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!

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