Friday, July 31, 2009

LEAGUE WATCH: "The worm has turned for you."

Lately, all my matches have followed a similar theme. I start out well in the first set, sometimes even winning it, then "take a personal set" and then - at just when I used to need to talk myself down - I think. At the tightest points I've been playing lately, and sometimes in the middle of a point, I just breathe. Then I do what I need to do by going back to the strategy and just making it happen.
I guess the best example of this was my team's last USTA match of the season. It was a pretty big deal. We win and we are in. As in, in the division playoffs. We get a spot in a four-team, one-day competition for a spot in Princeton for sectionals. We lose, and we're done for the season. So, although the team we were up against wasn't the toughest, the scenario might make a few racquets a bit heavier.
I had to admit to a few nerves, but I swear, every time I get nervous, I think of the last time I got nervous and choked away a match, and I toughen right up. I was back at singles, and my opponent was a solid-enough player, and really liked to crush balls midcourt. So, simple plan. Keep the ball deep.
I was feeling pretty comfortable at the beginning, and peeked down to check on everyone else. Down the line, all our teams were up. Yes! So I win the first set, 6-2, (amid my opponent's annoying "habit". Every time I had a sitter that was mine to put away, she would start squeaking her shoes, just as I was about to swing. "Oh, but Naf, she's just a noisy runner. Can't help that." Yeah, but she wasn't going anywhere! She's just standing in place, and obviously following this line of reasoning: "Well, damn it. I just messed up and gave her an easy ball, which was a mistake on my part. I've already effed up my shot, but if I try to distract her while she's hitting, it'll stop her from making the shot, and then I'll win the point anyway. It'd be nice if I could win on my skill, but since I can't, might as well use my sneakers. My, that IS annoying!")and checked in on my team again. Well, my teammate in singles had also won the first set, but was now down a break, and farther down, our first doubles team was struggling. Same with the third. But, the second dubs was looking solid. Anyway, I got back to business and built a modest lead. A few minutes later, our second doubles team walked off with a win. One down, two to go to win the match. Oop, one. Somehow, my teammate on the other singles court had turned it around and come back in the second set to win 6-4.
Back to it. I'm up in the second against Squeaky, and I look up to find our first court doubles were finished. But did they win? I looked up at the spectators from our team for a sign, and got nothing, so I kept playing. At the changeover, I was up 3-2, and I looked up at my team. They gave the thumbs-up. WOO! WE ARE IN!!
Which rendered my match meaningless. And I was fine with that. More than fine. I saw my teammates busting out the margarita bucket, and I wanted to stop! I was so relieved that my team had won that at the next changeover, I noticed that the score of my match was now 3-4. Don't ask me how, but now I was down in the second set and had put myself in an interesting spot. I wanted to hurry up and get off the court and celebrate, but now, I'd increased my chances of playing three sets. Sigh. Back to it.
It wasn't really that tough - keep the ball team, ignore the squeaking and run her all over the place. (Have you ever looked at your opponent in a match and seen a beet-red face and heavy breathing and thought: "Hell, yeah!") But here was the cool part: So, we're at deuce at 4-all, and we're both running back and forth during a point. In the middle of the point, I thought to myself, "Well, what's the hurry. Just take it easy and set up the point." And I did it - adjusted in the middle of a rally, and I stayed on course for a straight-set win. And a MARGARITA!
So, all told, we won the match, 5-0, which earned us a spot in the divisional playoffs on Sunday. As followers of League Watch know, that was not the road we started on as a team. We started out struggling, but steadied ourselves just in time and ran the tables. We went from middle of the pack to blasting our way into the playoffs. Sweet. But.
There are two open spots in our flight. One of the teams in our flight had gone undefeated for most of the season and all of us had just assumed they'd get the first spot. While we were making our push, the undefeated team lost their last two matches, which dropped them into a four-way tie for first place with us, among others. However, the next tiebreaker is matches won, and the previously undefeated team came up with the third-most matches, which cost them a spot in the playoffs. (Yeah, that'll leave a mark.) The team with the most matches won? That'd be us! Not only did come back from a slow start to make the playoffs, we finished first in our flight!
So that was unexpected. And awesome. You know what they say. It's not how you start, it's how you finish. We'll find out on Sunday how we finish, but I swear, I can smell Jersey from here. And believe me, I'd know that smell anywhere.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

LEAGUE WATCH: The final countdown!

In life, one has to visualize goals. It allegedly helps. So, one more time, with feeling, are my tennis goals for my USTA season:
1. To make it back to Princeton -- and to win maybe two matches this time.
2. To get moved up to the 4.0 level.
3. To win (the rest of) my matches and utterly dominate all my opponents.
I gotta admit, my last league loss is still staying with me -- but in a good way. It doesn't hurt as bad, but every time I find myself in a tight situation, I realize that it's more important to play my game than to win like a scaredy-cat. This has come in handy in the matches since my last team loss.
Quick recap:
Y-Not: Our next match was against the undefeated YMCA team. Again, I knew a lot of them from another weekday league. Basically, we needed this match. With two losses, we were down, but not out -- as long as we could get the rest of the field to come back to us a bit. So beating the Y was key. My captain made a key change to the regular lineup and moved me to line one doubles. I was relieved. In the winter, I'd been playing so much dubs, and I felt more comfortable there. I could tell you all about it, but I'm going to let my team captain, Lyn, do the honors:

"Bev and Nafari also won their first set pretty easily—6-3 and started their second set. Their opponents started playing much better and I moved away from their court when they were losing 4-1—this is way too painful for a Captain to sit and watch! I headed for the bathroom.
After three trips to the bathroom with diarrhea, Marla and Vicki were down 4-3 in their second set. Bev and Nafari were still losing 4-3. Wait . . . what is this???? Donna and Karol are shaking hands . . . . they won!!! 6-3! That means—we won too! We beat the Y!
One more trip to the bathroom and back to Bev’s and Nafari’s match.
I’m not sure how this happened but all of a sudden their score shows us winning 5-4! Is it possible we could beat the Y 4-1??? Yep, we could and soon Bev and Nafari were hugging on the court and jumping around."

Now, that was sweet. First, nice to get the monkey off the back and get a win. Second, nice to have someone on court with you to release some of that pressure. Third, I wasn't the reason our team sucked it anymore! That was also nice. And for the record, we went 5-0 in that win -- whitewashing an undefeated team AND saving our chances for playoffs.
Next up:
Mt. Lebo: Not one of the tough teams in our league, so the key here was not to drop any matches. I was back at first singles, and my opponent was one of my practice partners from back in the day. Here's how comfortable I was. I won the first set, 6-0, and the first game of the second set before my opponent decided she needed some more water. I accompanied her and before I knew it, we were shooting the breeze with everyone we ran into. We were gone for about 20 minutes. We resumed the match and I dropped three games on the way to another 5-0 win. So far, so good. Were we on a roll, or were we just lucky? Our next match would be a stern test.
The Hills are alive? The next team was usually right in the mix of our league division, but like us, they were struggling a bit this year. Still, our teams always had tough matches. Once again, I was back at first doubles, and as we walked to the court, my partner told me she had played our opponents a few days earlier and went three tough sets before they won. I decided to myself I wasn't going to go three sets with them. We didn't, and we won in two fairly easy sets. And for once, I was the first one to finish! Huge relief. Anyway, we dropped one match on the way to victory. Can't be sure, but it's almost a legitimate roll now. Meantime, looking at the league standings, we'd moved into third place, behind one last undefeated team and another with just one loss. We still needed some things to happen to break our way. It's certainly not ideal to not be in control of your own destiny, but if we did our part, anything could happen. Right? Ri-ight!
West Virginia! Road trip for my team, but I was taking the week off. Which actually is more nerve-wracking than playing when you, in theory, are still in the playoff hunt. I'm at Highland Park, playing with my homies, and wondering what happened. Why won't anyone e-mail me? Until I got a text from my teammate that said one thing: Johnstown lost! Let me help you -- Johnstown was the one-loss team we needed to catch. They lost! Which put us in a tie for second place, but our match wins gave us the edge in wins -- if we beat the West Virginia team, which we did. 5-0! Crazy! What's next?
Default: Anticlimatic, but our next team opponents defaulted the match, which gave us yet another 5-0 win. Aah, no one want to win with defaults. Do they?
So we want to play now. We've got one match left and it's coming up Sunday. Our last match won't be a pushover, but it's doable. The standings: We are in second place, solid. For now. The last undefeated team finally lost, but they're safe as long as they win. There are two slots for the division playoffs. We're in the driver's seat for one of them. All we have to do is win. It's been a crazy road, and it's not over yet, but isn't this why we're on the ride? For the journey? We hope it takes us to Princeton, or at least the division playoffs. But this is the fun part -- the suspense and the fact that it's in your hands. There are so many parts of life -- work, family, etc. -- when it's not in your hands. I guess that's what's great about sport -- the fact that it's all on you. If you fail, you have no one else to blame but yourself (which sucks). But if you succeed, man, is it sweet.
So. Back to those goals:
1. To make it back to Princeton -- and to win maybe two matches this time.
2. To get moved up to the 4.0 level.
3. To win (the rest of) my matches and utterly dominate all my opponents.
We shall see. We shall see.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

July 5, 2009: The Day Andy Roddick Became a Man

Everyone likes to say that Andy Roddick was unfortunate to play in an era with the likes of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Without them, they say, Roddick could be the holder of multiple Slams. Maybe.
Maybe he should have been anyway. Let's be realistic: Had Roddick been working to vary his game in the days of Tarik Benhabiles, he could have already been able to throw in a U.S. Open, maybe an Australian, definitely a Wimbledon.
It took him a while to get on the bus, and get to work on his game, but he did it. And because he chose to get to work at this stage in his career, and chose not to be just another top 10 or 20 for the rest of his career, he deserves a reward.
Yesterday, he played well enough to get it, but still came up short. He finally played the kind of tennis in this tournament that everyone thought he could have been playing his whole career. What does he get for it?
Well, that's the interesting part. Roddick gets possibly the most painful loss of his career, but he also gets -- the most motivational loss of his career. Every champion -- Rod Laver, John MacEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer -- have had that loss that's just like a kick in the stomach. For all of those men, that loss propelled them to never feel that way again. It brings the champion out of them. (And don't tell me Federer wasn't thinking of a specific Wimbledon loss in the late stages of Sunday's final.) If there's still a major to be had for Roddick, this loss is the thing that brings it out of him. Losing that match could be the best thing for Roddick's career -- especially if he goes back to the practice courts determined to learn how to volley. Really, now, with a serve like Roddick's, how do you not follow that to net and win matches in about 35-40 minutes?? Anyway, losing Wimbledon the way he did might leave a mark now, but it'll put some (more) hair on his chest.
As for Federer, well, look. Sampras didn't show up to Wimbledon at the last minute to see Andy Roddick. Sampras knew he'd win, and for good reason. As long as Rafa Nadal's not on the other side, Federer's got that bad boy done. Federer's come a long way, hasn't he, from the man who was practically weeping on Nadal's shoulder in January. Now, he's back on top of the tennis world, is the best player ever if you use Grand Slams to gauge that sort of thing AND now is the holder of two majors this year. And most importantly, Federer has finally won a major without collapsing on the ground in tears.
In other Wimby news, Serena Williams is racking up the majors, isn't she? Must be nice to play an opponent who walks up to the net at the beginning of the second set with a covered dish in hand, gestures at you to move closer, then removes the lid to just gives you the match on a silver platter. Brilliant. So glad I got up early to watch Venus Williams implode when it counted, especially after playing such a nice tournament.
Sigh. I don't know what I expected from the women.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Big "W": What? No rain? and other observations

OK, I haven't been blogging, but I have been playing lots o' tennis! Which is better, right? (More on that coming up in "League Watch."
Oh, and watching a lot of tennis. So much tennis that I've been averaging about 45 minutes later to work trying to watch this. Moving on:
1. Ever seen a 347-pound woman wearing stretch pants? You wonder, "Why would you do that to yourself? You look like a (insert wildly hilarious comparison here)!" Consider, friends, the case of Nadia Petrova. What the EFF was she wearing to Wimbledon?? Here's the thing I'm sure she's not picked up on yet -- not everyone can wear everything. It's a matter of body type. There is a tennis outfit that looks good on her. There has to be, just because of the sheer volume of tennis clothes out there. Is it a burlap sack? Maybe. You don't just discount those options, Nadia. What you especially don't do is walk out of the house wearing something that looks like you're wearing feathers on your ass and that is randomly spewing ruffles. It doesn't matter how well you play, either. Everyone's just busy wondering why. Why, Nadia?
This is why Wimbledon might consider an adjustment to its clothing policy for players. Just because it's white doesn't mean you should wear it.
2. And then there's Dinara Safina. Two-parter: First, if you are losing the battle between tennis and chocolate, then you're gonna need a top that covers the battleground. Listen, girl, no one wants to see the flab. Cover it up, son! Second, until her match today with Venus, I was very impressed with Safina's play through the tournament. In that Lisicki match, as in countless recent others, I could see a glimpse of a Safina who had overcome and played through the jitters. You know, raising the level of her tennis when her back was against the wall, only to come out on top. And you begin to feel as though she could do it -- she could step up her game and get that Slam! And then she rolls over in big matches like my lab who just wants to be petted. It's a matter of time for sure, but it's sort of painful to watch sometimes.
3. Biggest surprise so far? Not Novak Djokovic getting handled by Tommy Haas (have I mentioned before how unfortunate it is that Haas never got his Slam?) or Jelena Jankovic losing to a 17-year-old American (OK, stop sentence! We all know how much of a drama queen Jankovic is -- mostly, it even offers a bit of amusement. But when you blame a loss on your "woman troubles"? That's not crossing the line. It's just pretending there was never one. Gross! No one wants to hear that! Even if it's true!! Yikes. Pop a Midol and call me in August.). It's Elena Dementieva taking Serena Williams to three tight sets using ... drumroll ... her serve! Not even the sneaky underhand serves! Real, well-placed, hard serves! First and second!! It's nice to see that finally, Dementieva is really developing a serve to go with the rest of her great game. To do it on grass should be a huge boon to her. Maybe she can get that major one day. She should be able to now. After all, she doesn't have to play against the likes of Anastasia Myskina.
4. Venus v. Serena: Venus. Easy.
5. And then there's Andy Roddick. Can he beat Andy Murray? Yes. Will he beat Andy Murray? Doubt it. I think the reason is simple. Murray is a well-rounded player who can absorb power, dole some out and has unbelievable touch. He also moves like a freakin' deer. Roddick is trying to become a well-rounded player who still can't volley. (Here at TWA, you have to earn your title of "Andy the Butcher.") Yes, it's Wimbledon and he can always Ivo-Karlovic his way through a draw, but not against a returner like Murray. And then there's this talk of pressure for Murray. And maybe it played a role against Stan Wawrinka. But it sure seems to me that he's embracing that pressure. Why else would you show up to Wimbledon wearing Fred Perry gear? So, I'm going with Murray and I think he's looking good. I would even give him an edge in the final, where he'd face ...
6. Roger Federer. Probably. OK, yes, for sure. In my heart, though, I want Haas to win. Is that really so wrong? Haas has been all over the place in his career, including near the very top of the game. He's always had such a beautiful game, and it's too bad injuries had to derail that. At the French, and here, he's shown he can still compete with the big boys. Here's hoping it lasts a while.
7. Is Djokovic becoming a head case? Vote in the poll.
8. Oh, and I almost forgot. James Blake out in the first round? Of one of Slams the Americans focus on instead of the French? Because it's more important? Sigh. Would it be wrong to suggest Blake needs another coach?