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 na├»ve 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).