Monday, May 30, 2011

The Sounds of Roland Garros

I’ve enjoyed watching the men’s and women’s matches at the French Open on television these past 8 days, and have been struck by the variety of sounds coming from the players on the courts.  Because of the type of tennis that one must play to be successful on its “terra battuta” surface – longer points that require thoughtful construction vs. the one shot “instant gratification” that’s more common on grass and hardcourts – one tends to hear the players’ efforts more pronounced on clay.

Whether you call it grunting, screaming or desperation squealing, the noises that the players make when serving or hitting their groundstrokes can be quite unique.  It used to be that I only noticed the ladies – Monica Seles and the Williams sisters come to mind – but now it seems that the men are just as likely to put their own vocal imprint on their games as the women.  Years ago, I remember the distinct sound that clay court maestro Gustavo Kuerten used to make while he dominated at the tournament; the Brazilian won 3 titles over 5 years.  Now I can close my eyes and tell you whether it’s Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, or David Ferrer that’s playing.  As usual, Roger Federer is the (silent) exception.

I don’t know what it is, but I’m not as bothered by the men’s exhaling every time they hit the ball as the women’s.  I had to turn down the sound and ultimately stopped watching this year’s Sony Ericsson Final between Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.  For those that stuck with it, thankfully the match was fairly short.  I should have pressed the mute button to see if the closed captioning writer typed “grunt” and “scream” during the action.

Does it bother you too?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Special Pops Tennis and the Georgia Special Olympics

Last weekend I participated in the Special Olympics Georgia State Games at Emory University as an umpire.  It was a very rewarding experience, made possible by Special Pops Tennis.

While reading this month’s Inside Tennis Magazine, I came across an article about Special Pops.  I’d been looking for a volunteer opportunity that would enable me to utilize whatever “special” talents I had for others, and this seemed like just such a program.  According to their website:

"Special Populations Tennis Program, Inc. (Special Pops) is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization that offers an adaptive tennis program specifically designed to share the lifetime sport of tennis with children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Programs offered free of charge to all skill levels, including those who have never played, include year-round tennis instruction, league play and tournament competition.

An equally important aspect of our program is the opportunity it offers these special athletes to build their self-confidence and life skills through social interaction with each other and the many dedicated volunteers who run our programs."

So, I signed up as a volunteer on their website and was soon contacted by Paula with information about how to participate in their training academies, designed to help the athletes prepare for the Special Olympics.  Unfortunately I didn’t sign up in time to volunteer more than once before the main event, but I very much enjoyed helping out as an on-court instructor one evening at Cobb County’s Lost Mountain Tennis Center.  Special Pops is very active in Cobb County, volunteer opportunities exist at Harrison Tennis Center throughout the summer, and there’s an Annual Fall Classic Adaptive Tennis Tournament in October or November at the Racquet Club of the South.

Last Friday and Saturday afternoons I had the opportunity to umpire both short court and full court doubles matches.  Friday’s matches were all short court matches, played within the service boxes, to 6 games (a 12 point tiebreaker is played at 5 all); I umpired 3 singles and 2 doubles matches.  Each doubles team consists of one special athlete and one unified partner.  Everyone was such a good sport and the matches went quickly.  Even though it was a hot day, umpire coordinator Vicki kept us well supplied with water, Gatorade and snacks.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the other volunteers as well.  Not only was the event well run by Special Pops coordinators – many of whom are on its Board of Directors and played as unified partners or umpired (Bill did both) – but there were other individuals (and families) that volunteered to be ball persons, whose help was invaluable to me both days.

Saturday’s matches were all full court doubles matches and the athletes were amazing; several could play on my ALTA mixed doubles team!  While I could stand at the net to the side and see all the lines during the short court matches, I actually had to climb up into an umpire’s chair to call the action during the 3 full court matches on Saturday.  The scoring was different:  two sets, first team to four games wins, with a 12-point tiebreaker as the third set (if necessary).  Every match went the distance that afternoon, which was also pushing 90 degrees.  Again, all the athletes and unified partners exhibited great sportsmanship; there were none of the issues that one can (unfortunately) see during an ALTA match.

I highly recommend the experience.  If you’re a tennis player that’s looking for an outlet to use your passion for the game to help others, check out Special Pops Tennis, and maybe I’ll see you out there!

Monday, May 23, 2011

ALTA members can buy discounted tickets to the Atlanta Tennis Championships starting today!

From today through Sunday, May 29, ALTA members can buy individual session tickets at a discount, prior to the sale to the public (which begins June 1).

From the exclusive Championship courtside seats to reserved seats, a wide range of tickets are now on sale to ALTA members at discounted prices.  To take advantage of this offer, check your latest addition of Net News for the applicable PROMO CODE.  Champion courtside seat holders will have access to the private indoor Champion’s Club while Platinum and Gold seat holders will have access to a VIP seating section in the Grand Slam food court.

USTA members (who have had access to discounted tickets through their own PROMO CODE since May 16, and through June 6) are invited to a Member Appreciation Day at the Atlanta Tennis Championships on Wednesday, July 20, 2011.  There will be a private reception hosted by the USTA Southern Section from 3 PM to 4:30 PM at the Racquet Club of the South.  Free refreshments, gifts and player appearances are promised, and USTA members receive a special discount on tickets for that Wednesday’s session; gates open at 2 PM. You must have a ticket to enter the grounds and a valid USTA membership identification card to attend the reception.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

ALTA playoffs on different days than regular season

One minor pet peeve about ALTA’s playoff scheduling is that teams are asked to play at least one playoff match on a day different than that of their regular season matches:  Thursday women’s teams must play their first playoff match on a Tuesday and men, whose first playoff is scheduled on the first Saturday (their regular match day) after the season, have to play on that subsequent Sunday if they win.  This can cost the best team their chance at a plate.

Last fall, my men’s B-6 team finished second in our division, so the following Saturday we had to travel to play an away match against another division’s winner.  No problem there; seems fair enough to me.  However, after winning that day, we had to turn around and play the next day – a Sunday – to continue in the tournament.  There are two issues with this:  the first is that men are asked to be available every Saturday for seven (ten, if successful) straight weeks then suddenly have to be available on a Sunday to move ahead in the season ending tournament.  If, as we did, you happen to have churchgoers and/or NASCAR fans on your team, you may find yourself in a quandary:  you may not be able to put your best lineup on the court on a Sunday.  Although we came very close to winning anyway, the result may have been very different if we’d have had two of our best eight players available that day.  I’m sure that ALTA Thursday women’s teams have been similarly challenged when they’ve qualified for the playoffs only to find out that their very first playoff match is scheduled on a Tuesday!  The second issue is that, as one ages, it’s not as easy to turn around and play one’s best tennis on consecutive days.  There’s definitely an advantage to having a deep (and young) men’s ALTA team if one expects to compete for the city title.

Of course, the solution to the problem may not serve everyone any better; extending each season by one week would mean that the spring season’s finals may have to be played the first weekend in June (affecting vacations) and fall’s regular season would end in early November with playoff matches and the finals after Thanksgiving or even in December.  Rainouts could be even more of a problem; ALTA would truly be a year-round league.  But the USTA manages to do it, by playing winter’s first couple of matches in December, so it can be done.

What do you think?  Should ALTA adopt a year round schedule so that teams never have to play playoffs on days other than those on which they play their regular season matches?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Can Djokovic top McEnroe, dethrone Nadal?

After beating Rafael Nadal in four straight finals, two on U.S. hardcourts followed by two on European clay, Novak Djokovic has put himself in a position to extend his thirty-seven straight win start to 2011 past John McEnroe’s 42-0 mark from 1984 and to lay claim to the number one Spaniard’s “King of Clay” moniker if he wins this year’s French Open at Roland Garros in Paris.

American John McEnroe was having the best year of his career and was up 2 sets to love over Ivan Lendl, who’d yet to win a Grand Slam title despite being a finalist 4 times.  But in his second French Open final, Lendl finally proved that he had what it took to win the big one, winning the first of his eight Grand Slam titles by coming back to defeat McEnroe 3-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 7-5, his first of three Roland Garros titles.  For McEnroe, it was arguably the worst loss of his storied career and, given that he’d end his career with 7 Grand Slam titles, his collapse in that 1984 final marks the difference between his and Lendl’s totals.

Since 2005, Spain’s Rafael Nadal has dominated all comers on the ATP tour on Europe’s favorite surface, the brick red dirt ‘clay’; it started when he won his first title on his first attempt at Roland Garros and it continued through four consecutive finals at the venue.  At one point, he won 81 consecutive matches on the surface, an open era record for men.  After losing for the first time ever at Roland Garros – to Sweden’s Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009 – he rebounded to win his fifth French Open title last year, exacting revenge over the Swede in straight sets in the final.

Given Nadal’s considerable resume, it would be hard to deem Serbia’s Novak Djokovic the new “King of Clay” if he were to break McEnroe’s streak – by making it to the final at Roland Garros – and then win the 2011 French Open title (over Nadal or anyone else) but, then again, the Serbian’s performance this year has been historic in its own right.  Djokovic has demonstrated that he's not intimidated by Nadal, or anyone else for that matter; according to Brad Gilbert, he's 10-0 against the top 5 this year!  Is it possible for the Serbian to win five straight finals against his Spanish rival (and become number one in the world) on June 5th?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Playing to the crowd temptation

When others are watching, when my team is cheering me and my partner on, hoping for our victory, sometimes I’m tempted to go for a low percentage winner, a shot that would be ill-advised but widely cheered if I make it.  “Go for it!” one hears in one’s head.  Get the glory, a personal glory, for myself (instead of God).

It takes some mental fortitude to ignore the crowd, and do what’s best, in life and in tennis.  The match I described in my last post was filled with those situations.  There were so many times when I wanted to show off my newest stroke, to hit a drop shot to end the point straight off of a return of serve.  I could picture in my mind the awesome result in my head, our weaker less mobile opponent scrambling to try to get to my shot and failing to get there AND the subsequent screams of adulation from my team.

Of course, I could have missed the shot, and my partner and I would have found ourselves down love-thirty “without a fight”, without the long mentally challenging rallies that ultimately won us the match.  But I decided not to.  In this particular match, I was playing the ad side.  I normally play deuce, the side I’m more comfortable with, the side from which I can let my forehand fly – crosscourt or down the line – a shot that produces both winners and setups for my partner to poach.  I didn’t get many of those chances last Friday night; the only ones came when I was serving on the deuce side and got a crosscourt return back to me.  No, this time I needed to be the “pick me up” partner, the one responsible for getting the score back to even, increase our lead to 15-40 or possibly win the game.  I had to exert great mental discipline over my tendency to “go for it”, especially given the crowd – and their (or my) need for an exaltation.  Fortunately, I was able to do this, again and again, let the glory be (God’s and) my partner’s, setting her up for a winning shot (if possible) or at least keeping us in the point, the game, and the match hoping that, eventually, a victorious end would come for us, and our team.

We did win the match and, as it turned out, our team won our division.  For me, it was a lesson that “I” mattered only in the context of team, that if I’d had a short term, selfish mindset and given in to my own desire for praise, the end result may very well have been different; any memory of my own spectacular winners would have been short-lived and hollow.  As it is, “we” can celebrate this accomplishment as we set our sights on our next goal, another city championship!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ever played against a backboard before?

Of course, what I’m really asking is “have you ever played against someone – or a team in doubles – that got everything back?”  Friday night, my mixed doubles partner and I played a couple of backboards, and it took nearly 3 hours to win our match!

Update – we controlled our own destiny in our USTA 7.0 mixed doubles league last Friday night; my partner and I won, and so our team won its division!  Getting there, however, wasn’t very easy even though it started out that way.  During our warm-up, we assessed that – among our opponents – the man was the weaker of the two players.  It was a father-daughter pairing and he (we learned later) was 74 years old; she is a 4.0 rated player who is very steady and moves extremely well, almost freakishly so, which made up for her father’s lack of mobility.  But don’t get me wrong, he was no slouch.

I was filling in for another player on our team that had tickets to the Hawks-Bulls NBA playoff game, so this was the first time that I’d ever played line 1 (this season) and with this partner.  We strategized that we should play him and it worked very well in the first set, which we won 6-2 by taking advantage of his movement (or lack thereof).  We got up a break in the second set and thought that we’d probably cruise to victory, but then played a couple of sloppy games in a row to find ourselves on serve again.

Then, our opponents started playing really well.  They changed strategy, moved him back from the net when she was serving to me so that I could no longer hit at him or have the alley to exploit.  Plus, she started creeping to the center of the court, which enabled her to cut off my partner’s crosscourt shots to him; she hit great volleys either splitting us down the middle or at me.  Lastly, they both started lobbing, something they were both very talented at doing, hitting the ball deep into our court, making overhead winners difficult.  They were both adept at converting our overheads into lobs.  But the most impressive thing was how well she covered the court.  She is both fast and quick.  Despite hitting fairly aggressive topspin lob forehands from corner-to-corner, she was not only able to get there, she was able to hit a good shot back, one that my partner couldn’t poach.  She even hit a winner off a drop shot that my partner hit that should have been a winner for us.

We ended up having to break him to get to 6-all in the second set and then, after getting up 4-2 in the tiebreaker, lost it 5-7 and the second set 6-7.  We proceeded to lose the first two games of the third set before we “righted our ship” to win six of the next seven games to take the match 6-3 in the third.

When you’re playing a couple of backboards, you make a lot of errors.  In fact, I thought I was playing terrible last night until I talked with some of my teammates and thought about the match afterwards.  I was remembering the put-away shots that I missed instead of the half dozen shots I’d made before it which had inexplicably come back and caused me to go for too much out of frustration.  We played some really long points and games even though there weren’t very many deuces in any one game.  In other words, we didn’t have a lot of “ad-out, deuce, ad-in, deuce” etc.  I can’t remember many service games that had more than a couple of deuces.

How did we win?  We cut down on our errors by playing more patiently, waited for an opportunity to involve him in the point again or hit behind her – into the alley or crosscourt – to keep her out of the middle of the court … and my partner played fantastically.  She was able to successfully execute drop shots, angled her shots more sharply, and was solid when they hit the ball at her at the net.  Whereas I usually play with a partner that plays back while I hover around the net – looking to hit an overhead or poach – she was able to hold her own if and when we found ourselves in the reverse court positioning.  But perhaps the most amazing thing about her was that she’d told me, after we’d lost the second set, that she’d had strep throat all week … yet she was able to play 3 sets over nearly 3 hours and was the most solid player on the court at the end of the match!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

ALTA's 'rating' system

Last week I blogged about USTA’s rating system which, while it has its flaws, is about as good as it gets.  It’s certainly superior to having no rating system at all, and the relativist one that ALTA employs.

ALTA’s rating system, if you could call it one, uses its own historical team-based data to place teams at different levels.  Instead of rating individuals, all the players on a given team are assigned the same level which is then adjusted based upon that team’s performance at the end of the season.  In other words, a team comprised of a mix of players with USTA abilities ranging from 2.5 to 4.5 levels could be placed at the B-5 level, where there would likely be mismatches, week in and week out, and virtually every line.  This is more common than you think - especially in mixed doubles - because generally ALTA teams are organized in neighborhoods, and not all communities have an even mix of enough players of similar ability to form a team.

A group of highly rated USTA players who have never played ALTA – and hence, don’t have ALTA ratings – will likely be placed too low initially and dominate until their ALTA level matches their ability.  This will affect multiple levels for several seasons until the team finds its equilibrium point within ALTA’s system.  Perhaps your team has been improving, even hired a coach in the offseason, and is finally at a point to compete for a bag tag when, all of a sudden, a new team is placed within your division that dominates all comers.  Oh well, sucks to be you.  Although ALTA’s relative placement system eventually puts teams where they belong, individual teams will suffer along the way.  Although I’m not sure how it could be implemented, it would be nice if ALTA would utilize USTA (or even other league) ratings to place teams initially, so that a brand new team doesn’t end up winning plates at the (e.g.) C-8, C-1, B-4 & A-8 levels before they ‘re finally placed at their high A level.  I have no idea if this has ever happened.

The only leveling that occurs in ALTA’s ‘system’ is when players want to change teams.  Their last team level is assigned a point value which, when added to the point values of the top 9 players on a team, is used to re-level their new team.  Of course, the fact that the specific A-7 player that now wants to join a B-3 team hardly ever played and/or wasn’t very competitive at that A level doesn’t enter into ALTA’s decision; hence, the B-3 team could be bumped to B-2 without really improving their team’s roster.  The reverse scenario almost never helps a team to move down a level because, unless they lose all but 9 players on their previous team, the top 10 players have the same assignment that the previous season’s performance had earned them.  Therefore, the ‘system’ is geared to move teams up, which I guess is the objective:  players only get better by playing better players.  But for players whose abilities are declining with age, it can be hard sledding for them and their teams.

I wrote previously about ALTA’s need for transparency, something which would allow everyone to better see the disparities inherent in the league’s rating system and would also expose the neighborhoods that exploit it to their advantage to win titles, so I’ll not regurgitate this travesty further.  But I will suggest a serious look at revamping the system.

Rather than just criticize what doesn’t work ideally, I’ll offer a suggestion for improvement.  ALTA should start to rate individual players, not just teams.  If you’ve ever been a captain of a team that has made the playoffs, you know that ALTA has a system to keep a team from sandbagging once they’re in.  Every player is assigned a value for the line that they played each week during the season which takes into account how they did.  For example, a line 1 player is given a 1.0 for a week in which he and his partner won or a 1.5 if they lost, and so forth for lines 2 through 5.  That player’s cumulative total is then added to their partner’s in the captain’s proposed lineup such that the lowest numbered pairing has to be placed highest, the second lowest numbered pairing is placed at line 2, etc.  Why not keep and use this historical seasonal data to assist in placing teams, and especially when players change teams?  Also, keep the data so that players can’t sit out a year and reenter with no rating, my chief complaint with the large communities that abuse the ‘system’.

I think that ALTA can improve/establish a rating system that would work better for everyone, but I don’t know if they’re interested or are willing to put forth the effort or spend the money needed to do it.  If not, I believe that it will continue to be a source of dissatisfaction in what is otherwise a premier league.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Controlling your own destiny

Six weeks into an ALTA or USTA season, it’s great to be in a position to control your own destiny going into the last week of the season, whether it’s a chance to win your division or just to make the playoffs.  The final match can be dramatic and exciting even if it’s disappointing.

I’ve played on many ALTA teams where my team’s only role going into the last weekend of the season was that of a possible spoiler.  Most of the time, we’ve risen to the occasion, taken the challenge and tried to show what we were made of by knocking off the top team or preventing another from making the playoffs, stunning our opponents into elimination.  Unfortunately I’ve also been on teams that were so tired of getting beaten week in and week out that they quit, made it difficult to field a competitive lineup or even ten guys and enabled a fourth place team to “take 5” easily vaulting them ‘undeservedly’ into the playoffs on the final weekend.

This season, our ALTA men’s team was blessed to be a position to control our own destiny on Saturday.  We were in second place:  3 points out of first, and 1 point ahead of the only team to beat us all year.  So, our mission was clear:  we had to win 4 points.  Four points against the most dominant team in our division seemed like a tall task, but they were coming to our home courts and we’d only lost one match all season, the rained out week, the week that we’d been missing our top two players.  It was time for redemption; it was time to claim our bag tag.  Yes, there was a chance that the third place team, the only one with a tiebreaker against us, could “take 5” and claim the top spot.  But they were to play the fourth place team:  a team that also still (mathematically) had a chance to make the playoffs, and a team that had taken two points from us earlier in the season.  But even if that improbably happened, we’d still make the playoffs as the second place team if we took 4 points.  So, our destiny was in our hands.

Watching the first set of line 1 play, it was easy to assume that we wouldn’t be winning that point.  Our opponent had a firebrand youngster with a big game playing with a powerful veteran.  But the newest members of our team were playing some of their best tennis of the year; they outsmarted their foes by mixing it up, taking some pace off the ball, and playing steadier than their opponents.  Incredibly, we won line 1.  Our line 2’s had only lost once all season, and were our only line to win against the third place team that was on our heels.  But our opponent’s second line was a wily couple of veterans (one was 65 years old!) that complemented each other perfectly, and our guys were stunned in two sets.  My partner and I (at line 3) played sloppily at first, but recovered to win in two tight sets, while our fours dominated their opponents.  So it came down to line 5.  We won the first set, but were unable to play as well over the course of the next two sets, so our team took 3 points.  Our destiny was now in the hands of others.

For whatever reason, the third place team’s captain didn’t put in their ALTA scores until about 5 PM on Saturday; so we were on pins and needles all afternoon.  Unfortunately, they took 4 points; we tied with them for second place and hence failed to make the playoffs.  So close, and yet so far.  If we’d have won just one more – out of the eleven we’d lost over 5 weekends during the season – point, we’d have been the first place bag tag winning team.  As it stands, we missed it by “that” much.

Fortunately my USTA mixed team controls its destiny going into our final match this Friday; wish us luck!