreaker.  I put my serve in and we won the first two points.  At 30-0 I decided to come in on a serve to Mike’s forehand, which he sometimes overhits, even though Bruce was staying on the baseline.  One part of the plan worked perfectly: the serve went to Mike’s forehand and he missed the next shot.  When I made my split-step, though, I landed wrong, in a way that felt like gears grinding in my left knee.  I knew right then that I would probably be out of action for at least a couple of weeks, but the immediate challenge was to hold serve and to do that I needed one more point.  If those guys made it back to deuce and could tell I was hurt, we were in big trouble.   Luckily at 40-0 I had some cushion to work with, and with Bruce lined up in Australian I spun in a serve, Alex missed his return, and Algonquin had a vital point, though at what cost remained to be seen.   Mike and Alex had played well enough to win, but Bruce and I used experience, strategy and a fair amount of luck to steal the match, and as he said afterward “that isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be proud of.”

Getting a split of the early matches gave us the momentum and we were able to use our depth in the lower slots to grind out another 3-1 win.  Eric and Gary had trouble with a couple of finesse guys, Adam Heard and Jim Scammon, but pulled away in the second set after winning the first in a tiebreaker.  Somewhat more surprisingly, Jack Chen teamed confidently with Duckless and used aggressive net play to dominate the now-80-year-old Zane Stuart and his partner Lou Caron in a quick straight-set win.   And with just three matches to go, that puts us in excellent position for a top-two finish.  But my individual situation was much more uncertain: after tearing both my meniscus and my MCL (on my right knee) in 2011, I was now in the unenviable position of watching and waiting to see if I had a similar injury to my left knee, or if time, rest and rehab alone would be sufficient to put me back on the court at close to 100 percent.   November would tell the tale.

Gimme Some Love-in’!

Mid-September in my neck of the woods marks the beginning of both USTA and North Shore League play.  As my Willows group began preparations for the NSL season in late summer, we knew that our core needed some reinforcing: we had forfeited court five a number of times during our run to the championship match, and a significant number of the guys who had played regularly would not be returning.   Most disappointing to me personally was the loss of Alan Kravetz, who had moved to take a job in Connecticut.  Alan marches to his own drummer and it takes time to get to know him, but by season’s end he and I had established some chemistry and were starting to play very effectively as a team.   Justin Rowland, a single dad, had responsibly opted to spend more of his weekend time with his young daughter.  Dennis Robertson had quit the league in disgust over the Newburyport fiasco, although his close ties to Chris and Elias meant you could never completely write him off.  Kev Branco had a young child at home and a restaurant to run.  And Bryan had defected to Winchester, more or less by mutual consent: we could only hope he would poison their atmosphere as much as he had ours.

Before Frank could get too desperate, though, the landscape of the league changed dramatically: the A league folded after a number of its weaker teams either withdrew or dropped down to the A1 level.  This left the Willows A team without a home, so the decision was made to bring our two teams together into a single unit that would compete in the A1s.  In the blink of an eye we had too many guys rather than too few.  Frank encouraged some people to consider dropping down to the B’s, but the B team was itself loaded and not particularly in need of  new blood.  I asked him what he role he envisioned for me, and he was very up-front, saying that he could give me a fair amount of playing time on the lower courts, but no longer an every-week guarantee.  My days of playing court 2 (and in any high-stakes match likely courts 3, 4, and 5 as well) had gone as quickly as they had come.  With that in mind, I decided to de-emphasize the NSL matches in favor of USTA matches in my playing schedule.  So far I’ve played twice, both on court 4, losing on the final point with Bjorn Merinder (Sr) at Manchester-by-the-Sea, and winning with another of the A league refugees, Lee Jacobson, in a hard-fought match at Bass River.  When all the top guys show up, our team just rips through most opponents, and as a result it’s making a beeline back to the top of the standings even though the overall level of play in the league has improved significantly.  Still, to me it feels more like an all-star team now than the close-knit unit we had been in the past.  It’s because of this shift in my priorities, and not because I fear drawing the ire of the Newburyport tennis team (or any other opponent, for that matter) that I’ll be writing a lot less about the NSL this winter.   Rest assured that even if they go unchronicled in this space, the drama, double-dealing and outright cheating endemic to the league won’t miss a beat.  They never do.

Another major reason I decided to focus more on USTA events was that my ranking had dropped back down to a 4.0 in the early start ratings that came out in September.  If there was one benefit to repeatedly getting my ass kicked as part of a team that went winless in two separate leagues last year, it was this: most of our crew got the bump-down we had been hoping for.  This isn’t to say we had been tanking matches: the one guy who actually employed this strategy, ironically enough, stayed at 4.5 (for obvious reasons, I won’t name him here).  But age, injuries and just plain inadequate play had taken their toll, and we were back where many of us thought we should have stayed all along.  The list of newly relegated 4.0s was long, featuring, in addition to yours truly: Adam Lesser, a gentle, reflective guy who had given us strong singles play in our 4.0 sectionals runs; Eric Morrow, a friend for years and a talented player who had suffered a couple of humiliating double bagels against the 4.5 singles studs; Gary Roberts, a former teaching pro with high-end talent who was returning to competitive play after a few years spent restructuring his personal life; Rob Giles, heretofore known as the guy with the X-rated plumbing stories, but also a strong returner who thrives against pace; Bruce Leibig, a crafty veteran with a tough lefty serve; and Adam Hirshan, whose committed and cerebral approach to the game have brought continued improvement well into his 50s.  Magnificent we had hardly been, but we were seven nonetheless.  The first thing we had to do was make sure all seven of us were on board, so Adam Hirshan and I quickly reached out to the others.  Remember the movie “The Blues Brothers”?  This was the tennis version of Jake getting out of Joliet and going around to various soul-food restaurants and sleazy lounges in an effort to put his old band back together.    Fortunately in our case most of the guys were more than happy to come on board.  Our equivalent of Mr. Fabulous, the dapper trumpet player who was reluctant to give up his new life as a maître-d’ in a fancy restaurant, was undoubtedly Gary Roberts.   Gary’s one of the best-looking and sharpest-dressed guys in our league, and he’s just as talented on the tennis court as Mr. Fabulous was on the trumpet.  But like his movie counterpart he is not, let us say, the most responsive individual on the planet.  Gary typically won’t reply to emails or even a team text.   My strategy has become to text him often enough that he eventually answers back just to get me to shut up (trust me: this works much better in the tennis world than in the dating world).   So after a few messages Gary was in too.

After reconstituting our group, we were faced with another problem: we were essentially a team unto ourselves, but because of a change in scheduling, the 40-plus season was starting within a few days and the league had already been set up.  Not only did Algonquin already have a team, and a solid one at that, but it had a captain, John Duckless, who wasn’t especially familiar with most of us.  John was thrust into the enviable but still difficult position of having a stacked team drop into his lap, yet still needing to keep the returning players happy.  From my perspective it was essentially the reverse of the NSL shift: now I was the one who would likely be displacing established guys.  To John’s credit he made an effort to hold practices and socials in order to get to know his full roster, and he sought input from some of us new additions while still maintaining his own authority over the group.  That’s not easy to do, and for the most part I think he has done it exceptionally well to date.  John himself is an enthusiastic player who has improved over the years into a competitive in-state third doubles guy; he’s basically what I am at the 4.5 level.  His buddies Jim Prieto and Jack Chen are great guys with contrasting builds and personalities (Jim supersized and garrulous, Jack small, wiry and reserved), but for the moment they won’t help us much on the court.  Rick LeClerc is a former UNH linebacker who came to tennis later in life and has worked his way up to a mid-range 4.0.  Mark Paquette is slightly above midrange, with tons of upside yet untapped.  But the three returnees who would help us the most were Todd Toler, Neal Burns and Dave Caza.  Todd is already well-known to the five or six regular readers of this space.  Neal has been a reliable guy in past postseason runs for the past decade-plus and is now relatively healthy after battling a series of knee issues.  Caza hasn’t gotten as many column inches as his story would warrant, but I think that’s about to change.

If I had just a fraction more hair, and it was blond instead of brown, and I swore about 1,000 times less, I could pass for Dave Caza: he’s got the same skinny build and Dumbo ears.  Put a butterfly knife in our respective hands, though, and you could probably tell us apart quite easily, because rumor had it that Dave was a former SEAL assassin.   There doesn’t seem to be a quieter, friendlier guy around than Dave, but that may well have been what his victims once thought just before breathing their last.  His background didn’t matter to us, though: we simply hoped Dave’s ageless consistency on the singles court would prove fatal to the playoff hopes of our rivals from Mountainside and Executive.

The 4.0 40-plus season was set up in of one of the most difficult configurations in USTA play: eight teams playing each other just once each (and with only singles position at that), with only the top two making districts.  A double round-robin would have been much preferable from our perspective, because we had by far the deepest roster, whereas the format we ended up with took away much of our margin for error.  But it was what it was, and the in-state competition also was what it was: first-rate!  Mountainside still had its four longtime mainstays: Richard King, Richard Atherley, B Manning and Glenn McKune.  Executive’s Ed Ibanez, who had kept me out of the winner’s circle back at last year’s Moose Open, had somehow gotten back to 4.0 despite winning most of his 2015 matches at 4.5, and he had top-notch teammates in Dan Watson and Chris Ramsay.   One of these three sectionals-caliber teams wouldn’t even get out of New Hampshire, and perhaps more than one, for there were no gimmes among the other five entrants either.  Joe Waldvogel, unhappy with his role on recent Algonquin squads, had formed his own team out of Concord, and he, Peter Reid and singles player Tony Janes gave them three guys who could be competitive with anyone in the league.  Seacoast of North Hampton featured a number of savvy veterans, including my near-sparring-partner, Frank Campolo, while the Hampton Tennis Barn had the best singles player in the state at this level, Andy Montgomery.  The Hampshire Hills team wasn’t what it had been, as many of its key players were now 4.5s, but guys like Mike Auger, Walter Meltzer and Rick Schwerdtfeger and their club’s lightning-fast court surface meant you couldn’t count them out.  Even the YMCA, which depends on college studs in singles and so is normally more dangerous in the 18-plus, had two top-rank 4.0s in Mike Delaney and John Smith.

The season kicked off in mid-September with our team traveling across greater Manchester to the YMCA.  I had already committed to playing up at Loon Mountain that weekend, and a number of key guys from both teams had made similar plans, so depth came into play on both sides.  It probably ended up as a wash, except that the Y was forced to play one of the matches on Friday night because of limted weekend availability, and that’s where they used their stud, Mike Delaney, at third doubles (to be fair, I think that was the only day he was available too).  John and Jim did well to extend Mike and his partner to a supertiebreaker, but we ultimately dropped a point we probably wouldn’t have if the matches had been played simultaneously and with properly ordered lineups.  Hopefully that won’t come back to haunt us at season’s end.  We took the other three courts in straightforward fashion behind Caza in singles and Eric/Adam and Todd/Neal in doubles.   And if you win three courts every time, I guess you’ll still end up in pretty good shape.

Two weeks later we hosted Seacoast, meaning that Big Frank would be waiting to welcome me back to the 4.0s.  John scheduled me to play two with Neal Burns, and since I tend to mentally prepare for the toughest potential opponent, I spent a lot of time focusing on how to counter Frank’s mind games.   Combine that with the excitement I felt about returning the 4.0s and I was really charged up for the match.  I knew I couldn’t take anyone lightly: in my last time back at 4.0 I had lost my season opener and subsequently struggled for the rest of the season.  In retrospect I was way too psyched up, so much so that I imitated Frank’s off-court behavior (at least as relayed by Greg Coache, who has been his friend since college) by getting into an argument with the driver behind me in line at Dunkin Donuts on the way to the match.  After taking my money and being told by the attendant to pick up my order at the second window, I had proceeded accordingly, but the woman behind me then leaned out her window and started yelling something on the order of “hey, you missed your sandwich, tough luck” in more combinations than I would have thought possible.  Explaining didn’t have any effect on her, so I finally got a little bit less conciliatory, and I may or may not have directed an unkind hand gesture back her way too.  Although Frank probably would have been proud, I knew I had to calm down in a hurry before I took the court, but that proved to be easier said than done.    The first two matches on court were singles and number one doubles, and we were in grave danger of losing both.   Frank was playing position one against Adam Hirshan and Eric, so there was no danger of another Thrilla in Manila with me, but the big man was on his game and he had a partner who complemented him well: a little guy, mobile and calm, who looked old enough to be my dad.   Adam wasn’t volleying his best, and Eric wasn’t quite as aggressive as usual, but after losing the first set they came back to win the second and had their chances in a supertiebreaker in which they led most of the way.   But to give the devil his due, Frank then stepped up his game, and this combined with a key moment when he reached well over the net to hit a winner but refused to call the point in his opponents’ favor, gave the Seacoast an 11-9 win.

Adam Lesser had his own struggles in his singles match against Barry Posternak.  You don’t see Barry Posternaks at the 4.5 level, but they’re very, very tough to beat at 4.0.  Barry is the ultimate pusher.  He gets every ball back, most with little pace but superb placement, and just often enough to flummox his opponent he will rush the net to bloop in a drop volley winner.   The way to beat him is to wait for the right ball and then come to net to put the point away.  But although Adam does many things well on the tennis court, transitioning to the net to hit winning volleys is not among them.  So Posternak eked out an ugly first set and kept his nose in front for most of the second as well,  before Adam at last started to find the range and took the last three games to steal it, 6-4.  The breaker was close, but Adam won a couple of points at the net, Barry missed a couple of overheads, and that was just enough to give us a 10-7 win which evened the match at one court apiece.

Neal and I then went out and played, or rather Neal and I went out and Neal played.   Our opponents were Paul, an older guy with a nice forehand and a tricky, curving serve, and Darryl, who was younger and faster and hit steady groundstrokes.   At 1-1 in the first set I was characteristically broken in my opening 4.0 service game, courtesy of meatball serves, shoddy footwork and a couple of stinging crosscourt forehands from Paul.   I just wasn’t moving my feet or swinging through my returns, and for most of the first set I was a major liability.  The nadir came when I had an easy smash on a bounce literally right in front of the net.  Paul was standing right in front of me and rather than hit him I tried to angle the ball back crosscourt, but it somehow missed by a couple of inches.  Thankfully Neal’s a laid-back guy and he gave me nothing more than a raised eyebrow.  We ended up getting the break back and running out the set, 6-3, but Neal was doing all the heavy lifting.  In the second set I finally showed up, hitting out on my returns, chasing down some lobs and drop shots (even returning one of the latter with a savage forehand winner), volleying aggressively and amping my serve up to “adequate”.  We also found some vulnerabilities in Darryl’s net game and in Paul’s movement that we were able to take advantage of.  So the second set went our way by a similar score to the first (6-2) but with far less drama.  As a team we picked up three points because Caza had quickly buried the butterfly knife into his unsuspecting victims, teaming up with Rick LeClerc for a 6-0, 6-0 beatdown at third doubles.

Taking six out of eight points against what are likely to be the league’s two weakest teams is nothing special, and we have a long road ahead as we attempt to reach our goals.  But like the paroled Jake Blues before me, I’m thrilled to be reunited with my band with another chance to chase the dream.

Oh, Canada! (How I could have seen Andy, Rafa, and Novak for Free)

The Montreal skyline and Jacques Cartier Bridge seen from my hotel in Longueuil.

The Montreal skyline and Jacques Cartier Bridge seen from my hotel in Longueuil.

Nadal and Verdasco warming up for doubles.

Nadal and Verdasco warming up for doubles.

I didn’t take a lot of time to lick my wounds over the loss to Whitey and Laura. A couple of hours after the match concluded I was heading north in my trusty CR-V to a Rogers Cup doubleheader:  the men’s pro tournament in Montreal on Monday and the women’s in Toronto on Wednesday.    I had always wanted to see the Rogers Cup (formerly the Canadian Open) and this year I took the plunge, in part because Chris McCallum and I had been unable to get US Open tickets for the super-popular Labor Day weekend matches, rendering a repeat of last year’s “Super Saturday” adventure impossible.

Rogers Cup tickets aren’t nearly as hard to come by as Open tickets. In odd-numbered years, the men play in Montreal and the women in Toronto, while the reverse is true in even-numbered years; you can order for either event (or in my case both of them) at www.rogerscup.com.  And while the Open is the pros’ ultimate end-of-summer destination, Rogers Cup is one of the most important warm-up tournaments, so both the men’s and women’s fields are generally strong.

Montreal is only about 5 ½ hours’ drive from my home, assuming the border crossing is reasonably smooth: from my tournament in New London, it was actually closer than New York City, and with far less traffic until the last few miles. After a long weekend of tennis, and with a full day of spectating to come, I resisted the allure of Montreal’s many diversions and went straight to sleep in my room at the Hotel Sandman in Longueuil, just across the St. Lawrence from the big city.

The next morning I took the subway to the tournament site at Jarry Park, where the Expos (now the Washington Nationals) had played baseball in the days before the Olympic Stadium was built. The subway system’s slogan is something to the effect of “every station a work of art”, but many of those works of art appeared to have spent a few decades in storage, so run-down and uninviting had they become.  Still, the subway was safe and got me where I needed to go, so it would be churlish to complain too much.  Despite the condition of some of the stations, the subway is a good option for people traveling to the tennis- where on-site parking is limited- and made better by the offer of a free “aller-retour”, or round trip, subway ticket to any traveler with a Rogers Cup ticket for that day (I wasn’t eligible for this deal because my ticket had been printed off the internet rather than delivered by mail).

Unfortunately the fan-friendliness of the match scheduling did not equal that of the transportation network. Play did not begin until 12:30 pm, and only two matches were scheduled on the stadium court during the day session; US Open day sessions always include three matches on Ashe Stadium, even though men’s matches there are best-of-five sets. It was the first day of the tournament and the top seeds had all received opening-round byes, so the stadium court matchups were also less than compelling: Gilles Simon vs. Andreas Seppi and Tommy Robredo vs. Feliciano Lopez.  All four Europeans are solid players, but none is particularly popular Stateside.  That’s typically the profile of guys sent to play their second- or third-round US Open matches on the Grandstand court, my preferred viewing area, and as a result I had seen all but Seppi in person.  Simon and Robredo are workmanlike, counterpunching baseliners, but neither would come to the net even to pick up a ball (they don’t have to, since the pro events all have ballkids).  And while Lopez has a big lefty serve and a nice net-rushing game, his backhand is another story.  I have a sneaking suspicion that if Feliciano Lopez and I were sent to a tennis court to exchange nothing but topspin backhands, I would win a disconcertingly high percentage of the rallies.  And while I can find any number of ways to waste sixty dollars, watching someone play tennis with a backhand like mine hasn’t yet become one of them.

Luckily I had better options. Far better options.  On one of the handful of outer courts, in fact, the schedule read as follows: a singles match between two lesser lights and then Andy Murray, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic in separate doubles matches. Needless to say, I got there in a hurry.  Court 9 was at the outer edge of the tennis complex and had a few rows of bleachers on each sideline and a much larger bleacher section beyond the far baseline.  The ushers, who didn’t seem especially demanding otherwise, must have closed off access to the baseline bleachers, because absolutely no one was sitting there.  So I took a seat in the top row of one of the side bleachers, somewhere in the vicinity of the net post, and the tennis began.  The singles match featured Sam Querrey, a hard-serving American, against Martin Klizan, a left-handed Eastern European baseliner.  Querrey controlled the match with big serves and forehands and was rarely threatened en route to a 6-3, 6-3 win.  Even in this relatively uninspiring match, the error pattern of the pros stood out distinctly from that of us hackers.  Recreational players miss some shots wide, some long, and far too many into the net, but almost all of the pros’ unforced errors are long.  They will never hit a simple rally ball into the net and just give away a point.  They also know that a short ball at that level is a near-certain winner for their opponent, so if they’re going to miss, they miss long.  I’ll try to remember that the next time I play singles, if there is a next time.

By the end of the Querrey match, I noticed that the baseline bleachers appeared to be filling up from somewhere beyond the perimeter of the stadium, although they remained more than half-empty. Meanwhile the ushers were still preventing those sitting in other areas of the court from going back there, sometimes in the face of loud objections from the fans thus turned away.  This eventually drew the attention of the couple next to me, a deeply tanned older man with a pronounced Brooklyn accent and his wife.  They seemed to know more about the situation than I did, which wasn’t difficult, since I knew nothing at all, and my “What’s going on?” query only served to aggravate them further.

“That’s free seating,” said Brooklyn. “Can you believe it?”

“It’s for people who don’t have tickets,” explained Mrs. Brooklyn “so they can come in from the park and watch.”

I was pretty sure that would never happen at the US Open, or for that matter at any professional sporting event in my home country.

“So let me get this straight,” I said, “we paid $60 for our tickets and we can’t sit in those bleachers, but someone can just walk in from the park and sit there for free?”

Brooklyn nodded disgustedly: “I guess that’s socialism for you!”

“Well, it’s not quite like you described it,” Mrs. Brooklyn, who seemed to be much more sanguine than her husband, said to me. “We can leave the stadium and go into the bleachers from the park too, if we want to.”

Gotcha.

Given that the perimeter of the tennis complex bore an eerie resemblance to the Maine coastline, I estimated that that would require about a ten-minute walk, and then I’d have to get back in afterward. It wasn’t an enticing prospect. So I stayed put and silently plotted a much less costly approach to seeing next year’s early-round action.

Seating issues aside, Court 9 was a perfect spot to spend a day, as it featured three top guys playing doubles. You almost never see that at a Grand Slam event because the best-of-five singles matches are so draining. Andy Murray was up first and had wisely elected to team with the accomplished Indian veteran Leander Paes, who has gained some weight in recent years but still sports laser-sharp reflexes and finely-honed doubles instincts. Murray in person is much bigger and stronger than he looks on TV, where he often comes across as slump-shouldered and mopey. If he had grown up in this country, Andy might have been a strong safety or a right fielder, given his size and the speed and grace with which he moves around the tennis court.  And I’ll give him credit: although he didn’t look especially comfortable at the net, he gamely serve-and-volleyed throughout the match.  His return game, of course, is one of the best in the world, and the doubles format, which is now no-ad at regular tour events, accentuated that strength by allowing him to return all of the critical deuce points.  Murray’s dynamite returns and the cleverness of Paes’s net play proved decisive in a 6-3, 6-1 rout of two big hitters, Kevin Anderson and Jeremy Chardy.  The Frenchman went the entire match without holding serve and hit a number of double faults at key moments.  It was hard to tell if he was tanking or just a terrible doubles player, but let’s put it this way: he must have gotten his serve straightened out in a hurry, because he went on to the semifinals of the singles competition…

Next up was one of the world’s most popular players, Rafa Nadal, teamed with countryman Fernando Verdasco against two huge servers, Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic and American Jack Sock. While Murray had been bigger than I expected, Rafa was actually smaller, or at least slimmer, than his televised alter ego. A more cynical observer might wonder if he’s simply not taking PED’s anymore.  Regardless, he was tall and slim and put an amazing amount of torque on his forehand, which he whips across his body with incredible speed and ferocity.  It must be said that the guy is also ridiculously good looking and exudes charisma, even from a distance. If he has that kind of effect on a straight male like me, it doesn’t take much to imagine how women react.  The red-haired lady a couple of rows in front of me, who you can see in my otherwise blurry picture below, never took her eyes -or her iPhone- off him for the entire match.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because of the amazing amount of torque on his forehand, either.

Nadal's superfan (in green dress) savors his doubles win!

Nadal’s superfan (in green dress) savors his doubles win!

What most impressed me about Nadal, though, was that he gave a full effort in a situation where not all of his professional colleagues (including, perhaps, one Jeremy Chardy) would have done the same, and a full effort from Nadal is something to behold. If your eyes were only on him- like my neighbor’s, for instance, but without any awareness of the opponents or the setting-  you might have thought it was a Wimbledon singles final instead of a first-round doubles match at a warm-up tournament.   He and Verdasco played with energy and enthusiasm and they worked very, very hard to chase down the heavy shots of their taller, stronger opponents.  They may not have gone to the net much, and I don’t think they ever serve-and-volleyed, but in the end their consistency and will got the better of their opponents’ power in a 10-6 supertiebreaker win.  Nadal and Verdasco went on to win another round and then push the Bryan brothers to a 10-8 supertiebreaker before coming up just short.  I don’t think they played that one in front of the non-paying spectators on court 9.

The last match of the superstar tripleheader pitted Djokovic and fellow Serbian Janko Tipsarevic against Andreas Seppi and Victor Troicki, but by then I had found myself unable to resist nature’s call. The difficult thing about watching matches on the outer courts is that most of the time you can’t leave your seat without losing it.  On a lucky day you might have a friend or seatmate- most often a very large or otherwise intimidating friend or seatmate- who can hold your place until you get back from the bathroom or the concession stand, but saving seats is against the rules at most tournaments now and therefore unlikely to succeed for long.  Once, many years ago, I actually fitted an uncapped Gatorade squeeze bottle to my inner thigh underneath some baggy cargo shorts so I could keep my spot directly behind the baseline of the US Open Grandstand court throughout a full day’s play.  Thankfully it worked as planned and I neither soaked myself nor caused nearby patrons to call the police.  Not wanting to push my luck, I hadn’t repeated that stunt since, and so I left the stands to do my business knowing that I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to get back in.  I didn’t even try.  Instead I grabbed a bite to eat, watched the fast-serve booth for a while with absolutely no desire to take part (it would have quickly become the slow-serve booth) and then hit the road for Toronto, another five and a half hour drive, this time to the southwest.  Thank God for rest-area Tim Horton’s!

Because I have USTA and North Shore stuff I want to get to, I’ll go much more quickly through the Toronto phase of my trip. The tennis stadium there is at York University, slightly north of the city center, and the traffic is a bear (an extension to the subway is supposed to get up there within the next couple of years, but it’s been delayed several times already, so don’t hold your breath).  Play starts an hour earlier than in Montreal, the stadium court has three day-session matches, and there was no free seating anywhere that I could see.  I stayed in the stadium for all three matches, the best of which featured an upset of my favorite female player, Caroline Wozniacki, by Belinda Bencic, a young Swiss player coached by Martina Hingis’s mother.  Bencic went on to win the tournament, beating Serena Williams in the process, and though the American world number one returned the favor at the US Open, there’s no doubt Belinda has a bright future.  Murray beat Djokovic in the Montreal final, so in the course of six matches I got to see both Rogers Cup champions in action, which I’ll probably never be able to say again!

Women's action at the Aviva Centre in Toronto.

Women’s action at the Aviva Centre in Toronto.

Here are a few things that might help if you’re thinking about visiting one of the Canadian events for the first time:

-Remember your passport! It’s been a few years since you could cross the border with just a driver’s license.  Trust me, you don’t want to give the Canadian border guards a reason to be any meaner than they already are.  If you don’t have a current passport, plan ahead, because it can take a few weeks to get one, though an expedited process is available if money isn’t an issue.

-Get Canadian currency.   Just because they use “dollars” in Canada doesn’t mean their dollars are equal to our own.  The exchange rate is better if you get your money changed before you leave home, but you can visit an ATM once you’re up there if necessary.  Some places in Montreal and Toronto, including lots of tournament restaurants and souvenir shops, post signs announcing that visitors have the option of paying the Canadian price straight-up in American money.  It may be convenient, but it’s a terrible deal for us Yanks.  If I had done that I would have lost thirty cents on every dollar.

-This might seem too obvious to mention, and maybe it is, but remember that Canadian speed limits are in kilometers (.6 of a mile, for the metrically challenged).  So when you see that “100” on the road sign and start to air it out, as I did my first time driving there, think twice.   Socialism may be great when you want to watch a tennis match without paying, but it’s a lot less pleasant when you’re the one being taxed- or fined.

-If you’re going to the Montreal event, expect tournament personnel to address you in French when you’re shopping, ordering food or just trying to find your seat. I speak French, so it wasn’t a big deal, but I expect it might be a little intimidating for those who don’t.  It’s ok, though:  just smile and speak English back to them, and they’ll most likely reply in kind.  Almost everyone in Montreal is bilingual and Canadians are, in the aggregate, exceptionally friendly and helpful people (warning: this tactic doesn’t work nearly as well in outlying areas of Quebec province, where many of the natives either can’t or won’t speak English).

I’ll see you in the Court 9 free seating at next year’s Rogers Cup, eh?

Summer 2015 Recap

This summer has been a slow one for me tennis-wise. My two main objectives were to improve my fitness, which had deteriorated sharply during a very busy springtime of coaching, and to improve my serve, which any semi-regular reader of this blog knows has been an ongoing struggle. Somewhat surprisingly, I feel like I’ve actually made progress in both areas. While I’ll never be mistaken for a bodybuilder, I have at least gotten perceptibly fitter thanks to a combination of gym workouts, practices and matches in brutally hot summer weather, and some moderately challenging hiking in the mountains north and west of my home.

While putting in the time and effort will almost certainly make you fitter, that same formula has done little to improve my serve over the years. Back in the day, it was actually something of a weapon, but those days are long gone now, and after injuring my shoulder nearly a decade ago, I’ve put in untold hours and tried many different motions without lasting success. The delivery I had used during the 2014-2015 season began with my racquet already dropped behind my shoulder a la Jay Berger or, more recently, Sara Errani, two otherwise solid pros best known for having meatball serves. My serve wasn’t great either, but against players rated 4.0 and below the rest of my game was usually strong enough to compensate.   4.5 competition was a different story: one of many reasons for my 1-12 record was that I lost my serve too often and didn’t get nearly as many free points with it as my opponents did with theirs. Sensing my frustration, Todd Toler convinced me to make one final effort at incorporating a full motion. He came up with a drill in which he weighted a towel by knotting it at one end and had me swing the towel over and over again, in an effort to get me to swing more loosely, letting gravity and the weight of the racquet do more of the work. He also got me to close my stance somewhat and put my backswing on more of a diagonal path, as apparently I had been coming around from too far to the right of my body and thereby inhibiting my motion. Then he told me to practice as much as I could over the summer, since I had more free time and empty outdoor courts were easy to find. So I became a fixture at a number of local parks and public courts, swinging the weighted towel to warm up and then trying to use the same principles to make my serve smoother. The towel drill really helped, and thanks to my strength work I could take a full swing without pain, but progress still came slowly. Eventually, though, it did begin to come. After a couple of weeks, I could make about one in four serves the “right” way. Slowly, and somewhat less linearly than I would have hoped, my ratio of “good serves” (ones that kicked up nicely and with good carry) to “bad serves” (my usual waist-high batting-practice fastball) continued to improve. If I lagged my tossing arm a bit, not raising it until my racquet had passed behind my right hip, and if I remembered to swing smoother instead of harder, and if I put the toss nice and high for both first and second serves, it really did work! That’s a lot of ifs, of course, and forgetting (or even imperfectly executing) any of those elements fouled everything up, but when I got them right, my serve was probably 30 percent better overnight.  I wouldn’t exactly say I began to look forward to going out and practicing my serve, but I did dread it a little bit less than I had.

During this time period I limited my match play because I didn’t want to fall back into bad habits for the sake of short-term results. As July moved into August, though, I returned to Colby-Sawyer College in New London for my lone summer tournament, the Chargers Classic. In last year’s “Summer of ‘Love’” post, I described at some length what makes this tournament special.   I won’t repeat myself here, but suffice it to say that all of the many positives were once again in evidence, even if the turnout was slightly lower than normal (the tournament was held later in the summer than usual, and as a result several regulars had conflicts with USTA district play). The Chargers Classic has an almost infinite number of divisions, but to facilitate scheduling each player can participate in only two: mine were the men’s open doubles and the century mixed.

My original partner for the men’s doubles was my good friend and USTA teammate Chris McCallum.   Chris and I actually make a terrible doubles pairing: I don’t think we’ve ever beaten a team featuring even one 4.5-caliber player.   But without any USTA summer playoffs this year, we both needed some competitive play, and I figured at the very least it would make for a good story, because any tale involving Chris is bound to be entertaining.   But Chris’s elbow had gotten progressively more sore over the summer, and a couple of days before the tournament his doctor told him that he would almost certainly need surgery unless he took a clean break from tennis for a couple of months. Chris reluctantly complied; having undergone three surgeries in the past four years myself, I doubtless would have done the same.  By that time, though, the draw had already been set, and the tournament committee- which to my good fortune did not seem aware of what a lousy team Chris and I made- had seeded us second behind Andy Day and Larry Barnes.   Finding a substitute partner on the eve of a tournament is never an easy task, but this time I got lucky. I knew that Alex Mezibov, a friend from Concord who helps out with the CHS tennis team as a semi-regular hitting partner, was already playing in the open mixed, and I was able to talk him into filling in for Chris too.   Alex isn’t as good as Chris, but he is a nationals-level 3.5 (he and Chet Porowski made their own Indian Wells tri-level trip earlier this year) who has also had some respectable results at 4.0 in the past.   He’s an aggressive player who takes a lot of risks, but if his shots are going in he’s very dangerous. He also has quite a bit of self-confidence and tends to play well against better players- important characteristics for this tournament, since most of the other guys were rated 4.5. The draw worked in our favor too. Only six teams entered, and we had, based on Chris’s rating, received a bye into the semifinals as the #2 seeds.

Our good luck didn’t stop there. Our semifinal opponents were Ben Taylor, a very strong 4.5 in his late 20s who may be one of the most friendly and happy-go-lucky people on the planet, and Andy Johnston, who had been a strong high school player a few years back but had since taken some time away from the game. Ben has always had a big forehand and a nice serve, but recently he’s gotten much more aggressive at the net, and with well-timed poaches he minimized the number of balls that Johnston had to hit, which was especially important since Andy was serving into a blinding sun and had difficulty tracking the path of our returns. Ben’s heavy spins and strong net play always give me trouble, Alex was missing more than he thought he should have, and as a result they destroyed us 6-1 in the first set. We made the second a little more competitive but were still down 3-5 with Andy serving for the match. Here’s where the good luck came in: after finally reaching match point following a number of deuces, our opponents came up to the net and retired (full disclosure: they had told us about this ahead of time, although you always wonder…).   Neither of them could come back for the final, which had been set for the next morning, so they allowed us to go through in their place. We certainly appreciated their sportsmanlike gesture, but in a larger sense I’m not sure about the ethics of signing up to play in a tournament you know you won’t be able to finish. I don’t object to this when you’re likely to lose in an early round, which is commonly my own situation, but when you’re a legitimate contender I think the dynamic changes. If our opponents had stayed out of the tournament completely, the draw might have been rebalanced and given a more deserving team than Alex and me a chance to be in the finals. Still, we weren’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. As my man Chet always says, “they don’t ask how, they ask how many”! Ironically, Chris’s name was still on the draw sheet (the message I had left about my change of partner apparently hadn’t been passed along), and it had advanced through the bracket with mine: McCallum/Page in the finals at last! So that night I called Chris and said “You and I just doubled our lifetime win total today. If you don’t believe me, check Monday’s paper…”

Alas, Monday’s paper would not report a tournament championship for McCallum and Page. In the finals Alex and I faced a father and son team who were summering on one of the nearby lakes and had just beaten Andy and Larry in a supertiebreaker. The father, Matthew, is a few years older than me and lives and works in Hong Kong most of the year. I learned later that he played Ivy League tennis at Brown back in the day. Max, his son, is a teenager who trains at a high-powered junior academy in California. Matthew had relatively flat strokes and great hands at the net, while Max was quick around the court, with a heavy serve and an excellent topspin forehand.   Going into the match, I thought Alex and I could potentially get blown out if we were off our games, and we went down two breaks in a hurry, which seemed to confirm my worst fears. But we were going to the net aggressively and we got one of the breaks back by winning our share of those bang-bang net points where all four guys are volleying. They ultimately served out the set at 6-3, but we had been competitive and both of us seemed to gain confidence from that.   I was returning well, serving adequately and sticking my volleys, and Alex hit some big down-the-line returns and closed well to the net. We stayed on serve throughout the set and even had a chance to go up 5-3, but Alex pushed an easy volley wide on break point with a big section of court open. They ended up holding, and at 4-4 we lost a long deuce game on Alex’s serve. He tends to struggle with closing on short sitters, and in that game he missed a swinging volley and also let a slightly lower ball bounce a foot or two from the net and then missed an easy forehand. I’m not selling him out: if I had a better serve and had served first, that would have taken the pressure off him, and in any case I might have moved more to try to help him hold. However it came about, the end result was unsatisfying for us, as our opponents promptly served out the match at love.  Still, we had put up a good fight, which is more than many observers would have predicted following our semifinal match, and I don’t think either of us was disappointed in our play. I do admit, though, to occasionally wondering what might have happened if Chris had waited another few days to see that doctor…

While reaching the men’s open final, however dubiously, had been a pleasant surprise, my expectations were higher for the century mixed, where Lynn Miller and I were the defending champions. Last year’s matches hadn’t been particularly difficult, but in this year’s four-team draw our semifinal opponents quickly got our attention, breaking me twice en route to a 4-1 first-set lead. Barry, a finesse player in his 60s with good hands and an unorthodox game, dug out lots of balls and his partner, Diana, who was slightly younger, hammered her groundstrokes with both pace and precision. Lynn, who knew them both, hadn’t thought we’d have much trouble, but she was out of sync early in the match and I pressed in an effort to compensate and missed a number of easy shots.   We kept waiting for Diana to miss and she never seemed to (I found out after the match that she was rated 4.5, so it was probably just a typical day for her).   Luckily neither of them had a great serve or an overpowering net game and that allowed us to find the range and work our way back into the set.   We started communicating better and I became more aggressive at the net, while Lynn just got more balls in play. At 4-4 I held for the first time and then we broke them for the set. After completing that big comeback, Lynn and I were much more comfortable, and we led throughout the second set en route to a 6-2 win.

Our biggest challenge was yet to come, though, as in the finals we were matched against the father-daughter team of Whitey Joslin and Laura Joslin-King. The Joslins are NH tennis royalty. Whitey, a longtime teaching pro now retired and approaching 80, ran the Racquet Club of Concord along with his wife Sue when I was a teenager, and in later years became the owner of Mountainside in New London. All of their children were good tennis players, but the best was Laura, now a strong 4.5 player in her early 50s, who has teamed with Whitey to win a total of 11 National Father-Daughter tournaments over the years. Despite their impressive resumes, and even more to their credit, Whitey and Laura have always been nice, genuine, down-to-earth people. Make that nice, genuine, down-to-earth and extremely competitive people! Our match would turn out to be a classic.

Lynn and I had based our game plan around making Whitey move and taking advantage of the openings that that created.   It wouldn’t be easy to do. Whitey isn’t the typical senior player getting by on slicing, lobbing, and metronomic consistency. He regularly hits some shots harder than I do despite being thirty-plus years older, and although he plays primarily father-daughter events now, he could still hold his own in most men’s 4.0 matches. Laura plays a lot of 8.0 and 9.0 mixed doubles, and she’s far more comfortable at the net than most women, but she’s also short, so Lynn and I thought our lobs would be effective too. Their game plan, or at least the strategy they ended up using, seemed to revolve around minimizing my touches and overpowering Lynn with hard-hit groundstrokes and volleys. This wasn’t immediately effective because Lynn began the match playing at a very high level, and as a result we got off to an early lead and made it hold up throughout the opening set. We broke Whitey in all three of his service games en route to a 6-3 win, drawing an uncharacteristic racket throw from the legend as the set concluded. It was our serve to begin the second set, and I should have gone for the jugular and insisted on taking the balls. I had held comfortably in both of my first-set service games while Lynn had had more difficulty, often resorting to an underhand second serve, with varying degrees of success. But the sun was again a major factor, and we both would have had to serve into it if I had gone first. So she began the set, and Whitey and Laura quickly got a break which put them right back into the match. They went to the Australian formation on their own service games and, while it didn’t really bother my returns, it did take some of my crosscourt angles away. Even more importantly, it seemed to give them renewed energy, and Laura began to regularly control the points on Lynn’s return side with strong net play. We rallied back to 4-4, though, putting us just a hold and a break from winning the tournament. We would get neither. First Lynn was broken to 15: her underhand serve lost its potency as the Joslins dialed up the pace on their returns to take control of the points quickly. Whitey then held serve, and in the blink of an eye we had fallen from the threshold of victory into a dangerous winner-take-all match tiebreaker.

Whitey and Laura have much more experience playing together than Lynn and me, and now the momentum had swung their way too.   This combination would be too much for us to overcome. Whitey set the tone on the first point, chipping a hard crosscourt forehand return into the alley past my outstretched racquet. I remember it vividly because it was the only time all day I had missed a first volley behind my serve, and the timing couldn’t have been worse (I’m not sure even Tim Duncan could have reached it, though, given how well it was struck)! We hung around for a while and made the second switch in the Coman tiebreak format down just 3-2. But Whitey and Laura came up big in the middle of the ‘breaker and built a lead we couldn’t overcome. The final was 10-5. Lynn was disappointed because her level off play had dropped considerably after the first set, but in truth I could have done a lot more to help her. In future matches I need to serve first more often (always?) regardless of the sun, and hit my groundstrokes harder. When I lack confidence in them, I tend to resort to the “slice-and-hope” strategy of chipping balls, coming to the net and hoping for the best. If my approach sits up too much, however, we’re in big trouble: even though I can get most hard-hit passing shots back (in doubles, at least), the play leaves my partner a sitting duck. While better strategic play could have helped us bag a huge win, we certainly gave Whitey and Laura a battle, which is something they rarely get in local century play. Lynn and I used the experience we gained to our advantage a few weeks later, as we won four matches- some of them hard-fought- to take the century title at Loon Mountain, just north of Plymouth. Whitey and Laura didn’t make that trip, so a rematch will likely have to wait until next summer. In the meantime, though, there’s lots more tennis to be played. Stay tuned!