Dealing With the Devil(s)

(The events surrounding this match took place the week of April 10, 2015)

Dealing with the devil may seem like a good idea at the time, but it never ends well. Ask Goethe’s Faust, or Damn Yankees’ Joe Hardy, or steroid-powered Sammy Sosa. Or just ask me, after an ugly, nasty week that showed both the selfishness of our own team members and the pettiness of North Shore League politics in a most unflattering light.   I wish the season had ended a week ago with our win over Winchester, but real life is rarely so tidy. So here’s the rest of the story, but first a word of warning: better keep an air-sickness bag close at hand in case it makes you want to throw up.

Our problems began almost immediately after the Winchester match. A number of our guys went to a pub in Billerica called John Ryan’s, but the celebration didn’t last long once we began to think about our lineup for the following week’s championship match at Newburyport. We had beaten Newburyport twice during the regular season, both times by three courts to two in hard-fought matches, so the prospect of playing them at their place in the finals didn’t faze us.   If we had been able to use the same lineup as against Winchester, in fact, we would have been clear favorites, our number-four ranking notwithstanding. Unfortunately, though, we didn’t have that option. Alan would be traveling for work and Ronnie had inexplicably scheduled a tropical vacation. To be fair, the playoffs had been moved up about a month since we had last appeared in them all too long ago. I myself was taken by surprise when I learned about those changes a few weeks before the end of the regular season, but of course I hadn’t scheduled a vacation for that time period either. So not only were we down a court 2 player and a court 3 player, we would be missing the two guys I was most comfortable playing with.   We hoped Brandon, who was still battling some nagging injuries, would be fit to play, but that still left us with Frank on court five, which at this stage was more or less equivalent to defaulting the court. The more we kicked it around, however, the more it became obvious that there was another alternative. We could hold our noses and ask Bryan to come back (and Bob, too, since no one else would agree to play with Bryan). It was a tough call: should we give up a court in our most important match of the year by sticking with a loyal but clearly incompetent team member, or go for the win with a self-centered, egotistical jerk who happened to be a far better player?  In the end, though, we decided to sell our souls. Somewhere Joe Hardy was probably laughing at our naivete.

Famous last words, perhaps, but the plan seemed like a sound one. Newburyport was known for putting its best team, Jim Sartori and Sunny Ahn, on court 2 in the most important matches. So we would throw Bob and Bryan on court 2, hope for the best there, and in so doing drop our other teams down to pick up likely wins on 3, 4 and 5 (we had more or less put court 1 in our column already, given Newburyport’s history). Stacking can be tough for team chemistry if the people being sacrificed resent being placed in that position.   But in Bryan’s mind, he should have been playing on court 2 all year anyway, so he didn’t even perceive it as a stack. Bob knew better, but he was willing to go along with it, and let’s face it: underdogs or no, they had a far better chance on 2 than Frank would have had on 5 (the fact that Frank, who was nominally our captain, had absolutely nothing to do with this entire discussion- wasn’t even present, in fact- probably tells you all you need to know about our team). I would play three with Branco, Mark and Justin would play four, and Dennis and either Brandon- if he was healthy- or Gary would play five.

I think it would have worked, but then the North Shore League, run by Newburyport’s own Courtney Gilman, decided to step in. The NSL makes FIFA look squeaky- clean: corruption and conflicts of interest abound, and when controversial decisions are made, the Willows, a small club without much pull, gets the shaft more often than not. Prior to their semifinal match, Newburyport had protested Westford’s lineup, which seemed to be reasonably fair but which had Marc Carey, a 5.0, on court 2 with a 4.0 partner, and two 4.5s on court 1. Marc Carey is the only court 2 player in the league better than Jim Sartori, and Newburyport wins, in part, by loading up on 2 with Sartori. So Newburyport protested, successfully, and Carey was forced to move up to court 1, which Newburyport had already essentially conceded. This left Sartori safe on court 2, where he won comfortably against two 4.5s; he’s that good. This was all “ok” in the league’s eyes, because his team had played him there a number of times during the regular season (that Carey had also played many matches on court 2 didn’t seem to matter, but then again Westford didn’t have the league coordinator in its stable of teaching pros).   So courts one and two were split, Newburyport used its depth to win on the lower courts, and that was that for Westford: a great season, surely, but not quite great enough, and one that had ended with a bitter taste.

Having used the protest to good effect the week before, Newburyport tried it again against us and was equally successful. To begin with, the league refused to accept our initial lineup on the grounds that, according to some arcane formula, Branco was too good to play on court 3 and Brandon was too good to play on court 5. It didn’t matter that Branco had played one match in six months and that Jim Sartori could probably wipe the court with him (and surely with me) with one hand behind his back. It didn’t matter that Brandon had a sore arm and that even when his arm was healthy, his net game resembled a man trying without much success to ward off an attacking vampire.   The North Shore League’s computer had spoken.

Our guys were angry, and rightfully so. You’ll see three or four lineups in any given week of league play that are more severely stacked than ours was. Nobody says anything when Chris and Elias double bagel (6-0, 6-0) two guys that can barely hold the racquet while our court two team is getting thumped.   But when you have a club with money, power and influence in a championship scenario, things change in a hurry. To Frank’s credit, he did his best to keep us together. He had us vote on whether or not to continue playing, after having agreed as a group to abide by the result. Chris and Justin voted against playing and the rest of us voted in favor. So Frank put out another lineup, this time with Branco and me on 2, Bob and Bryan on 3, and Brandon and Justin trading places on 4 and 5. Newburyport again protested, but this time the league ruled in our favor, so it looked like all systems were finally go. But then Newburyport appealed that decision (appealing didn’t seem to be an option when decisions went against us, but now, suddenly, it was in play) and the league reversed the earlier ruling just hours after making it. We would have to rework our lineup yet again.

This time all hell broke loose. Dennis, who’s a pretty outspoken guy, quit the team (or, more accurately, the league) on the spot. The rest of us were split about whether or not to play and spent most of the rest of the week debating the question. Some said that playing would lend legitimacy to a process that was rigged against us, while others, including me, thought we still had a chance, however small, and we needed to show up and do our best to beat the odds. Ultimately the threat of sanctions against other Willows teams in the event we blew off the match may have decided the issue.   We would play, and not just without Dennis but also without Brandon, who was hospitalized with a respiratory illness the day before the match. Frank would get to play after all; he’d be teamed with Gary on court 5.

The Christians might have had better odds against the lions than we had in that final match. There was a definite feeling of lambs (not-so-innocent ones, admittedly) being led to the slaughter when we walked into the packed upper lobby of the Newburyport Racquet Club. Seemingly half the population of Newburyport, and unfortunately not the prettier half, was on hand to watch their team’s moment of triumph. They yelled and screamed and pounded on the glass throughout, a display that we countered with one measly fan: Frank’s young daughter, who, as always, spent the time engrossed in her hand-held video game.   And why shouldn’t the Newburyport fans have been confident?   Their team had not only chosen its own lineup, but ours too.   Of course the matchups were in their favor, and in the end everything played out just like they wanted it to.  On court 1 Chris and Elias put the smackdown on Foster and Darke, two guys at my level, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Bob and Bryan, who had moved down to 4, played well and took care of a so-so Newburyport 4 team.   Everybody else lost. Frank and Gary were off the court in about half an hour, and that includes the warmup. Their opponents should have gotten their money back. Kevin and I lost 3 and 1. We broke Sartori twice but didn’t do anything else well. If we had played our best, we would have had only a slim chance, and we were far from at our best. Jim killed us with poaches not only off Sunny’s serves but off his returns, and made almost no errors the rest of the time. Coming onto the court, Elias challenged him about not playing court 1, and he made some lame excuse that his back had been hurting. Would that my back ever hurt like that! With the score tied, it was up to Garvin and Justin on 3 against Rob Random, a big-hitting young lefty, and Eric Russell, a savvy veteran. In the end, they had a little bit too much for our guys, winning by a break in each set. We quickly slunk away into the springtime sunshine as the whole Newburyport membership celebrated the championship they had worked so hard behind the scenes to “earn”.

It had been a great season, but not quite great enough, and it had ended with a bitter taste.

Destination: Newburyport!

originally written April 4, 2015

I guess that headline removed all suspense, but we are in fact headed to the championship match at second-seeded Newburyport next weekend after a 5-1 victory at Winchester. Things looked bleak early on, as we lost the first set in three of the five matches and were at 5-5 in a fourth (all NSL playoff matches are two out of three sets, untimed), but we used experience, determination and heart to come back and record a memorable win. In an effort to give a better feel for all the momentum swings, I’ll detail the matchups first and then tell how I perceived them evolving while focusing on my own match, which had more than its share of drama.

Here were the matchups on all five courts:

Court 1- Chris Andros/Elias Moujaes vs Chris Das/AJ Shekar- As usual, we were favored on paper in the court 1 matchup, but the Winchester guys- both recent tennis-playing graduates of Holy Cross- had pushed Chris and Elias in a 7-5, 7-6 Willows win during the regular season. Das especially had a powerful and accurate game, so we certainly couldn’t count on an automatic point.

Court 2- Kevin Branco (6-0)/Alan Kravetz (9-5) vs Matt Williams/Richard Leaf- Branco was playing for the first time since the birth of his daughter in December, but Kevin doesn’t practice much anyway, so as long as he could still serve we had confidence in him. Alan had been playing well with me and now he had a partner who actually wanted to serve first. Winchester brought their own big-serving lefty in captain Matt Williams, while Leaf had an awkward but effective style which made him a good complementary player.

Court 3- Ron Love (6-0)/yours truly (12-5) vs Elliott Koch (9-2)/Justin Sordillo (6-4)

Ronnie and I always make a good team and we liked our chances on three. We decided earlier that morning to switch return sides with him going over to the ad side, because he said he was returning much better there than on the deuce. He can hit more winners than me and I usually have more consistency, so I wanted him to play whatever side he was most confident on.   We had our hands full with two strong opponents. Koch was an all-around player with a strong forehand, big volleys, and no real weaknesses. He had played most of the year on courts one and two and Winchester was clearly counting on him to drop down and win on three. Sordillo was more erratic than his partner and had vulnerabilities on the backhand side, but he served well and had good reflexes, including a nasty two-handed backhand overhead which would have made Venus Williams proud.

Court 4- Mark Garvin/Justin Rowland vs Chris Weiss/Sandro Attacalitile (15-4)

Garvin’s condor wingspan at the net is the perfect complement to Justin’s heavy serves and forehands and his laid back demeanor helps keep Justin’s nerves in check, so they make a good team. Even so, they had a tough matchup against Weiss, a quick and scrappy groundstroker, and Sandro, a smooth hitter with good hands at the net.

Court 5- Dennis Robertson/Gary Barros vs Mike Poppler/Mike Walsh

Poppler and Walsh are an excellent court five team- gritty guys that get the ball back (Walsh has some power too, and Poppler some height and reach). Dennis’s big forehand was the biggest weapon on the court but he needed to stay strong mentally. Gary needed to forget how badly he played the week before and get enough balls back that the opposition couldn’t win just by focusing on him. Like all the other courts, with the possible exception of 1, this match was a toss-up.

On to the match, then, and Ronnie and I were living a nightmare for the first fifteen minutes or so. Leading 40-15 in the opening game, he ultimately dropped serve on the deuce point, and after Winchester held I then played a poor game (missing a lot of first serves). When Ron dumped an easy overhead into the net at 30-40 we were down two breaks, and then we lost another game to go down 0-4. It wasn’t all due to mistakes on our part, either- the other guys just couldn’t miss! Winchester was getting big returns off both sides from Koch, a mixture of deep backhand lobs and hard topspin forehands from Sordillo, and lots of first serves and excellent reflex volleys from both of them.   They got their balls low with spin and angle and I had trouble volleying them. Ron’s volleys were sharper than mine, but they passed him down the line a few times after long, drawn-out points. I was a little bit shell-shocked: I couldn’t believe that a great season would end on such a miserable note. We needed to bring our own level of play up and hope our opponents’ level dropped. As the set wore on, Ron and I each managed to hold serve and that helped us get more of a foothold into the match. But we still couldn’t break our opponents, and when Sordillo dug out of a 0-40 deficit to hold on the deuce point (they won all three deuce points in the opening set), the first set was Winchester’s by a 6-2 count.

As we switched ends of the court (in the NSL, teams switch sides only at the beginning of a new set), I took stock of some of the other matches and the results were not encouraging. Chris and Elias looked to be winning but Branco and Alan had already lost the first set as Williams’s heavy spin serve was giving them fits. Dennis and Gary were down late in the first set and seemed likely to drop it (they did), and Mark and Justin were back and forth at four- or five-all. Our team was on the verge of getting blown out of the water, but slowly that changed. Mark and Justin ran off two consecutive games for a 7-5 first set win, and by then we had jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second.   Koch was putting away any first volley that stayed above the net, so I mixed lower balls with some lob returns over Sordillo, and we ended up breaking Elliott and then I held serve on the deuce point (Ron had held easily in the opening game). We attacked the net and they missed a few more balls then they had earlier in the match, but we still had to work hard for every point. I hit a few good overheads and some decent volleys, but our returns remained inconsistent and we couldn’t add to our lead, so my turn came to serve again in the important 4-2 game.   I wasn’t getting enough first serves in and Koch was just hammering his forehand at me, so I stayed back a few times to try to change it up. We got to deuce by winning most of the points played on Sordillo’s ad side, but Koch was waiting on the sudden victory point (he returned all of them). I tried to surprise him with a flat serve out wide, but it missed, so I then elected to come in on a meatball second serve. I got the first volley back but a couple of shots later he hit a sharply-angled forehand towards the alley. I got into position but volleyed it into the net and then angrily threw in a few curse words. After some strong serving from Sordillo, Winchester was back even at 4-4, and games went with serve to 5-5. Then it was my turn. Oh joy.   We were hanging on by a thread and I knew if I was broken again here we would almost certainly lose. I resolved to put everything I had into that game and fortunately my serves got a little steadier and my volleys a little sharper. When Sordillo’s lob at 40-30 drifted wide of Ron’s alley, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. We looked to be headed for a tiebreaker as Justin went up 40-15 on his serve, but we won my point and then Ronnie ripped a pro-level backhand crosscourt return that resulted in a clean winner even though the server stayed back. That one shot alone made switching him to the ad side worthwhile! After such a great shot there was no question he was going to take the deuce point. His return this time was a little bit more pedestrian but he got it in play and came to the net with Sordillo pinned beyond the service line. They threw up a short lob in between us. Ron had the forehand and the momentum of closing to the net and I yelled for him to take it. He snapped off a smash into the deuce court and Koch, who had retreated to try to block it back, couldn’t control his reply. Amazingly, we were even at a set apiece.

Taking stock of the matches around us during the short break before the third set, we saw that Chris and Elias had wrapped up an easier-than-expected win on 1 and Alan and Kevin had gone down to defeat on 2. 4 and 5 were both late in the second set (remember that we were up a set on 4 and down a set on 5). We couldn’t worry about them for the time being, though: we just had to take care of business on our own court. Tennis is a funny game. You might be on the verge of defeat, but if you can somehow reverse the momentum- and it’s almost never easy to do- you can take the upper hand in a hurry. After we won that second set we felt like we had the upper hand, and we played that way, breaking Koch to begin the third set. Next Ronnie held serve to consolidate the break. Then Sordillo and I both held, him much more easily than me, but we were still two games ahead. By now Mark and Justin had won another 7-5 set and given our team a 2-1 overall lead. Gary and Dennis had taken their second set and were just beginning the third. Their points seemed to be lasting longer than ours, so it was almost certain that our match would finish first. Ronnie and I, then, had the team win on our racquets, but we had to try not to think about that and just play. Luckily we were both in a patch of good play: his volleys had been superb all day, but now his returns were more consistent, and my volleys had improved while my returns stayed consistent.   We were both getting in to the net whenever possible and using our opponents’ pace to hit solid volleys until either they missed a shot or we got a put-away opportunity. The 3-1 game was critical. We didn’t necessarily expect to break Koch again but doing that would put us up by two breaks. While neither Ronnie nor I have a great serve, we were really sticking the volleys and it would have taken some doing for our opponents to come back from that large a deficit.   We played opportunistically and took the game to deuce, and then came a long, tough, well-played point. We eventually pinned Koch at the baseline on his forehand side, but he came back with a terrific lob over my head. I don’t like to let lobs bounce and sometimes that’s a weakness because it causes me to overestimate my range. In this case I was going to be in trouble no matter what I did. Elliott’s ball had a lot of topspin on it and if I let it bounce it would take off in the direction of the back fence, but it was also too far behind me for me to hit a clean overhead. I might be tall, but I can’t jump very high under the best of circumstances, and late in a match with my body’s momentum carrying me in the opposite direction was hardly the best of circumstances. So I got as much upward thrust as I could and then reached as far back as I was able. The result was a much uglier version of the old Jimmy Connors “skyhook” smash.   I got my racquet on the ball and stuck it back crosscourt on a high arc and in what seemed like slow motion. At first the ball looked to be drifting wide, but then its momentum slowed down even more, and I knew it had a chance to go in. Finally it came down about five feet past the net, landed squarely on the doubles sideline and almost immediately bounced into the side curtain, out of Elliott’s reach. It wasn’t pretty, but it may have been one of the most important shots I’ve ever hit. After that, we could feel the air go out of our opponents, and in our own minds we knew we weren’t losing.   When a shot like that goes in at such a crucial moment, you just feel like it’s your day. Ronnie held easily and after Sordillo got a game back for them, I did the same, serving out the match at love.   We were going to the finals!!!  Gary and Dennis ended up winning, too, so the final score was a deceptively lopsided 5-1. It could just as easily have gone 5-1 the other way, but I think we had a little more experience (that’s a nice way of saying that all of our guys are over 40) and we were able to use that to our advantage. Newburyport beat Westford, 4-2, so we’ll go there next week, but without Ronnie and Alan, who will both be away. After today, though, it’s hard to say anything is impossible, so we’ll do our best and let the chips fall where they may.

Zero and Zero Again

Zero and Zero Again

(originally written March 28, 2015)

Yesterday my North Shore League regular season that began in mid-September finally concluded, and the verdict was mixed. On the plus side, we qualified for the playoffs for the first time in several years despite significant internal problems, and we can be proud of that. On a less positive note, we enter the postseason as the fourth and lowest seed, meaning that all of our matches will be on the road and that our semifinal opponent will be top-ranked Winchester.   At the halfway point of the season, our positions were reversed (we sat atop the table while they were in fourth), so although all four surviving teams are evenly matched, Winchester certainly comes into the playoffs riding more momentum than we do. The thing about the postseason, though, is all you really have to do is get there: after that, it’s a matter of who can play their best when it matters most. I always ask my high school teams before we begin our playoffs what our record is, and there are usually enough veterans that before long somebody gives the right answer: “zero and zero”.   It doesn’t matter whether your team was 14-0, 8-6 or somewhere in between. You’re back to zero and zero again. Now I have to take my own teachings to heart and see if our Willows team can make a Cinderella run of its own.

Our final regular-season match was a makeup at Bass River of Beverly, which over the past few years has seen an infusion of talented players as several ex-Winchester teaching pros have found a new home there. Fortunately most of them play in the A league, but on any given day a few A players will sub in on the upper courts of the A-1.   When Bass River came to our place, Chris got his only loss of the year, as Mike Lapierre- one of the best players in Eastern Mass- filled in one court one. But there’s a limit to how many matches you can play at a lower level, and Mike had by now exceeded his quota, so Chris didn’t have to worry about facing him again. Bass River instead put two skilled but older players on court 1, and they were no match for Chris and Elias, who were both playing at the top of their game. I was back with Alan on court two and this week we faced a tough father and son team named Thayer and Trevor. Thayer was a little older than me and had a style very similar to my own, except he couldn’t really come over his backhand, which he hit one-handed. Trevor was probably in his early twenties and he had beautiful strokes, nice hands and excellent quickness around the court.   Fortunately for us his first volley wasn’t quite at the same level as everyone else’s and although he had a fast serve, he tended to double fault at inopportune times.   After I held serve on a deuce point we were able to break him to go up 2-0, but some nice lobs by Thayer mixed with drives from Trevor got them back on serve, and soon they were even at 2-2. The next four games followed the exact same pattern- we broke Trevor, but this time some abysmal net play on my part led to Alan dropping serve again, and before long we were in a 4-4 dogfight. Luckily the pattern that had been established continued once again, as I held serve and we were able to break Trevor for the set following a couple of double faults.

In the second set we built on our momentum as Alan began to serve more effectively and Trevor appeared to get frustrated and overhit a number of balls.   All four guys had smooth strokes and could volley so that made for some entertaining points, but once again we were able to break Trevor in both his service games and take the second set by a more decisive 6-2 margin. I think we probably caught Trevor on an off day: with his strokes and a couple more years of experience he could be an A-league player. But a win’s a win and we’re certainly not going to give it back.   Mark Garvin teamed with Justin for an easy win on three, and we needed it for the team result when we dropped winnable matches on four and five (Gary Barros had a miserable day on four, and we had Frank on five, so enough said there). Four, five, or six points in this match (or zero, for that matter)- it made no difference: we were going to come in fourth in the league regardless. But we got some match play in and stayed sharp for next week’s semifinal match against Winchester. It should be a great match and knowing our team and Winchester’s, there will probably be some fireworks somewhere. We’ll do our best and let the chips fall where they may. Stay tuned.

In With a Whimper

As I prepare for this afternoon’s match at Woburn Blue, just two matches remain in the NSL regular season, which began back in mid-September.   I had some other things going on and missed last week’s home match against Westford, but I later learned it was a classic case of good news/bad news.   The good news was that we took three courts for a 4-2 win (league-leading Westford helped us a bit by choosing to rest three or four of their top players), and this result, coupled with Woburn White’s 1-5 loss against Newburyport, definitively secured us a playoff position.  The bad news was that our chemistry issues continued to worsen, which I would not have thought possible.   Chris and Elias rolled on court one while Alan and Ronnie came up with a strong performance on two, but we lost three and four by wide margins, so the team result hinged on the outcome of court 5.  Frank had Bryan playing there with Bob Pallazolla, a solid veteran with a good serve and lots of determination who unfortunately has a work schedule generally incompatible with Saturday tennis.   Realizing that his own chances for success on any court were limited, Frank had put himself and his partner on four in order to give the court five team a better shot.  He was obviously stacking, but Bryan still took offense that he was playing on court five, and behind Frank to boot.  I guess he had gotten tired of writing long emails, though, because this time he simply didn’t show up to the match.   Luckily we were playing at the Willows and Frank was able to grab a teaching pro (and longtime friend of mine), Mike Roberts, who had just finished giving some lessons.  Mike and Bob had a slow start but came through in three sets, taking the final set 6-4.  It’s a shame neither of them will be with us for the playoffs: Mike is committed to the B team (the next level down in the NSL) and Bob won’t have played in the required number of matches.   But they did put us into the playoffs with a big win, and now it’s up to the rest of us to make the most of it.  Whatever our ultimate destiny, Bryan won’t be part of it: he has officially quit the team.  With guys dropping like flies, we only had two courts filled for today’s match as of late last night.  I’d better get going to Woburn now or else Chris and Elias might be playing solo today….

Sunday, March 22, 2015

I got to Woburn just in time through some late-winter snow flurries, and our team did what it needed to.  We ended up contesting four courts and won all of them against Woburn Blue, a team near the bottom of the standings with nothing much to play for in its final match of the year.  Chris and Elias won in two close, tightly-contested sets against a talented but streaky pair that caught a hot streak, and our two fill-in teams- young teaching pros Andrew Zappala and Dom Iacovo on court three and Gary Barros/Dennis Robertson, who once again came to the rescue on four- cruised.  Frank had me with Alan on two again in order to better prepare us for the upcoming playoffs (if he had put our guys in their true order of strength, Andrew and Dom, who aren’t regular team members, would certainly have been placed ahead of us).   We went up against two guys in their mid-twenties who had played small-college tennis and were now starting careers in the greater Boston area.   I already knew one of them, Tony Collins, a super nice kid who had starred at Trinity High in Manchester and later played quite a bit of evening tennis with our Algonquin team while on breaks from college.   Tony had a huge first serve and a supersonic forehand, but his consistency and shot selection were sometimes a little suspect, so I liked our chances in a doubles environment (in singles, he would have had a clear-cut edge over both Alan and me).  His partner, Kyle, had been captain of the team at Roger Williams College in Rhode Island, but had only recently returned to competitive tennis after a couple of years away from the game.  Although not big or overpowering, Kyle was quick, served well and had more variety in his game than Tony.   In the early part of the match, though, he may not have been fully warmed up, because we ran out the first set comfortably at 6-2, breaking Tony twice and holding our own serves without much difficulty.   We kept our game plan focused on getting our first serves in and attacking the net, and in trying to hit us off the court our opponents made quite a few mistakes.  In the second set, we jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead and I thought we might be in for a stress-free day, but in NSL tennis few matches remain stress-free from start to finish.  Tony held serve on the deuce point with some great shots, and after that he and his partner played with more emotion and consistency.  The next several games all went to deuce, as my volleys were a little bit off and the other guys started to throw in some chips and lobs and reflex volleys, and to use their quickness to track balls down.  We kept our noses in front until Kyle burned me with a great lob volley during a four-player net exchange on the deuce point, putting us into another dogfight at 3 games all.  The stretch of excellent points continued on Tony’s subsequent service game and we reached another sudden-victory point, which I somewhat reluctantly agreed to return from my position on the deuce court.   Tony missed his first serve and then Alan moved forward a perceptible distance from his starting point on the service line.  It might have gotten him killed if I had sent a weak return to the opposing net man, but maybe he knew what he was doing, because Tony put his second serve into the bottom of the net.   Alan then won his own service game at deuce despite some dismal volleying on my part, and two games later I was able to hold uneventfully to complete a 6-2, 6-4 win.  I had taken a week off from doing anything tennis-related and was a little rusty with some strokes, but I felt better physically too (a season of wear and tear coupled with all-too-infrequent fitness work had begun to take a toll).  Now it will be a question of getting my strokes and competitive edge as finely-honed as possible and hoping that our team gets hot when it matters most.   Winchester has overtaken Westford for the top spot, and unless we can make up some ground on third-place Newburyport next week we will be playing them in the opening round.  They do all kinds of strange things with their lineup, and a number of them don’t hesitate to make sketchy calls, but above all they have lots of very, very good players.  We have one amazing player and nine or ten good ones, but very little margin for error if someone gets sick or hurt or decides to go on vacation.  And much like an aftershock from an earthquake, Bryan’s departure continues to have harmful ripple effects.  This week Frank learned that Bill Michaud had decided to quit the team after Big B threw him under the bus following their defeat against Woburn White two weeks ago.  Bill was a solid player who with the right partner could have won for us against anybody on court 4 or 5, and his absence will further limit our options and increase the pressure on the rest of us.  One thing’s for certain, though: whatever ultimately remains of our team come playoff time isn’t going down without a fight.   Let’s just hope that that’s true figuratively and not literally…

Livin’ la Vida Loca

North Shore League tennis is a little bit like Russian roulette.  Play it long enough- typically not all that long- and trouble will find you.  It’s just a question of when.   Yesterday was “when” for me in what had been (at least on the court) a relatively “event”-free season.  And it was only fitting that in the “vida loca” of this most competitive and cutthroat league, my figurative “bullet to the brain” was delivered courtesy of one Richard Martin.  I kid you not, but let’s begin at the beginning.

Going into our match with fifth-place Woburn White, we knew that a win or even a close loss would basically lock up a playoff spot for our troubled but talented team.   We had nine more individual wins and they had just two matches after this one to catch us (we also had an additional make-up match in hand, the “reverse the curse” special at Bass River). A 6-0 win was Woburn’s best chance to keep their hopes alive, but instead of loading up their strength on the lower courts to get a 4-2 result, as they often did, they would have to put out strong court 1 and 2 teams and hope for a sweep.  Normally that would play right into our hands, because we have Chris Andros and they don’t, but Chris had to attend a required coaches’ training session for the upcoming high school tennis season and missed the match, so we were forced to go with a patchwork lineup.  The biggest patch of all, as usual, was on court five, where Frank and Gary lost badly.  By putting two guys on the court, though, we forced Woburn to use up a strong team that might have beaten us elsewhere in the lineup if we had defaulted five.   After last week’s debacle, Frank had sworn he would never be browbeaten into changing the lineup again, so he had Playford back on four.  Bryan’s partner, Bill Michaud, is in the process of moving to this area from someplace in the Carolinas, and plays matches for us on his intermittent northern weekends.   I’ve never been on court with Bill, but I’ve heard he’s an excellent player.   Yesterday, though, he was less excellent than normal, at least according to Bryan (add another inadequate partner to the list…) and they lost to a pair of dogged Asian baseliners in two close sets.  Bill himself apparently said only that he might not want to play in this league anymore, before quickly departing while my match was still on court.  I didn’t know those results until after the final buzzer, but I was all too aware of what had happened on court 1.  In Chris’s absence, Elias had teamed with Justin, but two steady, hustling players who were both about 6’6” and had seemingly limitless reach beat them 7-6, 6-4 at their own baseline game.   Ron and Brandon won a close one on three to avert a Woburn sweep, and that left Alan and me on two against a flame-haired lefty named Ted McCarthy and the aforementioned Rick Martin.

I had beaten Rick earlier in the season at our place, although he was clearly ill that day and made lots of errors, especially at the net.  As Ted looked to have nice strokes and Rick had been the weak link in our previous match, Alan and I began by looking to attack Rick whenever possible.   But Rick was healthy this time and much more on his game than he had been before, and some other things about the match worked in his favor too.  Rick is tall and he stands right on top of the net when his partner serves.  His other partner hadn’t had a very strong serve and Mark Garvin and I had either lobbed Rick or just driven the return crosscourt to the other guy before Rick could react.  Ted was a lefty, which from my standpoint was bad enough, and he also had a hard and heavy serve, so Rick got more sitters at the net and put many of them away.   My shoulder had been sore and my serve wasn’t up to even its usual low standards, and unfortunately Alan is one of the few people on earth who begs me to serve first, so little confidence does he have in his own delivery, which is about the level of mine.   This allowed Rick to groove his returns down the middle from the ad side- we actually had better luck serving to Ted, who seemed to prefer returning harder balls than we were giving him.   There were some terrific points but also a number of mishits and net cords, and we benefited from the majority of them in going up an early break.   But I was broken at love and then Alan lost his serve, though our two breaks of Rick’s serve kept us even at 4-4.  I then dug deep to pull out a deuce point and hold for 5-4.  “That’s why you’re serving first!” exclaimed Alan with what almost sounded like excitement, though it may have just been relief that he hadn’t been the one serving.   We then lucked into a set-winning break as we did a little bit better with our returns of Ted’s serve (admittedly, the bar had been set rather low) and he overhit a couple of his first volleys.   The first set had taken a long time and we knew that with just a two-game lead we couldn’t afford to fall behind quickly in the second, but we hoped that as is sometimes the case after losing a close first set, our opponents would be demoralized and  allow us to get the upper hand early.  This didn’t happen because they were able to hold their first two service games on the deuce point and get some momentum back.  I was doing barely enough to hold my own serve, but I didn’t help Alan much when it was his turn and a few big returns from Rick gave them a break to 4-3.   We weren’t too worried because we had had success on Rick’s serve throughout the match, but Alan seemed to be having trouble getting over the previous game and his returns weren’t what they could have been, enabling Rick to hold for 5-3 and even up the total games with maybe seven or eight minutes left.

At this point they had all the positive energy in their favor.  I had to hold serve here just to keep the match close, because Ted would be serving to us next at a moment where we might not have time to come back from a two-game deficit.   But I was tired and discouraged and in a bad place mentally: I neither felt good about my own game nor had much confidence in Alan’s ability to help me.  As if sensing this, our opponents stepped up their level of play and quickly went up 15-40, or 1-3 as we call it in this league.  But then the complexion of the match changed again.  On the 15-30 point I had hit what I thought was a good first serve and Rick missed his return, but then called the ball out.  His calls had been fine to that point and it’s hard to be sure where your own serve hits, so I didn’t say anything and we ended up losing the point after the second serve.  Although Elias’s match had finished by then, he had stayed to watch ours and was standing on the deuce side of court one next to where Rick was returning from on the ad side of court two.  I heard Elias mutter something under his breath and then when I looked at him he put his palm out, communicating to me that the serve had been good. Unfortunately Rick heard him too and just went off on him, yelling that Elias wasn’t allowed to say anything.  Elias actually shouldn’t have said anything in the first place, much less responded to Rick’s yelling, but a man who was once held prisoner by a terrorist group in his native Lebanon isn’t easily intimidated, so he yelled right back about how Rick was hooking us.   Rick started screaming “you’re awful, you want to win so fucking bad, huh, well I’m on the _______ committee and I’m gonna get your ass thrown out of this league now.”  He just kept screaming at Elias and then Ted started yelling too, so eventually I went up and yelled back at them to just knock it off and get back to playing tennis.  It was a rare case where I didn’t make a bad situation worse; before long Elias did leave the court and we got back to playing.  But I think the other guys had let things get into their head: they gave us a couple of free points with unforced errors and then I held serve on another big deuce point.   Now I was pumped up!  I had seen how badly Elias wanted us to win and I knew I had to put more of myself into the final games.  Ted was angry and serving bullets but I hit a good deep lob return and he missed the ensuing overhead.  Alan was as fired up as he gets, moving with more urgency and making some nice returns and reflex volleys of his own.  Then Ted served what should have been an ace out wide on the deuce court but somehow I got my racquet on it and floated a deep lob to the middle of the court that they couldn’t smash, and we ended up winning the point.   When we broke Ted on a double fault amid yelling and swearing on both sides I knew we had most likely broken their spirit too (with a little help from Elias), and Alan held serve comfortably as the buzzer rang to give us a three-game final margin.   The 2-4 team result keeps us seven points in front, and Woburn is playing two of the other top teams in their remaining matches, so they’re almost certainly not going to catch us now.

I made sure to fill in Frank and Gary (who is also the Willows’s general manager) about the Elias incident, just in case.  I hope he won’t be punished, but you just never know.  The big Boston-area clubs have a lot more pull than Willows does, unfortunately.  I’ll admit that what he did was technically wrong.  He shouldn’t have commented on a line call and thus played a role in the outcome of the match.  But Alan and I were on the ropes and the passion and spirit he showed gave us life when we needed it most.  Seeing how much he cared about a match he wasn’t even playing in made me care more and raise my game to a winning level, and I’m pretty sure it was that way for Alan too.  What Elias did is what good teammates do.  They find a way to make the people around them better.

There’s no “I” in “Team”!

I didn’t get to reverse the curse: the Bass River make-up match was postponed due to scheduling conflicts on both sides during the Massachusetts school vacation week, so we ended up having a bye week instead.  This was probably not a good thing, because some internal issues that had been bubbling under the surface had time to fester, and that led to problems as we prepared for our next match against last-place Woburn Red.   All year there had been rumblings that a few guys, particularly Bryan and Justin, weren’t happy with the positions they had been playing, but they hadn’t exactly been locking down those lower courts, so I never paid the rumors much heed.  A few days before the Woburn Red match, though, Bryan took matters into his own hands by writing a long, irate email to Frank saying he was sick of playing too low on the ladder and that specifically he was a far better player than me and deserved to be positioned that way.  In an attempt to placate him, Frank then made a lineup switch for the Woburn match and moved Bryan up to play with Alan on 2 while dropping me down to play with Brandon on 3.

Let me be clear: I have areas where I fall short of being an ideal team member.   During matches I can get frustrated or upset with my own play, or (less frequently but more damagingly) my partner’s.   There are times I get too serious and forget that fun and friendship are ultimately more important than winning.  But I’ve never back stabbed a teammate that way to my captain try to enhance my own playing position.  I’ve never even asked to play a higher court, period; if anything, when I’m on a losing streak I’ll often say that I think I’m playing too high!   As long as I see my name on the lineup card somewhere- anywhere- I’m happy.   After all, courts 1-5 all have equal value in this league and the goal is to win as a team.  Most of our other guys feel the same way, and what Bryan had written really made Frank and Chris angry.  And when they told me about it a few minutes before the Woburn match, it made me angry too.   I still had smoke coming out of my ears as I took the court against the team of Halim (a big server with a strong competitive spirit) and Geert (an older guy with a game more geared to slicing and lobbing).   On another day the result might have been much different, but here I had my game going on all cylinders and we were able to overwhelm them 6-3, 6-1.  I stepped into the ball well and had a number of big returns off both sides, stuck my volleys and repeatedly smashed overhead winners out of their reach (especially important since they lobbed more frequently than most of our opponents).  Brandon was feeling the effects of some minor injuries and took a little while to get warmed up, but by the second set he had his big forehand going and we ran through the Woburn guys quickly.   Chris and Elias dispatched a team that had no business playing on court 1 in something like half an hour, while Dennis Robertson and Gary Barros filled in on 4 and cruised.   Playing with a new member who had been away from tennis for a while and was understandably rusty, Frank went down in flames on five, but Bryan and Alan seemed to have things in hand on two, leading by four games in the final minutes against Woburn’s true number one team of Brett Fairbanks and Justin McCabe.   They finished poorly, though, dropping the last five games, so we had to settle for a 4-2 win against a team we really should have swept.

The real drama, though, came after the match, as Chris, Elias, Bryan and I had an animated discussion for the next two hours or so in the Willows’ upstairs bar.  “Animated discussion” is a euphemism- this was loud and contentious enough that at one point Jimmy the bartender started yelling at us to cool it, because if he’d wanted to be around that type of conflict he would have stayed home with his wife.   It was probably my fault, because early in the conversation while the others were talking among themselves, I asked Bryan point-blank if he’d been dissing me to Frank and other teammates in order to play ahead of me.  His response was essentially that he wasn’t dissing me, he was just better than me and was telling the truth.  He wanted to play against tougher competition and thought he deserved the opportunity.  After some back-and-forth I realized that we were each going to have our own opinion of who was the better player.  So I just said he could believe whatever he wanted about who was better, but if we had to team up one day I needed to know he had my back, and talking shit about me was not the way to make that happen.   At that point Andros jumped into the conversation and Bryan reiterated his complaints about being undervalued, saying that he was as good as and probably better than everyone on the team except Chris.  Andros then got really revved up and said he was sick of guys bitching and moaning and not backing it up on the court.  “That’s why our team’s not going to go anywhere this year”, he said, “because we’ve got too many guys like you who all they care about is themselves.   Dave will play any position, with any partner, and he doesn’t care because he wants to win a championship.  You’re sitting here complaining and yet you don’t have the record to back it up (Bryan was 6-6).  If you think you should be playing higher, go to the lower courts and control the game and win, and you know what, eventually you’ll play higher!  Until then just be glad that I’m playing and winning every week on court one to keep our team afloat while guys like you complain all the time and don’t contribute anything.”  And though his singsong Middle Eastern accent stayed at a much lower volume, Elias was as mad as I’ve ever seen him.   “We are all basically the same level”, he said, “and I truly believe I cannot know for sure that I am better than anyone or they are better than me.  There are so many variables- how good was your partner, how good was my partner, many things.  But I can look at the record over time and see what good players this guy has beaten or that guy has beaten, and by that I can have some idea of a player’s value.  And your record says you are six and six, Bryan.  Six and six!  It does not matter how good you think you are.  You must win.”

Bryan was not so easily deterred, listing one excuse after another for his losses.  The opponents stacked and put better teams at my position.  Dennis quit on me after he served for the match and got broken.  Alan tried to stall with the lead and that made us lose our momentum.  The opponents hit it to Brandon all the time because they knew he wasn’t very good.  Justin was playing a few days after nearly being murdered in a street fight and had trouble just standing up (ok, that one at least was valid…).  After a couple of hours, the discussion finally ran out of steam, and though I think it was valuable to talk things out in the open like that, I’m not sure how much was actually resolved.  If I have to play with Bryan again, I will.  Although we had (and probably will continue to have) differences of opinion, I at least respect the effort that he gives on the court.  Some of my teammates hold grudges a lot longer, though.  Let’s hope we’re all somehow able to put this behind us and salvage what could still be a championship season.

It Takes All Kinds!

After surviving another February week full of snowstorms and freezing weather, our Willows team swung back into action yesterday at BSC-Lynnfield, better known as the Colonial, apparently because it used to be attached to a luxury hotel of that name (it’s now adjacent to the Sheraton).  Of all the North Shore clubs, Colonial is probably where I’ve had the most success.  One reason why is that the courts there are really slow, and since I base my game far less on power than most NSL players, that hurts other guys much more than it hurts me.   The other reason, to be completely frank, is that Colonial teams are usually not league powerhouses (I can’t remember them ever making the playoffs in any division).  So while they do have a number of good players, their guys are usually at least somewhat beatable if you’re on your game.

We needed beatable opponents in this week’s scenario because when courts 1-3 began play our team already trailed 2-0.  Frank had been unable to add to his one-match winning streak, going down to defeat with Justin in a match that started at 8 am,  and we defaulted another court because of a lack of available players.  So Alan Kravetz and I, once again playing uncomfortably high up on court 2, knew we had absolutely no margin for error.  But unlike in our two previous defeats, we weren’t matched up against ringer teaching pros or slumming court 1 players stacking themselves lower in the lineup to avoid Chris Andros.  Yesterday’s opponents were probably both somewhere in their 50s.  Barry was a big guy built like a bear and with a grouchy disposition to match.  He had a powerful first serve and a very hard, flat forehand, but he moved slowly around the court and had a weak backhand.  His partner James almost defied description, though I’ll try my best to capture his essence. With his darkly tanned skin and long, flowing blond hair, James looked a little bit like Guillermo Vilas, the Argentinean superstar of the 1970s- that is, if Guillermo Vilas had decided to cover every visible square inch of his body with some sort of piercing or tattoo.   James’s strokes were unconventional but effective- a slow, looping forehand, a heavily sliced backhand, and volleys which were hit with some kind of strange sidespin but rarely missed. His serve was not especially fast but just as he began to swing he let out a bloodcurdling scream that would have made Monica Seles envious.   When standing at the net or preparing to return serve he bounced around like Rafa Nadal.  When his partner was returning, he positioned himself right on the center service T.  Either he was trying to draw a double fault or he was protecting the middle against a strong first volley- who knows, maybe both!  He hustled for every ball, lobbed well and hit winners at opportunistic moments.   And when his team won a big point he let out a roar only slightly less deafening than the one on his serve (unforced errors were accompanied by fewer screams but many, many more obscenities).

I’m not a shrinking violet on the court but I could tell right away that trying to outdo this guy dramatically wasn’t going to work.  I just had to block all his stuff out, realize there was nothing personal behind it, and play my game the best I could.  Fortunately it was one of my better days and I was able to do exactly that.   Alan and I started off quickly, taking the first set 6-1 by getting to the net as quickly as possible and using our size (Alan is a couple of inches taller than my 6’2″) to pound overhead winners.  I had success hitting high, slow balls with some spin- including second serves- to Barry’s forehand (he would generally crank them into the back fence) and we were fortunate that those lobs of James’s that did get over us sailed a little bit long.  Those guys were already frustrated at how the match was unfolding and when Alan took a close call on the far sideline they both basically flipped out.  Alan is very serene on the court, almost hippie-like, and in this case it helped us avoid getting into some prolonged arguments which might have taken away our momentum.   And to their credit the other guys may have disagreed with a couple of calls but they didn’t turn it into a hooking battle, as is often the case in NSL matches.  Barry and James started to back up their serves better in the second set but we got an early break and unlike last week we were able to keep the lead and eventually serve it out at 6-4, as I rallied from 15-30 to hold serve in the final game.   I made some great gets tracking down lobs and also came up with a few nice reflex volleys, and James even gave me a couple of hand-on-racquet claps.  After we shook hands he couldn’t have been a nicer guy; he said what a fun match it had been and told me he had just opened an Italian restaurant in one of the suburbs north of Boston (Tremezzo in Wilmington, for anyone who’s local) and encouraged me to stop in.  I’ll try to do that because if this guy cooks with same passion that he plays tennis with, it’ll be one heck of a meal.

Today’s match encapsulated one of the things I love the most about tennis: getting to meet and compete against people who may be very different than me but have a love for the game that’s just as strong as mine.  Through tournament play and team tennis I’ve made friends with men and women from all walks of life and that has made my own life immeasurably richer.   My teammates and playing partners over the years have ranged from a Fortune 500 CEO (Gary) to a guy who worked as a janitor at the Racquet Club of Concord (Ted).    To people who’ve never really played the game, tennis may not seem particularly democratic, and to a certain extent I can see what they mean.  Gary and Ted, for example, have had far different levels of access to lessons, equipment and tennis-related travel, and so even if they hold the same USTA rating, in the long run they may not truly compete on equal footing.   But put them on the tennis court together as partners or as opponents and they are absolutely equal.   Put them on a team together and on any team worthy of the name they will be judged entirely on their loyalty, reliability and contributions to the team’s success.   My past and present teammates have included entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, machinists, newspaper editors, fellow teachers, IT workers, mechanics, used car salesmen and just about everything else you can imagine.  You learn very quickly that none of that matters when you step between the lines.  So in that sense our game is about as democratic as it gets.

Chris and Elias won a tough one, 6-4, 6-4 against a couple of big hitters, so that left the team result and the extra “team victory” point up to Mark and Brandon, and their finish couldn’t have been any more dramatic.  After dropping the first set 3-6, they won the second 6-2 but trailed 2-3 in the third when the time allotted for the match expired.   In that situation you finish the game you’re on, and Mark held serve on a sudden-victory deuce point to give them one more game than their opponents.  With fifth-place Woburn also winning by the same score, we’re still eleven points to the good with five matches remaining, including next week’s make-up at Bass River (Beverly), a club that has been my own personal house of horrors over the years.   Stay tuned next week to see if I can follow in the footsteps of the 2004 Red Sox and “Reverse the Curse”!

New Year, New Challenges

I’m celebrating the arrival of 2015 and the second anniversary of this blog by changing the format.  Rather than put up a long War and Peace-type post every couple of months, I hope to write shorter but more regular entries.  The problem is that just as I’ve become more comfortable with writing about myself, an unfortunate thing happened.   I lost my story!  Put in a less diplomatic way it comes down to this: I can’t win and neither can my team.  At the 4.0 level I at least had interesting tennis adventures to write about, however imperfectly, but as a 4.5 I now understand how the publicist for the Washington Generals must feel after the Globetrotters have put yet another beatdown on his boys.

The New Hampshire men’s USTA 4.5 season has been under way for two and a half months, and during that time I’ve played three tri-level and three full-team matches and lost all of them (my team has also lost every single time, with the exception of one tri-level match where they had the wisdom to keep me on the sidelines).  It would be easy, but perhaps wrong, to say I’m just in over my head.   I’m certainly not one of the top 4.5s in New England, but five of my six matches have actually been close: I lost three in supertiebreakers and reached a first-set tiebreaker in two of the others (the sixth, in which I played against a guy fresh from the top six at nationally-ranked D-III program Redlands University, was understandably more lopsided).   Some days I’ve actually played great and others….. not so great.   On the great days either my partners were a little bit off or the opponents were just too strong.  On the not so great days the results have been predictable.  If I miss too many first serves or don’t get the relaxed wrist or the parabolic swing that leads to a decent kick serve, I’m volleying laser beam returns off my shoetops.   If I don’t step into my own returns, guys eat me up with their serves.  If I don’t come mentally ready to play or if I get pissed off at myself too quickly when things go wrong, I can’t compete.  These are basically the same things that held me back at the 4.0 level, but since the competition there was weaker, my strengths were enough to keep me in a match against almost anyone.  That’s not the case anymore.  If I had a partner who could carry me, things might be different, but there isn’t anyone on our team who fits that description.   At this level we’re a bunch of third doubles and second singles players, and that makes it hard to even compete, much less win.

I need to practice more, but it’s discouraging to do that and still not see results, so I end up practicing less instead.  I need to get to the gym more, but a brutally snowy New England winter has made excuses to stay home all too plentiful.   I need to revise my expectations and take pleasure in small (read: non-scoreboard) victories and gradual improvements, but for that I need to reshape my whole mindset, and I’m not there yet.  So I’ve taken what I guess amounts to the easy way out.  In addition to the USTA season, which will drag on into June, I found a league where I have a better chance to win on a team that has the potential to be a contender.   And for the next few months, at least, that’s where my story is going to head.

I wrote a little bit last year about the disintegration of my North Shore League team.   My club, North Andover (MA) Willows, had two teams at the highest level of the competition, but both were near the bottom of the standings, and if someone had accused my team of giving up on the season, I wouldn’t have argued the point.  We needed ten players each week from a player pool probably twice that size to fill five doubles courts, yet we routinely defaulted one or two courts and simply lost most of the other ones.  Those of us who showed up tried our best, and we all had a few moments when everything clicked, but on the whole we just weren’t competitive anymore.  It was the opposite of a harmonic convergence: our nucleus of guys had gotten older just as the league had gotten tougher.  After last season’s debacle the Willows decided to restructure its teams.  One of the two A teams would stay at that level and the other would drop down to A-1, and all of us would be free to choose which to play for.  Although I had had several close matches on courts 4 and 5 in the A’s, I knew my USTA team wasn’t likely to go too far, so I wanted to at least be on a North Shore team that was competitive and had decent morale.  With that in mind, after some thought I decided to swallow my pride and drop down to A-1, which depending on the opponent and the lineup position varies from a strong 4.5 level of play to a modest 4.0.

Whatever happens between now and the end of the season in May, I can say with confidence that I made the right decision.  Our team is contending for a playoff spot, the guys have enthusiasm and team spirit again, and the level of competition we see is still very good.  Last year nobody wanted to stick around and hang out after the matches, but now many of us stay for hours in the Willows bar and bond.   We owe some measure of our success to our new captain, Frank Smith.  Frank played on the B team for years before quarreling with its outspoken captain, Joe Ceppetelli.   He then came over to our team to join up with his longtime friend Steve Barretto and ultimately took over when Steve gave up the captaincy after last season.  Although Frank’s own game can best be described as a work in progress, he has a lot of enthusiasm and energy for organizing the team.  He really cares how we do, which should be a given but isn’t always in club tennis, and that rubs off on the rest of us.  As far as actually formulating lineups, Frank will never be confused with Bill Belichick, but he at least recognizes what he doesn’t know.   On our team what that means is that he puts out the lineup that Chris Andros tells him to.  Chris is the best player at the Willows: he’s small, middle-aged and not particularly fast, but he has impeccable timing, consistency, anticipation and strategic sense.  His dropping down to the A1 level was a matter of some controversy among the other clubs, who prefer to be the ones bending the rules, but it’s the decision he made and I’m glad he’s on my team.  Chris is the type of guy that you either love or hate, but I’ve always found him to be a very honest competitor and a good teammate as long as you own it when you fuck up and you don’t complain about your role.  Luckily I tend to do those things anyway and so he and I have always gotten along well.  Chris brought his doubles partner, Elias Moujaes, a Lebanese immigrant with an unorthodox game but the heart of a lion, to the A-1 team and our longtime teammate Kevin Branco- a basketball coach and restaurant owner in Chelmsford- also joined up, giving us three elite players.  Ron Love, Alan Kravetz and Mark Garvin, who are all respectable 4.5s, give us a nucleus on par with the Willows A team, and I’ve played well enough that I’m now generally put into their category, which is no small compliment.  I’ve played in most of the matches, with varying degrees of effectiveness but no lack of effort, on courts two through four.  Andros insists that I’ve been even more important to the team than him (and from Chris there is no higher praise) since I can play any position and potentially turn a 2-4 loss into a 4-2 win- the team winning the majority of the five courts gets a bonus “team victory” point, and the standings are based on total points.  I maintain that it’s simply an extension of Andy Warhol’s maxim that eighty percent of life is showing up.  Like me, Brandon Blech, Justin Rowland, Dave Neshat and my USTA teammate Bryan Playford show up regularly, and they generally have success on the middle and lower courts.  Frank suits up when we can’t find anyone else and a few other guys have come and gone, with plenty of sound and fury but without lasting harm to our overall chemistry.  And so two-thirds of the way through the twenty-match regular season we find ourselves solidly among the top four teams- playoff territory  in our eleven-team league.

In this week’s match we hosted Cedardale of Haverhill, MA as we attempted to get our season back on track (after winning ten of our first eleven matches, we had dropped the last two while experiencing lineup crises which at times felt uncomfortably like last season’s).    As has often been the case in these short-handed weeks, I was up on court 2, this time teamed with Ron Love, whom I’ve played well with in the past.  We faced John Woolley and Lenny Licari, a longtime pairing that beat Chris McCallum and Mark Paquette at 40s sectionals last summer.  John hit out on his groundstrokes off both sides and volleyed aggressively at the net, and Lenny was a savvy player with good hands.   It was an old-school match in that none of us really had an overpowering serve- there were no aces in the match and few service winners, which made for lots of tough points.  Ron typically plays the backhand side but he said he had been more comfortable on the forehand lately, so I moved over to the backhand instead.  On our team I tend to provide the consistency and Ronnie the power, but in the first set he was still finding the range on his returns and Cedardale held serve in a number of deuce games (we play no-ad scoring with a sudden-victory deuce point).  I struggled with my first serve percentage and was broken in the middle of the set, but we broke right back and then games went with serve until Lenny ‘s turn came at 5-6.  He led 40-15 but we then evened things up to force a high-pressure deuce point.  I was returning better at the time so we decided I would take it on the ad side.  Lenny had served down the middle on the 40-30 point and I had cracked a strong forehand return which led to a winning volley by Ron.  With that in mind I had a feeling he would try to go out wide on the deuce point, and so I slightly overplayed the backhand side.  As it happened he hit a very hard and well-placed serve in that direction, but luckily I was leaning that way and was able to hit a rocket back crosscourt which he couldn’t handle.  With the way the first set ended I thought Lenny and John might be discouraged, so I focused on getting a good start to the second and not giving them any free points.  Sure enough, their games dropped a little bit and we went up a break, but leading 5-2 we got sloppy and lost three consecutive games.  The lowlight came when Ronnie served at 5-3, 40-15 only for us to drop three straight points as we both butchered easy volleys.   Thankfully at 5-5 I was able to hit some better volleys and hold serve, and we then broke Lenny at love to win the match.   So while there some lapses I wasn’t thrilled about and I feel like our opponents may have played closer to their potential than we did, we were at least able to work through the rough patches and get a win- and any win on court two in this league is a good win!  Even better, our team won 5-1 to move eleven points ahead of the fifth-place team.  It’s easy to take Chris and Elias for granted- they’re such good players- but they had a tough second set today which required a 5-4 tiebreaker win (set tiebreakers here use the old nine-point system).   Brandon and Justin struggled in a loss on three but Bryan won easily with a new guy, Bill Michaud, on four.  Cedardale moved their court four team down to five because one of the guys was stuck in traffic and they were worried about a default, but although he arrived in the nick of time, Frank and Dave beat them anyway, leading by a single game at the end of the 90-minute timed match.  Filling five courts on Saturday and winning four of them was just what we needed- let’s hope we can keep it going, and going, and going!

Moose Magic!

When I was growing up in Concord, NH, there was a guy a few years younger than me named Greg Forbes.  Greg had plenty of things going for him: he was good-looking and popular, he got straight A’s in school, and his family had more money than some Third World nations.   What he did not have was a natural gift for playing tennis.  I don’t mean to sound like I’m dissing Greg, whose high school career was much more distinguished than my own, but it was a fact that success, at least in this one endeavor, didn’t come easily for him.  He practiced hard, took lots of lessons, and ultimately played in the top two or three singles spots on some good teams, but they (and he) always fell a little bit short.   Then, in the state doubles tournament his senior year, the stars lined up just right for Greg.  He had a strong partner, a big lefty with a killer serve named Eric Simonton, and they survived some tough matches to reach the semifinals.   The top teams had all suffered upset losses in the early rounds (something almost unheard of in the Granite State, which isn’t known for the depth of its tennis talent), and the other pairs that had won through were strong but beatable.   The semis and finals were played on the same day, and that day happened to be the best of Greg’s tennis life.  Over the course of two matches he just couldn’t miss, and the result was a well-deserved, but completely unexpected, state doubles title.   Even Greg’s coach, the legendary Harvey Smith, was taken by surprise, delivering this memorable quote in the next day’s paper: “Greg Forbes absolutely loves tennis, and for this one day the game loved him back.”

Twenty years later, and a few weeks ago, I had my own Greg Forbes moment, and it couldn’t have come at a more surprising place: the Moose Open, at Sudden Pitch in Manchester.  Sudden Pitch (known in the tennis community simply as “the Pitch”) is a small outdoor club with clay courts on North River Road.  The Pitch lies just south of the Derryfield School, but the surrounding woods are so dense that you could drive by the place every day for years on your way to work and never notice it unless you knew exactly where to look.   I’m not a member there, but the Moose (a summer’s-end festival of drinking and tennis created years ago by the personable Gary Walsh, who does those two things in combination as well as anyone around) is open to all.  Well, to all men- there are no women’s divisions- and this year a total of about 60 with ratings ranging from 3.0 to 5.0 signed up for three levels of play.  The Moose has a unique format: you sign up as an individual and are placed with different randomly-drawn partners for two or three rounds of pro-set tennis.  The players with the top eight point totals then advance to the elimination phase, where #1 teams with #8, #2 with #7 and so on, and they stay together as partners to play out the semis and finals.

As a borderline 4.5, I wasn’t especially thrilled to be placed in the top flight.    I had been hoping to get a lot of match play, but there were only twelve of us in the 4.5-plus division and thus only two preliminary matches.   This was important because by any objective standard I was among the two or three weakest players of the twelve, and thus wasn’t likely to advance to the elimination rounds.    In all honesty, I was just hoping not to embarrass myself.   My goals were to hit the ball well and be at least somewhat competitive in my matches.   In my first match, though, I had the good fortune to be partnered with the highest-rated player in the field: Tomas Gonzalez, a 5.0 who twenty years ago had played Division 2 college tennis on scholarship.  Our opponents were Dave Hall and Dana Lavoie, good players but much closer to my level than to Tomas’s.  The match followed roughly this pattern throughout:  they would hit three or four hard balls at me wherever I was on the court (knowing this, I tried to get to the net as quickly as possible) but I was able to return them reasonably well.  Then they’d get sloppy or a little bit out of position and hit one to Tomas, who would promptly smack a winner.   After Dana held in the opening game, we rolled them ten straight, which almost never happens at this level because breaking serve is difficult.   I had returned and volleyed well and held serve twice, but I wasn’t fooling myself that I was responsible for the magnitude of our win.  In the 1980’s, when John McEnroe won lots of doubles tournaments with his less-skilled friend Peter Fleming, the saying went that the best doubles team in the world was John McEnroe and somebody.  He was that good.  I was pretty sure that the best doubles team at the Moose Open was Tomas Gonzalez and somebody, and I was just lucky to have been that somebody for a set.  In my second match I no longer had Tomas to lean on, and I came back to reality in a hurry.  My partner Colin Stone (a consistent and athletic lower-end 4.5) and I were no match for the team of Mark Blaisdell and John Smith.   Mark has great hands and he volleyed superbly, while Smith, a recently-promoted 4.5 with a game similar to mine, held his own and made very few mistakes.  We won just three games and it took a couple of tough holds late in the match to get even that many.  With eight out of twelve players reaching the next phase of the competition, I felt like I had chance to go on with one win, but I wasn’t sure.  I caught a break, though, because it turned out that the Moose awarded “margin of victory” bonuses!   When nine bonus points for the 10-1 win with Tomas were added to my total of thirteen games, I was able to advance comfortably as the #6 seed.  Gracias, Tomas!

The pairings for the semifinals were as follows:

#1 Tomas/#8 Bruce Leibig vs #4 Greg Meighan/#5 Ed Ibanez

#2 Andy Day/#7 Smith vs #3 Blaisdell/#6 yours truly

By late afternoon a once-hot day had cooled off and a steady rain began falling.  Clay courts can hold water for a while before becoming unplayable, and from our standpoint we hoped they would, because the conditions figured to slow down Andy’s hard-hitting game.   That’s what happened early on as he seemed to have trouble finding the range and we took the first set comfortably, 6-2.  In the second set, though, we got down an early break and then the conditions worsened to the point that it became a struggle just to stay upright.  Commissioner Walsh finally halted all play (the other match hadn’t finished either) with Andy about to serve at 3-2.  At that point the skies really opened up and got the courts so wet that no resumption of play was possible.  The next day (Sunday) had been advertised as the rain date, but Gary had also promised to finish the tournament in a single day, and as a result some guys had made other plans for Sunday.  Coordinating mutually available times proved to be challenging, and so it wasn’t until late the following week that we finally were able to complete our match.  The day was again gray and cool, but this time there was no rain in sight, so we agreed that if sets were split we would play out a full third set rather than use a supertiebreaker.   Since I was playing with Mark, another CHS grad, I wore some old crimson socks that I found in the depths of my closet, hoping that they’d bring me luck.  We were all a little slow to get warmed up and everyone held serve until Andy’s turn came again at 5-4, when we broke him at love behind some big-time scrambling.  With the finish line in sight, though, I faltered and dropped my serve for the first time in the match, and Smith played a solid game to serve out the set from there.

I was glad we were playing out the final set, because Andy had the biggest serve of any of us by far, and that would have given his team the edge in a tiebreaker.   His serve still came in heavy, but the clay court and the cold conditions took some of its speed away and I was able to find a rhythm and get it back consistently low with some pace.  I mixed in a few well-placed lobs and we broke him in his opening service game after Blaisdell had held for 1-0.   I was no longer playing not to lose, and I began hitting some great half-volleys and then closing to the net and winning the points.  When Mark served or hit a strong return I would close to the net using the US Open doubles positioning.  The extra half step towards the middle paid dividends as I reached some balls I wouldn’t have otherwise and volleyed them strongly.  I kept my hands in on hard-hit balls right at me and returned those too, including a stunning reflex volley that burned Smith.   On a number of occasions I was even able to overpower Andy with my volleys during four-player net exchanges.  I pretty much had everything working, so much so that for that one set I might have been the best 4.5 player in New Hampshire (well, if serves weren’t factored in…)!  Thankfully John Duckless was there as a spectator- he probably preferred watching us to raking leaves at home- or I would have seriously wondered if it was all a dream.  When we were putting our stuff away after shaking hands, Mark had the last word, as he usually does, telling me: “You might want to wear those socks every time you play.”

It was another week before we played the finals, and on that night I somehow forgot the socks, which I had had every intention of wearing again.  Whatever the cause, I could tell right away that the magic was gone.  By that time of year it was starting to get dark early, so we played the entire match under the lights.  I have bad eyes and too much vanity to wear glasses, so I had been hoping to avoid a night match, but the other guys couldn’t play on the weekends and in the end I had to go along with one.  The resulting number of mishit balls off my Babolat was high even by my usual unimpressive standards.  Ibanez and Meighan, who had beaten Tomas and Leibig in three close sets, might have been too good for us under any conditions, though.   Mark and I took a close first set by coming to the net whenever possible, and we went up an early break in the second, but by that point Greg had started to get more comfortable on the clay and Ed to play with more consistency.  With Mark serving at ad-in, I had an easy low smash which I let up too much on, allowing Ed to return it with a no-look windmill winner (he consistently stays in the middle of the court on his opponents’ overheads and then gets angry if you hit him; whether that played a role in my shot selection at that moment I don’t know, but I did find it annoying).  Anyway, the match went against us from that point, so I have only myself to blame.  We had a number of other chances but squandered them and lost 5-7, then 4-6 in the third.  It was a great match, but I had been the worst player on the court (though not dramatically so) and cost my team at critical times, so I really felt badly.

I can’t let it get me down, though, because overall there were far more positives than negatives to take out of the Moose Open.  It was great to be able to play at a high level in a big event with lots of spectators (mostly fellow players, but still…).  I never had the feeling of being in over my head, and most of the time I more than held my own.  I built some confidence for the upcoming season and in the process began to find a “road map” of sorts for success at the 4.5 level.  Get the first serve in with good depth and placement, and a reasonable amount of spin.  Return low and crosscourt, but don’t necessarily go for winners with that shot.  Get to the net and attack the point-ending volleys while getting the survival-mode volleys back low and/or deep.  Continue to develop the overhead as a weapon. And truly believe this is where you belong.   Because it definitely was on this one magical day when the game finally loved me back.

Super Saturday

NYC, here we come!

NYC, here we come!

Casey Dellacqua: a role model for hackers everywhere!

Casey Dellacqua: a role model for hackers everywhere!

As a high school sophomore in the fall of 1984, I had the good fortune to watch long stretches of perhaps the most exciting day in tennis history, which later became known as “Super Saturday.   Back then, the US Open men’s semifinals were played on the second Saturday of the tournament, with the women’s final sandwiched between them.  On this particular day, all three matches were classics, resulting in thirteen sets of terrific tennis spanning nearly twelve hours.  First Ivan Lendl saved match point with a gutsy topspin lob and then rallied to beat Pat Cash in five sets.  Next, Martina Navratilova fought back to beat her great rival, Chrissie Evert, after losing the first set.  Finally, John McEnroe, who in 1984 was playing the best tennis of his life, used some otherworldly volleying to beat HIS great rival, Jimmy Connors, in five scintillating sets.   It may have been the best single day ever for tennis fans.   Until two weeks ago, that is, when my friend Chris McCallum and I staged our own version of “Super Saturday” at the Open.  While few, if any, of the matches that we saw on the middle Saturday of the 2014 tournament could have been classified as “super”, rest assured that the overall experience was every bit as memorable.

Chris and I had grounds passes for the outer courts on both the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend.   We would have gone down to New York on Friday afternoon if we hadn’t had a more immediate priority: Friday night was draft night for the fantasy football league we both play in.  Last year I had drafted on my phone from a courtside seat at the Open as I watched Marcos Baghdatis administer a serious beatdown to Kevin Anderson.   That may or may not have been to blame for my drafting a backfield of Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew, but I wasn’t taking any chances this time.  This year’s draft was held in the basement of one guy’s condo (Pete Brooke joined in from Australia on Skype), and judging from the instant analysis provided by the web site, I might have been better off drafting from my phone at courtside again.   After we finished, I went back to Chris’s house in Derry and slept in one of the spare rooms.   We were up by 5:30 the next morning-  sadly, that’s just like a normal work day for me- and on the road before six in Chris’s new truck (play started at 11 and NYC is between four and five hours from NH, depending on traffic).    We began our journey talking about two favorite topics, dating adventures and USTA tennis, but the trip took so long that we had actually exhausted both somewhere in eastern CT.  So I asked Chris (an Australian), how he met and married his American wife, from whom he’s now separated.  That turned out to be a fascinating story encompassing two years of post-college traveling, a courtship that played out across several continents, and a number of hilarious anecdotes that should probably not be repeated in any public forum.  The timing of the story was perfect: just as Chris and his soon-to-be wife were about to finally settle down in New England, we exited the Grand Central Parkway with the National Tennis Center nearly in sight.   Nearly!  But as my younger brother has been saying for thirty-plus years, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.  You would think that a place that had once been large enough to host a World’s Fair would be easy to find on a GPS.    That’s apparently not the case, because ours “guided” us the wrong way down numerous one-way streets, which we were generally cruising at speeds far above the posted limits.   The area didn’t look particularly safe and anyway, we were two heterosexual males, so stopping for directions wasn’t really an option.  Finally we just started doing the exact opposite of what the GPS advised, and about five minutes later we were pulling into the parking lot at Flushing Meadow.

Normally I would have tried to arrive early enough to get a good vantage point on the Grandstand court, which offers the best combination of quality matches and up-close seating for grounds pass holders.   But it wasn’t worth waking up at 3 am just to get a better place in line for that.   Although Chris and I entered the grounds along with a huge mass of other fans at precisely 11 am, we were at least able to minimize our wait by taking the express line, which is limited to those entering without any bags or backpacks. We ended up spending all day on the outer courts and never did make it to the Grandstand.   One new thing that really impressed me this year was that just about every court now has full stadium seating.  Some of the stadiums were bigger than others, but they all now have significant seating capacity behind the baselines (absolutely the best place to watch from, IMHO), which hadn’t been the case in the past.

After spending a little while watching practice sessions and getting oriented to the layout of the tennis complex and the day’s schedule, we went to watch a match on Court 17, one of the lesser show courts (it has TV cameras and hence Hawk-eye line calling capability, unlike some of the more distant outer courts).   We ended up in the second row behind the baseline, elevated quite a bit above the players but with a great view of the action.  Kei Nishikori, a young Japanese player with great quickness around the court and exceptional consistency on his groundstrokes, had very little trouble with Leonardo Mayer, a bigger-hitting but far more erratic Mexican.  Mayer struggled to find the range with his shots and even his family and coaches, in their courtside box, didn’t seem to put much energy into rallying him.  “WTF!” Chris complained at one point, genuinely aggravated.  “How does that poor bloke feel when he looks at his box and his friends all have their heads down?”  I said that Mayer would never have made it as a pro in the first place if he was that mentally fragile, but Chris is a really team-oriented guy and he said that type of behavior from his support group would have bothered him.   Mayer and his entourage may have behaved as if they had booked their plane tickets home before the match began, but to be fair, Nishikori deserved as much credit for the result as his opponent did blame.  He was playing well enough that he later beat top seed Novak Djokovic and reached the final, becoming a household name in the process.  Somehow I don’t think he’ll have too many more matches on Court 17.  Chris came within a hair’s breadth of catching one of the autographed balls hit into the stands by the victorious Nishikori after his on-court post-match interview (every winning player at the Open hits balls into the stands as a fan-friendly gesture, although on the most distant courts there are no interviews first).   Despite slamming into the side of the head of the lady in front of him, though, he lost out to another fan whose hand got on top of his and took the ball away.  If only we had switched seats, my extra-long arms might have made the difference there!

We didn’t come nearly as close to catching any other autographed balls, but happily we did stay on court 17 for the next match between Carolina Pliskova and Casey Dellacqua. Pliskova was a tall and powerful young Eastern European player with long, smooth, flowing strokes. Dellacqua, on the other hand, appeared to be playing a much more difficult game.   She was short and clearly very athletic, but not especially skinny by the extreme standards of women’s professional tennis. Had she grown up in this country (she is Australian) she might have become a point guard or a top softball player.    Tennis did not seem to have come naturally, though: she had a weak serve, her strokes were unspectacular, and she wasn’t even especially quick around the court.  But she had great anticipation, hustled for every single ball and could hit winners when given the opportunity.  Most important of all, she seemed completely unfazed by the pressure of a close match at a Grand Slam tournament.   Pliskova did not share this trait, and so Dellacqua was able to squeak through by the narrowest of margins, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.  The many chants of “Aussie Aussie Aussie (pronounced like “Ozzie”)/Oy Oy Oy” from Chris and his countrymen and –women had paid off, but for me it went beyond that.  Dellacqua’s win was a triumph of determination and grit over pure ball-striking talent, and at any level of the game that’s a possibility we all have within us.

After that nearly 2 ½ hour match, Chris and I were done watching women’s tennis, but we weren’t done watching Aussies, as we went over to a nearby court to see two of them, Chris Guccione and Sam Groth, take on the world’s number 2 doubles team, Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares. If you combined their dimensions, the Australian duo would have been approximately 13 ½ feet tall and 500 lbs.  Peya and Soares were much more normal-sized, with the balding Soares even bearing a striking resemblance to our friend, fantasy football commissioner and 5.0-rated tennis player Mike Besserer (this was somehow true even though Mike might be one of the least Brazilian-looking people I know…).   They were both great volleyers and blunted the power of the Aussies’ serves just enough to win a first-set tiebreaker and then make one break stand up in the second.  As a USTA league doubles player, I noticed two things I could apply to my own game: the pros keep closing to the net from one volley to the next, something I almost never do, and they return serve in the two-back formation a much higher percentage of the time than I would have thought (they are NOT positioned right next to each other, though: the returner’s partner is farther forward, almost on the baseline).

We then went back to court 17 for another doubles match, this one featuring Jack Sock, a talented young American, and his Canadian partner Vacek Pospisil, against two Eastern Europeans with the last names of Mergea and Draganic. As neither Chris nor I had ever heard of either of these men, we speculated about their origins during the warm-up.  While Mergea seemed pretty obviously a Romanian name, I couldn’t place Draganic.  “I think he might be Serbian”, was all I could eventually muster.  Chris had no clue either and couldn’t have cared less, but that wasn’t the case for the guy in front of us, who stared at me and abruptly said “He’s Croatian” in an offended tone.   Leave it to me to mix up two ethnic groups who are mortal enemies and had spent most of the 1990s trying to annihilate one another.  Wherever they may have been from, though, the European team was no match for the power of Sock and Pospisil in a match that ended 6-4, 6-2 but was never really that close.   The North Americans served big, hit every return as hard as they could, and made just enough of them to get the service breaks they needed.  Draganic had terrific strokes but suffered costly lapses in each set, while Mergea was by far the smallest player on the court and couldn’t match the power of the others.   But while this match may have had very little suspense, I learned more from it than from any other on Super Saturday.  One thing had to do with my foot positioning and swing on the serve, which I’ve still been struggling with.  I saw that I need to jump forward into the court with my left foot and end with the foot almost completely extended, NOT horizontal.  Then I need to swing much more quickly through the ball once my racquet comes off my shoulder because that’s the part where the pros really accelerate.  Equally important was what I learned about the positioning of the net player with his partner serving.  Most of the guys at my level stand in the exact middle of the service box, but the pros stand with their outside foot in that middle area, which gives them an extra step toward the center of the court.    Even in my matches, the team that controls the middle usually wins, so I’m going to try standing there and see how it works.

By the time the match ended, Chris and I were hungry, so we went to the Open’s gigantic food court for something to eat. Every conceivable type of cuisine was available except, somehow, my longtime favorite, the super “delicieuse” roll-up ham and cheese crepes. Hoping that there was a crepe stand somewhere on premises that I had overlooked, I quickly texted Kamal Gosine, a fellow crepe-lover who had been to the Open earlier in the week.   It was to no avail, though, as Kamal took a quick break from his job selling used cars to reply: “No crepes this year…but try the mojitos!”  I tried a hamburger instead, one that almost lived up to its $15 price tag, and then went back for some more tennis.

By this time of day the play on the outer courts was mostly mixed doubles, which is not my favorite format, but we did get to experience two more terrific matches. The first could not have been more even. Melanie Oudin, the darling of the tournament a few years ago when she made a run to the quarterfinals, doesn’t have much success in singles anymore, but with a great return of serve and lots of fighting spirit she’s surprisingly strong in mixed doubles.  Here she and her partner, Rajeev Ram, a tall, hard-serving Indian-American, faced off against doubles specialist Ross Hutchins of Great Britain and his partner with the last name of Chan, from Taiwan.  Although this was still great tennis, the level of play was noticeably lower than in the previous matches we’d seen, leading Chris to comment “I feel like we could actually be playing in this match.”  That wasn’t, strictly speaking, true, even if we were on the court with just Oudin and Chan.   A 4.5 man is supposedly the equivalent of a 5.5 woman, but these are 7.0 women, so there’s still a point and a half difference.  Chris and I playing against them would be like a 3.0 man playing against Andy Day; we’d hit a handful of decent shots but still get our asses kicked. Since we were in the stands instead of on the court, though, the spectators saw an excellent match.  The teams split 6-2 sets and then went to the supertiebreaker (professional mixed doubles matches now use that format instead of a full third set).   Although the men dictated most of the points, the play of the women ended up being the deciding factor.  Chan made a critical poach and then Oudin inexplicably hit several balls right at Hutchins- he promptly put them away- allowing Chan and Hutchins to rally from match point down for a 13-11 tiebreaker victory.

By this time darkness had fallen, but there still a few matches finishing up and Chris and I found one which pitted two players we had enjoyed watching earlier in the day, Casey Dellacqua and Bruno Soares, against each other in mixed doubles.  Dellacqua’s partner, Jonathan Murray, was a tall lefty with good doubles instincts, while Soares teamed up with Sonia Mirza, a slightly-built but hard-hitting Indian player with excellent groundstrokes.  Soares and Mirza had won the first set easily before we arrived, and they soon went comfortably ahead in the second as well.  Soares wasn’t overpowering but he had great returns and volleys and got to the net quickly and effectively, so as he was about to serve for the match I mentioned to Chris that I thought his game was a lot like mine.  The Brazilian must have taken that literally because he promptly started missing balls left and right, and what had been 5-3, 40-0 lead quickly disappeared.  Murray got more aggressive, Dellacqua chased down her usual allotment of balls, and the teams found themselves in a tightly-contested second-set tiebreaker.  At that point Dellacqua’s serve once again became a liability, allowing Soares and Mirza to win by something like 11-9.

It was about 8:30 by then and the matches were basically over except in the stadium, which has a separate evening session. We could have watched that on one of the giant screens, but the match wasn’t particularly appealing and we had tickets for Sunday, too, so we decided to just find our hotel and get some sleep.   Even the GPS we were using didn’t have much trouble locating this place on the outskirts of nearby LaGuardia Airport.  Finding it, though, proved to be the least of our worries.  The hotel was right next to a rental-car lot, and to keep the cars from being stolen in a sketchy neighborhood, the rental company had erected a large chain-link fence topped by barbed wire.  All we needed was a guard tower with giant searchlights trained on us and we might have been in Cold War-era East Berlin.  While we didn’t get a great vibe from the place, we figured it didn’t really matter because we were going right to sleep and would be leaving early in the morning. So I went to check in while Chris looked for a parking spot.   Working behind the desk was a powerfully built middle-aged man with brush-cut hair and a pencil-thin mustache named Hilario, but there was nothing at all funny about his situation.  The phone was ringing off the hook (hotel rooms in NYC, even two-star ones, are tough to come by over Labor Day weekend) and Hilario, who didn’t look to be the most patient of men, had to give each caller the bad news that the hotel was completely full.    So when our assigned room turned out to have just a single king-sized bed I wasn’t about to go back and request a different one.  The bed had pillows the size of some of my seventh-grade students, and Chris quickly took one of them and laid it lengthwise atop the center of the coverlet so we both would be able to sleep worry-free.  First, though, I needed a shower, which normally is simple enough.  Not this time.  An instruction box on the wall said “pull ring out for shower”.   There was a bubble-type apparatus attached to the shower head, so I started pulling that.  Pulling, even increasingly hard pulling, didn’t give me the result I wanted, as water just continued to flow from the tap instead of from the shower head.  When what I’m doing isn’t working but there’s no obvious alternative, I tend to just try something different and hope for the best.  What I tried in this case was unleashing a string of unkind words at a volume that drew Chris’s attention in the next room.   He came to investigate and finally pulled some small attachment on the bottom of the tap and, voila, the shower started working.  Being in NYC, I’m surprised we didn’t get charged extra for it.   Anyway, before Chris could give me too much shit about that, he was asleep in the bed with the seventh-grader-sized pillow down the middle.  I got on my half and a few moments later my version of “Super Saturday” was over too.

Sunday proved to be far less super than Saturday had been. We did catch an excellent four-setter between Gilles Simon and David Ferrer from high up in Armstrong Stadium (the #2 court).  Seeing was hard enough from that vantage point under normal circumstances, but it was also a scorching hot day and the lady in front of Chris had brought an umbrella and positioned it high above her as if she was camped out at the beach.   To be fair, she wasn’t the only spectator doing this, but it wasn’t especially considerate either and Chris made several derogatory comments to me to that effect, at a volume loud enough that the woman was sure to hear.  Finally she just got up and took her umbrella elsewhere.   Simon is usually known as a counterpuncher, but against another player with that same style he got a little more aggressive, hitting the ball deep in the court and dictating play with his groundstrokes, and it paid off in a mild upset win.   Shortly after that match finished, a heavy rainstorm came, and we eventually decided to leave rather than wait out what according to our weather apps was likely to be a long delay with no certainty of play resuming.  By the time we got to the parking lot, there were several inches of rain puddled on the ground, but as our “luck” would have it, the later part of the rain inexplicably missed the city, and after about a two-hour delay the matches did continue, and most finished.  We would have likely had far better seats than before if we had stayed, but by that point we were somewhere on I-84, with the wind and rain accompanying us all the way home.  Around Worcester the conditions became especially challenging and Chris almost pulled over for a time, but we settled on driving “extra slowly”, which by our standards is something close to the speed limit.  Later we found out that a hurricane had passed through that area at about the same time we did!  Fortunately for us, the storm eventually took a path different from our own and the driving became more manageable.  By about 1 am I was home at last, with many new stories to tell, however badly, plus a few good tennis tips that I’ll do my best to remember.   And even though this trip will surely be a tough act to follow, I’m already looking forward to US Open 2015!

Still trying to forget 1986 and Bill Buckner- this won't help!

Still trying to forget 1986 and Bill Buckner- this won’t help!

Yours truly at the "LaGuardia Hilton", with the Stalag Luft tower looming just outside.

Yours truly at the “LaGuardia Hilton”, with the Stalag Luft tower looming just outside.