Touched by an Angel

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(In honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to put my usual sports posts on hold in order to bring you what is probably the closest thing to a love story I’ll ever write).

For all I knew, it was just another day, a warm and comfortable fall day in coastal New England, fast turning to evening. Important moments, for better and for worse, sometimes sneak up on you unbidden at times like these.   I wasn’t thinking about anything nearly so grandiose, however: I had just arrived home from a long day at work and wanted only to eat and grab some measure of sleep before I had to wake up and do it all again. It wasn’t a more direct route, so I can’t say why I went up the back stairs to my third-floor apartment that day instead of going through the lobby. I can say that it was on those back stairs that I met the cat for the first time. He was small, skinny, sort of mottled orange in color, and extremely friendly. He rubbed up against me and I gave him kind words and gentle pats for a minute or two. Then I moved on and he did the same.

I must admit I forgot about our meeting fairly quickly, pleasant though it had been. He may have remembered it somewhat better, for a few days later I came home from work again to find him curled up in a chair in the lobby.   My landlord, Gary, uses some of that space for his office, but Gary was nowhere to be found at the time, and neither was anyone else. Yet here was this little guy, literally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and looking for all the world like he was waiting for me. Maybe he was. I recognized him right away and gave him some more kind words and friendly rubs. Then, to my astonishment, I walked up the stairs to my apartment and he followed me.

I didn’t know the lay of the land, having moved to Hampton, NH only about six weeks before, but I figured he must have belonged to one of my neighbors and just gotten bored or lonely. The prospect of a long-term relationship didn’t enter my thinking, but we cuddled and played for an hour or so. Then reality set in: the little guy started looking agitated to the point that I knew he probably had to “go”, and that was a problem. I didn’t have any other pets; truth be told, I was (and remain) so domestically challenged that I had enough trouble just taking care of myself. Panicking, I threw some old newspapers down on the floor and ineffectually tried to push the cat in their direction, but he had a better idea. He jumped into the empty bathtub and backed his butt right up to the drain. I could only hope he had a number one coming and not a number two.   Luckily, that was the case, and as the number one swirled around and disappeared, I thought to myself that this was one cool cat. I also thought, for what would not be the last time, that he was a hell of a lot smarter than me.

He didn’t stay the night: at some point he went over to the door and started meowing, and even I knew what that meant.   But the next day he was back, crying outside the building until Gary let him in, then beating a path to my door. Eventually we established something of a pattern: I let him out in the morning when I left for work and he returned that night, or sometimes the next one. As he began visiting regularly, I made my place homier for him by providing a litter box and a stash of Friskies, although he seemed to like simple attention most of all. I loved seeing him, and his visits soon became a highlight of my routine.   If he missed a day or two I’d start to worry about him, but I needn’t have, because he never stayed away for long.

When he and I met, it was hard to tell which of us needed a friend more.   2009 hadn’t been the best of years for me. I was in the process of getting divorced, and both of my parents had recently been diagnosed with the diseases that would end up killing them within a three-year span. If all that wasn’t bad enough, I was also broke. A little bit beyond broke, if you really have to know.   My new friend, though, may have been in even worse shape. For as I gradually learned from Gary and others in the neighborhood, he didn’t have a regular owner. After being mistreated by his human family of origin years before, he had taken to wandering the streets in a high-traffic area filled with drivers who were at best bikini-distracted and inattentive, at worst shitfaced and reckless.   When he tired of playing real-life Frogger, the little guy slept on or underneath the cars at a nearby parking garage. Presumably he was a light sleeper. Compared with where he was coming from, I guess my small and not-especially-tidy apartment must have seemed like paradise. Maybe he realized that, or maybe he started to bond with me, or maybe the weather just got colder. Whatever the reason, one day he decided to stay in the apartment when I left for work, and after that he never went outside under his own power again.

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He now had a home, but my little buddy still needed one more important thing: a name.   I had held off on giving him one until it was clear he was there for the duration, but after a few months I still didn’t have any idea what to call him. I knew typical cat names like Fluffy and Mittens weren’t going to cut it, and if he answered to something already, he certainly wasn’t telling me. So he remained “Bud” for the time being, but as I observed him I noticed he loved to perch on a shelf behind and slightly above my bed, as if he was watching over me. And while I’m not a particularly religious person, the circumstances of his arrival gave me pause, for at that moment I certainly needed all the help I could get. So I finally decided to call him Angel. Later, when people gave me funny looks about that, I told them Angel was actually a male name in the Hispanic world (the female equivalent is Angela). But while that was true as far as it went, it didn’t quite tell the whole story. The cat literally showed up at my doorstep at a time when I was in a really bad place, and he helped make my life better. What could be more angelic than that?

I’d love to be able to say that my life did a 180 from that point forward under Angel’s loving gaze, but this isn’t Marley and Me. I didn’t become a famous writer, buy a big house, or marry Jennifer Aniston.   With my parents’ illnesses and eventual passing, plus the financial burden of my divorce, things actually got worse before they got better.   Work, tennis and my personal life continued to have their ups and downs, too. What improved was my ability to handle the tough moments, of which there were many. When my car pulled into its parking space after a long day, the first thing I did was look up at my window, and I almost always saw Angel sitting there waiting for me. There was something very comforting in that. I could talk to him, hug him, play with him, or just savor a silent moment with him sitting nearby gently blinking his eyes in my direction, and things that were hard to bear became a little bit easier.   In bed at night I stretched my arm out as far as it could reach, which is pretty far, and a few minutes later Angel usually backed into it, lay down and fell asleep with me. I felt safe, and I’d like to think he did too. He wasn’t the most trusting soul himself, but over time he came to understand that a hand raised above his head was now there to pat him rather than to hit him, and instead of snapping he began purring with anticipation. When he reached that point, I don’t know which of us was happier.

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That’s not to say I was any kind of cat whisperer. To be honest, I didn’t even know if Angel was male or female until my sister-in-law looked and told me. I had major issues getting him into his first carrier, one of those horrible side-entry ones: I typically had to stand it on end and dump him to the bottom, like the first bit of laundry in a laundry bag, then rush to zip it shut before he could dart back up to the opening. I ultimately got him a much more dignified top-loading carrier, but I never did catch onto things like brushing his teeth, to say nothing of trying to walk him on a leash.   I did give him plenty of food, regular medical care, lots of love, a more or less clean litter box, many hours of “pen tug-of-war” and a straight stretch of about 20 yards in the apartment on which he regularly sprinted as if being chased by a ghost only he could see. We had plenty of other fun together, too. Angel watched Animal Planet with fascination and innumerable college basketball and Red Sox games without complaint. He consistently found the sunniest spot in the apartment to plop down in, and in the dead of winter when there were no sunny spots he huddled against me so we could both stay warm. He regularly challenged me to staring contests and never lost. He loved to drink out of the kitchen faucet when it was dripping on its lowest setting, and one time when I was away Gary, who was there to feed him, swore he turned it on by himself. I actually wouldn’t have put that past him. Unlike his owner, he would have made a great politician: everyone he met became a friend, if not an admirer. Sure, he could be clumsy at times and tended to knock things over, which put him on the receiving end of an occasional F-bomb, but it was hard to stay mad at him. Even when he woke me up at night to ask for more food, he did it by licking the top of my shaved head. Human or animal, I don’t know if I’ve ever loved anyone more.

I turned 40 just before Angel came into my life, and although his age was never precisely determined, it was clear he was no spring chicken either. It wasn’t long before both of us started to feel the effects of our advancing years.   We each got fatter, but that was just the beginning. Between 2009 and 2015 I had two knee surgeries and separate operations to remove an inguinal hernia and a kidney stone. I got to the point where I actually bought a set of crutches just to be ready for the next operation, because I knew it was only a matter of time. Meanwhile, Angel’s vertical began to desert him and he botched a leap onto the kitchen counter, slamming into it jaw-first, which jarred one of his teeth loose and left him howling in agony. I kept him from choking on the remnants of the tooth, but it took a $700 veterinary visit for his mouth to be repaired. I had enough money by then that the bill wasn’t a huge problem- I had also gotten pet insurance, which I highly recommend- but even if it had been, I would have paid it willingly. Angel was my best friend, and although I never took the joy of any day for granted, I held out hope that we would have many more happy years together.

Then, early in 2015, he started losing weight and throwing up. At first, it didn’t seem like a huge issue.   Cats often vomit because of hairballs or other relatively minor conditions, and he certainly needed to drop a few pounds. His vet, a very skilled and caring man, didn’t even recommend further tests initially. But many months passed and the vomiting continued while his weight kept going down, so eventually I brought him back in. This time he was referred to a special testing center, and the results weren’t what we were hoping for. Angel had the feline equivalent of pancreatic cancer, the disease which had killed my father, and he didn’t have long to live.

I wish I had pushed for the testing to be done sooner, but from my dad’s experience I know how deadly pancreatic cancer is. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. I tend not to see things that way, though, and I felt like it was my fault. Heartbroken, I told Angel that we weren’t going to have as much time together as we wanted, but that I would give him as much love and help as I could during the time we had. Together we went to a special animal cancer center outside Boston, hoping for some kind of palliative treatment which would lessen his pain and give him a little more time. The news we got there wasn’t any better. Sitting next to each other on the examining room bench, we heard the doctor say that Angel had just a few weeks left and nothing of consequence could be done for him.   At those words, a single large tear dropped out of his left eye and ran down his cheek. A few more than that ran down my cheek.

Though he was reduced to skin and bones and had almost no appetite, Angel still fought valiantly and came back from the brink a few times in December 2015. I had a knee operation scheduled just before Christmas and perhaps he sensed that and felt he needed to stay around to help take care of me.   And sure enough, in the days after I came home from the hospital he spent hours licking my face and laying on my chest. Although his heartbeat was frail, I could still hear him purring deeply and I knew he was happy. I wish I could have held him like that forever, but we did get to spend two bonus weeks together that I will always treasure. As I got stronger, though, he got weaker, and the night before I had to go back to work, I could tell he was really struggling with the pain. Because it was a Sunday, I wasn’t able to take him to the vets to have him put to sleep. He was too weak even to crawl up on the bed by then, and he ended up passing away on the floor just below it. I tried to be there for him and comfort him in his final moments, but only he could tell you if it made any difference.

I had Angel cremated, and now I keep his ashes in a small box right next to my bed. He has been gone a year now, and although life has continued on and I even have another cat with a remarkable story of his own, I still miss Angel terribly. I’m so grateful for the kindness, joy, healing and unconditional love that he brought into my life, but without him I feel as if I’ve lost a part of myself that I’ll never get back. Maybe that’s not completely true, though.  I’m less certain than most about where my ultimate destination will be, but wherever I end up, who’s to say that place won’t have windows? And if there are windows, maybe a big orange cat is perched next to one of them even now, waiting patiently for the day when he can once again welcome me home.

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Fantasy Fulfillment

Let me warn you up front: despite its title, this post isn’t going to be about Sandra Bullock, Mariah Carey, or So-and-So the Naughty Nurse.   Rather, it’s devoted to a topic I’ve spent considerably more time contemplating over the past two decades, though what that says about me is an open question.  The topic, you see, is fantasy football.  And if I might be a wee bit obsessed with it, I’m certainly not alone.  According to some sources, 75 million people played fantasy football last year.  An industry-sponsored study found that the average player spends between two and three hours a week managing his team (despite efforts to make the pastime more female-friendly, the overwhelming majority of fantasy players are still male).  A significant number of those people care more about their fantasy teams than they do about their local NFL teams.  And if you’ve been in any public space on a recent fall Sunday afternoon, you know that’s saying something indeed.

I’ve been playing fantasy football in some incarnation since the mid-1990s.  For the uninitiated, the game in its most basic form consists of choosing a squad composed of one or more NFL players from each of the offensive skill positions, plus placekickers and team defenses.  Your players come from many different professional teams, but they score points for “your” team based on their individual game performance in a number of statistical categories.  In the early years, I played a variation of the game where I could choose any players I wanted, provided that the total of their preassigned value ratings fell under the fantasy “salary cap”.  The stats they accumulated each week were then rank-ordered against the lineups of 24 random strangers in my “division”, and beyond that against the lineups of everyone playing the game.   It was a decidedly low-tech era: while the initial roster selection was done online, weekly standings arrived in the mail  every Thursday  (this was, of course, before games were regularly played on Thursday nights).   When I wanted to change my lineup, I dialed a toll-free 800 number dedicated to that purpose, typed in the ID codes of the players I was changing, and then listened to a live operator repeat my transactions back to me.   If I misread or mistyped a number and it came back that I was unintentionally starting, say, Scott Mitchell over Mark Brunell, I had to do the whole process over again.  I learned the hard way not to wait until just before the games started on Sundays, when the lines were often busy, to make lineup changes.  Yet although I had never played or coached football I found success fairly quickly in this format thanks to two key factors.  The first key was finding “bargain” players who regularly outperformed their assigned numerical values.  Of course, most semi-serious fans with an understanding of basic math could do that.  The second and seemingly even more obvious key was simply paying attention.  Sometimes players got hurt, or their NFL teams went on bye weeks, and their fantasy owners didn’t realize it.  Remember, there were no smartphones- or even cell phones- back then, and dial-up internet service was cumbersome and unpredictable at the best of times.  I wouldn’t have called myself obsessed, but I might have been more detail-oriented than most, and it paid off.  I regularly finished in the top three spots in my divisions in those early years, which meant only that I made a little bit more money in prize payout than it had cost me to enter the league.  I wasn’t giving up my day job by any means.  But it feels good to be successful at anything in life, and although I didn’t share details of that success with many people, the same rule applied here.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, though, the fantasy landscape began to change, and not to my benefit.  As the internet took off, it became much easier to keep tabs on your players.  News items and injury updates even began to be posted on the game sites, right on your roster page.  Now the lazy owners could do just a little bit of work and get significantly better results.  The people I had been consistently beating suddenly became much tougher to beat.  Soon the prize payouts slowed to a trickle.  Then I sank closer to the bottom of my leagues than I was to the top.  Not long after that, I stopped playing entirely, a fantasy football dinosaur brought to extinction by the impact of the information asteroid.

Eight years ago, though, I got back into fantasy through a league that a tennis friend started at my local club, Algonquin of Hooksett, NH.  This league held a season-opening draft followed by weekly head-to-head matchups, with the top four- later the top six- of the ten competing teams reaching the playoffs.  As a result, it was, shall we say, much more personal than my previous forays into fantasy.  Most of the original league members were my USTA teammates, and all of them either were or had been competitive athletes of some kind, so trash talk was basically second nature.  Now, understand a few things: I’m white.  I’m over 40.  I’m not particularly poetic or creative.  So you’re not getting Hall of Fame-caliber trash talk here.  But bragging rights of any kind, now matter how tame the bragging, are always welcome.

It probably didn’t hurt that I had just gotten divorced (a blessing in many ways, with the fantasy impact being the least of them) and thus had more time to scour the waiver wire for available players, but I took to the new league right away.  As the years went by, the two-to-three-hour-per-week rule I cited in the opening paragraph came to be, well, a little low for me.   I bought fantasy draft magazines (yes, there are such things….).  I participated in mock drafts to get a feel for how to construct my roster.  I ran proposed in-season trades through the “trade analyzer” to make sure they were favorable to me, but not so favorable that the other party would refuse to make the deal.  I perused online fantasy columns (they weren’t hard to find: all of the major sports network sites now have fantasy sections) looking for advice about who to start each week.  I even became a regular listener, and an even more regular downloader, of a daily ESPN fantasy podcast called “Fantasy Focus”.  I commute a total of two hours to and from work every day, so this wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounds.  The show’s resident expert, Matthew Berry, who is paid very handsomely to predict fantasy outcomes-how lucky is THAT guy?- is terrific at pointing out the fantasy impact of injuries and at telling you which players to add from the waiver wire.  (He’s significantly less successful at predicting which players to start each week and which to sit, but given the courses NFL games sometimes take, Nostradamus himself might have difficulty there).  The show’s host- first the fast-talking, data-driven Nate Ravitz and later the affably patrician Field Yates- adds his own takes, and former physical therapist Stephania Bell, who manages to approach the trifecta of brilliant, beautiful and self-effacing more closely than almost anyone in sports, gives her projections about the return of injured players to game action.   All in all, I had a lot of good information coming my way.

But I still couldn’t win.  Yes, I typically finished near the top of the league, only missing the playoffs once in eight years.  Yet when the postseason came around, my teams pulled more choke jobs than baseball’s Texas Rangers.  I made one final and a number of semifinals but just couldn’t get over the top.  Along the way, I endured all-too-brief moments of elation and all-too-frequent moments of frustration.   Former Jaguars wideout Mike Sims-Walker cost me a regular-season title when he broke curfew and became a healthy scratch who no one knew had been scratched until after the game ended.  Former Texans RB Arian Foster drove me nuts with his repeated injuries: how on earth does a world-class athlete with 24/7 access to some of the most advanced training facilities on earth take two months to return from a sprained ankle?  I put up with horrific play from former Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who essentially retired a year before he stopped receiving paychecks, and former Ravens RB Ray Rice (anyone who watched Rice “run” in his last NFL season knows the team didn’t cut him just because he was caught pummeling his fiancée on a hotel security camera, though that was certainly reason enough).   Even the good players tended to let me down at the worst possible times: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, a mainstay of my fantasy teams, regularly came a cropper in Weeks 14-16, when most fantasy playoffs are held, only to bounce back and lead deep NFL playoff runs.  And the one year I managed to get Patriots QB Tom Brady on my team, he played so horribly for the first four games that I actually cut him.  Then he came back and led his NFL team to yet another Lombardi Trophy.

The trash talk that tended to flow in my direction every December was annoying but bearable.  The success of some of the rival teams, however, was more difficult to stomach.  One year the league was won by Eric, an owner so disengaged that he consistently left his starters in the lineup on their bye weeks (luckily for him, the bye weeks ended just before the fantasy playoffs began).  Another year,  “Ross” lifted the trophy, although he hadn’t actually done much of the heavy lifting: after having selected Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with his first two choices the previous fall, he blew off the draft entirely and let the computer pick what became a championship team.  It was without a doubt the best managerial decision he ever made.  And then there was my good friend and frequent USTA teammate Chris McCallum, who knows more about Australian Rules football than he does about its American cousin.  Like the kid who doesn’t study and then pulls an A on a big test, Chris mispronounces the names of half the players on his team and rarely spends a dime of his allotted free-agent acquisition budget, yet somehow things always seem to work out in his favor.  I twice lost league semifinals to him in heartbreaking fashion and then put up totals the following week which would have beaten the eventual champion.  The first of those losses came by less than half a point and was decided when a field goal on the last play of the Monday-night game sailed agonizingly wide.  Last year’s semifinal defeat was even more frustrating, since Chris’s star player, Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr, committed so many personal fouls against the defensive back covering him that the rules for mandatory ejection were changed shortly thereafter.  Even under the rules in place at the time, the officials would later be reprimanded for not throwing him out, but Beckham somehow stayed in the game and scored two late touchdowns which gave Chris the edge in a close fantasy contest.  As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I was starting to feel like I had in 1986, or 2003.  In a word, snakebitten.

When the 2016 season came around, I wasn’t feeling much more positive about my prospects.  I was assigned the tenth and final first-round pick, the least desirable drafting position; although our league uses a snake draft, meaning I would have both the 10th and 11th picks, none of the can’t-miss superstars were likely to be available by the time I made my first selection.  So while I had hoped to take wide receivers, who are less prone to injuries, with at least one of my two early picks, I ended up going with two running backs instead under the best-available-player theory: Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, who had run wild against my teams for years, and Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers, who would have been chosen much higher if he had not been suspended for the first three games of the season.  I clearly wasn’t worried about character questions, having chosen a child abuser and a drug abuser, respectively, as my top two picks.  I also drafted Drew Brees of the Saints as my main QB, Delanie Walker of the Titans as my tight end, and Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos to lead what looked to be a decidedly mediocre corps of receivers.  It didn’t take long before my team’s outlook dimmed even further: my erstwhile star player, Peterson, blew out a knee in the second game of the season, having scored a grand total of five fantasy points.  Somehow I still started out 3-1 as Brees had a couple of big games and Bell’s backup, DeAngelo Williams (in my lineup as a so-called “handcuff”, an image that was all too familiar to several of my players) put up some nice point totals in his absence.

Then things started to go badly wrong, and I lost six of my final nine games.  Brees struggled on the road.  Thomas struggled with drops, as he often had in past years.  Peterson’s “handcuff”, Jerick McKinnon, struggled just about all the time, and the players I signed in many unsuccessful attempts to replace him (Dwayne Washington, Chris Ivory, Charcandrick West and the unfortunately-named  Christine Michael, to name a few) were even less productive.  Then one day Matthew Berry announced on his podcast that the Redskins’ starter, Matt Jones, who had not been particularly effective even when 100 percent healthy, had gotten hurt, and recommended his backup, Robert Kelley, as a smart add who might be able to retain the starting job long-term.  Until that moment the only man by that name I had ever heard of was an R-and-B singer perhaps best known for having sex with underage girls.  But I was so desperate I took Berry at his word.  And while this R. Kelley was far from the world’s greatest running back, he did in fact become a starter at an important position whom I could count on for solid production with a high scoring “floor”.  That was when my season finally started to take a turn for the better.

I didn’t sense it immediately, because for most of the fall my opponents seemed to play out of their skins every single  week. It wasn’t just the Bradys and Rodgerses of the world, either.  Mid-range players like Terrance West, Jeremy Hill, Jonathan Stewart and Jimmy Graham all put up huge fantasy numbers against me.  Mark Ingram scored an otherworldly 34 points, then recorded a grand total of seven in his next two games combined. Even T.J. Yeldon reached double figures (although, to be fair, he did that in one of his other fifteen games, too).  I ended up last in the league in “points allowed”, and the only other guy within fifty points of me in that category finished way out of contention.  Even so, I managed to scrap my way 6-6 and seemed to have the fifth seed locked up, but then here came my nemesis McCallum, winning his week 12 matchup by the ridiculously low score of 62-61 thanks to two overtime field goals- how often does that happen?- the second of which bounced in off the upright as time expired.  Then he came back again with a strong Monday-night showing to beat me in the regular-season finale and take fifth place.  To get the sixth and last playoff spot, all I could do was hope Todd Cuthbert (5-7) beat Pete Brooke (6-6), which would enable me to squeak past both of them on the basis of most points scored.  Thankfully Todd’s RB Jordan Howard put up huge numbers against the awful 49ers to “earn” me the ultimate backdoor playoff ticket.

I don’t know if it was the sight of the Cubs winning the World Series earlier in the fall, or  perhaps just an irrational hope that my opponents would eventually see their point totals regress to the mean, but I actually went into the playoffs with an attitude approaching serenity.  Even so, my postseason stay promised to be brief given my opening-round matchup against Brian, a high-school coaching rival who had won three of the last four fantasy championships.    Only someone forgot to tell Le’Veon Bell he was on my fantasy team.  On a snowy day in Buffalo which slowed the Steelers’ high-powered passing attack, Bell gained almost 300 total yards and scored three touchdowns, recording almost 50 fantasy points, the highest single-game total by any player in over two years.   Brees was awful, and nobody else did a whole lot, but it didn’t matter: Bell would have won the game for me even if I had left the other eight positions open.  Brian’s two big weapons, Seattle QB Russell Wilson and Arizona RB David Johnson, were more or less kept in check, his other guys did next to nothing, and I rolled to an unexpectedly easy 113-48 victory.

My semifinal round opponent was Mike, the league commissioner and another passionate player who had never won our league championship despite several high regular-season finishes.  It was the Algonquin fantasy equivalent of Cubs vs. Indians, except that the winner of our matchup would still have plenty of time to get unlucky again in the finals.  Truth be told, bad luck had started to hit Mike well before then.  After putting together what was clearly the league’s best team and earning the top seed for the playoffs, he could only watch in agony as two of his top players, Cincinnati WR A.J. Green and San Diego RB Melvin Gordon, went down with injuries.  There weren’t any more Rob Kelley’s available on the waiver wire by then, either.  Mike ended up buying Gordon’s replacement, Kenneth Farrow, and the Buffalo defense, which was matched against winless Cleveland.  For my part, I picked up Bears WR Alshon Jeffrey, who was returning from a PED suspension, and Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel, who was assuming a more prominent role after an injury sidelined Julio Jones, along with Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor, a dual-threat QB with a very favorable matchup.  To give credit where it’s due, all were Fantasy Focus suggestions.  Taking Berry’s advice, I actually sat Brees for Taylor only to see the Saints’ QB blow up on the road for the only time all season, throwing for nearly 400 yards and four TDs without an interception.  Bad as that decision was, though, it didn’t end up costing me, because Gabriel, Kelley and Jeffrey all scored TDs and posted double-figure point totals, while Mike’s star QB, Tom Brady, was held in relative check by the Denver D, and his injury replacements weren’t as successful as he had hoped.  After a 105-47 rout, I was into the finals, glass slipper fully intact.

My opponent there was Tim, a second-year player who had rocketed from last place in 2015 all the way to the second seed behind a team heavy on Patriots, never a bad strategy in the Belichick-Brady era.  Like me, Tim had lost his top draft pick (in his case Rob Gronkowski), to a season-ending injury, but I took little comfort from that: he had beaten me during the regular season with five of his starters on their bye weeks, and this time his many remaining Patriots were facing the lowly Jets, whose effort had been conspicuously lacking for several weeks.  I went back to Brees at QB (though Taylor would end up outscoring him significantly) and used Bell and Kelley at the RB spots,  Thomas and Jeffrey at WR, Walker as the TE, and Matt Bryant of the high-powered Falcons as the kicker, along with two new additions, flex WR-RB Ty Montgomery of the Packers and the San Diego defense, which was facing Cleveland.  Tim countered with a run-heavy team led by RBs DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore and Latavious Murray and QB Cam Newton, who had had a disappointing season but was coming off a big performance in the Monday-night game.   With Christmas Day falling on a Sunday, most of the Week 16 games were played on Saturday afternoon, and Tim got off to a strong start in the early time slot, with TE Martellus Bennett and WR Julian Edelman having strong games as the Patriots predictably routed the Jets, while Redskins wideout Desean Jackson, whom I had cut earlier in the season due to the boom-or-bust nature of his play, came back to haunt me with 15-plus fantasy points.  Only Newton’s struggles against the normally vulnerable Falcons defense kept my projected scores within striking distance.  While nobody on my team had an outstanding day, with the exception of Bryant (20 pts), everyone chipped in something: 80 yards from Kelley, 95 from Jeffrey, even a garbage-time TD reception in a blowout loss from Walker, who had not caught a ball to that point in the game.  I went to the 4 pm games with a slight lead in the projections, but had only Brees going there against two RBs, a defense and a kicker for Tim (I did have Bell and Thomas playing on Sunday, while Tim would have no one left).  Here I got lucky for the third consecutive week, as none of the many touchdowns in the Colts-Raiders game were scored by Tim’s players.  Then his Cardinals defense, impregnable for most of the first half in Seattle, began to crack, while Drew Brees, after a slow start, finally got going.  When he hit Travaris Cadet for a long touchdown late in the game, I could finally, in the words of that other R. Kelly, “believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” A late-game Seahawks touchdown made it official: I would be three points ahead with two players in hand.  2016 was going to be my year after all.

I certainly won’t pretend that I’m now the Bill Belichick of fantasy football managers.  My team wasn’t close to being the most talented team.  My sit-or-start decisions were not especially prescient, and some went disastrously wrong.  No, my fantasy success this year was mainly due to lots of luck (I had the fourth-and third-best point totals in my ten-team league over the last two playoff rounds, but kept advancing) and regression to the mean (my opponents averaged the ridiculously low total of 57 points in my three playoff games).  If a field goal in a game I had no direct stake in had gone outside the uprights instead of inside them after hitting the goalpost, I may well have had a less favorable playoff draw and lost in the opening round.  What I did do well, though, was persevere.  Sometimes fantasy owners mail it in after losing their best player to injuries or dropping most of their early-season games. Other times they wouldn’t perceive themselves as mailing it in- they’ll still fill out a full lineup and even make the occasional trade- but they don’t really explore all avenues to keep improving their team.   I kept turning over my roster until I began to find guys who could contribute, and by the end of the season I might have had the deepest team in the league.  While Le’Veon Bell may be a Steeler, this New Englander is now a fan of his for life, and I’ll have a special appreciation for all the guys who contributed to my playoff run.  Come next summer, I’ll once again be reading the draft magazines, listening to the preseason podcasts and preparing to win another championship.  Because I love how that sounds, I’ll say it again: preparing to win ANOTHER championship!  For now I’m going to enjoy eight months’ worth of bragging rights and get ready for the postseason Yahoo Tournament of Champions.  Has there ever been a more unlikely entry in that distinguished competition?  Perhaps not, but I’ve come to realize the most important rule in fantasy football is this one: you just never know! After the last three weeks, who knows what could happen next?   Heck, I might almost believe I can fly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

USTA 40-plus Regular Season: Revenge of the King

While I was playing in the Loon Mountain tournament, the USTA 40-plus league was beginning its new season, and given our dismal showing at districts in August, my Algonquin team was eager to get started.  The big news was that three of the previous year’s eight competing teams (Executive, Concord, and the Hampton Tennis Barn) had folded, leaving just five NH entries to compete for two postseason spots.  That contraction did not result in the existing teams strengthening themselves significantly with reinforcements, as might have stood to reason.  Instead, all the Hampton players, including the dangerous Andy Montgomery, sat out the fall season entirely.  Of the former Concord team only Joe Waldvogel, who went up to play for Richard King at Mountainside, took part in league play.  And a few of Executive’s lower doubles guys moved over to the YMCA, while the crafty, hustling lefty Rick DePasquale joined our Algonquin crew.  Our only other addition was John Lombardi, an entry-level 4.0: John Duckless, who returned as captain, resisted entreaties from the sectionals-minded among us to recruit a singles stud from elsewhere, reasoning that we already had seventeen quality players.  And really, it was hard to argue with him, for we certainly had the deepest roster in the Granite State.  Mountainside would be in the postseason mix, as always, and the YMCA had made several quality additions, including my friendly rival John Smith and a former UNH player, Jeff Giampa, who was returning to competitive tennis after an extended absence.   The two remaining teams, Hampshire Hills and Seacoast, didn’t have either the depth or the overall quality to make a run at districts, but both had assets that would be difficult to overcome: HH its lightning-quick home courts and Seacoast the crafty Barry Posternak, who would be the league’s best singles player.  We were scheduled to play each of the other four teams both home and away, for a total of eight matches, with the league standings to be based on individual court wins.

Algonquin put the rest of the league on notice early, delivering a 4-0 opening-weekend beatdown to Hampshire Hills on their fabled slick courts without losing a single set, a result akin to a college basketball team going into Cameron Indoor Stadium and beating Duke by 20.  Gary Roberts/Neal Burns, Adam Hirshan/Mark Parquette and Rick Leclerc/Rick DePasquale all won comfortably, while Dave Caza’s serene approach got the better of Mike Auger’s bellowing negativity in two close sets.  Unfortunately, all that good work was undone by our next outing, a 1-3 home loss to the YMCA.  Gary’s 50th birthday party took a few of us, myself included, out of consideration for that match, and other commitments typical of an early fall weekend left us with just seven eligible players, some of them barely above 3.5-quality, against a group of hungry opponents eager to establish themselves as legitimate contenders.  Caz was our only winner, taking a decisive set and then a much closer one to take the lone singles position.  Adam H and Eric won a first-set tiebreaker against two of my opponents at Loon, John Smith and Keith Eichmann, only to be beaten badly in the second set and then drop the ensuing supertiebreaker.  That result doomed our chances, for we were only marginally competitive against superior talent at the other two doubles positions.

Despite that hiccup, we had won five of the eight courts contested in our first two matches when our main rivals, Mountainside, paid a visit to the ATC on the first weekend of October.   The absence of B. Manning proved costly to our opponents here, as they could no longer count on their customary victories at the top two doubles slots, and we came away with an important 3-1 win which put us right back in playoff position.   Caz once again came through in the singles, soundly beating a Hispanic player new to the league who had a similar style but slightly less consistency.   Todd Toler and Neal competed hard and gave Mountainside all it could handle at 1 doubles, but ultimately fell short by a break in each set against the consistency and great hands of Glenn McKune and the hard hitting of Rich Atherly.   Glenn was at the top of his form, which is saying something considering he had just finished a 36-4 season (what it might be saying- that he was a 4.5 player- went unheeded by the USTA computer, which later bumped him back down on appeal for about the 21st consecutive year).   Atherly was clearly fired up for the match but showed some signs of nerves in the late stages as Todd and Neal nearly came all the way back from a big deficit.  His characteristic glances to the crowd became less and less frequent, prompting one of his teammates in the viewing area to comment: “if my wife was here watching, Rich would be looking up here a lot more often.”  But the Algonquin comeback ultimately stalled as Glenn capped a terrific day with one last roundhouse fist pump to cap a 6-4, 6-4 Mountainside victory.

I was up next at number 2 doubles with Adam Hirshan, taking on the greatly-improved team of Jeff Adie and Scott Goodwin.  Adie used to be a soft-hitting 3.5 who wasn’t much of a threat, but he has gotten fitter in recent years while improving both his power and his consistency- which isn’t easy to do- and claimed some quality wins.   Goodwin is a great guy with a solid first serve and a strong forehand, and he and Jeff play well together.    Adam and I liked our chances, but as soon as Jeff came back to hold serve from 0-40 down in the opening game, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy.  I was playing the deuce side and struggled to return wide serves out to my forehand in the early part of the match, while Adam’s returns also lacked their usual consistency.  We weren’t having much trouble holding serve, though, and after breaking Scott we looked ready to run out the set. Then we both got careless at the net for a few points in a row to drop Adam’s serve.  But we squeaked out another break, and at 5-4 Adam held without much difficulty to win us the first set.  Our opponents began the second set as strongly as they had the first, but we eventually steadied down our returns and took advantage of Scott’s lack of comfort at the net.  We got our noses in front and then succeeded in breaking Jeff for the first time to finish off a 6-4, 6-3 win.  Our team took third doubles more decisively as Bruce Leibig and Rick DePasquale’s canny, finesse-based play blunted the power of Richard King and his partner, Paul McManus.  The overall result put us back atop the standings and went a long way towards erasing the bitter taste of our loss to the YMCA.

We reached the midway point of the season after another 3-1 win, this one against the Seacoast club of North Hampton, on a day that featured my first head-to-head matchup with big Frank Campolo since our near-brawl at the Tennis Barn three years before.   In the days leading up to our encounter, I mentally prepared for all sorts of eventualities, but the match itself turned out to be amicable and sportsmanlike.   Frank was very fair on his calls and even friendly on the changeovers.  He played well, too, but his partner, Vin Corson, wasn’t quite as consistent, and Mark Parquette and I took advantage of that.  Vin is a hard-hitting lefty who can be dangerous when his shots are going in, but he was plagued by double faults in one of his service games in each set, and that enabled Mark and I to record the only two breaks in a match that we won 6-4, 6-4.  I wasn’t happy with my returns, which I was pushing too much (I need to hit out and get a good weight transfer so I can really attack the return, and I wasn’t doing that).  But I placed my serve well and hit some big overheads, and Mark was all over the net and kept his nerve at key moments.  Adam Lesser, working his way back from an injury, picked a difficult day to make his singles debut, as he had to face the scrappy and exceptionally consistent Barry Posternak.  Adam started off well, winning the first set, but he ran out of gas midway through the second and that allowed Posternak, who never runs out of gas, to come back and win in a supertiebreaker.   Once again, though, our depth made the difference, as we then took the two lower doubles in straight sets.  Gary Roberts- called in when Jack Chen sustained a last-minute injury- teamed with Bruce Leibig to win the #2 spot by a break in each set after some terrific points.  Captain John Duckless has really improved his game, and he led John Lombardi, a newcomer who seemed most comfortable hitting forehands from the baseline, to a 6-3, 7-5 win at position three.  You could say we got lucky in the sense that our original lineup of Bruce/Duckless and Jack/Lombardi would almost certainly have lost at least one of those courts.  But give Johnny D credit for adjusting the lineup on the fly and making it work.

John continued to make all the right moves, lineup-wise, in our next match, a 4-0 win over Hampshire Hills in our home finale in mid-November.  Gary, Neal and I were all left on the bench, but our depth still carried us to a comfortable win, as John had believed it would.  He gave us an important boost with his play, too, as he and Jimmy Prieto, who had intended to sacrifice themselves up at number 1, ended up combining for a somewhat improbable 7-6, 7-5 win over a team that included Walter Meltzler, HH’s top current 4.0 doubles player.  John volleyed superbly, Jim smashed the hell out of anything he could reach, and they pulled off a major upset that had the home crowd rocking.  Todd and Bruce took care of a couple of big hitters at #2 after a close first set, while Adam Lesser and Rick Paquin, two nontraditional doubles players pairing up for the first time, used their powerful groundstrokes to demolish HH’s #3 team by the count of 6-1, 6-1.  We’ve been trying to get Eric Morrow to play more singles, and after winning the last eleven games to defeat HH’s Udo Hoerhold 7-5 6-0, he should have the confidence to do just that.  Eric later said that he had thought to himself “what would Dave do to beat this guy?” when he was struggling through the first set, though his answer- hit short, angled balls that his opponent struggled to reach- was almost certainly better than anything I would have come up with.  By the end of the match it looked like Udo just wanted to get off the court.  We’ve all been there- and I would be there again all too soon…

We knew that a win in our next match, at the YMCA, would give us a great chance of securing one of the top two places in the league, but the Y had beaten us once and was doubtless eager to do so again, albeit this time against a much stronger Algonquin lineup.  I was away for the weekend at a work-related convention and couldn’t take part, but we still rolled out Lesser for singles along with three strong doubles teams: Eric/Adam H, Todd/Neal and Gary/John D.  It turned out to be a terrific match.  The top two doubles courts  went on first, and there the teams split a pair of supertiebreakers.  Adam and Eric gave soon-to-be promoted John Smith and his partner, should-be-promoted Jeff Giampa, all they could handle before falling just short, while Todd and Neal bounced back from getting bageled (0-6) in the second set to win a classic 15-13 match tiebreak over Bob Wilkins, a big server, and John Weeks, a steady player with classic strokes.  The Y must have thought they had position 3 locked down with Keith Eichmann, but we more than matched them by putting up Gary Roberts, and he and JD took out Eichmann and Bill Berry, an entry-level 4.0 whose greatest strength is his backhand.   Adam Lesser finished off a terrific day for Algonquin by beating Mike Delaney, a grinding, steady player of the type that often gives him trouble, by the count of 7-6, 6-2.

Qualification for districts was almost a certainty after our win over the Y, but we wanted to remove all doubt in our penultimate match, held at my personal chamber of horrors, the Mountainside Racquet and Fitness Club.  I can’t remember the last time I won an individual match there, and although this time I went in playing well and feeling confident, the outcome was destined to be all too familiar.   Gary Roberts and I matched up at first doubles against two longtime adversaries, Glenn McKune and Richard King, both of whom have been discussed at length in previous posts.  To quickly recap, Glenn’s game is based on consistent, savvy play, and he may own the best pair of tennis hands in all of New England.  And while Richard relies on a big serve and an intimidating net presence, he has begun to diversify his game in recent years, with increasingly positive results.   As I warmed up for the match, I felt good:  I was moving my feet, hitting smoothly and making very few mistakes.  Then we started keeping score and everything went to shit in a hurry.  Richard slowed down his serve to give himself more time to get in to the net, where I believe he made every single one of his volleys, which happens about as frequently as Halley’s Comet passes overhead.  Glenn was Glenn.  Gary couldn’t return serve to save his life, and I did very little to help him: I was late on Richard’s shots and too far out in front of Glenn’s.  To put it mildly, that was not the convergence of factors we were hoping for, and as a result we would have been double-bageled if Gary had not held his opening service game.   We found ourselves a few games behind very quickly, and then Gary became more tentative while I started pressing, as if trying to erase our immense deficit in one fell swoop.  Anybody who thinks two-out-of-three set matches always last a long time definitely didn’t watch this one.  We had barely broken a sweat and we were already off the court.  It doesn’t get much more humiliating than that.  Glenn didn’t even need any fist pumps.  Sometimes, though, a negative result owes more to what your opponents did right than to what you did wrong, and I really think that was the case here.  So I’ll give credit to Glenn and Richard for a match well played, try to work harder on my game, and maybe have a few tactical wrinkles for them next time.  Extending the match beyond half an hour, for starters.

Embarrassing as the Mountainside match was for me personally, it didn’t negatively impact our team because the rest of the guys picked up the slack and won the other three courts.  Dave Caza beat the same opponent he had played at our place, though this time in a much closer match that ended in a supertiebreaker.  Todd and Neal beat Rich Atherly and Jeff Adie in two close sets, as Jeff apparently had an off day, and we won third doubles in straight sets behind the Ricks (Leclerc and DePasquale).  That clutch team win, combined with other results, meant that we had clinched first place in advance of the regular-season finale at Seacoast.  But we finished the season strongly nonetheless with one more 3-1 victory.  After Lesser once again lost to Barry Posternak in a supertiebreaker, we swept the doubles with Parquette/Leibig winning in two close sets, DePasquale/Paquin winning in two decisive sets and Jack Chen/John Duckless winning in a supertiebreaker.  Mountainside would later beat out YMCA for the second postseason berth, but the way the 40-plus competition is set up, we will only face the Mountain Men again if we both advance to sectionals, and I’m not sure we have the singles firepower to make a serious run at that.  But we’ll be in with a chance, and who knows what can happen?  No matter what the outcome, it has already been a successful season.  Sure, we came into league play as one of the favorites, but USTA tennis isn’t played on paper.   We got it done between the lines as our depth came through for us on many occasions and Johnny D came up with some great lineups.  And now I have eight months before districts to get better, so that I don’t suffer any more near-double-bagels.  Or a couple of weeks, anyway- then it’s Tri-Level time!

 

Loon Mountain: Off the Schneid!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

40-plus Districts: Outwitted, Outplayed, Outlasted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Past Meets Present

newport-clubhouse

The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

newport-grass-court

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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