Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Our USTA/Southern Georgia League State Championships victory - the nitty-gritty details

How to begin? I’ve just sat down to tell the story of our championship weekend in Augusta, and I’m struggling to find the words to describe it. I guess because the reality – emotions and gratitude for it all – is still sinking in. We are Georgia State Champions!

The journey to our great adventure began last Thursday. Most of our team of fourteen (out of eighteen) arrived in Augusta, Georgia on Thursday night; it’s about a two and a half hour drive from Atlanta. Our hotel had a welcoming meal for us and, after a quick bite; we decided to hit the courts for a practice hit before bed. Nearby were some public courts in a park which left much to be desired: of the 3 courts, only one had a net strap, and it had to be adjusted so that the center of the net was at its correct 36” height. Unfortunately, there were no lights, so after warming up and playing a couple of 4 game “sets”, we went in search of another facility, but came up empty. Still, we decided to return the next morning to warm-up and play a few tiebreakers before heading to the Fleming Tennis Center for our first match, which was to start at 11:30 AM.

Our first opponents were from Bainbridge (SW Georgia, near Florida) and they couldn’t be nicer. The matches weren’t terribly competitive (their team ended up winning only 1 line all weekend) which was good since it was the first tournament experience for several on our team. My partner and I, who had played in Augusta last year though not together, raced to a 5-1 lead in the first set before some sloppiness – which led to a few tight shots – crept in, but we closed it out comfortably 7-5, 6-2. This was the only match my partner or I played (so Mom, you can stop reading now;-)

Our second match was scheduled for 4 PM at the Newman Tennis Center, where the quarterfinals, semifinals & finals would be played at the end of the tournament. We didn’t play at Newman last August, so this was my first time at the facility. It’s huge: at least eighteen hard-courts including a “center” stadium court. In fact, our line 1 played – but unfortunately lost – their match on the stadium court. It was a terrific battle, however, which culminated in a Coman tiebreak as the third set.

The Coman is different from the standard 12-point tiebreaker – first one to 7 points by 2, switching sides after every six points – in that it maintains the established server sides until it’s concluded. In other words, you maintain the same server order but switch sides after the first point is served, and then after every four points are played such that everyone serves their tiebreaker points from the same side that they served from during the match. It’s really quite ingenious even if it throws off everyone at first. The state tournament was setup with Coman tiebreaks for the first two sets, if necessary, first to 7 by 2, and a 10-point – first team to win ten points, by two – Coman tiebreak in lieu of a third set to keep the matches moving along given all the teams and levels in the tournament. For what it’s worth, there were 30 teams at our 7.0 level (the most teams at any single level), ten 6.0 teams, twenty-five 8.0 teams, nine 9.0 teams and 20 Senior mixed teams across the four levels for a total of 94 teams in Augusta … I’m sure their hotel and restaurant businesses were pleased.

Unfortunately we also lost line 2 via a third set Coman tiebreaker, but we won line 3 so we were still in the hunt after the first day. We “celebrated” at the Wild Wings Café not too far from where most of us were staying at the Homewood Suites, whose staff was very friendly and accommodating throughout the weekend.

Our first match on Saturday was to be at the Diamond Lakes Tennis Center in Hephzibah, GA, about eight miles south of Augusta’s Interstate 520 loop. We had to get up early to eat and have a chance to warm-up before making the trek south for our 9:30 AM match. When we got there, we saw our Atlanta city finalist rival playing their 8 AM match already, but we stayed focused and won all three lines. Line 2 was over fairly quickly and line 1 had to fight hard to take their first set before cruising somewhat in the second, but line 3 turned into a real battle. We won the first set 6-4 but fought from behind in the second and avoided a Coman tiebreak by winning it 7-5. Our line 3 man – having played in all three matches thus far – had looked exhausted in the blistering heat of the late morning, but he somehow found a fifth gear just in time to close it out with his ever steady partner. Diamond Lakes is a terrific facility, but unfortunately there is no place to hide from the sun and the 90+ degree heat took its toll.

Our next match was scheduled at Fleming for 2 PM, and it was now 11:30 AM, so there really wasn’t much time to cool down and refuel. This is where having a large and deep team would start to pay dividends. Our captain, who had the challenging job of putting together eight lineups over 4 days, put four fresh players on the court – including herself, though reluctantly – such that we were able to repeat our morning’s result and take all 3 lines. There was a lighting delay then a rain delay but, having a large team, we were able to rest our players, who didn’t have to participate in the squeegee patrol. The real battle was at line 1, where our captain was paired with the man that had played at line 1 in the oppressive heat of the morning. However, they were both up to the task, coming from 3 points behind in the third set’s Coman tiebreak to win it, and we no longer had to fear the funky third set format!

We were not only back in the hunt, we were in first place – though in a 3-way match win tie – meaning we controlled our destiny from here on out. We CELEBRATED in a couple of ways. Firstly it was the 40th birthday month of one of our players, and secondly we wanted to show our appreciation for our captain, who’d led us to a city championship, a division championship, a city final, and two trips to the Georgia state championships over the course of three seasons in 18 months. We convened in one of the suites, had our cake and ate it too, and played the game Taboo. A good time was had by all and it was a team building, team bonding experience that I’ll not soon forget. Life is good!

Sunday morning, we knew that we had our work cut out for us; we’d have to win to advance to the state quarterfinals that afternoon, and we were to play another Atlanta-based team that had the same record in the tournament as us. We were scheduled to play at Fleming (for the third time) at 9:30 AM, so we had to get up early again to eat and warm-up before heading south. Our line 1 team played a husband and wife pairing that was very good, but they were more than equal to the task. Their man kept drilling the ball at our line 1 lady, but she was able to take his pace, and volley it away. Our line 1 man covered the backcourt, where he was able to direct the ball, using angles and lobs to enable a straight set win. However, there were hard fought battles underway at lines 2 & 3. Though we’d taken the first line 2 set fairly easily, our opponents were just getting warmed up; they battled back from 1-4 down in the second to make it 6 all. We were in control of the second set Coman from the get go, but our pairing had some demons to exorcise from their lost third set Coman on Friday afternoon, which they did in spectacular fashion to clinch our spot in the state quarterfinals!

Again, there was a quick turnaround and, again, having fresh legs was our advantage. Although we had the same line 1 as that morning, our captain was able to play four different players at lines 2 & 3, and the line 2 match ended up being the match of the tournament. It pitted (my opinion) our two best 3.5 level players against perhaps their best pairing of 3.5 players. The first set, which was rain delayed for less time than the previous day’s matches, was so tight and long that our line 3 nearly finished winning their straight set match before it was over. Our line 2 team took it in a set-ending Coman tiebreak. The second set, during which our tired line 1 team lost their match, was also very tight and long. Halfway through it, everyone on both teams in addition to many from potential semifinal opponents – including our Atlanta rival’s entire team – were watching and cheering for one side or the another on virtually every point. Our opponent was a local Augusta team, so there were literally dozens of fans; unfortunately, some were less friendly than others (it’s the only USTA match I’ve ever been to that felt like a more typically nasty ALTA match). When our opponents prevailed 6-4, the inevitable third set Coman loomed, but so did another rainstorm: lightning flashed and thunder crackled in the distance. I’m not making this up, it looked for all intents and purposes that it was going to rain again during the players’ break after the second set. In fact, I heard later that the official was about to call for a delay. But the third set tiebreaker began and it didn’t start well for us. I’ll confess now that I then bowed my head, put my hands together and prayed, not for victory, but for energy ("Dear God our Father, please allow our players to play to the best of their ability" and also "Thy will be done"), that’s all. When we won, our team erupted, some of which was relief that we’d kept our hotel rooms;-)

We'd made it to the semifinals of the state tournament and, though every one of us should be happy with that result – two steps further than the year before – I got a sense that this was a team of destiny when I saw that we’d be playing a team that had finished second in their division while our Atlanta rival would be matched against the team that had yet to lose in the tournament.

Monday morning was just what the doctor ordered: a cooler day without a chance of rain, with two of our matches scheduled on courts that would be in shade through much of their first sets and the other on stadium court, and a tired opponent that had yet to play a team outside of their division, meaning they weren’t as battle tested as we were. For the most part, it was quick and easy for all three lines, but there was a mano-a-mano battle going on between our 4.0 man, paired with our 3.0 lady, and their (now) 4.5 level man (paired with their captain) at line 3. Throughout the first set, both men played each other, for the most part, instead of taking advantage of the other’s weaker partner, as if both decided to test the other, taking their best shots to see what kind of response they’d get; his incredible one-handed backhand against our player’s unparalleled court coverage. There was one exchange in which both men somehow returned the other’s hard hit shot time and again, each blasting away until our opponent got to the net and made a drop shot off an impossibly dipping forehand, which caused our guy to sprint to the net to shake his hand in congratulations. Appropriately, the match was played on the stadium center court. Those that watched were treated to a showcase of two very talented tennis-playing gentlemen (not to take anything away from their female partners, each of whom had some impressive winners of their own) doing their best by giving it their all, while respecting and appreciating the other’s ability. It was certainly a pleasure to watch!

So, we made it to the finals, which were to be played at noon, and it wasn’t even 9:30 yet (the semifinals started at 8 AM). Our would-be opponent was going to be tired, either way, because all three lines were going to a third set Coman. Our captain had the luxury of going with the hot hand, playing one line that was 3-1 for the weekend, another that was 4-1 and a third that was undefeated (4-0!), and all three pairings had won their semifinal match that morning. At this point I need to mention the fact that our line 1 man was about to play his sixth consecutive match (and his partner her fourth consecutive match)! That’s right, he’d played twice in Saturday’s oppressive heat, winning both times with different partners, and in both of Sunday’s matches, losing the latter because he had to have been gassed (taking nothing away from their opponents), and again that morning in the semifinals, which was fortunately a quick match. I have no idea how he was still standing on his feet, but once I saw him springing up for overheads during the first set of the finals, I knew he – and we – would be alright. By the way, our Atlanta rival lost, so we were to play the only undefeated team (also from the Atlanta area, but somehow in a different division) in the finals.

High noon was soon to arrive and, after returning to the hotel to checkout and rest however briefly, it was almost time for the finals. Of course, we had to have our pictures taken in front of the sponsor van, during which the photographer said that she’d never seen such a large team, but then it was time to “do the darn thing”. During warm-up, as I myself had said that morning, one of my teammates said to me that he was feeling good (about our chances). We jumped out rather quickly to 4-1 at lines 1 and 2, but line 3 trailed by the same. Our least rested pairing actually played the best match, winning first and notching the first of our two needed points. The first set of line 2 drew to 4-3 before our team got back on track to take it 6-3. Meanwhile, our line 3 pair had evened their set, which was eventually decided in our favor via yet another Coman. So we had one match in the bag, and the first two sets of lines 2 & 3 – which were being played side-by-side on 2 courts fenced – in our pocket. Yes indeed, we were feeling good. Again, our line 2 raced to a 4-1 lead, but by this time they were playing inspired tennis and would not be denied; they held to make it 5-1 and then the drama began. In what must have been a 10 deuce game, with the majority of those going to ad-in (so that we’d have to serve it out, e.g. to win 6-2), our man – playing in the ad-court – hit backhand after backhand, including some that were down-the-line winners, to save game points until he finally sliced a return-of-serve cross-court and short (video), which his serving opponent was unable to retrieve, to win it.

As you may have read here already, we advanced to the USTA/Southern League Tennis Mixed Doubles State Championships by winning our division, and winning three rounds of playoffs to make it to the city finals, which earned us an automatic invitation to the tournament. There were eighteen players on our team; everyone contributed to this accomplishment. This past weekend, fourteen of us traveled to Augusta, where we won 7 of 8 matches (19 out of 24 lines, almost 80%); each of the thirteen players that played at state won at least one match (the fourteenth was “Coach”), so it was a total team effort.

On to Sectionals: October 14-16 in Macon, Georgia.

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