Monday, January 31, 2011

Being a tennis team captain – part II

As I articulated in Being a tennis captain – part I, there are many challenges associated with performing this thankless ‘job’.  In this second installment, I’d like to complete my summary of the issues associated with managing one’s own team before delving into some of the external issues that tennis captain’s may encounter in part III.

Once the captain has compiled a team, ‘he’ has to resolve whether or not he’s going to play the best players available every week or try to balance the lineups such that everyone gets to play a relatively equal number of times.  I believe that the captain needs to be clear about his intentions as he’s putting together the team and reinforce them in his messages (e.g. e-mails) – “let’s have fun” vs. “let’s take 5 (i.e. lines)!” – throughout the season.  Still, there will be some who are dissatisfied because they believe themselves to be among the best players and had hoped to “play more”; these are typically the same players that get upset when their opportunity to “play more” results in their getting pummeled every time they player higher than line 4 or 5.

The last key internal team issue that a captain has to deal with involves finding pairings that work well together.  Since every tennis player has ‘his’ own unique game and, more importantly, ‘his’ own unique personality, sometimes a captain’s biggest challenge is putting together the right combinations to “have the most fun” and/or “win the most matches”.  In mixed doubles, there are wives that do, and wives that (absolutely) do not, want to play with their husbands, or vice versa.  In men’s, there are guys that have issues with other guys (i.e. won’t play with each other) and friends that insist on being paired together whether their games matchup (e.g. neither has a good backhand) with one another or not.  Ideally, the captain should have the freedom to construct pairings in which each player’s game complements the other’s:  one’s strengths covers for the other’s weaknesses or they have similar styles, and so forth.  For example, I like to pair guys that are risk-takers with a steadier player (that would typically play the ad-side), or two serve-and-volley guys together etc.  It’s funny how former captains are your best teammates because they’ll typically say “I don’t care who you play me with or at what line, you’re the captain” (and mean it) whereas a lot of others have “an opinion”.  Unfortunately, many who freely share their opinion aren’t willing to step-up to the responsibility of being captain next season.

In my next installment, I’ll share some of my experiences in dealing with ALTA and other tennis captains.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tennis Movies

I don’t know about you, but I can do without having to watch another Hollywood boxing movie.  Yes, the tried-and-true clich├ęs usually make an entertaining drama and boxing films typically garner attention from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and SciencesThe Fighter (2010) just picked up seven Oscar nominations – but they seem to have crowded out other sports movies, and have kept my favorite sport from getting much cinematic attention.

While we tennis fans did see our sport featured in Wimbledon (2004) and Match Point (2005) within the past several years, tennis is typically relegated to the background of the few movies in which it appears.  In fact, as a film historian, I’ve chronicled less than sixty-five movies in which the playing of tennis can be seen on the screen, and only slightly more than a handful of these feature a main character and/or plot directly related to the sport.  You can read the entire compilation in my Classic Film Guide.

Don’t get me wrong, I love boxing movies and most other sports films as well; I just think that tennis – which is metaphorically similar to boxing (i.e. a physical mano-a-mano sport featuring blow-by-blow action) – could be used to construct similarly compelling dramas also.  I wonder why screenwriters, who may have actually played our sport, aren’t able to relate to tennis better than boxing, especially since audiences are far more likely to have played it (in lieu of boxing).

Personally, I find 5-set tennis matches – like the men’s Wimbledon finals in 2008 and 2009 – to be much more compelling than most any 12-round boxing match, and perhaps that’s the problem.  Our sport may not need Hollywood to make it interesting:  its ‘characters’ fascinate us more than the ‘brutes’ that box, and the drama doesn’t need scripting to be unforgettable.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Being a tennis team captain – part I

Being captain of an ALTA team is a thankless job, which means that it's hard to find anyone that wants to do it.  While I've met some that relish the responsibility, most people avoid it like the plague.  The 'job' involves dealing with personalities and preferences, but also peculiarities and eccentricities, whether these are traits of one's own teammates or opposing captains and their teams.

Having captained more than twenty ALTA teams, men’s and mixed doubles, I have learned that dealing with one’s own team is the biggest challenge.  First and foremost, one has to compile a team.  In the simplest case, one lives in a neighborhood chalk full of enough tennis playing residents of similar abilities to form a team.  In my experience, there are no simple cases.  For good or bad, I’ve always lived in neighborhoods where there is a core of 8-10 above average (mid-B level or higher) players – those that play tennis regularly and are on more than one team – and several other seasonal players, who pick up a racquet only during the season and rarely make it to practices.  Invariably, the core players aren’t available every week, so the primarily challenge is fielding a lineup that is competitive enough to win at least 3 (out of 5) lines every week.  Yes, it’s not just about winning and, especially during mixed doubles seasons, the social aspect/outlet can be invaluable.  But let’s be honest, it’s more fun to win and no one wants to get double bageled because of a mismatch.

Of course, a captain also has to factor “playing time” into the equation:  everyone has to play at least 2 times to be eligible for the playoffs, and most want to play more than twice.  The core tennis players want to play every week that they’re available, even if their availability is spotty.  It’s always been my dream to be able to find pairings that play well together and have them available to play on the same weeks throughout the season.  Unfortunately in practice this has turned out to be a pipe dream.  It’s frustrating to put together a stellar team only to have it fall apart due to players’ week-to-week availability.  It seems my best pairings are rarely available on the weekends that we’re scheduled to play the top teams in our division.  Hence, everyone has to “play up” (i.e. at a line higher than their ability) and our team is no longer competitive … another “bag tag” opportunity squandered.  Also frustrating are those non-core players that are only available 2-3 weekends out of the season:  they expect to play on those rare occasions even at the expense of the other non-core players that come to practice every week or if we’re playing against one of the best teams in our division.

Bottom line – as a tennis captain, you can’t please all the people all the time, nor some of the people any of the time.  Like I said at the beginning, it’s a thankless job (but someone’s got to do it).  In my next installment I’ll discuss more of the unique challenges of being an ALTA tennis captain.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Winter Tennis in Atlanta

ALTA’s winter mixed doubles seasons are underway – for the first time, I’m playing both – and while most in the North are unable to play tennis outdoors from November through February those of us here in Atlanta are blessed with year-round opportunities to play outside.

Of course it is different.  Instead of the typical play of warm weather conditions, featuring nice bouncy yellow balls hit with topspin off flexible strings, it’s often more akin to hitting rocks with paddles, especially on those days when the temperature barely exceeds thirty-two degrees.  Add to that the occasional bone-chilling wind gust that blows lobs long (or wide), slows well-hit and accelerates poorly hit shots, and makes hitting one’s high service toss an adventure, and you’ve got a series of challenges that those who play exclusively indoors during the winter never have to face.  Plus, there are those teammates and opponents who haven’t picked up a racquet since October, which makes the earliest match results of the season so unpredictable and hence the early league standings deceiving.

Then there are the tennis courts.  To begin the season, one may have to clear leaves and other autumn droppings off the court surfaces (and out of the gates).  Although winter precipitation (snow, freezing rain, or sleet) is uncommon in Atlanta, we’ve had two consecutive winter seasons during which it’s been a major factor, and I’m not talking about rain and the usual hassle of makeup matches, which are usually played at night during the week when it’s even colder and windier.  No, we’ve had ice on our courts which persists even after all the rest of the (e.g.) snow has dissipated because our windscreens keep the sun from melting it behind the baselines on one side.  Since the surface of a tennis court is really just 3-layers of acrylic paint, it’s especially challenging to remove the ice without damaging the underlying court.  A leaf blower (and possibly a nearby power outlet) is needed and is best utilized in conjunction with flat-bladed shovels used as horizontally and ever so gently as possible to painstakingly remove the ice.  Of course, if the sun is out, taking down the windscreens might also help provided you have plenty of fasteners, and the energy, to put them back up when you’re done clearing the ice.  Lastly, if you have cushioned (e.g. Deco Turf) courts, an initially dry court can get wetter as you play on it; your weight on the painted layers helps to draw the moisture trapped in the spongy layer below to the surface.

However, if I had to choose between not playing during the winter (or having to pay to play on an indoor court) vs. dealing with the aforementioned challenging conditions, I’d still choose the latter every time!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Welcome to my tennis blog

I have a passion for tennis, and for writing, and my hope is that this will be an outlet for the latter.

After a weekend of playing my favorite sport, I usually find myself wanting to extend the experience for as long as possible.  Whether I, or my partner and I, won or lost, I find myself replaying key points - winners and unforced errors - in my mind's eye over and over again; sometimes, they even linger until I can get on the courts again (i.e. to replace them with new ones).  Of course, some of what happens on and off the tennis court, during matches or even in practice, is also hard to forget, whether it is funny, frustrating, or just unique.  These 'incidents' stick with me as well and have helped to shape the tennis player (and indeed the person) I have become, for good or for bad.  I also watch a lot of tennis, my amateur teammates and the pros on TV, and have learned ever so much from listening to Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert, reading his books as well as Tennis and Inside Tennis (and even Net News) magazines, cover-to-cover right after they arrive in the mail.

My hope is that you will find my observations to be amusing, entertaining or (who knows?) even educational.  If so, or even if I infuriate you, please feel free to add your comments below.  Thanks for reading and I'll see you on the courts!