Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Tale of the Cadmium Lemon Colored Spheres

Above: The Captain (on right) and I dominating in doubles at the USTA New England Districts this month.

Non-art posts are rare for this blog, but I felt I should document some tennis stuff, considering this is the primary way I get my exercise as well as exorcise the jock aspect of my nature. Anyway, here's the story of me and tennis, if you're interested:

Tennis was my childhood sport. I started playing (according to my mother) when I started walking. I'm sure she exaggerates, but I've seen photos of me at about 3 years old with a baby sized wood racket and a nerf ball, so I guess it was an early start regardless. I developed into a pretty good junior player, but eventually stopped when I graduated high school at 17. Since I went to art school in Manhattan, tennis became nonessential; I was pretty focused on my training as an artist.

I still had no vehicle, as I was commuting to the city during the school year, but in the summers, in order to get around, I bought a pretty nice road bike. I got hooked on that for a good 7 years, and by the time I moved to Maine, I was in phenomenal shape. I hooked up with a local team and raced all over New England. As I'd mentioned in a previous post, it became a ridiculous obsession. With my training diet, I wouldn't even allow butter or ice cream in the house, let alone eat it. My wife got pretty fed up with it all. It was time to scale it back.

Through an interesting chain of events, I had the opportunity to start playing tennis again after a 15 year hiatus. It was a better fit for me time-wise; it usually only takes 1 and a half hours to get in a full match, unlike the 3 hour (weekday) to 8 hour (weekend) training rides I had been taking. Turns out, it didn't take all that long to find my game. In about a year and a half, I had joined the USTA leagues, and was winning lots of matches at the 4.0 level. For a time there, I was one of the best 4.0 players in Maine - the guy to beat, so to speak. With more kids now, my game has declined a tad, but I'm still in the mix.

The weekend at Districts was a good case in point. I won my singles matches easily, but the doubles looked to be a tough fight - at least on paper. The format is 8 teams competing in 2 brackets, and there's a playoff between the best teams from each bracket. So that's 3 matches plus one if you're not eliminated from your bracket. Each team head-to-head features 2 singles and 3 doubles matches, so it's best of 5. This year, we were hurting as a team, as we lost a number of guys earlier in the year to injury and advancement to 4.5 level (I had advanced, but appealed the decision and won. Not because I'm a sandbagger, but because all the guys on my 4.0 are terrific guys, and I wanted us to have the best chance this year.)

We limped into Districts as a wild card, and we drew the toughest team around in our bracket. This particular team - who shall remain nameless - has been the bane of our existence for 5 years now. We've beaten them a couple of times, but they're still always tough. The captain has a knack for scouting and recruiting young college players and getting them to qualify for leagues at 4.0. Meanwhile, they really play at a 4.5 to 5.0 level, but it's a way of beating the system; it's legal. Our team plays it straight up, just because we still are able to pull out a win due to more savvy and experience than sheer youth and talent.

So when we played this team, we realized we had no chance winning the 2 singles matches. The singles guys they had were just way too strong. So we sacrificed those matches with 2 lesser players and stacked all our big guns at doubles, where we had to sweep in order to get the 3-2 win. It was our only chance. I have to say, the doubles team that The Captain and I were up against looked super strong on paper. One guy was a player who I know quite well. He's a big time tennis nut, playing constantly, and has a great game (if slightly unorthodox), and is a hardcore competitor. The other half of that team was one of the top high school players in the state, having just graduated this year. HIGH SCHOOL. I mean, this team is getting younger every year. Pretty soon we'll be playing 5th graders. Anyway, he was young, big, in top condition, with big strokes and a big kicker of a serve. But I have big shots too, and I realized that if I could return his serve early in the match with a lot of pace at his feet, his confidence might ebb and cause mistakes. Fortunately, my shots were firing, and it worked like a charm: his shoulders began to slump, and he started missing easy balls. We targeted him so the other player couldn't help. The Captain was playing unconsciously, too, pulling out ridiculous placements of shots, and reflexive volleys that were outright winners. We won easily 6-3, 6-0.

The 2nd doubles match went well, too - a straight set win. The teams are now tied, 2-2. The big match, the decider, featured our fittest athlete teamed with our scrappiest, savviest veteran versus a young super-athlete, and a younger, athletic big hitter. It was anyone's guess, though one would have visually given the edge to the young guns. Turns out, it came down to 2 points in a penultimate tiebreaker. It was a nail-biter, with amazing play from both ends, and pressure points all around. We lost by that tiny margin, but what a fight from my fellow teammates! It was a heartbreaker, because the strategy almost worked. And looking ahead, we could all see that we were the toughest team that this young Dream Team would face until Nationals. So close.

Now, I'm back to playing for fun and fitness until the next season which will begin in March of '09. I hope my wins at District don't bump me up to 4.5 again, because I can't appeal it anymore. It's such a tough level. I can compete, but I won't have a winning record. I'm not ashamed to admit that I like to win, because - well, why compete then? Winning does keep you coming back, and I'm not ready to hang up this sport. I had a great uncle who played until 95!!!

Speaking of this, I gotta get over to the Deering High courts and play. See you out there!

No comments :