Monday, February 27, 2012

Two ALTA playoff matches won, two to go for a city championship

Our mixed doubles team made it to the city semi-finals yesterday, after two days of great matches in which all eleven players on our team in the lineup contributed at least one point to a victory.

Saturday was sunny but very windy, making it cold for watching and tricky at times for playing. We found out Friday afternoon that our planned opponent had been switched due to another team dropping out, which meant that we’d be playing a team that finished third in their division instead of one that finished second. Shorthanded due to availability, I had to go with a less-than-optimal lineup, but it worked out for us anyway. Our opponent, having found out on Friday that they were in the playoffs, wasn’t able to field a complete team, so we began the afternoon with a line 5 forfeit to start. Since our line 5 was untested, a brand new pairing, this was certainly fortuitous. Having to win two of the three remaining lines (and having 3 courts to use), we started lines 1-3 at 1 PM. Since I was playing at line 3, my partner and I made a deal to not scoreboard watch at all during our match, but to instead remain focused on our match at hand. This was because it didn’t matter what happened at lines 1 & 2, we could lose them both and still win line 4 as long as we won our match.

We were more ready to play than our opponents in the first set, which we won 6-2, and were up 4-2 in the second before our opponents raised their games. Evening things at 4-all and then holding to go up 5-4, I found myself having to hold to stay in the set. Since I hadn’t lost my serve all day, we confidently won the game before breaking our female opponent. Then, it was up to my partner to hold her serve. After going up 40-0, our win seemed inevitable, but our opponent still had some fight and, after some very long points that included both tentative and terrific shot-making, we were at deuce. I think we then went up ad-in twice before finally securing the game and the match.

At that moment, I noticed that my line 2 male was walking across the court to shake my hand; he told me that he and his partner had won, meaning that a team victory was ours. On to the next day …

Sunday wasn’t as windy and the skies were clear, a much more pleasant day for watching, which was a good thing since both teams had entourages. I would remiss if I didn't mention that our line 1 man returned from a winter break trip to help shore up our still somewhat less-than-optimal lineup. Starting 3 lines at 1 PM again, all three of our pairings jumped out to a one set lead, only to lose the second. Since the line 1 match was being played on the nearest courts, most all of the fans were fully engaged in it vs. the other two. Having lead for much of the second set, our pair lost their break advantage late in the set when our man lost his serve. Still, having multiple chances to win it before the tiebreaker in the twelfth game of the set, we were unable to do so. Fans of both teams were alternatively energized and frustrated as neither pairing could capitalize on match or set point opportunities during a tantalizing tiebreaker that was finally decided 12-14 in our opponent’s favor. It was at about this point that the third sets were being decided at lines 2 & 3, so some attention shifted there. Our 2’s got down 2-5 in the third before battling back to 4-5, and eventually losing the set and the match. Our 3’s - playing for the first time together - got down 4-5 in the third, but held to 5-all, then broke and held again for a 7-5 win.

Since it was then time for the 4’s and 5’s to begin their matches, one of which could decide it for us depending upon the outcome of line 1, and I was one of the 5’s, I was unable to watch the conclusion of the line 1 match. I made the same deal with my partner not to scoreboard watch, which was easy to do during warm-up. I was actually feeling pretty good, about to play on the same court as my clinching win the day before, though with a different partner and at a different line, and our opponents certainly seemed beatable. But just as we finished our warm-ups, the line 1 match was decided in our favor and, though I would have preferred not to, ‘we’ decided to move our match to court 1 in front of the fans.

The match started out very well for us as we quickly snatched a break and a 3-1 with me serving for 4-1, which is when my game began to unravel. Whether it was double-faults or unforced errors from my previously unshakable forehand from the day before, nothing seemed to go right the rest of the set for my partner and I, and we lost it 4-6. Having agreed to switch sides if we’d lost the first set, since we’d only played together once before and failed to do it the last time, we hoped to change our luck. But things quickly went from bad-to-worse and, sitting down before switching ends at 0-5 (after losing my serve yet again), I broke a promise to myself and sneaked a peak at line 4’s scoreboard. I was relieved to see that we’d won the first set and were about to serve for the match, leading 5-4. Now somewhat relaxed, we actually had our male opponent serving at love-30, the first time we’d gotten even a tooth into one of his service games. Though he evened it to 30-all a short time later, I heard from the crowd’s reaction that our line 4 had closed it out and we were saved from the embarrassment of losing our line 5 match for posterity (this will be the only record of the event).

So we’re on to the semi-finals this Saturday or, should I say, we’ll be hosting the next playoff match here. As it turns out, our week 3 opponent from our own division will be coming to play us for the chance to advance to the city finals. The best news yet is that we'll finally be at full strength again. Wish us luck!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Anatomy of an ALTA division title, two bag tags in one season after starting from scratch just 2 years ago

God blessed our neighborhood this winter season: we had two teams – senior and regular mixed doubles; largely comprised of the same players – that won their ALTA divisions, the first bag tags for our community since the fall of 2004. The story of our success is one of rebuilding a community’s tennis program.

I moved to Cobb County in July, 2008 and attended my first homeowners’ association meeting in April, 2009, where I met a British couple; as tennis players, they also wondered why a neighborhood with four courts didn’t have a single ALTA or USTA team. The last ladies’ team played in the spring of 2007, the last men’s in the fall of 2005, the last mixed the winter of 2003. It was the winter of 2010 before we’d collectively met enough players – most of whom were non-residents – to form a mixed doubles team. Even though it was a new team, most everyone had an ALTA rating and we were placed at the B-2 level, largely due to an A-level man that lived outside our neighborhood. We ended up with 14 points in sixth place, and were moved down to the B-3 level for that summer, where we fared much better (21 points) and fourth place. Of the original 20 member team, only 4 of us (the British couple, another lady, myself) made it all the way to this season’s two division winning teams; 3 others joined us that first summer.

In 2011, we changed captains and added a couple of new players – non-residents – that would help to form the foundation of our success. However, we only managed to win 17 points and finished in fifth place. We also formed a senior mixed team that winter, a first for the neighborhood. It was seeded at the B-5 level and we performed poorly, somewhat intentionally because we kept our best players rested for Sunday’s regular mixed matches (held them out of Saturday’s senior mixed matches). That summer, we added four more foundational players – all residents – to our regular mixed doubles roster and were bumped back up to B-2 (one of the men added is an A-level player). Since one couple – our new line 1 – was unavailable weeks 1-3, we struggled at first but finally caught our stride, finishing with 19 points in fourth place.

We still needed a few more additions to beef up our roster enough to compete for a bag tag, hopefully without bumping us up to the dreaded B-1 or A-9 levels. After more than a year of “campaigning”, trying to convince another terrific husband-and-wife pairing from our neighborhood team to join our roster, they finally gave in. Sensing the writing on the wall, a handful of players left the team, most to form their own B-3 team for the next winter season. Additionally, we were able to add a couple of new non-residents to our roster to complete the team and, upon writing an appeal to ALTA, we were able to remain at the B-2 level. Our senior team, which was to drop to B-7, was instead placed again at B-5 due to the additions of five of the foundational players from our regular mixed team.

After practicing on every November weekend and through mid-December, we felt ready to compete in both leagues simultaneously, even though it meant that some players would be in both Saturday’s and Sunday’s lineups on some weekends starting in January, 2012. From the very first weekend, both teams delivered and found themselves in first place in their division. Throughout the season, the senior team stayed at or near the top, but had to win 3 of 4 lines on the final weekend to claim the prize. However, the regular mixed team was humbled the second week of the season, and needed outstanding performances from our two best players at line 1 and an incredible 3-hour 3-set win at line 4 to salvage two points.

Week 3 turned out to be a critical week for our regular mixed team for two reasons: we were about to play one of the top teams from our division and we would have to do it with only 3 of our regular ladies available. In fact, we had to add a player to our roster to keep from forfeiting a line. But God smiled on us that Sunday, giving us a continual mist that eventually rained out one of the later lines. Having split the four lines played that day – and aided by our opponents’ request to play line 5 before line 3 – we were able to make up the line 4 match with two of our better players that hadn’t been available to play that Sunday. This turned out to be crucial, for it was this team that would finish tied with us at the end of the season, meaning we owned the tiebreaker with them. But our optimism for a division title – and perhaps even a playoff berth – quickly faded the following weekend when we lost three 3-set matches to a team in our division that was nearly an hour drive away. Fortunately, we were able to salvage two points that day also.

So there we were, four weeks into the season with 12 points, in a three way tie for second place (actually in third because of tiebreakers), and 3 points behind the division leader (who had already beaten us). However, we’d already played the best teams in our division, and they hadn’t played each other, so we still had a chance. Over the next two Sundays, we played home matches against the bottom two teams in our division and took 9 of 10 points. Incredibly, the first place team was shutout by our opponent from (that crucial) week 3 on the sixth Sunday, which enabled them to tally the same number of points as us and meant that we were the first place with one weekend to go. However, they were to play the second-to-last place team at home and we were to play the fifth place team away on the final Sunday.

We felt pretty good about our lineup for week 7, and our chances to take 5 and seal the deal, but the last Sunday of the season was rained out. Now we’d have to make-up the matches on or before the default date/time of Wednesday at 7 PM. Fortunately the other captain was very accommodating and we were able to schedule 4 matches for Monday and 1 for Tuesday, especially since rain was predicted for Wednesday. Because of the rain-out, we were able to strengthen our hand by moving two players that hadn’t been available to play on that Sunday into the lineup. One of our former teammates, whose team had played our opponent the week before, was able to provide us with some valuable scouting information that prompted changes at lines 3 & 5; unfortunately, we still had to play up because our line 1 man was unavailable, and the scouting report was that they were strong at line 1 as well. Of course you know the outcome per the title of this post, but it took two 3-set wins (at lines 1 and 3) to claim our second division title of the season.

Tomorrow is our second home playoff match of the season; we lost our senior mixed playoff last Saturday – after splitting 2-2 – in a heartbreaking 10-point tiebreaker played by the last pairs left on the court at the time … so wish us luck!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Are you tennis obsessed (or possessed)?

I am really not sure what it is about tennis that is so addictive. It's like a drug in that it can consume you.

No, I'm not talking about when a Grand Slam tournament is being played, and you feel like you have to watch the entire event; a problem which is exacerbated by the fact that three of them are played in time zones that require sleep deprivation.

I'm referring to the "tennis bug" that one gets when one first starts playing the sport. When I first starting playing tennis, I was obsessed with getting better, with being able to control that little yellow ball, to make it go where I wanted it to go. Then, if you're competitive at all, you want to win. And of course, as one gets better and wins more and more, one starts playing even better opponents, and the cycle continues until it feels like a treadmill that never ends. However, unlike the grind of a work schedule, this one is fun!

If one then takes on the responsibility of being a tennis captain, the obsession is taken to another level entirely. It's not now just your game that matters, but the success of the entire team is dependent upon you taking the right actions to enable it. One has to find players, establish pairings, put together lineups, and constantly make adjustments until the balance is right. One may also have to endure criticisms from one's own teammates, who's focus is more inwardly so, and deal with opposing captains who, like you, are trying to maneuver situations (such as rain-outs) to their team's advantage.

Not everyone is willing or cut out to be a leader, because it can be wearing. For example, this season, I haven't been sleeping very well. When I wake up, it's because I'm thinking about my players, the next match, my lineup, and the contingencies in case there is a rain-out, etc. Before becoming a captain again, my only obsessions were: my own performance (whether it was reliving and replaying points and matches in my mind, or worrying about whether I would play well during a forthcoming challenge) and whether I got to play enough - was put in the lineup - during the season.

Although this current "team-focused" obsession appears to be paying off - the mixed doubles ALTA team that I captain has just made the playoffs and may win its division - I will be glad when this season is over.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A tennis captain's #1 frustration

While I've written quite a bit about the roles and responsibilities of a tennis captain on these pages, and I certainly haven't sugar-coated it, I probably haven't shared enough of the anguish one feels when - after putting together a championship team - one's players aren't available for the big match.

Do you think captain Mary Joe Fernandez has been frustrated by the fact that the Williams sisters haven't been available to play Fed Cup? What about the various Davis Cup captains over the years, whose country's star players weren't available to play in certain ties because of their singles careers?

On a smaller scale as an ALTA or USTA captain, it can seem just as frustrating when one's team is about to play one of the better teams in one's division, and a key player (or three!) aren't available for one of a variety of reasons: an injury or other plans. But the most disappointing circumstance is at season's end, when the last match is the determining factor for a bag tag (or playoff berth). I once captained a team that dominated its division, winning every week (not every line, but every weekend), only to have three of my best players unavailable for the first round of playoffs. Hence, while I've captained (or been on) teams that have won bag tags and/or made the playoffs with a good shot to going all the way, I've never gotten to an ALTA City Championship, as a captain or a player.

This season, our senior mixed doubles team won its division and will play its first playoff match on Saturday. However, if it rains, we'll be without one of our best players for the makeup match and, even if we advance, we'll have to do without him and other key persons for the next round(s). Think Tom Brady was frustrated when his favorite receiver (Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski) was injured and unable to play his best in the Super Bowl?

There have been a number of weeks during this season's regular mixed doubles season in which one or more of my best players haven't been for a key divisional match-up, and this last ALTA Sunday - with destiny in our own hands - will be yet another. With us luck!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Most extraordinary act of ALTA sportsmanship I have ever seen

In this already special winter season, our senior mixed team wrapped up the division on Saturday, after an extraordinary act of sportsmanship on the part our our opponents, and our regular mixed team moved one step closer to doing the same next weekend.

We played away on Saturday as the first place team, against the last place team (only 2 points behind us), while the second and third place teams (one point behind) battled each other. After one of our line 1 men went down to injury just three games into the match, our circumstances looked dire. Especially when one of our line 2 ladies was late, past the default time. But after conceding the point, when our lady did arrive, our opponents agreed to play the match anyway. And what a battle it was: though we won the first set, we lost the second in a tiebreak, but then won the third.

The match of the day was the first mixed doubles line. Our team fell behind 0-4 in the first set before coming back to win it in a tiebreak. They then proceeded to fall behind 0-5 in the second before battling back to 4-5 and serving. Unfortunately, they lost that game and then fell behind 3-5 in the third. But on this brutally cold and windy day, our lone husband and wife pairing would not be denied; they won the final set 7-5.

It was then up to our captain and our newest teammate, playing for the first time together, to deliver. And they did, in straight sets. We found out later that all three points were required for us to finish first in our division, which would not have been possible without the sportsmanship exhibited by our opponents. Thank you!

Sunday was sunny and not quite as windy, but still cold. Our regular mixed team entered the day two points behind first in a three way tie for second (because of the head-to-head tiebreakers, in third place). Unfortunately our opponents were unable to field a complete lineup, so we only played lines 1-3 (all at the same time). We prevailed in every match in straight sets, sweeping our second opponent of the season. Incredibly, the first place team was swept as well, and the team that owned the tiebreaker with us managed to lose two points to the second-to-last place team. We're now in first place going into the final weekend.

We'll need to do our best because, although we own the head-to-head tiebreaker, another team in our division has the same number of points as we do and they appear to have a weaker opponent come Sunday. Wish us luck!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Maintaining the neighborhood’s tennis courts is crucial

While I’m no expert on this issue, I have had experience as a homeowners’ association board member in two different neighborhoods in Atlanta: one in Towne Lake and one in Marietta. A community’s tennis courts is one of its most valuable assets and, as such, they must be kept in good shape whether the neighborhood fields a competitive league (e.g. USTA or ALTA) tennis team or not because the value of every home in the subdivision is affected by the condition of its amenities.

In general, hard-court surfaced tennis courts have to be repaired and/or resurfaced every few years. There are many different types of hard-court surfaces, two with which I’m most familiar. Most Atlanta area hard courts that I’ve seen or played on are fairly standard and, over time, develop cracks because of contraction during the colder winter months and expansion during the warmer spring and summer seasons. Companies that install and maintain hard courts have various techniques – with associated warranties – for repairing cracks before they resurface the courts. Then, the surface of a tennis court is just 3 coats of acrylic paint, which is why most courts have signs dictating the type of shoes to be worn, and prohibiting skates, skateboards, or bikes etc. on them.

A premium hard court has a cushioned layer between the hard surface and the paint layers. This relatively pricey initial expense provides protection against cracking such that resurfacing without repairing cracks is possible most of the time. Therefore, instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars every 5 years for crack fixing AND resurfacing, a neighborhood with premium hard courts may only pay for resurfacing, which can be as low as a few thousand dollars per court. Caveat – I have no experience with clay courts, but obviously know that their maintenance is even more involved (and expensive).

Obviously it’s best to have a multi-year plan and a budget - vs. the occasional assessment - for these types of expenses, if your community collects annual homeowners’ association dues. It’s also important to remember that the maintenance of the tennis courts’ surface is not the only financial consideration regarding this amenity. There are several other ‘consumable’ items which must be planned for, from annual items such as rollers/squeegees – at least one for each court/year – to nets, windscreens, lights, benches, and fences which, along with the light poles, need to be repainted occasionally. Plus, there are other court accessories which can be damaged (or disappear) like scoreboards, numbers, garbage cans etc.

If a swim/tennis neighborhood has one or multiple ALTA and/or USTA teams, its residents should be aware that there are 10 to 20 visitors to its community on any given weekend – year-round in Atlanta – to play league tennis matches. Every one is a potential homebuyer, a future resident! Therefore, it is very important to keep the tennis court amenity in the best condition possible, including the restroom facilities that these (currently) non-residents may use.

Even if one is not a tennis player, or doesn't have one's home on the market, a community resident should be aware of the importance of a well-maintained tennis amenity ... and perhaps the fact that there are upwards of 80,000 league players in our metropolitan area!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Our ALTA mixed teams are in contention with two weeks to go!

As I’ve written, an ALTA season is much more enjoyable when one’s team has a chance to win a bag tag, or make the playoffs, and both our senior and regular mixed doubles team are still in a position to do this five weeks into the season.

Saturday morning, after a rainy night in Georgia, the sky was overcast but our home courts were dry for the most part. By the end of our matches shortly after noon, it was a beautiful sunny day and we stayed to play a while longer. Even though we were playing the first place team, we took 3 of 4 lines and our ALTA senior mixed team now finds itself in first place with one week to go. At our level, the seventh week will actually be the first week of playoffs.

Except for the fact that regular mixed matches begin at 1 PM vs. 10 AM for seniors, Sunday was almost a carbon-copy of Saturday weather-wise. While we couldn’t have started as early as 10 or even 11 AM or noon on Sunday, by 1 PM the conditions were good enough and, shortly thereafter, cloudy skies gave way to a bright, mostly clear afternoon … and we stayed to play a couple of sets after our matches were done. Our team took 4 of 5 lines and remained in a 3-way tie for second place, and a point closer to the first place team than we were last week. Plus, the schedule favors us since we’ll be playing two of the last place teams in our division while the team(s) ahead of (or tied with) us have to play each other.

All in all it was an unexpectedly gorgeous weekend for playing tennis, and our teams’ performances made it that much more enjoyable.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Who will be the antidote to Novak Djokovic?

If Rafael Nadal is Roger Federer’s kryptonite, he's kept the seemingly unstoppable Swiss Master from achieving 17 (20, or more) Grand Slam titles, then Novak Djokovic is surely Nadal’s. It was only a year ago that ‘we’ were talking about a “Rafa Slam” as the intrepid Spaniard, holder of the 3 previous Grand Slam titles (in 2010) was attempting to do what no one – even Federer the great(est?) – has been able to ... since Rod Laver, in whose arena last Sunday’s final was played: hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation; enter Nole (nickname of the elastic man from Serbia). The truism learned in other – particularly team – sports has found its place in tennis: it’s all about matchups. Whereas Rafa’s huge topspin, high bouncing shots breakdown Roger’s beautiful one-handed backhand, they play into Novak’s strengths; the Serb can hammer the high ball from either ‘wing’.

While both Nadal and Federer possess incredible endurance and (Rafa in particular) can wear down their opponents with defense, movement and a relentless array of (or assault with his) shots, Djokovic has taken these assets to another level. His return of serve is the best in the game and with flexibility, guts and a will to win even in the direst of circumstances, he is dominating two of the greatest-of-all-time players. There were numerous opportunities – in both Friday’s semifinal match when Novak was down 2 sets to 1 to Andy Murray, and in Sunday’s final when Djokovic was down a break in the fifth set – for the Serbian to fold. He didn’t. Instead, he kept his nerve, continued to go for his shots, and won both matches.

Now commentators and the press from all over the tennis world are talking about a “Nole Slam”: can Novak win the French Open at Roland Garros to hold all 4 Grand Slam titles at the same time? Or will Federer break this streak like he broke Djokovic’s consecutive match winning streak in Paris last year? Better still, will ‘we’ get to witness a fourth consecutive Rafa-Nole Grand Slam final?

The other question that needs to be asked is the title of this post. Except for an increasingly competitive yet still Slam-less Murray, who’s the same age as Djokovic (they were born a week apart in May, 1987), it would seem that Novak is in a position similar to that which Federer enjoyed in the middle of the last decade, after Pete Sampras’ career. As Roger fades (at 30, he hasn’t won a Grand Slam title in 2 years), the men’s field isn't as strong unless the still young 25 if physically old Rafa (and his coach & uncle Toni) can solve the Novak puzzle and finally beat the Serb again (Nadal has now lost 7 straight - all in finals - to Djokovic!) ... else Nole will quickly increase his Grand Slam title total to double digits, and more.