Thursday, December 29, 2011

The 2012 ALTA season begins next week(end)

As both a captain and a player, it’s an exciting time: the first ALTA season of 2012 is almost here. For many of us, it’s been more than 2 months since we’ve played our last competitive match (unless we play USTA or in a flexible tennis league).

At the beginning of any season, there is the anticipation of what is to come. What kind of year will I have? Will my team be good enough to compete for a bag tag? As a captain, there is the additional responsibility of creating an environment that’s fun, and lineups that maximize your players’ strengths, hide any weaknesses, and give your team its best chance for success.

It’s the proverbial “clean slate”, nothing has been ventured and nothing has been gained, it’s all “in front of you” ... and any number of other clichés that one can conjure up. But it’s also important to remember what the objective is: to try one’s best, to compete fairly, to not lose oneself in the heat of the moment and forget about why we play the game (and it’s only a game).

So good luck to you and your team(s); savor the days and thank God that you are healthy and able to play this great sport of ours, whatever your ability. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

More on USTA's NTRP rating system

One of the most frequently read posts on this blog is my article about ALTA’s ‘rating’ system, another is my one about USTA’s rating system, which leads me to believe that a lot of people are interested in this topic … probably because it’s controversial.

In my first post on this topic, I lamented about USTA’s system “it’s as good as any other, but it certainly leaves much to be desired.” To expound on this, I focused on regional differences. More specifically, Georgia is stricter than some of the other Southern states and it’s also possible that the Southern Area better enforces their ratings than other regions in the country. I wonder if the USTA has ever analyzed their data to see if any region is underrepresented in the National Champion category historically. I would think that they would want to know the answer to this question, which should highlight those areas where adhering to the establish standard is lacking: e.g. the ones that have teams which win at Nationals year in and year out.

I also pointed out an example of someone I played against locally who appears to have been rated higher than his ability despite having played for several seasons with minimal success at his lower rating. His bump was a half level, which – because he plays mixed doubles – may not have affected his being able to stay on the same team, but probably caused him to play with a different partner. Hopefully, our local USTA organization is as quick bumping players down a half level as they are bumping them up.

Because of my USTA mixed doubles team’s success this year, we’ve had a number of players bumped a half level, which has altered our team’s members and several pairings. This was to be expected. In fact, from the first team I joined 2+ years ago until now, there are less than a handful of us (and I’m the only male) that have been on every team, which has remained at the same 7.0 level. The real shocker this fall was that one of our players was bumped a full point after only two seasons of matches. While a half point would have been reasonable given this player’s ability, this unfortunate circumstance means that – unless his rating appeal is accepted – he will not likely play USTA League tennis ever again. I’m not sure that USTA wants to drive players out of their league because of a less-than-perfect rating system, we’ll see.

Monday, December 12, 2011

USTA Atlanta City Finalist

Unfortunately we lost our second straight Atlanta city final, to a team that seems to have our number. Last spring, we lost our last regular season match to this same opponent, but still ended up winning our division and earning the bag tag because we'd won more matches overall. Friday night was a close one: we won one line and lost the other two in third set Coman tiebreakers.

We had an outstanding turnout - our cheering section included not just several other members of the team, but also former players (members of our GA state championship team), one child, girlfriends, a sibling and even parents - and we had a huge picnic table spread of food. In fact, our team won the Spirit Award!

An invitation to next August's USTA Mixed Doubles State Championships was not awarded right away, but may be forthcoming. I certainly hope so because last Friday night reminded me just how special this team is - my teammates and all the others that wish us well - and how lucky I've been to be a part of it. I'm not ready for this 2+ year USTA journey of mine to end and would love to make a third straight trip to Augusta next summer!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

USTA Mixed Doubles Atlanta City Championships tomorrow night!

Many from our 2011 USTA Georgia State Champion Mixed Doubles 7.0 team will be playing for a chance to qualify for the 2012 Georgia State Championships (next summer) tomorrow night, at the Dekalb Tennis Center in Decatur. Because of our success this summer, our team is somewhat different; a couple players’ ratings were bumped up in August.

I feel a little bit disconnected from this team given that I played just twice this fall - plus once (in the quarterfinals) in the city championships tournament - which ends tomorrow night. Given the changes to our team, my partner – with whom I am undefeated over the past two seasons in 5 matches (including one in the Georgia State tournament) without dropping a set – has been assigned a new partner of late, and they’ve won both of their two matches together.

Because a couple of our current players’ ratings were bumped up this month, 2012 will be quite different from 2011; Friday night’s match will give us a chance to keep the vast majority of this past year’s team together for one last hurrah next August in Augusta.

Wish us luck!

Monday, December 5, 2011

A question of tactics, related to the mental side of tennis

Although I write this tennis blog, I’m not an authority on any topic related to our sport (even though my tone may suggest as much sometimes;-) What you find written on these pages are my experiences, observations and the knowledge (limited by my abilities: I’m a high B/3.5 level player) that I’ve gained while playing and captaining for (now) 11+ years here in Atlanta.

Obviously I can gain from your knowledge and experiences, if you’re willing to share by posting a comment to this (or any other) post. Although I know (from this site’s Urchin statistics) that many read my reflections – btw, thanks! – there hasn’t been a lot of participation from ‘you’ out there. Although I write largely for my own pleasure, I sincerely hope that what I have shared has helped you or others in some way over the past year. But now I am openly soliciting your help.

When I’m in the midst of a close match against persons that play at a higher level than me – in practice or a league match – I sometimes find myself wondering if I can maintain my level of play in the critical games at the end of the set, or not. Because of this self doubt and believing that my opponents have probably figured me out by now and will change their tactics – e.g. start poaching more – to close out the set (e.g. force a break, etc.), I’ll change my tactics and inevitably have a couple of bad games to effectively lose the set to them, and restore order.

I’m beginning to believe that this is a mental deficiency on my part: I don’t have enough confidence in my ability, in fact I believe that my opponents are better (because they are), such that I try to change my game (even though my physical ability is limited) to try to compensate at the most important time in the match, effectively sabotaging myself – and my partner – in what then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s easy for me now, in hindsight, to see the error of this … but that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop the next time I find myself in this situation. I can say to myself “dance with the one that brung ya” or “keep on keepin’ on”, but I guess I must believe in my heart of hearts that the outcome will be the same if I don’t change, so I try to force the issue to trip them up.

After all, when I play an opponent of equal or lesser ability, I’ve become pretty good about staying with what works to close out the match. I don’t fear them or their ability to raise their game or change their tactics to stop what ‘we’ have working and beat us, for some reason.

If anyone has any advice that would help me change this self-defeating pattern I've developed, words of wisdom or pearls of knowledge, I'd appreciate it. Thanks in advance!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

ALTA’s winter 2012 tennis team schedules have been posted!

The schedules for the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association’s winter 2012 season have been posted on their website.

As a tennis captain, today is always a highly anticipated day, almost as much as the first match of the season. It’s the first chance to see if any roster changes have affected the team’s placement/level, to see how many familiar opponents are on one’s schedule, and how many home matches each team will have.

Of course it’s impossible to predict how one’s team will do, especially before the season starts, but that doesn’t keep us captains from fretting over our players’ availability as we research the other teams that were assigned to our division, or begin to visualize the forthcoming season before the first ball is even struck.

It’s like a present that sits under the tree for weeks in December, dreaming what it will be and not wanting to wait to unwrap it.

Good luck to my fellow captains and future opponents; have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and we'll see you in January!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tennis Books – some gift recommendations

Read any good books lately? Do you read tennis books for self-improvement, enjoyment or any other reason? I’ve read several that I can recommend no matter what your motivation for reading is.

The Thanksgiving holiday falls on my birthday every few years – as it will next year – so I usually get a present before the traditional gift giving season arrives. Last week, I used my Amazon gift certificate to purchase a tennis book that I’ve yet to read: Allen Fox’s Think To Win: The Strategic Dimension of Tennis, which was published nearly 20 years ago. Unless I’m mistaken, Fox frequently writes for Tennis Magazine which, like Bill Simon’s Inside Tennis, I read cover-to-cover almost as soon as it comes in the mail. But I haven’t read a tennis book in a while, so I decided to give this one a read. Besides, the offseason is a great time for self-improvement off the court, since playing time is limited due to the weather.

The last tennis book I can remember reading was Agassi’s Open, a gift I received a couple of years ago. It’s pretty good and interesting unless you’re not a fan of his. I was lukewarm to him during his playing days, and I enjoyed it even though I usually read tennis books about improving my game in lieu of autobiographies or biographies. However, one of my favorite tennis book reads is John McEnroe’s autobiography You Cannot Be Serious.

The two best tennis books I’ve ever read for improving my game were Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert and Unlimited Doubles by Steve Tourdo. Gilbert’s book helped me to raise my singles level from 3.0 to 3.5 while Tourdo’s helped me to learn the important keys to success while playing doubles.

A tennis book that I would be hard pressed to recommend is considered a classic by many: The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey, which I found to be a difficult read of which little applied to me.

What are some of your favorites?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Is anybody watching the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals?

Is this a tournament that you’re taking time out of your day to watch, either live or tape delayed? Is the fact that it’s only on The Tennis Channel hurting your ability to see it (or interest in watching it)?

I have no idea what the Nielsen ratings are for this season ending tournament of the men’s professional tour, and I consider myself to be a pretty big tennis fan, but I’ve only watched very little of this event on TV even though I’ve taped several of the matches. I just can’t get in to it; it’s never seemed like a very important tournament (no offense to Roger Federer, who’s won it more than anyone).

I know it’s an honor for some to even make it into this round robin tournament (e.g. Janko Tipsarevic this year), but let’s face it: usually (not necessarily this year) a lot of the players are tired or injured, the men’s season is way too long, and many of us are no longer playing tennis either. I don’t know about you, but I’m more interested in watching the pros play when I’m playing more myself.

Even for those obsessed (can never get enough tennis) fans, that the tournament is airing exclusively on The Tennis Channel has to hurt the audience for the event. Plus, that it’s being played indoors, under unusual lighting and on an atypically colored court – a different ambience from what is usual – detracts from it as well, in my opinion.

Lastly, part of the reason I enjoy watching other (besides just the Grand Slam) tournaments on television is the commentators. Even when the tennis is mediocre, hearing Brad and Darren, or the McEnroes, talk about the play, the players and our sport can make it interesting and entertaining enough to watch. Without them, meh.

Still, I might be in the minority and, as always, I welcome others’ opinions.

Monday, November 21, 2011

We’re getting our tennis courts resurfaced!

Unfortunately we’ll have to play the winter ALTA season before they’re redone.

Having your neighborhood tennis courts resurfaced can be very exciting. Yes, there is downtime when you have to find another place to play for a week or so (weather permitting) while the courts are being resurfaced, but then you’ll have years of enjoyment before having to worry about having them redone again.

In my old neighborhood, the process was expensive and few and far between and it didn’t take long before new cracks appeared after each resurfacing. When I moved to Marietta, however, I thought my new neighborhood’s courts must be new because they didn’t have any cracks at all. As it turns out, the Homeowners Association sprang for Premier Courts, which have a “rubber, sponge-like” layer beneath the 3 coats of acrylic paint – which comprises the surface of a tennis court – such that cracking is all but a thing of the past. The flexible layer allows these paint layers to "coast" across the hard surface beneath instead of being subject to the cracking that occurs with the expansion and contraction caused by seasonal temperature changes. That’s the good news. The “bad” news is that the “sponge-like” layer retains water from rainfall and, as the courts age as ours have and seams in the paint appear, moisture comes up from beneath while one is playing (from the pressure of your weight on top of it), even days after it has rained. You start out playing on dry courts, but they become wet while you’re playing, especially in high traffic areas at the baseline etc. However, it doesn’t ever really get too wet (slick) to play or make the balls unplayable either.

The great news is that resurfacing these types of courts is less expensive than usual because there are no cracks to seal: whereas in my old Towne Lake neighborhood, it was upwards of $45,000 to redo our 3 courts, it’s going to cost “us” less than $10,000 to resurface all 4 Premier Courts here in Marietta! Of course, the initial installation of these types of courts was pretty expensive.

Now that the decision has been made to resurface the courts, I’m impatient for it to be done. Unfortunately “we” waited too long to decide that it needed to be done, and resurfacing can’t be done after November 1st here in Atlanta. So, we’ll have to suffer through one more season of ALTA before we’ll have new “to die for” tennis courts … and we’ve opted for the U.S. Open Blue color, which naturally costs a bit more;-)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

After an overcommitted fall, it’s time for a break … and time to heal my tennis elbow!

Hindsight is 30-30 (15-15, 40-40 or something like that;-) and if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t. This fall I played men’s ALTA on Saturday mornings (and we practiced Thursday nights) and USTA mixed doubles on Friday nights, and had to make time for T2 “50 and over” doubles and Ultimate Tennis mixed doubles on Sundays, Monday or Wednesday nights. Yes, it was crazy, and I’m glad it’s over.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to play tennis, men’s and mixed, and thoroughly enjoyed my partners and almost every match, win or lose, even though I don’t generally play as well during the fall season, for whatever reason. But given my family (and other evening) commitments during the week, finding time to play my flexible tennis league matches was a challenge given my partner’s availabilities and mine. And, given my fall successes (or rather lack thereof) I wasn’t always in the best spirits at the end of the day throughout September, October and the first week of November. But even if (my partners and) I’d won more matches, I still think that I would have ended up feeling like I’d sacrificed too much time that could/should have been better spent, which is how I feel now.

I remember when I first started playing tennis and caught “the tennis bug”, I was obsessed and couldn’t get in enough playing time. Playing men’s ALTA wasn’t enough, so I started playing mixed doubles as well. Then I started playing K-Swiss (now called Ultimate Tennis), which was only a singles league at the time. Additionally, I had a friend in the neighborhood that was equally obsessed, and we’d play singles (usually on our lunch hours) at least once a week. I couldn’t get enough and never thought I’d feel like I do now, after this fall’s overdose.

Maybe it’s the fact that my elbow started hurting about a month ago, after I’d had one of my racquet’s restrung. This is a normal occurrence for me, but it usually only lasts about a week (or at most two) and then all is good. But perhaps because I was playing non-stop, there wasn’t time for any healing to take place as usual. So it has stayed sore, and if I wasn’t taking a couple of Advil before playing, it would be unbearable. I feel kind of wimpy because my “over 50” partner has always suffered from this ailment – he’s learned to live with it – and yet I have lost some enthusiasm for this wonderful sport of ours just because of a little pain?

Well, I’ve backed off for now and am only playing once a week: our regular mixed doubles practices on Sundays – in preparation for the winter’s season(s) – have begun. I’m certainly hoping that my elbow will heal and that I can regain my zest for playing over the next couple of months before January.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Special Pops Tennis - Fall Classic 2011

Last weekend I attended the Special Pops Tennis Fall Classic at the Racquet Club of the South; I worked as a volunteer umpire all day Saturday and Sunday morning: working 4 singles matches indoors on Saturday morning, 3 doubles matches on Saturday afternoon, and a semi-final & final on Sunday morning.

Much like the 2011 Special Olympics at Emory University - where I volunteered as an umpire last May - the event was well organized/run by the Special Populations Tennis Program, Inc., formally founded as a nonprofit in 2005. It’s a terrific group of people whose mission is “to provide a meaningful year-round tennis experience to children and adults with intellectual disabilities”.

I highly recommend this organization, its volunteer staff and Board of Directors (many of whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet), and hope that you will consider volunteering at their events in 2012.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tennis season(s) winding down

As the men’s pro tour heads for the season ending championships in London, Atlanta’s amateur tennis leagues – ALTA and USTA – are coming to an end for this year as well. This week/weekend marks the end of the fall ALTA season, with City Championships, and tomorrow will be the second of four rounds of USTA mixed doubles playoffs.

It has a been a great year, one to remember, which began with my return to the ALTA captaining ranks – after a 5 year absence – for my neighborhood’s burgeoning mixed doubles team, the beginning of this blog, Special Pops Tennis and the Special Olympics, volunteering and attending the finals of the Atlanta Tennis Championships, our USTA Georgia Mixed Doubles Championships, meeting Mary Joe Fernandez, and my return to playing in both the Ultimate and T2 flexible tennis leagues.

While organized tennis wanes, off-season retooling begins, and it’s important to use this time wisely to prepare for winter tennis in Atlanta.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Tennis Rules – they are there for a reason (all of them)

I’ve been called pedantic, which isn’t the worst one can be accused of, I suppose, because I’m not one of those that believe rules are made to broken, that they’re arbitrary or optional. This has at times caused others dismay, even disdain, and it’s hard to understand why.

Much of our society operates best on so many “unwritten rules” of manners, ethics and etiquette; much of sport requires rules. In fact, tennis isn’t possible without written rules about the size of the court, the height of the net, regulations about the racquets and balls, and how to keep score. So the United States Tennis Association has compiled “Friend at Court: The USTA Handbook of Tennis Rules and Regulations”, and the 2011 edition is a 324 page PDF file. Additionally, there is “The Code: The Players' Guide for Unofficiated Matches”, a 7 page supplement. ALTA, in turn, has spent 40 years refining their 4 page document which details how to conduct league matches.

Even after all these years of development and refinement, there are some tennis players and team captains that feel they have a choice as to whether to apply or follow these rules. Their attitude toward those of us who respect the rules and try adhering to them is that “we” are the problem or the “bad guy”. Sometimes they even act like rebellious children to an adult parent, their own or someone else’s (“you can’t tell me what to do” or “you’re not the boss of me”); it’s laughable. Recently, an opponent of mine tried to make me feel guilty for enforcing a rule – “I’ve never had anyone apply that one before” – by pleading he’d been generous to my partner and I while ignoring an earlier rule (a false claim, in any case).

If everyone would take the time to learn the rules, and then play by them, there wouldn’t be as many controversies as there are in many league tennis matches; perhaps everyone could focus on improving their attitudes and tennis skills and be grateful for being able to participate in this great lifetime sport of ours.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Seasonal performances – is your tennis game consistent throughout the year?

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve just noticed that my game's success varies during the year. While I’ve detailed the differences in Atlanta’s weather and what it does to the playing conditions in the Winter, Summer and Fall, I’d never noticed that my own personal performance varies by season until last night.

I recalled that in the fall of 2010, my various ALTA partners and I lost all but one match and, though my USTA partner and I lost but one match that fall, it was a particularly ugly one (in the playoffs). Again, this fall, my game has suffered as has my record. I was 2-3 in men’s ALTA and though my USTA partner and I are undefeated, my former USTA partner and I – we’re playing Ultimate Tennis together – are 1-3. This contrasts with how I started the year. Last winter, I was 5-2 in ALTA mixed doubles – with a variety of partners – and 5-1 in men’s doubles during the spring. Also last spring, I played and won with three different USTA partners and was undefeated. During the summer, while I was only 2-3 in mixed doubles my Ultimate Tennis partner and I went undefeated 4-0. Counting the 2-2 record I compiled last winter during the senior ALTA season, my record (including playoffs etc.) over the past 14+ months is 35-23 (60%), but it’s 23-8 (74%) if you leave out fall play.

What accounts for this 14% different in my (and my partner’s) winning percentage in the fall vs. the rest of the year? Should I give up playing tennis in the fall? I'll get a chance at some redemption tomorrow night; my undefeated USTA partner and I get to play in our first playoff match together since we won at the Georgia State Mixed Doubles Tournament this summer.

Wish us luck!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Playing competitive (e.g. league) tennis below one's level

While I can think of one legitimate reason to play competitive (e.g. league) tennis below your skill level – you live in a neighborhood where it’s a hard to find enough players to form a team, and you want to play with your neighbors (or spouse) – I can’t think of many others that are honorable.

I do know that most people want to win; but what does it say about someone that wants to win so badly that they have to enter a league below their skill level in order to do so? The great thing about tennis is – especially here in Atlanta – that there are (tens of) thousands of players at one’s same relative ability with whom to play. So many, in fact, that not only does the city support large team leagues like ALTA and USTA, but there are at least half a dozen flexible tennis leagues as well, each of which is organized by skill level.

It’s unfortunate that sand-bagging has become the norm instead of the exception throughout all of these leagues. While USTA will almost always (eventually) rectify situations in which someone has entered the league at a skill level below their own, ALTA has no means to do so and the flex leagues can be manipulated: a higher skilled player can intentionally lose games (or even sets) in order to remain at a level below their skill (and still win their match).

I don’t know why – what motivation there is – for someone to want to play below their skill level. Is it really that fun to overmatch your opponent such that you can throw games and still not be danger of losing the match? Where’s the challenge in that? Is winning that important? One doesn't see players from the professional tour competing against high school players just to pad their statistics or winning percentages.

I don’t know about you but, while I love to win matches, I love to improve my game to become a better tennis player even more, and would love to make it to the next higher USTA NTRP rating level. Is it possible to improve one’s game while playing opponents below one’s level? I don't think so.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Do you struggle to maintain your mental focus at times? Me too!

Last night, my Ultimate Tennis mixed doubles partner and I didn’t play very well, which was curious since we’d played “lights out” just two nights earlier. In fact, we probably had one of our more solid matches together, one in which neither of us made very many unforced errors. We were “on fire”. Unfortunately that match didn’t carry over into this one, and one of the reasons was that we were unable to remain focused from the very beginning and then throughout the match.

It seems easy for those of us that play tennis to make excuses: after hitting a bad shot, some of us look at our racquets (as if it’s the cause) and/or look for any issue outside of ourselves to blame for our “less than stellar” play. For myself, last night, I have excuses in spades. Firstly, there was music blaring from the clubhouse at the neighborhood where were playing. This is fine for practices, but uncommon (at least for me) during matches. At our request, the club pro finally turned it off, but not before we found ourselves down a couple of breaks.

After the music was turned off, we began to come back; after earning our first break, I was serving at 3-5 30-love when our opponents had a disagreement about whether one of my shots was in or out. Since it was a floating lob, I have no idea how the player furthest from where the ball hit the ground could have made the out call, but her partner quickly corrected it. Our opponents wanted to play a “let”, having me serve again at 30-love but I informed them of the rule change that resolves this matter – when partners disagree on a call, they lose the point – in our favor and changed sides to serve at 40-love. Of course, this is when a minor confrontation ensued. I hate it when people don’t know (or don't want to follow) the rules. In any case, it was me who was now the “bad guy” because I knew the rule. I then lost my mental focus and we lost the game and the set 3-6.

While we started the second set better, e.g. more focused, we later lost it again without a tried-and-true excuse and folded at the end of the second set, losing it by the same measure. I know that I can’t expect to play as well as I can in every match, but it is frustrating to have two matches play out so completely differently just a couple of days apart. Since there was no physical issue for me to deal with, it must have been a mental issue that made the difference in my performances. Knowing this will hopefully help me to play better the next time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hard losses can be tough, for a day or so, but then you have to “get over it”

After an amazing comeback on Friday night – my mixed doubles partner and I found ourselves down 2-5 in the first set, only to rally to win the set and the match 7-6, 6-4 – my men’s partner and I lost after a similar comeback on Saturday morning. Since this latter loss meant that our team didn’t make the playoffs, I took it particularly hard and couldn’t get it out of mind for almost 24 hours.

Even though we started the season poorly (3 points after 2 weeks), my men’s ALTA team had a chance to make the playoffs as the second place team if we took all five lines from the team currently in second, which we were playing on Saturday. Our first four lines won their matches, so it was up to me and partner at line 5 to finish the job. Our opponents were definitely beatable and we stormed to a 3-0 lead before fading and having to break them in the last game to hold on for a 7-5 first set. The second set was back and forth, a long and hard fought affair that could have finished with the same score in our favor, but ended in a tiebreaker, which we lost.

Still, we were confident going into the third set, even though we’d be playing from behind – they’d serve first – but it started out disastrously. We were broken and found ourselves down 0-3, but I reminded my partner that even though it seemed like a lot, it was only one break, and that if we held for 1-3, we could get back on serve with a single break. We held, but then they did too. Now it was my turn, and I hadn’t lost my serve all day. Unfortunately, we lost my serve so that we were now in a sudden death situation, down 1-5 in the third. At this point, I could no longer hear our teammates cheering for us; it was clear that the match was all but over, especially since our opponent with the unusual hitch in his serve – which he hadn’t lost all day – was up.

But somehow we rallied: we broke, held, broke, and it was my time to hold again, which I did for 5-all. We then broke the unbreakable’s serve yet again for a 6-5 lead with my partner ready to serve for the match. Of course, now our teammates were going wild, tasting a playoff berth and cheering for us as loudly as they could, especially after my partner made an incredible diving play to lead 40-15. At this point, I probably should have tried something different. I should have been extremely aggressive and poached our weaker opponent’s return. Something, anything, but instead I let the return float past me, where it dropped softly in front of my exhausted partner, who couldn’t get to it before it had bounced twice. We were unable to hold out and so a tiebreaker would decide it. We won the first point of it on my short angled return, and held my first service point for 2-0. However, at this point, I unraveled: I missed a short return, then lobbed a ball long and then missed an overhead – I went for angle instead of power – and, after losing the next point, we were down 2-4 at the changeover. I then dumped my return of serve at 3-5 so that we were down 3-6, but then won my next service point. At 4-6, I got a good serve in and my partner had a put away at the net, but our weaker opponent came up with an incredible volley off a ball hit at his belly button which passed my partner in the alley and the match was over.

After this 3+ hour match which we’d all but lost before almost winning it, I obviously obsessed about my missed shots in the tiebreaker all day (and night) until I started to remember that my real error was not being aggressive enough in the twelfth game of the final set. I’ve often believed that you don’t change what’s working and we’d gotten to the precipice of winning by being more steady that our opponent. In fact, my partner said “they can’t keep hitting winners” (along with some other inspirational words when we’d found ourselves down 1-5 in the third) and, sure enough, we’d rallied. But after my partner had literally left it all on the court – body and all – to give us that 40-15 advantage, I should have gone all out on the next point myself, or on those three straight points in the tiebreaker, instead of playing faithless (like I did).

What I should have done Saturday after the match is try to remember all the great shots I hit that put us in a position to win the match, instead of obsess on the one’s I missed that cost us the match. It would have helped me to recover earlier. Instead, on Sunday morning, still struggling with regret, I prayed to ask Him to help me to forget, and He helped me to remember that “it’s just tennis” by stirring my memory to recall the incredible experience I had when I heard Chris Coleman speak at North Metro Church a little more than a month ago. God then gave me another incredible gift yesterday when He prompted me to ask my daughter to play tennis with me – for the first time since July – and she said “yes”. By His will, I was able see the game for what it is and what it can be: great exercise and a way to connect with other people.

In the words of Clemson’s college football coach “Dabo” Swinney, after his team had just beaten yet another higher ranked opponent on their incredible 8-0 start to this year’s season: God is great!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Itching to play again!

Though I’ve watched some great tennis over the past couple of weeks, it’s been a little too long since I played my last competitive match. So I’m very much looking forward to this weekend.

After the mini-slump I had earlier this month, losing four straight after winning three straight, I had a terrific match with my “Over 50” T2 partner on October 9th – we won in three very competitive sets – but since then, I’ve been a spectator. In fact, I didn’t play the Saturday before that either. In fact, I haven’t made my regular men's practice since September 22nd nor played a USTA match since the 23rd!

This Friday I’ll be playing USTA mixed doubles, and Saturday will be our last men’s ALTA match of the season (unless the improbable happens, and we make the playoffs). Monday, my Ultimate Doubles partner and I will finally play our second match of the season, followed by our third on Wednesday and my final T2 match that Saturday.

I’ve very much looking forward to getting back in the swing of things, after circumstances that have prevented me from playing very much over these past couple of weeks.

Monday, October 17, 2011

We came in third

As you’ve probably figured out by now, we didn’t win the 2011 USTA Southern Mixed Doubles Section Championships this past weekend in Macon, GA. But we had a lot of fun and I realized – yet again – how fortunate I’ve been to be a part of such a great team of people. We are family!

We found out just before we left for Macon on Thursday that the Mississippi team had dropped out and that (therefore) our schedule for the weekend had been altered: we would have only 3 matches, which effectively turned each match-up into a must-win situation. This was unfortunate since, given the depth of our team, we would do best if Sectionals became a grinding war of attrition, in the way that the State of Georgia Championships played out.

On Friday, we played what turned out to be the best team in our division, a professionally coached team from Tennessee. Despite the fact that the John Drew Tennis Center has 24 courts, all three of our lines were unable to start at the designated time of 1 PM. In fact, lines 2 and 3 – both losses for us – were over shortly after line 1 was finally underway. However, we were privileged to watch an impressive 10.0 level match while we were waiting for the court. Our line 1 team then battled impressively against what looked like a 4.5 level man and his partner. Even though we lost the first set, we won the second and so a 10-point Coman tiebreak would decide it; unfortunately, we lost that by the slimmest of margins 8-10.

On Saturday, we played a very nice team from Alabama. Once again, our line 1 pairing split the first two sets with their opponents, but this time was victorious in the Coman tiebreaker. While our new line 2 team struggled, our new line 3 team won in straight sets. Surprisingly, the Tennessee team lost to South Carolina – the team that we would play Sunday – that afternoon, so we were still in it (mathematically) going into the final day. That evening, like we did at the state tournament, we celebrated the birthday of one of our players – our line 1 lady, who had already given herself a gift by winning with her partner that afternoon. We celebrated with Mexican food and drink – and birthday cake – at a restaurant near our hotel before traveling downtown to the players’ party that evening. Our team spirit was on full display throughout the event, especially on the dance floor where we all but led the activity. Others joined in, hungry to be a part of our team’s joyous camaraderie.

Sunday morning’s match was at 8:30 AM, and it was a cool 52 degrees in Macon. A lot of things would have to happen in order for us to make it through to the finals that afternoon. Firstly, we would have to win our match against South Carolina; secondly, Tennessee would have to lose to Alabama. The former happened, but the latter did not. Our line 1 played an outstanding match and defeated the vaunted S.C. team’s line 1 that had defeated Tennessee whereas our line 3 team had a very unusual match: after dropping the first set 1-6, they stormed back to take the second by the same tally before dominating the Coman tiebreak in the third. Unfortunately, Tennessee would not be denied and, even though there was a three way tie for first place, they won the team tiebreaker – most individual wins – to advance to the finals, where they lost to Kentucky, a team that won all of their matches during the weekend.

So our magical run has come to an end, but we’re better for the experience. I know that I will always cherish the memories of this trip – and indeed the entire season – and of the time spent with this special group of individuals that are my teammates and friends forever. Go Faaaaiir Oaks! Take it, take it!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Southern Mixed Doubles Section Championships start Friday!

That’s right, the date is almost (finally) here! Every member of our USTA League Tennis Mixed Doubles 7.0 State Championship team from Georgia (and at least one other) is headed for the Southern Mixed Doubles Section Championships in Macon, GA this weekend.

In addition to our Atlanta-based team, two teams from Alabama, two from Tennessee, and one each from Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina will be competing for a chance to advance to the 2011 USTA National Mixed Doubles Championship in Tucson, AZ next month.

Wish us luck!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cadillac Tennis Taste Drive with Mary Joe Fernandez - Ultimate Tennis Atlanta

Friday at the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center here in Atlanta, I was privileged to attend this event: a tennis clinic cosponsored by Wilson and featuring Chef Desmond Fannin and Tennis Pro Mary Joe Fernandez.

It was similar in nature to my Meeting Tracy Austin experience several years ago and, though it would be impossible to top that event, it was a lot of fun. I learned about the event through the Ultimate Tennis website; I’d played in this Atlanta flexible tennis league again for the first time in years this summer, because they’ve added doubles. That morning, when signing in, I received a “live strong” type white wristband which identified me as part of a particular rotation group. I also signed a waiver that would enable me to test drive an automobile later that day. Cadillac would make a contribution to the tennis center for anyone that test drove one of their automobiles. There was food – breakfast items, Gatorade and water – that morning.

After a brief introduction by a Cadillac representative, who detailed the agenda for the morning, we were released to our first rotations. The first was primarily a groundstroke clinic, during which we were given the opportunity to demo a Wilson racquet (or use our own). Since I’d just gone through an extensive demo period on my own, and couldn’t find a Wilson BLX Pro Tour (my second choice), I used my Babolat. The instructor – a local pro out of Blackburn, I believe – had us hit forehands from one line and backhands from another, down-the-line and then crosscourt. Each drill session was conducted on 3-4 clay courts – new for me – and lasted for approximately 25 minutes. The groundstroke session culminated in a game of “king of the court”, where a person from each line – ad and deuce court – try to win 3 points in a row from the current “king & queen”, from the side where the pro is feeding the balls.

The next rotation focused on volleys and, to a smaller extent, overheads. We were ‘taught’ the proper “V angle” – formed with one’s arm and the racquet – for hitting volleys from either side. During the drill we were fed balls to hit down the line, then crosscourt, an overhead, then close to put it away, and were given a chance to volley forehands (from the deuce court) and backhands (from the ad court). During this drill, I recognized a woman on the same court as me but wasn’t sure from where. We discovered that we both played out of Fair Oaks, but on different teams, and knew a lot of the same tennis players including one that was also there at the event but in a different grouping.

The next rotation was with Mary Joe who, after we had our group picture taken with her, stood to the side of one of the courts and commented on the play while we played “king of the court”. Of course I was thrilled (slight sarcasm) to hear her say “you ran right through that volley” when I erred. My new friend and I paired up, but were never able to win three points in a row together, oh well. Half way through this rotation, we changed to another court where an instructor fed us a short ball that we were to hit as an approach then hit a low volley followed by a put-away volley that we should try to aim at prizes placed on the court. If we hit it, we got to keep it. One woman in our group hit two, the first to do so according to the pro. I came close, but missed in part because the prize had been knocked down – making it harder to hit – already.

My final rotation was the test drive and I drove a Cadillac CTS 4-door sedan. Unfortunately it was only for a brief distance around a neighboring street in Collier Hills, which was pretty torn up and bumpy (to say the least).

After all the rotations were completed, we were rounded up for a demonstration by Chef Fannin, who made a shrimp dish and a Q&A with Ms. Fernandez, who revealed that she just turned 40 and was unable to play some points (as Ms. Austin had done) due to a plethora of injuries. We were given a Cadillac logoed gift bag on the way out which contained a brochure, the shrimp sauce recipe and a Wilson visor.

All in all it was a fun event, but it was not quite to the same level – instruction, quality or quantity of food – as the Outback Steakhouse ALTA sponsored event that I attended several years ago.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A tennis showdown of my own making this Friday night

Because of some actions I took this summer, Friday night will be a clash between my regular ALTA mixed doubles team and my USTA 7.0 mixed doubles teams. How did I get myself into this mess?

After another great ALTA mixed doubles season this past summer, I wanted to continue the fun we’d had instead of waiting 5+ months for the winter season to begin. Since I’d been a part of a USTA mixed doubles team – out of a public park not far from my neighborhood – in the fall the past couple of years, and I knew that one could be a member on both a regular mixed and a seniors (50 and over) mixed team during the season, I floated the idea to my ALTA teammates, most of whom would qualify for a senior mixed team. Obviously, as a member of a USTA 7.0 regular mixed team already, I couldn’t be captain of the seniors team, so I encouraged one of my ALTA teammates to take the job.

Unfortunately, we learned through the local USTA organization that there were no senior mixed teams out of Atlanta. I still find this hard to believe, especially since there are plenty of ALTA seniors teams. But after reviewing the seniors teams that made it to the Georgia state championships the past couple of years, I saw that all the teams were from non-Atlanta Georgia facilities. What gives?

Well, you guessed it. The ‘new’ captain of what is my ALTA mixed doubles team – and my neighbors – decided to go forward with a USTA 7.0 regular mixed doubles team, and they were placed in the same division as the team I’ve been on for the past two years. This Friday night – on my neighborhood’s courts – will be the matchup that I’ve dreaded since the season began, between one of my teams and the other.

My personal loyalties aside, I hope that it will be a well played match by all the participants; may the best team win!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Time to replace my strings?

I had a disappointing match the other night and it made me think: it must be time to replace my strings.

I had started playing the match with the racquet I bought last June (which I hadn't taken out of the bag for months), after the extensive demo period during which I selected my new stick. However, after my partner and I were bageled in the first set, I switched to my backup racquet, which I purchased in early August after I was sure that this new racquet was for me. I have been surprised at how quickly the strings have frayed on these new racquets vs. my old one.

Firstly, you should know that I have never broken a string playing tennis despite the fact that I use Wilson NXT 17 (i.e. thinner, non-polyester) strings. Secondly, I used to replace the strings on my former racquet – a Wilson nCode nSix-One 95 with an 18x20 string pattern – every 4-6 months, even though they rarely showed any wear. However, my new racquets – Babolat Pure Storm Tour GT with a 16x20 string pattern – have both shown wear (extensive fraying) within only a few weeks of play and, though I’ve continued to use them, the strings haven't broken.

Always looking for an excuse for poor play, I’m thinking it must be the strings that caused me to play so poorly last Thursday night. So, I took one of my racquets – the first one I purchased – to be restrung this weekend. I’ll be playing my first Ultimate Tennis mixed doubles match this evening with my ALTA partner, so I’ll try the newly strung racquet, but have a frayed one in the bag if things don’t go well.

Wish us luck!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fall Tennis in Atlanta

I’ve written about winter tennis and about August (summer) tennis in Atlanta, but fall tennis is perhaps my favorite season in which to play.

Like in the spring, autumn is cooler (e.g. than the summer) without being cold enough to alter the game, as the winter does, but March through June can be quite unpredictable with regards to precipitation, and rescheduling rained out matches is a pain for everyone involved. Although in the fall there can be an element of wind, which can affect some player's games (particularly those that lob, have high tosses and/or weaker serves), I much prefer – and seem to play better – in the fall than in the spring (I don’t know why).

One of the downsides of playing in the fall, however, especially here in the south, is the conflict between playing tennis and watching (and/or attending) football games. But I’ll take missing or having to watch a football game delayed on my DVR over rescheduling a rained out match any day. Another downside is having to blow leaves off the courts; fortunately, our neighborhood employs a lawn maintenance service that minimizes this time-consuming task.

Playing a match in either the spring or the fall can get hot with unseasonably warm temperatures, but the fall generally gets cooler (better) as the season rolls along whereas the spring season gets hotter (which is worse).

All in all, Atlanta is a fantastic place to live if you like playing tennis: not only are there more players per capita here than in any other U.S. city, but one can play outdoor tennis year round.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A perfect tennis weekend: three up and three down

It isn’t often that the weather is perfect – cool (or at least, not too hot) and clear (no real threat of rain) – and my game (and that of my partner’s) is in sync with it. But this past weekend, I played in 3 different leagues with 3 different partners and the result was the same: a two set victory.

Friday night was my first (our team and my partner’s second) USTA mixed doubles match of the season. This is essentially the same team (and partner) that I played on (with) which just won the 2011 Georgia State Mixed Doubles Championships, and that will be playing in the Southern Sectionals in October, though we’ve lost some key players (because some got bumped to a higher USTA level) from that team. We played at a neighborhood facility not too far from where I live, but a place where I had yet to play. Unfortunately the lighting was poor, but my partner and I were able to follow the example set by the two earlier lines that played: none of our pairings lost more than 4 games and we had the only bagel set, winning 6-0, 6-3.

My Saturday morning men’s ALTA team, if it’s to have a chance to make it into the playoffs, needed to take all 5 lines. Our line 1 played excellently and won in straight sets against a tough pairing and our line 2 was in their third set as my line 3 partner (whom I haven’t played with since last fall) took the court. Although the first set was competitive scoring wise – we won it 6-3 – the second set better reflected our dominance (we won it 6-1) against our opponents, who went for too much and made far too many mistakes. In replaying the match in mind afterwards (as I always do), I counted too few winners by us relative to “unforced” errors by them. Our team took all five lines, so both my Friday and Saturday teams were perfect for the weekend.

Two down and one to go, my “over 50” T2 partner and I played Sunday afternoon, which was clear and quite a bit warmer than the day had begun (in the high 50’s), but was still a less than 80 degree fall day. Since this is the inaugural season of this particular T2 league, and no leveling has taken place, there is no way to tell what kind of opponents we will face. In fact, during warm-up, it looked like we would have to play our best to stay with them. However, we took the first set relatively easily (6-2) by breaking each of our opponents’ once while holding our serves twice. The second set was more challenging: we were unable to break until it was 4-3 us, so it was my time to serve at 5-3. A hold and victory would be ours. Unfortunately, I served from behind throughout the game and went for too cute a shot at 30-40. In fact, I went for too much earlier in the set, which cost us a chance for an early break. A game later we found ourselves at 5 all with my partner having to come up with something special to avoid losing his serve. So, receiving at 6-5 in the second and desperately trying to avoid a tiebreaker, we were able to hang tough. The nerves that caused some careless play on my part earlier were finally felt on the other side of the net and the stronger of our two opponents double faulted on match point to us.

I can't remember a more perfect tennis weekend, when my teams and my partner and I went undefeated … and it feels great!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tennis Drama - is it starting to get out of hand?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not thrilled about the drama that surrounds tennis, whether it’s in the professional (mostly women’s) game or in recreational leagues, during ALTA and USTA matches. I’ve been following a 50+ comment discussion of Serena’s latest appalling behavior at the 2011 U.S. Open on LinkedIn, so I know that my dismay is not unique.

Sure we’ve had bad examples in the professional game ever since it exploded on the scene as a popular sport in the boom years of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, but after some (men’s) retirements and a relatively quiet period that was followed by the sportsmanship of Roger Federer’s rivalry with Rafael Nadal, there now appears to be more drama than ever in the women’s game. I’m tired of it, I’m not interested in seeing it so I won’t watch it. You hear that ESPN, I’m turning it off. Showing a replay over and over as a lead-in the next day of an incident the day or night before will lose me (and I’m sure others) as a viewer, so beware, if you care.

Unfortunately, drama seems to have always been a part of ALTA, at least since I started playing in the league in 2000. Some men just take themselves and/or winning too seriously, and controversy seems to happen all too often on Saturday mornings. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming my innocence here. In fact, I used to be a pretty sad sort myself. These days, when I run into a familiar face on the court – someone says they recognize me – I wonder if I should apologize for a past indiscretion. Perhaps as a reformed player, I’m noticing bad behavior more often than ever. Whether a player starts with a bad attitude (hard work week?), or a ‘questionable’ line call sets them off, some are ready to explode the minute anything happens which can be used as an excuse … and a good morning is ruined for all. I used to tell my spouse about these occurrences when I’d come home, but I think that’s half the reason she doesn’t want to join me and play mixed doubles competitively. Who needs it?

I don’t know if humor can preemptively resolve these issues before they happen or not, but I have – and will continue – to try to lighten things up during warm-ups (and even during the match) at times. It’s no fun for anyone to get all riled up playing a game, especially those of us who aren't paid to play it. We all want to win, even those who say they don’t, but we don’t all have to go home feeling badly about how we lost, or won.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Found my game just in time!

After last weekend’s debacle, when my men’s ALTA team lost 4 lines (when we should have lost 2, at most), we lost 3 this weekend. In fact, uncharacteristically, we lost the first three lines. So the pressure was on my partner and I (at line 4) to end the malaise.

Unfortunately, while winning is contagious, so is losing and, after winning the first game at love and having our opponents at 0-40 on their first service game – we'd won the first 7 points of the match! – we lost the next six games, and the set 1-6. What happened? Well, personally, I wasn’t moving my feet. Of course I didn’t realize this until mid-way through the second set when my partner and I were down 2-3. We started off the second set by breaking their weakest server, but then lost our first service game of that set as well. Their best server was next, and we continued to struggle to get into his service games.

After switching sides, it was my turn to serve at 1-2. After putting the ball in play I noticed that our opponents had switched sides. I stopped playing in the middle of the point and announced that fact, which they acknowledged. I lined up to serve the next point from the ad-court, assuming that their violation had earned me 15-love. When they protested, I returned to the deuce court to serve the first point of the game. Innocently, I didn’t really know what the rules were. I knew that if we'd played the point out in good faith, the point would have stood regardless of whether they were on the wrong sides to receive, but since we didn’t finish it, I assumed that there would be a penalty for their mistake. No problem, we played and won the game but then lost the next game to their weakest server (as we had in the first set) again.

At some point, it might have been at 3-all actually, I scrambled forward for a short ball that their better server had hit off of my return of serve and ripped a winner. Though we lost the game, I realized that I hit better shots when I moved my feet, something better players make me do anyway, but against these opponents I was just standing there as the ball came to me and then over or under hitting (or even pushing) my shots back. We ended up winning the second set 6-4 and clearly had the momentum going into the deciding set.

However, the third set played out much like the second in that we were playing from behind – having to hold serve to even the game score each time – and there were no breaks of serve until late in the set. In fact, it was their stronger server, whom we hadn’t broken all day that was up at 4-all. I said to my partner that this was our last chance to break him and that it would probably demoralize them – and the match would be ours – if we did. Their best server had a spinning second serve that bounced very high, one that I can normally drill even with a swing from above my shoulders. However, without moving my feet earlier in the match, I’d lost confidence in my ability to execute the shot. Before his previous service game, I asked my partner for help, did he have any advice about how to return the high bouncing serve? He said to receive it from two steps behind the baseline. I did, and had some success, even though we’d lost that game. This time, I stood deep and hit a powerful topspin forehand after his serve fell into my strike zone. Because of my earlier futility, the net man thought he’d have an easy poach, but my strong shot surprised him and his volley hit the fence behind us. At 0-30, our serving opponent went back to a shot he hadn’t tried since the first set, and he’d obviously forgotten why. He went up the middle to my backhand and I drilled it past his partner by hitting down the alley, the same as I had done in the first set.

With the break secured, I had all the confidence in the world because my partner had been a beast at the net all day. So I stood at the line and hit my hardest serves of the day; the only point they won was a missed volley that my partner inexplicably missed. To get to 40-15, I had to run from the ad-side to the deuce court to get a lob over my partner and, because I'd found that the key to my game was movement, I hit a confident, scorching forehand winner up the middle that surprised both opponents and elicited some cheers from my teammates. Game, set, and match for us even though our opponents won more games (14-13) than we did. Our line 5 was similarly inspired, coming back to win the second and third sets after losing the first, so that (as a team) we doubled our point total from the previous week. If we’ve played the two best teams in our division, there’s still a chance we could make it to the playoffs, otherwise it’s going to be a long season.

Wish us luck!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

First Week (of the tennis season) Blues

My men’s ALTA team (collectively) had one of our (unexplainably) worst outings to begin the season. Now we played a pretty good opponent, one which took two lines from us last season, but we had a pretty strong lineup and should have done better than 1 point this past Saturday. I certainly should have played better.

Our line 1 got blown off the court which, while unusual, was perhaps the only point we should have lost. Our line 2 pairing won, as usual, but we lost two 3-set matches at lines 3 & 4. Line 4 had a battle on their hands and it truly could have gone either way, but after taking the second set, it appeared as if we had the momentum to finish the job (we didn’t). Line 3 was terribly inconsistent; clearly, we beat ourselves.

Then it was time for my partner and I to take the court. Firstly, you may remember that I spent the off-season playing Ultimate Doubles with my men’s ALTA partner in order to solidify our partnership after winning 4 out of 5 matches – all at line 3 – last spring. Unfortunately, my partner has a new job in the financial sector and, given the crazy market of late, is unavailable for the foreseeable future. Oh well.

So I had been paired with the guy who led me to join this team last summer, someone I’ve both played with and against in practice; he’s a very strong player who usually plays at a lower line to “guarantee” that we take that point. But when I showed up at 11 AM on Saturday, I learned that I was to play with someone else: a teammate I’d only practiced against once, two weeks earlier and never played with in practice. Never underestimate the value of a familiar doubles pairing.

We were playing line 5 which is where one typically runs into “pushers” and/or lobbers. I usually have trouble moving down a couple of lines for this reason – it’s a different kind of tennis – and shortly into the match, after my partner hit one overhead from the baseline into the net followed by a second into the fence and exclaimed “I hate lobs”, I knew we were in trouble. While we didn’t have any trouble breaking their service games, especially in the first set, we also couldn’t hold our own because our opponent was adept at lobbing our serves over the net man. Patient as I tried to be, one of us would eventually go for too much out of frustration and we were toast. I mean, it must have been the worst I’ve played in months. The good news is that I'll be paired this week with a familiar partner, and we won our only match together last spring.

At least USTA mixed doubles starts this Friday, even though I wasn’t available to be considered for the lineup (and thus can't go and cheer for my team) ... another reason for my first week blues.

Monday, September 12, 2011

CBS should be embarrassed for trying to spoil Stosur’s victory

Sam Stosur did what no one thought was possible yesterday: she beat a resurgent Serena Williams 6-2, 6-3 on the American’s home court at the U.S. Open to become the first Australian woman to win a Grand Slam title since 1980 (Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Wimbledon), but you wouldn’t know it watching the overly biased television coverage by CBS.

For her second straight last appearance at the New York major, Serena was a bad sport on the world’s stage; no surprise there. Unfortunately, the network’s production and TV commentators’ comments focused on this loser of the tournament, instead of the victor. Yes, there was a call that went against Serena and yes, as she has countless times in the past, she played the victim. Serena is so good at it that she sucks a lot of people into her "all drama, all the time" vortex and some believe what she does: that there is a conspiracy against her etc. Of course, this is ridiculous, as ridiculous as her boorish behavior which almost spoiled Kim Clijsters’ – and now Sam Stosur’s – win and dominant performance over Serena in their semi – and final – matches in 2009, and 2011.

Both champions, Clijsters and Stosur, had incredible tournaments, and we’re fortunate that Kim’s victory over Serena was in the semis, and that she had her daughter Jada on the court with her after the final so that our minds could have those images foremost in our memory from that year. Unfortunately yesterday, CBS chose to show and reshow Serena, post match, and even replayed the controversial point from the first game of the second set (again and again) in lieu of focusing on Stosur, her post match celebration or her historic achievement.

Bad on you CBS!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

ALTA vs. USTA - a further analysis

In my first article on this topic, I wrote about some of the differences between ALTA and USTA as they relate to tennis players in Atlanta. It may have come across as a bit one-sided, so I thought that a more balanced approach was warranted.

Besides having more players, ALTA is also a great value financially; it’s a lot less expensive to play ALTA during the year than USTA. For all the years that I’ve played ALTA, the annual dues have been $20 (except for that one year when they were $18). Last year, ALTA raised the fee to $25, but if you paid it early, 2011 also cost $20. Next year will be the first time that I will pay $25, which I will do so happily. For just $25, I can play four seasons of ALTA tennis. In fact, I’ll be on 6 teams if I play both senior mixed doubles this winter and senior men’s doubles next summer (to go with my two regular mixed doubles and two regular men’s doubles seasons). That means it will cost me between four and six dollars each season for no more than $1 per match (plus a can of balls, but only when I lose)!

On the other hand, an annual USTA membership costs $42/year (unless you pay for multiple years, or a lifetime membership – if these are still available) just to have the opportunity to pay $15/season which are 6 instead of 7 (ALTA) matches/weeks in length plus playoffs, if applicable (for either). For the past 2 years, I’ve played fall and spring mixed doubles seasons and also in two state championships, which cost me an additional $25. I believe that USTA’s annual fee was $35 two years ago and that the seasonal fee was $12 until this fall so, adding it all up, I’ve paid $175 to play 19 matches, which is more than 9 times as much per match as ALTA. Excluding the state championships, I paid $125 for 15 matches which is still 8 times more than ALTA, which is the price performer! Of course, these expenses are somewhat skewed by the fact that I play virtually every week on my ALTA teams, twice as frequently as on my USTA teams.

Two other differences between ALTA and USTA: in USTA mixed doubles, the largest difference between players in a pairing is 1 level (e.g. 4.0 and 3.0) but in ALTA mixed, one frequently encounters teams that are a combination of a higher level men’s and a lower level women’s team (or vice versa), meaning that – at the extreme – there are C-level women playing with A-level men in some high B level divisions. This makes for the mismatches (which are no fun for anyone) that I’ve written about previously, which could be the reason for the second difference: USTA matches (and players) seem friendlier than ALTA’s. It’s possible that being on the losing end of a mismatch is the primary reason for the nastier attitude that one experiences more frequently in ALTA than at a USTA match. Plus, because of these inherent “rating” issues, there’s a lot more gamesmanship on the part of ALTA captains, who might “sacrifice” a line (or two) to be more competitive at the other lines and possibly with the match. Given USTA’s individual rating system, there is much less opportunity to intentionally create mismatches.

Don't get me wrong, I love playing both in both ALTA's & USTA's tennis leagues. These are just my observations to date (and your mileage may vary;-)

Monday, September 5, 2011

To ALTA or to USTA, that is the question

There seems to be a snobbery in Atlanta about ALTA vs. USTA: I don’t know how prevalent it is, but I’ve heard rumblings that – some believe – winning an ALTA City Championship is (somehow) superior to winning a USTA City Championship. I think that this attitude is naïve and reflects ignorance more than anything else.

Of course, ALTA is a huge tennis program (indeed it’s an institution here in Atlanta), boasting upwards of 80,000 members. But did you know that Atlanta’s USTA membership is the largest of any city in the country as well, more than 42,000 strong. Both leagues’ members are divided into divisions and levels, by ability and/or age group. But as I’ve written before, USTA is inherently “fairer” because of its NTRP rating system, which rates each individual player on a team, vs. ALTA’s “rating” system, which only rates teams (not individuals). Therefore, in ALTA, one can experience gross mismatches in ability at virtually any line in any given match (and all too frequently does), especially in mixed doubles – an amalgamation of men’s and women’s teams’ ratings, initially – which can get even further out of whack when a team divides. For instance, a high B team may be made up of some low level A, some high level B and some lower level (B or C) players but - after a season of playing together - all of its players will earn a high B mixed doubles rating. If the team is later divided into two teams – e.g. because some of its players cannot effectively compete at the high B level – then the lower level players are hampered by having a higher level rating, and it can take several seasons of losing for them to find their appropriate level. However, in USTA, since individuals are rated, lower rated players can leave to join a lower level team (and vice versa) without penalty.

Additionally, while ALTA is a terrific tennis program, it’s only available in Atlanta whereas the rest of the country has USTA. Besmirching the nation’s tennis program seems rather parochial, doesn’t it? Besides, once you’ve won an Atlanta City Championship in ALTA, you’re done whereas Atlanta’s USTA Champion (and usually runner-up) can go on to compete at the State, Sectional & National level!

Friday, September 2, 2011

U.S. Open bracket update – how I'm doing and my quarterfinalists

Missed five on the top half of the men’s draw – my biggest miss was Ferrero through Monfils (I also had Troicki instead of Haas) – with the bottom half to be completed today; I still have a chance to do better on it, though I’ve missed four already (who knew that Soderling would withdraw?).

So what do I think the men’s quarters will look like? I’ve got Djokovic vs. Berdych (who looks great!), Federer against Fish (though his match with Tsonga could be a tough one), the winner of Isner/Del Po (not sure if Juan Martin is back), Murray by Wawrinka, Ferrer over Roddick (if he makes it that far), and Nadal.

On the ladies side, I’m excited to see America’s young guns doing well – the future looks bright – but as usual would prefer that there not be so much drama (particularly off-court; Serena still has much to do on her character defects).

Monday, August 29, 2011

Monday's dribblings

Wasn’t sure what to name this blog … didn’t have too much to share this morning. Decided it’s too early to post my later round men’s U.S. Open picks given that Friday’s blog carried the tournament through the third round, so this Thursday’s (or next Monday’s) post will be more accurate if I just wait. Plus, with Clijsters out and Serena back on the warpath, I’m just not that interested in the women’s draw; perhaps it’ll get more interesting after the first week.

My Ultimate Tennis partner and I won our last regular season match in straight sets on Friday which, as I’ve written, probably disqualifies us for the playoffs. But I decided to plea via e-mail for putting us in the next higher level’s playoff draw so that we can at least play one more match, given the fact that we had a bye and a withdrawal week, only 4 matches for our entry fee this summer. I’ll let you know what happens. I mean, it’s not our fault that we were placed in a weak division at our playing level, or that their doubles league isn’t mature enough to have their leveling done accurately enough yet.

One interesting thing about our match last Friday night, which started at 7 PM but was fully engulfed in darkness (save for our court’s lights) by the time it ended, was what happened in the final game. We’d won the first set 6-2 and my partner was serving for the second set and the match at 5-4, 40-love when all of a sudden two things happened: one of our opponents, who was playing with a racquet that might be deemed illegal per it’s huge string gap holes and spaghetti strings, finally figured out how to return of serve consistently into uncomfortable positioning for us – over my head with a high bounce for my partner’s backhand – and my partner started to double fault. The game then went on for at least a dozen deuces. In fact, when it was over (we won the set 6-4), I told my partner that he should feel lucky – and may have set a record – because not many people can serve double digit double faults in the same game, and still win it!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The U.S. Open draws are out (so are some of my picks)!

Starting next Monday, almost all the best men and women on tour will begin competing for the last remaining Grand Slam title up for grabs at the 2011 U.S. Open Tennis Championships, and the draws are here . While there have been several notable withdrawals, among them 2-time defending champ Kim Clijsters, it should be a terrific tournament; the women’s final will be on "Super Saturday", September 10th, and – unless it is rain delayed – the men’s final will be on the 10th anniversary of 9/11/01.

Looking at the draw as I have every year since 2001, there are some intriguing potential early round matchups. Of course, the U.S .Open has its own Bracket Challenge, now in its second year, but I doubt they started doing it because of me (I started doing it as a response to the NCAA basketball tournament, because I know more about men’s and women’s tennis than I do college b-ball;-) You’re welcome to use the following to make your own picks, and I won’t even expect you to share your bounty with me should you get a prize or win it all.

Interesting first round matchups include a couple of veterans recovering from injuries – big serving Ivo Karlovic against big hitting Fernando Gonzalez – as well as – Mikhail Youzhny, who always seems to do well in New York, vs. Ernests Gulbis, who won in L.A. earlier this summer. I’m not sure how to pick Ryan Harrison against Marin Cilic, but hope the American upstart makes it through in order to face another up-and-comer in Bernard Tomic, from Australia, who will likely beat his qualifier opponent in the first round … and Monfils didn’t get a very easy first round draw in Grigor Dimitrov! Good luck Gael!

Some projected second round matchups include an all-American contest between Robbi Ginepri & John Isner and Ivan Ljubicic vs. David Nalbandian. Besides the top seeds, those who seem to have an easy pass all the way to the third round include Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Fernando Verdasco, who would then face each other in the third round, Stan Wawrinka (unless Donald Young truly has finally arrived), and Andy Roddick, thankfully.

Third round matches that are possible include Alexandr Dolgopolov against Richard Gasquet, Tomas Berdych against Janko Tipsarevic, and Robin Soderling vs. Isner. The third round also has some historical matchups which would have been better a couple of years ago, but because of the age and current play of Nikolay Davydenko (who plays top-seeded Novak Djokovic) and either Ljubicic or Nalbandian (who would play 2nd seed Rafael Nadal), they aren’t likely to be as interesting.

Check back Monday when I’ll break things down a bit further and/or share some of my women’s picks.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Atlanta's Flexible Tennis Leagues

Atlanta is such a tennis crazy town that, in addition to USTA League Tennis (which the rest of the country enjoys) and ALTA (which boasts some 80,000 members), there are several different (competing) flexible tennis leagues as well. So, as an Atlanta area tennis player, not only can you join a team that plays for (e.g.) seven consecutive weeks on the same day or night of the week in each of the four seasons which, if you do well, leads to several rounds of playoffs that lead to a championship of some sort, but you can choose a partner (or play singles) in one of several other leagues which let you (and your partner) schedule matches against opponents “at your same level” at a time that’s mutually convenient which similarly leads to playoffs and championships during every season of the year. In fact, if you don’t watch out, tennis can become your life.

Ultimate Tennis, formerly known as K-Swiss, was the first of the Atlanta flexible leagues that I joined. At that time, it was just for singles but it has subsequently added doubles and mixed doubles leagues. The largest (oldest) doubles league is T2Tennis, which expanded by adding singles recently, and will experiment with leagues for seniors this fall. The conventional wisdom is that T2, because its doubles league is more mature, has more players at each level and is so deep that one should level themselves, at least initially, a half a level below their typical rating to be competitive, hence there are half (or minus) levels available (e.g. 3.5-, 4.0- etc.). Ultimate Tennis, perhaps responding to T2’s entry into singles, has been aggressively promoting their doubles leagues by offering PGA Superstore gift certificates with values that exceed the cost of entering these leagues.

Because of the Ultimate Tennis promotion, it was a no brainer for my men’s ALTA doubles partner and I to join their league this summer, to keep our partnership fresh in preparation for this fall’s ALTA season. Although scheduling matches with our opponents has been – at times – challenging, and the level of our opponents has been less than we’d hoped, we’ve had fun and everyone we’ve played has been pleasant even amiable. With one match to go, we lead our division and may even finish too high to qualify for the league’s playoffs, which run through the early weeks of September, interfering with the start of the ALTA & USTA fall seasons.

Because of the number of tennis players in Atlanta, more per capita than any other U.S. city according to ESPN’s lead-in promo during the 2011 Atlanta Tennis Championships, there is a plethora of ways for playing the sport competitively in the metropolitan area. Whether one has just moved here (e.g.) into a swim-tennis community or is just starting to play the game, there is a tennis league for you.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Many Rewards of Tennis

When a team wins their ALTA or USTA division, a City or State Championship, they are awarded bag tags, plates, towels and/or various other paraphernalia. We’re not professional athletes and there’s no money involved (at least I don’t think there is;-) but that doesn’t mean that most players don’t try their best to win these inexpensive spoils of our recreational sport. In fact, some try a bit too hard for a few dollars worth of plastic, metal or glass etc.

Having been a part of some teams that have achieved various levels of success over the past 11 years, I can tell you that what I remember most is not the reward hardware, but the people I’ve played with and, to some extent, against. Because, when it’s all said and done, the friendships developed and the positive memories are what remain; these are what mean the most to me.

Sure, I can recall matches that I lost which were heartbreaking, either because of my own mistake (or limitations) on a key point, or a questionable line call by my opponent, but I’ve tried my best to forget these momentary lapses. Unfortunately, I can also remember times when my actions on the court did not do me proud, in which I embarrassed myself (and perhaps my partner or teammates) with bad behavior. But I’ve forgiven myself for these moments of “temporary insanity” and have tried and will continue to make amends by being a better player, opponent, and teammate in the future. For the most part, adopting a "play well" versus "play-to-win" philosophy has done the trick.

But as I think back and reflect on the 50 or so ‘seasons’ of Atlanta tennis I’ve played, the overwhelming majority of my thoughts are of my fellow teammates, not specific matches or accomplishments. I’ve learned so much in the company of others, and the camaraderie when working towards a common goal with purpose. I can also remember those opponents who were particularly at ease with themselves and their abilities (which may have been less or more than my own) and the home captains, whose focus was on hospitality, and treating our team as guests.

Because what we share as tennis players is a love and a passion for our game, the sound of a racquet hitting the ball cleanly, the vision of a winner hit perfectly into the open court (vs. at an opponent), to cheer (and be cheered) for each other, win or lose, the nervous energy before and the adrenaline rush during a match – both of which we hope to channel for our benefit vs. our detriment, the competitive nature of our sport particularly when our skills are most evenly matched with our opponent(s), and yes, the euphoria of winning, but also the social aspect of the entire experience.

It doesn’t really matter what the prize is for a team or an individual achievement on the court, because the other rewards of tennis are so much greater.