Thursday, December 18, 2014

On-court antics: Season on the brink

Sometimes, you can spend weeks, or even months, talking about something -- something that might or might not happen. But then it happens. And you are so tired of talking about it that now, you're just over it.
That's what our playoffs were like for 8.0 mixed. Once our league coordinator decided it wasn't a good idea to restart the season the day after the regular season ended, it was time to get the wheels of inevitability going. Our team made it through the first round last weekend with nary a bump, except that everyone on our court had some form of Ebola swine flu. It wasn't so bad, except the constant pressure on my chest and feeling like I couldn't breathe after some points. But we're all OK now. 
Our next opponent: Team Shenanigans. You know how some people are competitive at tennis while still recognizing that this is still really recreational, while others give people free club membership for their facility to lure them off of another team? Yeah. Team Shenanigans. So for the last two weeks, knowing that the members of this team were also largely on the 9.0 mixed team and that both of those teams were scheduled to play at the same time, we speculated about who would show up where and if that could help us. Especially because we're talking about some very dominant male players here. One of them is a former D-1 all-star and HE IS RATED A 4.0. I am rated a 4.0 and I just started playing tennis about a decade ago. About three days before the match, I checked out. I couldn't talk about it anymore. I just wanted to play. 
I'm not gonna lie -- I felt great during warm-ups. My whole team looked great. Even as one of their biggest dogs walked into our building, I thought: "Whichever one of us gets him, we can swing it. I mean, look at us!"
And then, during the match, I looked at them. By the time my court had finished warmups, that 4.0 college guy? He was up 5-0 on our teammates on line three. On line two, where the best teams from each side met, they were locked in a tight first set, but it looked like Team Shenanigan's big dog was starting to find his game. And on my court? We were down 5-1 in about four and a half minutes. And we drew the easiest team, which was still pretty effing tough. I'd played them both before and had a good record against the guy and not so good against the woman, although the one time I had beaten her was in mixed dubs. So I felt OK about our chances, even though we were down. We made a couple of adjustments, including pulling me off the net, and we got it back to 5-4. So I'm standing at the service line and I thought: "OK. All I have to do is hold serve here and we've got ourselves a set here."
Can I give you some advice? NEVER THINK THAT THOUGHT. NEVER DO IT!!!! I double-faulted three straight times. Three!!! I don't even remember being nervous. But I don't know what I was thinking, either. 
In an effort to avoid my own body after it malfunctioned on me, I looked around again, hoping for a sign. And I got one. The third line was already playing a fun set. In the next court over, Big Dog and his "3.5" partner were cruising. In fact, within minutes, our team was down 5-0 on both courts within minutes. I stood at the line again, this time, just hoping to avoid a bagel. I told my partner, "Four aces right here, and then let's get into it." He was like, "OK." He probably thought I was drinking cold medicine straight again.
It wasn't four aces, but we did get that game, but it was all over very soon after that. What a bummer. The worse part about the matches where there's a chance to win is going over all the stuff you did wrong as you're trying to fall asleep that night. 
Who double faults three times in a game, you stupid idiot? This isn't singles -- keep the ball low! Slicing? Are you nuts? You have to learn to volley. Why's my partner in no-man's land, and why am I letting him live there? This skirt is old and needs to go in the trash. 
So, it's over until next fall. There's a chance I can play another 9.0 match, and 7.0 still rages on for a few more weeks. It'll be that and a ton of net practice between now and the spring. 
So what's the takeaway here? Welp, no sectionals for us. My husband's team lost in a heartbreaker the next day, and unfortunately, it looks like all roads go through Team Shenanigans, which goes to show you that all you have to do is buy some club memberships for college players, and you can run rec tennis in your region. I have some talent I'm lining up, and I feel like the offer for the public courts and the port-o-potty next to it (free of charge and no wait for the potty) is going to draw the guys in like, well, like stink bugs to a port-o-potty in the summer.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

On-court antics: How I learned to stop worrying and love 8.0 playoffs

The 8.0 mixed doubles season out here has been ... interesting. There has been a lack of urgency because all eight teams make the playoffs. At the same time, it's also a good idea to jockey for position in some way -- because if you can grab home court advantage, well, that's ideal.
That's what my team had in mind for the last regular season match. Win, and you move into the second slot and have at least two playoff matches at your house. (The final is at a neutral location.) Lose, and you drop to fourth, and what would be a very tough first-round match against a team we barely beat during the regular season.
In situations like this, then, you hate to have to play an important match with someone you've never played with before. UNLESS you ended up with my partner. I had the talk with him, you know, about me. And the net. And our complicated relationship. I ask him: "So, how do you feel at the net? If I start with the serve, you're probably better off up there than I am."
He says: "I feel OK up there. You can serve."
I often wonder if people have different meanings for words than I do. Because when someone says, "I feel OK," I think, "So not great." But this guy was not OK at the net. He was pretty great up there. For a big guy, he moved quickly at the net and intercepted stuff I figured I'd have to get for him. I actually had time to learn a lot about volley preparation back there.
So, besides for a temporary hiccup I had in the second set, during which time I had a bout with nerves that I had to literally curse myself out to shake, we won in straight sets.
That made the whole match score 1-1, with our team down a set and a break by the time we were done. We held on, though, and our team won the match, 7-5 in the third.
So yay! We secured one home-court slot on the last night of the regular season! (My husband's team had the other. I know what you're going to say. It's what everyone says. "Why aren't you playing on the same team as your husband?" If you're very good, one day I will explain it. But we have to focus.) Time to plan for being in the driver's seat during the playoffs! Right? Right! Wait, what? Not right??
Everything was awesome until around 9 a.m. the next morning, a Sunday, when our league coordinator dropped something of a bomb: A proposal to extend the season by three matches, so that we could play more and give captains an opportunity to qualify more players for sectionals, should they advance. He put it to a vote by the team captains that would be tallied in five days.
Now naturally, this would be a vote that would run something like 6-2, then, with the 'no' votes belonging to my husband and my team captain. Well, who else wouldn't jump at the chance to improve their playoff position, right? Heck, if this was proposed before the season started, or maybe two matches in, I might have supported it. But the fact that it surfaced the morning after the season had officially ended (according to our apparently archaic online schedule set back in September), smelled like shenanigans. And in league tennis in these parts, when you smell shenanigans, there's this one team captain who is usually cooking it.
He shall remain nameless here, but through some sleuthing, it was discovered that this guy had told another team captain he intended to ask the league coordinator to help him out by changing match dates so he could get his best lineups out there. Many of his players also play for the 9.0 team, and he needed some accommodations so he could send beefed-up lines to both places.
Well, once this was discovered and made known to the other captains, it got real "Dynasty" up in here. While emailed accusations of just about anything tennis-related you could think of were being hurled about, there was one person who was mysteriously absent -- the league coordinator. Finally, on Monday night, he materialized to tell us that the plan was off the table.
So, for now, until the next insane proposal, my team will play at home this weekend, as will my husband's. What's the lesson here? Twofold: 1. Look, you don't mess with USTA people and their league tennis. You just don't. 2. If you are hired to do a job, do the job. Don't put stupid ideas up for a vote. Squash them, because that is your job.
That said, here's to an all-TWA face-off for sectionals!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

On-court antics: The 9.0 experiment

So what had happened was, we were sitting at home, just minding our own business, and my husband gets a text.
"Would you play 9.0 if you got asked?"
I shrugged. "Sure," I said, but seriously. Who would ask me? My USTA records are out there for the world to see. Let's be for real.
An hour later, as I was getting the kids ready for bed, he peeks his head. "You need to sign up tonight. They sent you a team number."
And that's how I ended up on a 9.0 team this season, people. Basically, they had a 5.0 player and needed a 4.0 woman to play with him, so they were in a pinch. The match was in two days. As soon as I signed up, I went from psyched to panicked in less than a minute. Here's someone (me) who just played a 7.0 and struggled to figure out how to win it. Now, not only am I playing a 8.0 match in the afternoon, but am also now playing a 9.0 match three hours after that. Yes, that is utterly ridiculous. But you never underestimate the power of a tennis junkie to place themselves in ridiculous situations just to play tennis.
As I was about to leave the house, my three-year-old asked me where I was going. Any mother who also endeavors to do things for herself knows that question and the guilt trip forthcoming. I told him I had to play tennis but I would be right back. (... in six hours.)
Instead of the usual clinging-to-the-leg that usually happens next, my son turns, grabs something and gives it to me. "I want you to take this with you."

I don't consider myself an emotional person, so feeling an alternate rush of love, guilt and a desire to stay with this kid and never let him go was unexpected. But because I am ultimately a terrible person, I thanked him, kissed him and ran out the door before I busted out crying. (That's a Rescue Hero, an action figure from the 1990s. I'm naming this one Joe.)
So, with Joe in my bag, I head out to my first match of the day against the team I played for last year. No bad blood (pun alert) or anything like that -- it just ended up being the farthest facility from my house. It's a dangerous team, with a bunch of solid 4.5 guys, but the pressure isn't much right now. In the 8.0 league, everyone makes the playoffs. The regular season is pretty much jockeying for position so you don't have to play the really tough teams right away. My partner and I won our match pretty easily, and what could have been a tussle on line two ended when the guy on the opposing team pulled out of the match with a bad hamstring. I was feeling pretty good because at least I'd won one match that day.
But, alas, I couldn't bask for long -- I had to get in the car and drive an hour to get to the 9.0 match. And I knew going in that I would be the worst player in the entire facility, but when I walked in and saw a bunch of former college players warming up, I felt like a fraud. Fortunately, though, one of those former college players was my partner. Our opponents were two solid 4.5s, so I was far and away the weakest link. I told my partner after the warmup, "Look, I'm not comfortable at the net. I can be there, but I'd rather not be there. So if I'm doing badly up there, feel free to pull me off." He was not really concerned by this comment. "Well, we'll start you up there for now and see what happens," he said.
Of course, it took about a minute for me to realize why he wasn't too worried about me -- that's about how long it took for him to hold his serve. I felt like I should have gotten a bowl of popcorn, because all I did was watch this guy rain down these awesome serves, rush in and put the volley wherever he wanted and with whatever pace he needed.
But that was the first game. I couldn't return the guy's serve for the entire first set and his partner was able to put away anything at the net. She wasn't powerful, but very smart and patient. I hate that.
I was most worried about my serve, because at the level I'm used to, it holds up and isn't easily attackable, and the great thing about this match was that it stayed that way. I was still able to use it to set up my partner with easy putaways. My groundstrokes and returns, though, were terrible. They always are in the first set. I am a notorious bad match starter. I need, like, two and a half hours to really start killing groundstrokes. (Most doubles matches are over in 90 minutes.)
As the first set wore on, we were at 4-all, and I was serving. Maybe you've never been the worst player on a court before, but I knew that if I didn't serve well enough to win that game, we would lose the set. But I felt good -- my partner was up there holding it down at the net, and as long as I kept getting weak returns off my serve, we could hold easily and maybe focus on the opposing woman's serve. So it's 15-30 and as I'm walking to the other side to serve, I noticed there was some dark substance on my fingers, and on my grip:

Blood. I still don't know how I cut myself, but two figures were bleeding. I had to stop in the middle of the game to find some Band-Aids in my bag. While I was going through my bag, there was Joe. I saw it as a sign, and after I cleaned myself up, I moved Joe to the top of my bag so I could see him at every changeover.
I rode the Joe momentum all the way ... to dropping that serve game for us to go down 4-5 in the set. The next game, we lost the set. I was about to start moping and kick Joe out of the facility, but my partner turned to me, smiling after we lost that last game. "This is good. I wanted to play three sets tonight." OK, I thought. I like this guy!
We won the second set 6-2 and the third set was a lot like the first -- a grind. By now, the other matches had concluded and everyone from both teams are now watching. Normally, when other people are watching, it makes me focus better, but that day, with a bunch of 4.5 players watching me from the sidelines, it was weird. That might have contributed to me getting into another 15-40 hole on my serve late in the third set. We lose this game, and we're under the gun to win the next. We win, and we'd be at 6-5 with the girl's serve coming up, and I had loosened up enough that I was starting to find my range on those returns. But with her partner moving at net, it was still difficult to break her. Anyway, me at 15-40. I had a mini-revelation here. I realized that my partner is incredible, and it was mostly because he doesn't try to do more than he can in any given position on the court. He's not trying to kill every volley. Sometimes, touch is the best solution. Sometimes blasting at the feet. So by now at 30-40, and serving to the woman, I realized I needed to do what I can and nothing more. I served conservatively to her backhand, and let my partner take care of the reply. At deuce, against the man, I put more on it, as best I could, and also to his backhand. Weak reply, easy putaway. Rinse, repeat. Game, us.
Joe and I had made up by now, so I gave him a rub during the last changeover and lined up to receive serve. I did what I could do and nothing more. I hit two returns that were crosscourt enough to keep the guy from poaching and with enough topspin to make her hit tough volleys and it worked. Needless to say, the 5.0 guy was also able to win his points. Four points later, I had actually been a part of a winning 9.0 effort! Holy #(*#$^&*@, Batman!!
What did I learn? Once again, do what you can and nothing more. It sounds easy, but how many times have you found yourself trying a shot you don't have in a tense situation? No, of course, it isn't going to work. And no, your serve isn't going to miraculously find another 35-40 mph. So you do what you can as best as you can, and nothing more. That doesn't mean you're going to win all the time. It means you're playing smart tennis all the time. This, granted, isn't easy, but tennis isn't easy. Which is why we love it. Right? Right?

Friday, November 14, 2014

State of the Fed Cup

The Fed Cup, once again, came and went with nary a murmur on ESPN or most anywhere else. Well, except for this one small detail that the court it was played on was illegal.
New York Times tennis writer Ben Rothenberg tweeted over the weekend that the ITF ruled the courts was just over the measured limit for speed, but that it was too late to do anything about it, so they would just play the FED CUP FINAL ON AN ILLEGAL COURT.
I know, I know. You've sold the tickets. The people are there, the players are there, the show must go on. But I guess the main question is: Why is checking the court the last thing you do? It's only the stage for the event. And what's the backup plan if something were to go wrong -- if the court were actually unsafe? All good questions, but no one cares too much about this small detail. The main takeaway from this weekend, according to most media, is that the home Czech team dominated Germany. I wonder why.
(Just unrelated FYI: Did you know that Petra Kvitova has her best results on fast courts with low bounces? The two majors she has won? Both Wimbledon. Lucie Safarova has never won a Slam, but she's come closest at Wimbledon this year with a semifinal showing. She has never gone past the fourth round at the French Open, which is, shall we say, a slower court.)
And why would the German team not even complain? At last check, they haven't even filed a grievance. Granted, the court surface speed (CSR) should be 50 at the maximum, This court was at 52. If it didn't make a difference, why measure it?
It's enough of a problem that penalties are apparently forthcoming. I am sure the winning team will have learned its lesson.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

On-court antics: 7.0 mixed

I'm not much of a tennis snob. It's more like being a tennis whore.
I will do anything to play more tennis, especially in the winter. Still, joining a 7.0 team as a 4.0 player might be considered going too far by some.
But here is why I did it:
1. The 7.0 season out here is twice the length of the 8.0 season. There are roughly a million teams, compared to eight for the 8.0 division.
2. I thought it'd be easy. "I'm pretty good," I told myself. "I can carry a 3.0 player. So this will be just like practice for me -- you know, for 8.0 tennis. For the big dogs."
What has happened since is not exactly what I thought would happen. Let's just say it like that. Or we can say that the most certain thing I can carry in a match is my tennis bag. Not that my partner needed to be carried. During the first set of our first match together, I realized he was putting things away at the net, keeping serve returns deep and hustling to short balls. You might ask yourself what I was doing during that time. That is a good question.
We lost our first match in a third-set tiebreak, and three days later, while I was driving to work, I realized that if I had changed strategy, we could have won. That led to my first tennis revelation in some time: I have 4.0 strokes and a 2.5 brain. How many times have you heard someone say that tennis is like chess? No one ever says tennis is like whack-a-mole. But I play tennis like it's whack-a-mole.
So after sitting on the bench for a week, trying to get my head right, my partner and I got the call again. This time, I told myself, it's going to be different. This time, it's going to be ...
3-6 in the first set. For the bad guys. So we changed some things. I took the ad side and served first. We jumped out to a 5-2 lead, and things are going well. Then I noticed my partner looking a bit, well, tired. I'm standing at the net while he's serving and if I hadn't known any better, I would have thought I was playing with Darth Vader.
My partner took to the baseline to serve at 5-3, and I figured Darth wasn't going to make it if we didn't end this set and get him some bench time. So I had an idea. I decided to stand at the baseline while my partner served. I had tried being aggressive at the net, but as he was getting weaker, his serve was making me more of a target up there. Another advantage to being back there was that he now didn't have to run around for balls that had passed me. And because it's 7.0 tennis, it either never occurred to our opponents to hit a drop shot or it wasn't in their arsenal, so we just traded ground strokes until I hustled in to put away a short ball. This, I am proud to say, was all my idea.
We finished out the second set there, and after addressing my toddler's meltdown in the club's restroom, I returned to find my partner looking pretty much the way I had left him. Except now, he began cramping. We started out 1-2 in the third set. Back to the baseline with Darth, who is looking worse than ever. Having said this, he also refused to quit. In fact, he eliminated a lot of errors. I'm not saying he turned into a pro, but he kept the points going and kept putting me in good positions to do what he was doing early -- finish at the net.
But even though he was somehow keeping it together, even while grimacing in pain between each point, we finally had a hiccup, and it was after we had broken the guy's serve to get to 4-all in the third. And I was serving. This was a good thing. I don't want to brag, but my serve is pretty good. OK, it's not easy to attack -- that's fair to say. So this was a good thing. First point: double fault. Three points after that, it's 4-5. This sucked, yes. But it was the woman's serve(, and let me say something right here about you short people who hit flat balls. You are all terrible people. There ought to be a law against people who refuse to put some spin on their ball. Am I right? Am I?? Right???).
Anyway, it was her turn, and I had struggled with her serve, but we made another adjustment -- we got in closer and hit high and deep returns to the baseline, because we realized that it's hard to hit the kind of ball she wants to hit when it's bouncing in your face. Also, she helped us out a little by double-faulting and making mistakes she wasn't making before. Translation: 5-all.
Out comes the team captain to tell us that our match is suddenly timed and that we have to play a match tiebreaker. Now. It was almost 7 p.m., and the match had now been going on for nearly three hours and now it was time for the club to close. Those of you familiar with TWA know how I feel about tiebreakers. But considering that my partner was basically taking a knee between each point, I decided to embrace it for once.
As with the rest of the match, we had a slow start, 1-2, to begin. But once again, my partner surprised me -- he summoned just enough energy to run after a couple balls and keep things going, and boom! A little after 7:15, we won a third-set tiebreaker for a change.
"So what?" you might be asking. "Settle down -- it's 7.0 tennis."
I get it, but I played tennis like it was chess for perhaps the first time in my life! Yes, I got into tennis to hit the bajeezus out of a ball for an hour-and-a-half, but in the time since I started out, I thought it might be nice to also win a match every now and again.
What I learned from 7.0? That I can change the outcome of a match by thinking about what is happening while it is happening. Crazy, right?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Top of the heap

Before I get into how great Serena Williams is, let's give the WTA a huge big-ups for FINALLY reworking the WTA Championships doubles draw. It's not perfect. "Perfect" is the way the men do it with a round-robin for doubles as well as singles. But it was a giant step for womankind to expand the draw from four to eight teams. See, that right there is a tournament, OK? And how about Sania Mirza and Cara Black bringing home the trophy? What an interesting team -- built basically around Mirza dictating play with her forehand and Black just cleaning up on Aisle Loser. Very impressive stuff. Now, about Serena Williams. No, she is not an elegant player. She's not even the most brilliant and creative player. Yes, her thigh has more strength in it than my entire body. But this is not what will cause her to go down as the greatest female ever. Some years ago, after, oh, about eight years of playing tennis, it occurred to me that tennis is mostly mental. Like 97.9998992 percent mental. You can have all the pieces, but if your head isn't right, then your game isn't right. And when I say "right," I'm not sure what's right, because I'm almost completely certain that my head's not right most of the time. And I sure don't know what Serena is thinking when she plays, but we can agree that her mind is the rightest thing about her entire game. Sure, she has her hiccups as she did in the round-robin against Simona Halep, but when was the last time you said to yourself, "She's never gonna beat me again," and then was able to make that happen? Did anyone else see what she did to Halep in the final? That was not a brutal show of power or excellent shotmaking. That was Serena's head being right. She had a plan (WIN!!!!), and she executed. Makes you realize that when someone says "It's all in your head," it ain't always pie-in-the-sky.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Farewell, Li Na

The reason I really liked Li Na is the same reason I really liked Mary Pierce. I can't remember who she was playing (Conchita Martinez?) the year she won the French Open, but Pierce was serving, and the camera zoomed in on her. As part of her serve motion preparation, Pierce held the ball closer to her face as she surveyed her opponent, and her hand was shaking. That's it. That's why I liked her – because she showed that even as she was en route to doing something huge in her career, she was nervous. Just like I would be, or anyone else. You never saw the shakes in Li Na – not like that. It would show more in her game. She'd be using her deep groundstrokes to hold off Victoria Azarenka or Serena Williams, and then it was like she realized how close she was to winning, and then all the wheels would fall off. This isn't to minimize the greatness of her career, which she ended last month after enduring years of worsening knee problems. She is the first Asian ever to advance to a grand slam quarterfinal, and the first to win a Grand Slam. Li is known for her independent streak – she left the Chinese national team to gather her own training team. It wasn't popular then, but when you come home with a French and Australian Open trophy in your hand, that'll sway the public opinion pretty decisively. She finishes her career with more than $24 million in winnings and endorsement money and nine pro titles. This year, her last year, she won the Australian and became No. 2 in the world. But the show of humanity even as she pursued the heights of her career is what tends to move a fan base. Sure, Serena will go down as one of the greats of the game, but she never shows that humanity on court, that thing about her that makes you realize she's just like you on the court sometimes. And she doesn't have to – there's a place in history already for her, and for Pete Sampras. But when someone like Li Na retires, there tends to be a sentimental place, too. The other thing about Li and Pierce is that they did what they did long after they were supposed to have been able to do it. Maybe it's getting older, or having kids, but when you see Li Na snagging majors into her thirties, it becomes far more impressive in a personal way than, say, the Eugenie Bouchards of the world. Not that there's anything wrong with them. But the Bouchards are for the kids. The Lis are for the grown-ups.