Thursday, June 30, 2011

It's someone else's turn

I wasn’t particularly disappointed that the top four men’s seeds didn’t make it to the semi-finals for the second straight Major and the first time in more than 15 years at Wimbledon yesterday – because Roger Federer lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – nor was I upset that the Williams sisters were bounced out on Monday before the tournament’s quarterfinals. I’ve grown weary of greedy past champions that don’t share well.

I mean, when is enough enough? How many Grand Slam titles does Federer need anyway? He already has two more than Pete Sampras, his closest competitor. And Venus and Serena have made Wimbledon their near exclusive club for over a decade. But that was some fifth set by the Bryan Brothers, eh?

Finally, the women’s semi-finals will feature 3 new young guns & an old lady (24!), who’s only won the tournament once (when she was 17!), Maria Sharapova. We’re guaranteed to have a men’s final that features at least one player that’s never made it to a Wimbledon final before and if Andy Murray can defeat history’s demons, and 10-time Grand Slam champ Rafael Nadal, we’ll have two.

Should make for a great championship weekend!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Challenges of the Summer ALTA Season

I’ve written previously about playing winter tennis, something that presents its own unique challenges outdoors in Atlanta, but the summer tennis season can be just as difficult, and for reasons more than the weather.

Yes, they don’t call it “Hotlanta” for nothing: playing in 90+ degree heat with 90+ degree humidity can be brutal … just ask Mardy Fish, John Isner and any other pro that played in the 2010 Atlanta Tennis Championships. I’m thankful that our home facility has more than two courts so that we can start at least 3 lines at 9 in the morning on Saturdays, and have our line 5s finish their match shortly after 12 noon most of the time.

But the biggest challenge of the summer ALTA season is being captain of a team and trying to field a competitive lineup every week given vacations and the many other popular activities that lure teammates away from playing in the heat every Saturday from the beginning of June through the end of July. All one has to do is look at the results: in almost any division, one can find a team that’s cruising in first place that suddenly, inexplicably, loses 3 or 4 lines to one of the bottom dwellers in week 5 – which is typically July 4th weekend. Having (e.g.) one’s regular line 1 unavailable to play on a given weekend can have a big impact, with everyone else having to play up a line. For example, this is the first week (week 4!) that I’ve had my best pairing available all season, and we took all 5 lines, losing just one set. This is the kind of thing that only happens during the summer season, usually during the middle, Holiday weekend, but sometimes more.

Unfortunately spotty player availability during the summer ALTA season is unavoidable, but there is one possible positive outcome from this inevitability: it's possible that one or more of your tennis players will improve their game by having to play at a higher line than their comfort level as a result.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Beautiful Grass Courts of Wimbledon

Every year I tune in to watch Wimbledon, not just because I’m a tennis fan but because it’s such a beautiful setting for tennis, especially during the first week. Seeing my favorite sport being played on green grass is something I look forward to every day for a fortnight, and then it’s over. Centre Court with its green surroundings, which include green painted brick, is a marvelous spectacle, a theater of drama that never fails to entertain, even thrill.

This part of the pro tennis year is such a contrast to the preceding clay court season, which is played slowly and deliberately on red – the color of STOP – dirt, leaving the combatants, their socks and clothes filthy. Green is the color of GO, and the game is played (though not as fast as it once was) more quickly. Taking risks can be more rewarding and the players stay clean in their white clothing. The crowds are more reserved – one never hears boorish yelling as a player prepares to serve – the blessed silence is broken only by the punctuated grunts, shrieks, screams and exaltations of the battle (annoying as they are).

I was already entranced by the tournament when I first witnessed matches being played on an HDTV, and then I was absolutely captivated, being able to see the blades of grass, the imperfect divots that litter Centre Court by the second weekend, and even goose bumps on the players themselves. Not a lot of work is going to get done around here during this last week of June through July 3rd, that’s for sure.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sore winners

It never ceases to amaze me how, after I’ve lost or my team has lost a match, the opponent can make excuses that he or they didn’t play well. It’s just amazing that someone can be so self absorbed and totally lacking in humility that they’re insensitive to everyone else around them.

Now I’m not one of these overly sensitive guys who looks to be offended all the time, far from it. I’m just as likely to be a crushing bore when it comes to relating my successful exploits to others without being asked. But I also try to give my “all” every time I’m on the tennis court, every match, every set, every game, every point, regardless of the score. I’ve played matches that lasted nearly 3 hours after which my opponent will say “I didn’t play very well today” when they’d beaten me!

Saturday, our team lost four out of five points to a team that’s one of the best in our division. In fact, they were the best team we faced last season, when we managed to take 2 points from them, which was why they had their best possible lineup on the court, a fact that their captain more or less admitted to me earlier that day. Yet there he was as noon approached, when it looked like our team would finally win a point at line 5, lamenting the fact that the USTA 4.0 (e.g. over) rated man that he’d slotted into his last pairing to guarantee their sweep hadn’t recovered from his back issues and that, if he’d known that, he wouldn’t have played him today. In other words, “even though we’ve humbled your team today by taking the first four lines (dropping but a single set), we wanted more”. Of course, I’m sure that it never even occurred to him that I didn’t have my best lineup available to play that day, that I’d had to add a new player to our team that week just to have enough players to keep from having to forfeit that line 5 to them.

Don't be a sore winner.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

We're going to the USTA League Tennis Mixed Doubles State Championships!

For the second year in a row! That’s right, while my 7.0 team failed to win its second straight (spring) Atlanta City Championship, we did qualify for the Georgia State Championships in Augusta this August.

After winning our division, we were the third seed in the postseason tournament and, after winning 3 rounds of playoff matches, ended up meeting the first seed in the City Finals last Friday night. We have a tremendously deep team with several experienced and successful pairings to choose from, so our captain had her work cut out for her to select the best lineup. She went with two of our woman 4.0/man 3.0 combinations and one 3.5/3.5 combo. Unfortunately the team we played was also very talented especially since their 8.0 team had lost the week before so all of their 4.0 men were available. Their 4.0 men/3.0 women combinations were better than ours that night, so we received ‘silver’ (not ‘gold’, like last year) City Finalist medallions. As such, we received an invitation to the State Championship tournament in August for the second year in a row.
However, this is a very different team, and a much larger one than last year’s (only five from our 2010 team are pictured above). Last summer, three key team members were unable to make the trip, which is probably the reason why our captain added so many new players to this spring’s roster. How many of our 2011 players will be able to travel to Augusta this year remains to be seen, but I like our chances given our team’s depth. Of course, we’ll likely have to meet (and beat) our Atlanta nemesis in the tournament if we hope to advance to Sectionals.

Wish us luck!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Swing away "Babolay"!

Because it’s a French company, I’ve always pronounced its name Bab-o-lay not Bab-o-lot, and it works better as a title for this article in any case.

Saturday was my first match with my new racquet; in fact, it was literally the first time that I took it out of the bag. After choosing my new stick, I knew that I was taking a risk playing with it even though I’d gone through an exhaustive 3-week process of evaluating it. Firstly, I went with the 2009 version vs. the 2011 version that I’d demoed. Secondly, it had new strings strung at 60 lbs.; the demo I’d tested had strings that were near the breaking point, which had been strung at 58.5 lbs. I don’t know about you, but my racquet always needs a breaking-in period after a fresh stringing, to get the ‘slickness’ off the strings and/or to loosen any stiffness from the sticking together at their crossings.

I did leave early and got to our opponents’ courts by 8:30 AM for our 9 AM match, but that’s always risky because sometimes they’re locked behind gates. They weren’t, so I hit a bucket of balls serving. When our line 1 man showed, I only got to hit a half a dozen balls before their captain, who turned out to be my opponent at line 2 (and who played with the Ltd version of the racquet I’d just bought), got there and we had to exchange lineups. Obviously I then got to warm-up with the new racquet before we started the match.

Other than a slight ‘tinging’ sound when I hit the ball – caused by not having my usual, longer damper on the racquet yet – which took some getting used to, it played great! Early in the match I noticed what I had during the demo process, I was able to maneuver the stick quickly for volleys and for shots hit at me when I was near the net. Even though the specs claim that my new stick is just as heavy – fully strung and swinging weight – as my previous racquet, this one appears lighter yet still firm enough to “muscle” the ball over the net on off-center or weakly swung shots. I had several “pickups” at net and hit more than a few backhands which seemed to have more pop than they would have with my old racquet.

My service games were better not because I felt that I had any more velocity on my serve, but because I could place it wherever I needed to in the box. Time and time again I got cheap points by serving it wide into the ad-court service box, to my opponent’s backhand. My forehand, well, it’s my weapon anyway, and I while I did overpower the ball (long) on 1 or 2 occasions, the vast majority of the time I was able to swing freely through the ball and have it go where I wanted:  drill the middle, pass or at my opponent who had no time to react. Comfortably ahead in the second set after having won the first, I swung as hard as I could on many occasions and was rewarded with winners; even a framed shot found its way in the alley past my opponent.

In other words, I was able to “swing away” with my “Babolay”!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

How I chose my new racquet

After demoing 5 racquets back in April, and at least 10 more since mid-May, I finally chose my new stick … and the winner is Babolat’s Pure Storm Tour GT.

The first time I demoed racquets was 10 years ago, when I first started playing tennis. Back then, after a couple of seasons of men’s ALTA, I was a USTA 3.0-level player. I tried a few different models: a Prince, a Head, and the one that I chose: a Wilson Pro Staff 6.1 which was 27.5 inches in length with an 18x20 string pattern. It seemed to have more heft than the others and, when I swung as hard as I could, I was an ace-serving machine. I bought two but, when one cracked a few years later, I found that it was no longer available for purchase. So I bought what was supposed to be its replacement – the Wilson nCode nSix-One 95 with an 18x20 string pattern – which played pretty much the same. Eventually, the original Pro Staff “wore out” and, though I kept it in my bag as a backup, I stopped playing with it; since I haven’t had it restrung it in 7 years, I’d probably be in trouble if I broke a string on my main racquet.

About a year ago I got concerned that my nCode frame was getting old and had probably lost its original integrity. I’d started having it strung at a higher tension as it aged and was worried about its continued usability. However, after posting my concerns to Tennis Warehouse’s message boards, and receiving responses, I decided that my stick could last a few more years. That is, until I received a captain’s gift – a plentiful gift certificate to a local tennis store chain – from my winter mixed doubles team.

So in April, even though the men’s season had begun, I began to demo racquets for the first time since I started playing tennis 10+ years ago. After all, my game has changed quite a bit. While I’m older, I’m also a better 3.5-level player now and have added drop shots to my repertoire. First I utilized Tennis Warehouse’s demo program: for $20, they’ll ship you up to 4 racquets to try for a week; return postage is included. I tried a variety of frames that were similar in specs to my existing racquet, but the one I liked most was one that was sent to me by accident. There are so many racquets with similar names – a “Team” or “Tour” designation can mean a big difference – it’s easy to get it mixed up. But it was a Prince vs. a Wilson racquet, so locally I tried the Wilson “equivalent” for $10, and hated it. After $30 spent and no new racquet decision, I decided to wait until the season was over to start again especially because my team was in contention and I didn’t want to mess up my game and hurt my team’s chances.

In May, I went to Your Service Tennis, the local chain where I had my gift card, and utilized their 30 day demo program: as many racquets as I wanted to try in the period, two at a time for a maximum of 5 days each. The manager at the store was both informative and patient with all of my questions and was generally interested in my experiences with each frame. I sampled racquets from every manufacturer they carried but only those in the range – specification-wise – of my original stick. Eventually I whittled it down to two: the one I chose and Wilson’s BLX Pro Tour. It was hard to tell the difference between them; the Wilson seemed to serve better but the Babolat seemed to volley better. As it turned out, the Babolat I demoed was the 2011 version of their 2009 model – the paint job being the only difference – which was on clearance for $30 less, so I bought it. It has an 1/8 of an inch smaller handle, but that makes it a quarter of an inch larger than the demos I’ve hit with without any arm or hand problems. In fact, I’d kind of gotten used to and liked the smaller grip.

I still don’t know whether I’ll play with my new racquet during this second weekend of ALTA or not yet; I decided not to play with either demo I had in my bag last Saturday. It was weird playing with my old racquet; the 4 5/8 handle felt huge compared to what I’d been playing with for 3 weeks. But that’s not why we lost our match in 3 sets; we played against a 4.5 guy on the other side of the net!

Wish me luck this weekend and with my new Babolat!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Anyone else glad that the clay court season is finally over?

I have really enjoyed watching professional tennis on television these past several weeks.  The red clay and the venues of Europe are beautifully picturesque, and the style of tennis that must be played to be successful on the surface is both admirable and laudable.  However, it does get rather monotonous.

Novak Djokovic’s streak was finally broken by Roger Federer – the Swiss player was both the last person to beat the Serb (in November, 2010!) and the only one to beat him (thus far) this year – in a thrilling match that ended after dark last Friday night in the semifinals of the French Open.  Unfortunately, it led to the inevitable futility of Roger trying to beat Rafa at Roland Garros, which was anticlimactic given the much anticipated “best of 5 set” showdown everyone wanted between the Spaniard and the Serbian.

Because of the time that it takes to construct and then win each point in a clay court match, I prefer to watch the more traditional “best of 3 set” format matches.  Sitting down to watch an entire Grand Slam men’s match that goes 4 or 5 sets can take too much time on hard courts and even on the grass at Wimbledon, but on clay it’s nearly intolerable.  I don’t think that Federer likes it either; while he’s been able to beat Nadal in a “best of 3 set” format on clay, not even the Swiss Maestro has the patience to beat his nemesis over 5 sets on the surface.

How would Novak do in a “best of 5 set” clay court match against Rafa?  We’ll have to wait another year (or more) to find out.  Still, while it was very entertaining to watch these two duel over two sets in two different clay court finals leading up to the French – matches that were marked by 20+ set rallies which were won (surprisingly and) primarily by the surging Serb – I don’t know if I could have set still for the 6+ hours it might have taken for one to beat the other had they met in the Grand Slam final played on clay.  After all, it was just a couple of years ago that the two played for more than 4 hours in the 2009 Madrid final, the longest three-set singles match on the ATP World Tour in the Open Era.

Bring on Wimbledon!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Watching Grand Slam tennis on TV - the time zone dilemma

Do you watch the Grand Slam tennis tournaments live or tape-delayed? When you don’t have a choice, because the network (e.g. NBC) delays the airing of a match for ratings et al, are you tempted to peek at the live scores before or while you’re watching it?

There are other sporting events – like the Olympics – in which knowing the outcome beforehand can affect whether you watch a particular event or not. You may watch to see the results that you know in advance because you care about that particular athlete, want to see them win their event or how they lost it, heard that a new world record was established etc. But these events are fairly specialized, and they occur only once every 2 (or 4) years. U.S. tennis fans have viewing decisions to make at least three and possibly four times per year.

Even if you have a flexible working schedule or are retired, you have to decide whether to get up at early hours (especially if you’re on the west coast) to watch many of the of the French Open and Wimbledon tournaments live. For Australian Open matches, you might have to stay up the entire night. Of course, the ATP, WTA and tournament officials know that the U.S. audience is one of their largest, and they do make some accommodations, but weather and the network(s) also have the ability to mess up even the best of these intentions. There is nothing more frustrating than having to wait (e.g.) until noon EDT to see a match at Wimbledon that started an hour or more earlier just because NBC had set their timeslot, or to have to switch channels from one ESPN station to another to keep watching a match (this trick can only be accomplished when one is watching the match live, obviously; your DVR has no way of doing this on its own).

Oops, this is starting to sound an awful lot like my earlier rant. Oh well, I guess that watching the matches at Roland Garros this year has elicited fresh passion.

In answering my own second question, I will frequently peek at the scores in advance to decide whether I want to watch a match tape-delayed. If it appears to be or to have been a good match, I’ll watch it:  all or just the key games (breaks of serve and/or tiebreakers). On my DirecTV DVR, there are several speed options; I’ve found that 2 or 3 work very well for seeing what’s going on enough to stop & rewind to play & see the points of interest in matches that I don’t have time to watch in their entirety.