Monday, October 31, 2011

Playing competitive (e.g. league) tennis below one's level

While I can think of one legitimate reason to play competitive (e.g. league) tennis below your skill level – you live in a neighborhood where it’s a hard to find enough players to form a team, and you want to play with your neighbors (or spouse) – I can’t think of many others that are honorable.

I do know that most people want to win; but what does it say about someone that wants to win so badly that they have to enter a league below their skill level in order to do so? The great thing about tennis is – especially here in Atlanta – that there are (tens of) thousands of players at one’s same relative ability with whom to play. So many, in fact, that not only does the city support large team leagues like ALTA and USTA, but there are at least half a dozen flexible tennis leagues as well, each of which is organized by skill level.

It’s unfortunate that sand-bagging has become the norm instead of the exception throughout all of these leagues. While USTA will almost always (eventually) rectify situations in which someone has entered the league at a skill level below their own, ALTA has no means to do so and the flex leagues can be manipulated: a higher skilled player can intentionally lose games (or even sets) in order to remain at a level below their skill (and still win their match).

I don’t know why – what motivation there is – for someone to want to play below their skill level. Is it really that fun to overmatch your opponent such that you can throw games and still not be danger of losing the match? Where’s the challenge in that? Is winning that important? One doesn't see players from the professional tour competing against high school players just to pad their statistics or winning percentages.

I don’t know about you but, while I love to win matches, I love to improve my game to become a better tennis player even more, and would love to make it to the next higher USTA NTRP rating level. Is it possible to improve one’s game while playing opponents below one’s level? I don't think so.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Do you struggle to maintain your mental focus at times? Me too!

Last night, my Ultimate Tennis mixed doubles partner and I didn’t play very well, which was curious since we’d played “lights out” just two nights earlier. In fact, we probably had one of our more solid matches together, one in which neither of us made very many unforced errors. We were “on fire”. Unfortunately that match didn’t carry over into this one, and one of the reasons was that we were unable to remain focused from the very beginning and then throughout the match.

It seems easy for those of us that play tennis to make excuses: after hitting a bad shot, some of us look at our racquets (as if it’s the cause) and/or look for any issue outside of ourselves to blame for our “less than stellar” play. For myself, last night, I have excuses in spades. Firstly, there was music blaring from the clubhouse at the neighborhood where were playing. This is fine for practices, but uncommon (at least for me) during matches. At our request, the club pro finally turned it off, but not before we found ourselves down a couple of breaks.

After the music was turned off, we began to come back; after earning our first break, I was serving at 3-5 30-love when our opponents had a disagreement about whether one of my shots was in or out. Since it was a floating lob, I have no idea how the player furthest from where the ball hit the ground could have made the out call, but her partner quickly corrected it. Our opponents wanted to play a “let”, having me serve again at 30-love but I informed them of the rule change that resolves this matter – when partners disagree on a call, they lose the point – in our favor and changed sides to serve at 40-love. Of course, this is when a minor confrontation ensued. I hate it when people don’t know (or don't want to follow) the rules. In any case, it was me who was now the “bad guy” because I knew the rule. I then lost my mental focus and we lost the game and the set 3-6.

While we started the second set better, e.g. more focused, we later lost it again without a tried-and-true excuse and folded at the end of the second set, losing it by the same measure. I know that I can’t expect to play as well as I can in every match, but it is frustrating to have two matches play out so completely differently just a couple of days apart. Since there was no physical issue for me to deal with, it must have been a mental issue that made the difference in my performances. Knowing this will hopefully help me to play better the next time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hard losses can be tough, for a day or so, but then you have to “get over it”

After an amazing comeback on Friday night – my mixed doubles partner and I found ourselves down 2-5 in the first set, only to rally to win the set and the match 7-6, 6-4 – my men’s partner and I lost after a similar comeback on Saturday morning. Since this latter loss meant that our team didn’t make the playoffs, I took it particularly hard and couldn’t get it out of mind for almost 24 hours.

Even though we started the season poorly (3 points after 2 weeks), my men’s ALTA team had a chance to make the playoffs as the second place team if we took all five lines from the team currently in second, which we were playing on Saturday. Our first four lines won their matches, so it was up to me and partner at line 5 to finish the job. Our opponents were definitely beatable and we stormed to a 3-0 lead before fading and having to break them in the last game to hold on for a 7-5 first set. The second set was back and forth, a long and hard fought affair that could have finished with the same score in our favor, but ended in a tiebreaker, which we lost.

Still, we were confident going into the third set, even though we’d be playing from behind – they’d serve first – but it started out disastrously. We were broken and found ourselves down 0-3, but I reminded my partner that even though it seemed like a lot, it was only one break, and that if we held for 1-3, we could get back on serve with a single break. We held, but then they did too. Now it was my turn, and I hadn’t lost my serve all day. Unfortunately, we lost my serve so that we were now in a sudden death situation, down 1-5 in the third. At this point, I could no longer hear our teammates cheering for us; it was clear that the match was all but over, especially since our opponent with the unusual hitch in his serve – which he hadn’t lost all day – was up.

But somehow we rallied: we broke, held, broke, and it was my time to hold again, which I did for 5-all. We then broke the unbreakable’s serve yet again for a 6-5 lead with my partner ready to serve for the match. Of course, now our teammates were going wild, tasting a playoff berth and cheering for us as loudly as they could, especially after my partner made an incredible diving play to lead 40-15. At this point, I probably should have tried something different. I should have been extremely aggressive and poached our weaker opponent’s return. Something, anything, but instead I let the return float past me, where it dropped softly in front of my exhausted partner, who couldn’t get to it before it had bounced twice. We were unable to hold out and so a tiebreaker would decide it. We won the first point of it on my short angled return, and held my first service point for 2-0. However, at this point, I unraveled: I missed a short return, then lobbed a ball long and then missed an overhead – I went for angle instead of power – and, after losing the next point, we were down 2-4 at the changeover. I then dumped my return of serve at 3-5 so that we were down 3-6, but then won my next service point. At 4-6, I got a good serve in and my partner had a put away at the net, but our weaker opponent came up with an incredible volley off a ball hit at his belly button which passed my partner in the alley and the match was over.

After this 3+ hour match which we’d all but lost before almost winning it, I obviously obsessed about my missed shots in the tiebreaker all day (and night) until I started to remember that my real error was not being aggressive enough in the twelfth game of the final set. I’ve often believed that you don’t change what’s working and we’d gotten to the precipice of winning by being more steady that our opponent. In fact, my partner said “they can’t keep hitting winners” (along with some other inspirational words when we’d found ourselves down 1-5 in the third) and, sure enough, we’d rallied. But after my partner had literally left it all on the court – body and all – to give us that 40-15 advantage, I should have gone all out on the next point myself, or on those three straight points in the tiebreaker, instead of playing faithless (like I did).

What I should have done Saturday after the match is try to remember all the great shots I hit that put us in a position to win the match, instead of obsess on the one’s I missed that cost us the match. It would have helped me to recover earlier. Instead, on Sunday morning, still struggling with regret, I prayed to ask Him to help me to forget, and He helped me to remember that “it’s just tennis” by stirring my memory to recall the incredible experience I had when I heard Chris Coleman speak at North Metro Church a little more than a month ago. God then gave me another incredible gift yesterday when He prompted me to ask my daughter to play tennis with me – for the first time since July – and she said “yes”. By His will, I was able see the game for what it is and what it can be: great exercise and a way to connect with other people.

In the words of Clemson’s college football coach “Dabo” Swinney, after his team had just beaten yet another higher ranked opponent on their incredible 8-0 start to this year’s season: God is great!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Itching to play again!

Though I’ve watched some great tennis over the past couple of weeks, it’s been a little too long since I played my last competitive match. So I’m very much looking forward to this weekend.

After the mini-slump I had earlier this month, losing four straight after winning three straight, I had a terrific match with my “Over 50” T2 partner on October 9th – we won in three very competitive sets – but since then, I’ve been a spectator. In fact, I didn’t play the Saturday before that either. In fact, I haven’t made my regular men's practice since September 22nd nor played a USTA match since the 23rd!

This Friday I’ll be playing USTA mixed doubles, and Saturday will be our last men’s ALTA match of the season (unless the improbable happens, and we make the playoffs). Monday, my Ultimate Doubles partner and I will finally play our second match of the season, followed by our third on Wednesday and my final T2 match that Saturday.

I’ve very much looking forward to getting back in the swing of things, after circumstances that have prevented me from playing very much over these past couple of weeks.

Monday, October 17, 2011

We came in third

As you’ve probably figured out by now, we didn’t win the 2011 USTA Southern Mixed Doubles Section Championships this past weekend in Macon, GA. But we had a lot of fun and I realized – yet again – how fortunate I’ve been to be a part of such a great team of people. We are family!

We found out just before we left for Macon on Thursday that the Mississippi team had dropped out and that (therefore) our schedule for the weekend had been altered: we would have only 3 matches, which effectively turned each match-up into a must-win situation. This was unfortunate since, given the depth of our team, we would do best if Sectionals became a grinding war of attrition, in the way that the State of Georgia Championships played out.

On Friday, we played what turned out to be the best team in our division, a professionally coached team from Tennessee. Despite the fact that the John Drew Tennis Center has 24 courts, all three of our lines were unable to start at the designated time of 1 PM. In fact, lines 2 and 3 – both losses for us – were over shortly after line 1 was finally underway. However, we were privileged to watch an impressive 10.0 level match while we were waiting for the court. Our line 1 team then battled impressively against what looked like a 4.5 level man and his partner. Even though we lost the first set, we won the second and so a 10-point Coman tiebreak would decide it; unfortunately, we lost that by the slimmest of margins 8-10.

On Saturday, we played a very nice team from Alabama. Once again, our line 1 pairing split the first two sets with their opponents, but this time was victorious in the Coman tiebreaker. While our new line 2 team struggled, our new line 3 team won in straight sets. Surprisingly, the Tennessee team lost to South Carolina – the team that we would play Sunday – that afternoon, so we were still in it (mathematically) going into the final day. That evening, like we did at the state tournament, we celebrated the birthday of one of our players – our line 1 lady, who had already given herself a gift by winning with her partner that afternoon. We celebrated with Mexican food and drink – and birthday cake – at a restaurant near our hotel before traveling downtown to the players’ party that evening. Our team spirit was on full display throughout the event, especially on the dance floor where we all but led the activity. Others joined in, hungry to be a part of our team’s joyous camaraderie.

Sunday morning’s match was at 8:30 AM, and it was a cool 52 degrees in Macon. A lot of things would have to happen in order for us to make it through to the finals that afternoon. Firstly, we would have to win our match against South Carolina; secondly, Tennessee would have to lose to Alabama. The former happened, but the latter did not. Our line 1 played an outstanding match and defeated the vaunted S.C. team’s line 1 that had defeated Tennessee whereas our line 3 team had a very unusual match: after dropping the first set 1-6, they stormed back to take the second by the same tally before dominating the Coman tiebreak in the third. Unfortunately, Tennessee would not be denied and, even though there was a three way tie for first place, they won the team tiebreaker – most individual wins – to advance to the finals, where they lost to Kentucky, a team that won all of their matches during the weekend.

So our magical run has come to an end, but we’re better for the experience. I know that I will always cherish the memories of this trip – and indeed the entire season – and of the time spent with this special group of individuals that are my teammates and friends forever. Go Faaaaiir Oaks! Take it, take it!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Southern Mixed Doubles Section Championships start Friday!

That’s right, the date is almost (finally) here! Every member of our USTA League Tennis Mixed Doubles 7.0 State Championship team from Georgia (and at least one other) is headed for the Southern Mixed Doubles Section Championships in Macon, GA this weekend.

In addition to our Atlanta-based team, two teams from Alabama, two from Tennessee, and one each from Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina will be competing for a chance to advance to the 2011 USTA National Mixed Doubles Championship in Tucson, AZ next month.

Wish us luck!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cadillac Tennis Taste Drive with Mary Joe Fernandez - Ultimate Tennis Atlanta

Friday at the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center here in Atlanta, I was privileged to attend this event: a tennis clinic cosponsored by Wilson and featuring Chef Desmond Fannin and Tennis Pro Mary Joe Fernandez.

It was similar in nature to my Meeting Tracy Austin experience several years ago and, though it would be impossible to top that event, it was a lot of fun. I learned about the event through the Ultimate Tennis website; I’d played in this Atlanta flexible tennis league again for the first time in years this summer, because they’ve added doubles. That morning, when signing in, I received a “live strong” type white wristband which identified me as part of a particular rotation group. I also signed a waiver that would enable me to test drive an automobile later that day. Cadillac would make a contribution to the tennis center for anyone that test drove one of their automobiles. There was food – breakfast items, Gatorade and water – that morning.

After a brief introduction by a Cadillac representative, who detailed the agenda for the morning, we were released to our first rotations. The first was primarily a groundstroke clinic, during which we were given the opportunity to demo a Wilson racquet (or use our own). Since I’d just gone through an extensive demo period on my own, and couldn’t find a Wilson BLX Pro Tour (my second choice), I used my Babolat. The instructor – a local pro out of Blackburn, I believe – had us hit forehands from one line and backhands from another, down-the-line and then crosscourt. Each drill session was conducted on 3-4 clay courts – new for me – and lasted for approximately 25 minutes. The groundstroke session culminated in a game of “king of the court”, where a person from each line – ad and deuce court – try to win 3 points in a row from the current “king & queen”, from the side where the pro is feeding the balls.

The next rotation focused on volleys and, to a smaller extent, overheads. We were ‘taught’ the proper “V angle” – formed with one’s arm and the racquet – for hitting volleys from either side. During the drill we were fed balls to hit down the line, then crosscourt, an overhead, then close to put it away, and were given a chance to volley forehands (from the deuce court) and backhands (from the ad court). During this drill, I recognized a woman on the same court as me but wasn’t sure from where. We discovered that we both played out of Fair Oaks, but on different teams, and knew a lot of the same tennis players including one that was also there at the event but in a different grouping.

The next rotation was with Mary Joe who, after we had our group picture taken with her, stood to the side of one of the courts and commented on the play while we played “king of the court”. Of course I was thrilled (slight sarcasm) to hear her say “you ran right through that volley” when I erred. My new friend and I paired up, but were never able to win three points in a row together, oh well. Half way through this rotation, we changed to another court where an instructor fed us a short ball that we were to hit as an approach then hit a low volley followed by a put-away volley that we should try to aim at prizes placed on the court. If we hit it, we got to keep it. One woman in our group hit two, the first to do so according to the pro. I came close, but missed in part because the prize had been knocked down – making it harder to hit – already.

My final rotation was the test drive and I drove a Cadillac CTS 4-door sedan. Unfortunately it was only for a brief distance around a neighboring street in Collier Hills, which was pretty torn up and bumpy (to say the least).

After all the rotations were completed, we were rounded up for a demonstration by Chef Fannin, who made a shrimp dish and a Q&A with Ms. Fernandez, who revealed that she just turned 40 and was unable to play some points (as Ms. Austin had done) due to a plethora of injuries. We were given a Cadillac logoed gift bag on the way out which contained a brochure, the shrimp sauce recipe and a Wilson visor.

All in all it was a fun event, but it was not quite to the same level – instruction, quality or quantity of food – as the Outback Steakhouse ALTA sponsored event that I attended several years ago.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A tennis showdown of my own making this Friday night

Because of some actions I took this summer, Friday night will be a clash between my regular ALTA mixed doubles team and my USTA 7.0 mixed doubles teams. How did I get myself into this mess?

After another great ALTA mixed doubles season this past summer, I wanted to continue the fun we’d had instead of waiting 5+ months for the winter season to begin. Since I’d been a part of a USTA mixed doubles team – out of a public park not far from my neighborhood – in the fall the past couple of years, and I knew that one could be a member on both a regular mixed and a seniors (50 and over) mixed team during the season, I floated the idea to my ALTA teammates, most of whom would qualify for a senior mixed team. Obviously, as a member of a USTA 7.0 regular mixed team already, I couldn’t be captain of the seniors team, so I encouraged one of my ALTA teammates to take the job.

Unfortunately, we learned through the local USTA organization that there were no senior mixed teams out of Atlanta. I still find this hard to believe, especially since there are plenty of ALTA seniors teams. But after reviewing the seniors teams that made it to the Georgia state championships the past couple of years, I saw that all the teams were from non-Atlanta Georgia facilities. What gives?

Well, you guessed it. The ‘new’ captain of what is my ALTA mixed doubles team – and my neighbors – decided to go forward with a USTA 7.0 regular mixed doubles team, and they were placed in the same division as the team I’ve been on for the past two years. This Friday night – on my neighborhood’s courts – will be the matchup that I’ve dreaded since the season began, between one of my teams and the other.

My personal loyalties aside, I hope that it will be a well played match by all the participants; may the best team win!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Time to replace my strings?

I had a disappointing match the other night and it made me think: it must be time to replace my strings.

I had started playing the match with the racquet I bought last June (which I hadn't taken out of the bag for months), after the extensive demo period during which I selected my new stick. However, after my partner and I were bageled in the first set, I switched to my backup racquet, which I purchased in early August after I was sure that this new racquet was for me. I have been surprised at how quickly the strings have frayed on these new racquets vs. my old one.

Firstly, you should know that I have never broken a string playing tennis despite the fact that I use Wilson NXT 17 (i.e. thinner, non-polyester) strings. Secondly, I used to replace the strings on my former racquet – a Wilson nCode nSix-One 95 with an 18x20 string pattern – every 4-6 months, even though they rarely showed any wear. However, my new racquets – Babolat Pure Storm Tour GT with a 16x20 string pattern – have both shown wear (extensive fraying) within only a few weeks of play and, though I’ve continued to use them, the strings haven't broken.

Always looking for an excuse for poor play, I’m thinking it must be the strings that caused me to play so poorly last Thursday night. So, I took one of my racquets – the first one I purchased – to be restrung this weekend. I’ll be playing my first Ultimate Tennis mixed doubles match this evening with my ALTA partner, so I’ll try the newly strung racquet, but have a frayed one in the bag if things don’t go well.

Wish us luck!