Monday, June 2, 2014

Public Oddities, Upcoming Playoffs, and Other Pertinient Points

If you've played tennis at Soldiers this spring, and especially if you've walked your dog through the area every evening as I have, you've likely beheld some startling sights. Last week, I saw eight miscreants staging a painfully inept street-hockey exhibition on the court closest to the so-called "practice wall." In an effort to assemble do-it-yourself goals, they removed the rubbish from the bins on the sidewalk and positioned the receptacles horizontally in two locations: one against the fence and the other smack-dab against the net. One particularly uncivil fellow, who could benefit greatly from extensive skating lessons, lost his balance as he clumsily pursued a retreating puck, falling face-first onto the net and collapsing it beneath his weight. Enraged, he slammed his stick against a net post and continued to pretend he was a winger for the Minnesota Wild. It was a frightful display of court abuse I'd prefer not to encounter again, though I must confess to having been marginally entertained by the spectacle.

Though the future Ice Capades stars were by far the most disruptive group I've discovered, they weren't necessarily the strangest. One night, two confused teenage girls (who apparently thought they were in the Bahamas and didn't feel obligated to wear shoes) were taking random swings at purple balls with rackets acquired from Disneyland. One held her racket by its head, using the grip to make contact with the ball. Most impressive was that her accuracy was superior to her partner's.

I've also seen Frisbee and baseball being played on the courts, and Mr. Bob Hubert, the official RTL documentarian, shot recent footage of a center-court lacrosse game. Each day brings us one step closer to a Barnum sideshow, so even if you don't favor playing at Soldiers (and I won't blame you if you cling to that stance), I encourage you to pack a picnic basket and head out to the parking lot some night. You might catch the landing of a hot-air balloon as a bearded woman juggles jagged torches while balancing herself on a talking elephant.

Spring is expiring at an alarming pace, and the final week of session-one regulation is upon us. Please complete and report your week-five matches as early as possible, enabling Max to post the playoff schedule. Matchups, of course, will be dependent upon final standings, stats impossible to calculate unless all data are available. The sooner I've received your week-five scores, the sooner you'll be able to schedule your round-one contests.

Session-two signup formally begins next week, but Max is accepting early reservations. Session one has featured our largest turnout to date, and we hope to match or exceed that status in session two. Captains, please consult your teammates to confirm their availability. If your squads will be losing a player and you'll require a replacement, Max can certainly help you reach that goal.

A quick point about supplying balls for matches, a question I forgot to address at the start of the season. We took a poll last year on this topic, and the majority of respondents supported the spin-the-racket convention; just as you spin a racket at the opening of a match to determine who serves and receives, you should also do so to establish who provides balls. The loser of the spin is the supplier. Thus, you enter each match with a fifty-percent chance of furnishing balls. That's about as even as the odds can be.

Note that each team should arrive at every match with a virgin can of pressurized balls -- promiscuous balls, even gently used ones, are uniformly banned. Never presume that your opponent will cover for you if you've forgotten to buy a new can. Also, please treat the racket-spinning business as a guideline rather than a rule. Sometimes, a team will crack open a can of balls before the other has even noticed. That's perfectly fine if neither team finds fault with it.

Enjoy your week-five matches!






Thursday, May 8, 2014

Interview with a Pro

Josh Heiden, a pro at the Rochester Tennis Connection (RTC), was kind enough to participate in an interview for the RTL doubles blog. Josh has been with the RTC for over a decade and is currently head coach of the John Marshal Boys and Century Girls tennis teams. He graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in 2002 and was a Collegiate All-American in tennis, as well as a member of the 2001 National Indoor Championship Team. He also won the Husband/Wife USTA National Championship in 2010 and is a multiyear winner of the Rochester Adult Open Doubles Tournament, one of the chief reasons I've never bothered to register for it.

Following is our interview, which I'm confident you'll find informative.  

Jones: Aside from having to cooperate with a partner in doubles, what's the most significant strategic difference between singles and doubles (e.g., shot selection, point duration, and so on)?
Heiden: The biggest difference between singles and doubles besides having a partner is strategy. In doubles, hitting to certain spots, playing percentage tennis, and being in correct court position are the keys to success. This starts with being a consistent server and returner. The average point in tennis at any level lasts three shots. Knowing that, if you and your partner can get your serve and your next shot in, or the return and your next shot in, your chances of winning the point go up dramatically. Because serving and returning are magnified in doubles, players need to work on making those two shots count. The ability to serve to all different parts of the service box allows players to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses. Once you find a weakness, continue to go after it. The serving team has the opportunity to strike first and usually that means following your serve to the net in order to volley the next shot. Serving and then hitting the volley back to the returner simplifies the first two shots of the point. This strategy is the highest-percentage play, and with you and your partner together at the net, you force the other team to hit a great shot to beat you. 

There are also opportunities for the returning team to be aggressive and take control of the net. Second serves are your best chance. At the recreational level, many players are not confident with their second serves and will serve and stay back. This weaker second serve keeps the server's partner from being able to be aggressive at the net and also allows the returning team to hit their return cross-court to the server and move forward to the net. Whether you're moving in as a server or returner, make sure you don't get too close to the net. In most instances, if you move just inside the service line, you are close enough to be an aggressive volleyer but can also get back to hit overheads or even retrieve the occasional great lob that you have to let bounce. 
Jones: As you know from our practice sessions, my singles game is founded on counterpunching. I thrive on long points, and I'm disappointed if a rally concludes in fewer than ten strokes. While such patience often proves an asset in singles, it can be a detriment in doubles, as there's always a pesky poacher waiting to pounce on balls that aren't perfectly placed. What sorts of adjustments should a counterpuncher make when he or she plays doubles?

Heiden: There are many players who get their start in tennis by playing singles, hitting many more groundstrokes than volleys. When these people cross over to doubles, they sometimes are intimidated at the net or do not know where to be on the court. Don't be afraid of doubles if this is you. Obviously, practicing your net game and learning where to hit when you're at the net in doubles is helpful, but being a baseliner in doubles is also okay. 
First of all, you and your partner need to be on the same page. This doesn't mean that you need a partner who is also a baseliner. In fact, sometimes a good baseliner partnered with a good volleyer make a good team. However, if your partner is expecting you to get to the net but you don't, it could frustrate them and they could find themselves out of position. However, if your partner knows that you like to stay back, they should be ready to move up and back, following the ball, in order to be in position. 
Another strategy when returning serve is playing the two-back formation. This is particularly useful if the returner is having trouble getting the return past an aggressive net player (the server's partner). Playing two back can take pressure off the returner because they don't need to be as precise with their placement. The returning team can also be more deliberate in choosing when to move forward to the net.
Finally, a baseliner playing doubles has to be confident hitting lobs. If you don't like to get to the net or have trouble finding ways to move forward, chances are the other team will beat you to the net, making a lob an important shot for your team. 
Jones: There's debate over the benefits and liabilities of positioning both partners at the baseline, otherwise known as Spanish doubles. Proponents claim it's an effective means of overcoming aggressive net players, as it allows you to respond with line drives and lobs. Dissenters argue that it's a defensive maneuver that all but surrenders a point before it starts. When do you recommend employing the both-players-back approach?

Heiden: As covered in the previous question, I believe a two-back strategy is effective when the returner is having trouble hitting the return away from the opposing net player. When the server's partner is being aggressive and putting the returner's shot away, a two-back formation is a good change-up. It allows the returner's partner more time to react if they feel like a sitting duck at the net because of an aggressive opponent. It also takes pressure off the returner so that they can hit anywhere and possibly still stay in the point. 

Another reason this formation can be useful is that it simply confuses the other team. Most players like to stick to the patterns they know, such as hitting cross-court, etc. However, if both players are back, the serving team may not be as decisive with their shot selection. 

Finally, if the lob is one of your strengths or is working against a particular team, the two-back formation would allow you to hit more of them.

Jones: Players sometimes struggle to decide upon deuce-court and ad-court assignments in doubles. I'm often told, for instance, that I should play the ad court because my backhand serve return is consistent. Not all ad serves go to the backhand, however, and there's a lot more to think about than return of serve alone. What factors should players consider when addressing this issue?
Heiden: Great question! I'm faced with this dilemma often when I'm coaching high school players and USTA teams. Many factors can determine what side you play in doubles, but much of it is about feel. Just feeling better about one side or the other will definitely help your confidence. Some players have a favorite side  and some don't. 

Another thing to consider when choosing sides (especially if you play with the same partner(s) often) is who is more aggressive at net. I believe the more aggressive net player should probably have their forehand volley toward the middle of the court. For example, if I'm right-handed and the more aggressive player on my team, I should probably play the ad side. This way I can more easily pick off floating shots when I'm at the net. 

Don't believe the notion that if your forehand is better you must play the forehand (deuce, for a righty) side. The reason is that for most people, hitting a cross-court return is easier than hitting an inside-out return. For example, I like playing the ad side because I know that most of the time if the ball comes to my backhand all I have to do is hit cross-court. My forehand is my better, more versatile stroke, so I'm also comfortable hitting inside-out forehand returns from the ad side. If I were to play the deuce side, I would probably be fine if the ball came to my forehand because I'd just hit cross-court. But for me, it's a tough proposition when a serve comes to my backhand and I have to hit an inside-out backhand cross-court to keep the ball away from the net person. 

No matter what side you play, you can always make adjustments to get more balls to come to your favorite stroke. If I play the ad side but I like to hit forehands, I can move over a little to my left toward the alley. This will open up more area for opponents to hit balls to my forehand.  

Jones: A mild complaint among some players, especially on USTA teams, is that they never pair up with the same partner twice in a given season. Clearly, it's hard to fall into a rhythm with a player whose game you know little about. What should unfamiliar partners be discussing before and during matches?
Heiden: Playing with new partners all the time is tough but can also bring a fresh take and add energy to your game. Before the match, see if you can spend some time hitting together, even if only for a few minutes. This will help you get a feel for your partner's pace of shots, their movement, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. After hitting, talk about what your strengths/weaknesses are and what side you each like to play. Hopefully you can agree on this. :) Next, discuss your typical doubles strategy if you haven't seen each other play. Do you like to crash the net? Are you more comfortable at the baseline? Do you like to use signals? Do you like to poach? Are you up for trying different formations (Aussie, I, two-back, etc.)? Any of these questions are good to ask so you're on the same page. The more information you have about each other, the better.

Finally, make sure you communicate between points and during changeovers. Don't be shy. Try positive contact like a fist-pound or high-five between every point, no matter whether you win it or lose it. Positive actions and gestures go a long way toward improving confidence and keeping each other having fun.

Jones: Though the two-handed backhand has all but supplanted the one-hander among professional singles players, the one-hander remains quite common on the doubles tour. Is there something about the one-hander that makes it a preferable doubles stroke?

Heiden: I think you'll find that there are about as many good two-handed backhands on the doubles tour as there are one-handers. Some players have been taught that having a one-handed backhand is more versatile, but as long as two-handers don't neglect practicing the one-handed backhand slice and the one-handed backhand volley, they should be just fine. Nowadays, accomplished players can hit a two-handed backhand groundstroke but easily change their grip and take a hand off to hit a one-handed backhand volley. Some players even think that the one-handed backhand return is easier for servers to pick on because it takes more strength and timing to hit. Two-handers may lack reach on returns but have the advantage of two hands stabilizing the racket for returning those big serves.

. . .

One thing I admire about Josh's approach toward teaching is that he doesn't tamper with aspects of your game that aren't broken. Some pros feel obligated to revolutionize every element of your strokes, but Josh zeros in on a few features that require strengthening and offers achievable strategies for improvement. I've studied under his tutelage for a few years now, and I know my game is better as a result.

To set up a session with Josh, contact the Rochester Tennis Connection: 507-288-4851. Josh offers both private and group lessons. And though he's very busy, he'll do his best to accommodate your schedule.     

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Season of Promise

Welcome to the Rochester Tennis League's third year of doubles competition. We'll be hosting our largest turnout ever this season (a total of eighteen teams in two divisions), encouraging evidence that what started in 2012 as a tentative experiment has blossomed in 2014 into a thriving enterprise. We're delighted you've decided to sign up for the league, and we look forward to enjoying an action-packed summer of fun and fellowship.

Though current weather conditions might suggest otherwise, competition commences next week. Following are several regulations and guidelines with which you should be familiar. If you've participated in the league in previous years, much of this content will be a refresher for you. If you're new to the league, however, please review this post very carefully. It's essential that we remain on the same page with regard to conventions and procedures. Educating yourselves now will deter misconceptions later. A high-school teacher gave me a similar warning, but I refused to listen to her. The result has often been bleak. 

League structure: Division One contains ten teams. Division Two has eight. Division One is divided into two groups: A and B. The groups aren't segregated by skill level; they exist merely to accommodate the large turnout of teams in Division One. Teams from Group A won't meet those from Group B until the playoffs. Division Two teams, on the other hand, will adhere to a round-robin format throughout session one, playing each team in their division once until the conclusion of the seven-week stretch.

Configuration of rosters: Each team consists of three players, and each player is of equal eligibility. You may pair the same two players up all session long, dubbing your third player a sub of sorts, or you may vary your roster at your discretion. You may not, however, add players to your roster in the middle of the session. Should injury, relocation, or personal emergency force a player to withdraw from your team, please let Max and me know immediately.    

Designated evenings for competition: Division One matches will occur on Mondays, Division Two matches on Wednesdays. We've selected specific days for competition to make your lives easier, not to complicate them. Getting four players on a court at the same time can be unimaginably challenging. Removing ambiguity from the conversation is advantageous to everyone.

Flexibility, however, is a trait we encourage. If two teams prefer to play on, say, a Tuesday night or a Saturday morning, they're free to give it a go. Be aware, though, that you can't require a team to play at a random time. The decision to do so must be mutual. If a Division One team, for example, is prepared to play on a Monday night but the other team can't assemble a roster at that time, the available squad has the right to impose a forfeit upon its opponents. We are, I hope, here to play tennis, not to win matches on technicalities, so please pull out the forfeit card as sparingly as possible -- and ideally not at all.

Scheduling matches: Captains are responsible for scheduling matches. They should contact opposing captains as early as possible to confirm the availability of both teams. Please reply to scheduling-related communications with cordial rapidity. We all have a lot to do. Waiting interminably to determine when we'll be playing tennis is a burden we shouldn't have to entertain.   

Making up matches: Should weather or some similar obstacle prevent you from playing on your designated day, Sunday is the official time for making up matches. Again, flexibility is a vapor we should all be breathing. If you can't play on a Wednesday, go for Thursday if everyone else is on board with it. Completing matches is of greater urgency than rigidly clinging to guidelines.

Match deadlines: All matches, regardless of your division, must be completed by Sunday evening. For instance, next week's matches, which kick off on Monday May 5, must be played by Sunday May 11. You can stage matches as far in advance of their scheduled dates as you wish, but you MAY NOT complete them beyond their Sunday deadlines. This critical dictate is non-negotiable.

Score reporting: The captain of the winning team is expected to report scores. (Captains can, of course, delegate this task to other players on an as-needed basis.) Scores should be emailed to me within twenty-four hours of match completion. Scores not submitted by Sunday night will result in DNPs (Did Not Play), which will cause both teams to lose half a point in the standings. I encourage captains of losing teams to keep an eye on standings to ensure that winning captains have accurately reported scores.

The contact list Max sent you contains the email addresses of team captains and accompanying players. Schedules for both divisions are posted on the RTL website: You can also follow league standings on the RTL site throughout the season.

Please email scores to me at the following address: In addition, don't hesitate to contact me with questions. Seeking clarification is always better than lingering in confusion -- unless you're dealing with the IRS. Engaging them will only augment your bewilderment.

Here's to a happy summer of outdoor tennis. Good luck in your opening matches next week. If the rain persists, we might be playing on arks with canopies. We won't be able to lob, but at least we'll be outside for a few months.       


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Doubles Tactics: Back to the Basics

As you gain experience in a sport, your natural tendency might be to presume that you've mastered its fundamentals and no longer need to take note of them. That may be true to an extent, but as your mind centers on more complex elements, it may dismiss some essential building blocks along the way, hampering your ability to apply new principles. The outcome is that you're spinning your wheels without gaining mileage, and frustration is your inevitable destination.

Tennis in no exception to this pattern. It's a fast-moving, intricate sport that requires you to do a lot at once to make things click. Doubles presents even more concerns, as you have to cooperate with a partner to overcome two opponents at the same time. Taking a random strategical approach rarely renders positive results, and a revisitation of the basics can be of benefit to players of all levels.

I recently watched a five-minute video that nicely enumerates the key elements of doubles without bogging the viewer down in  detail. The video was produced by the David Lloyd School of Tennis, a reputable academy founded in the UK. The British invented the game, so Lloyd must know what he's talking about. The link to the video appears at the bottom of this post, but here's a rundown of its central tenets.

Communicate well: Doubles isn't an introspective affair that welcomes silent brooding. Interacting with your partner is the best way to stay alert and engaged. Calling balls by saying "I've got it!" helps avoid on-court collisions, and encouraging your partner throughout the match keeps spirits high. Bear in mind that no one misses shots deliberately, so criticizing your partner is the fastest path to destruction.

Be consistent: A common misreading in doubles is that every point should end after two or three shots. But just as in singles, there's a time to keep the ball in play and a time to put it away. The urge to go for winners can lead to lots of unforced errors, so try to keep your head on straight and accept that you aren't Roger Federer.

Be accurate: Doubles is a war of geometry. Because you have two players to pass on the other side of the net, finding the angles is paramount. Try to take advantage of openings down the middle, and capitalize upon moments when poor communication traps your opponents in the same half of the court.

Maintain good position: Knowing when to charge the net or hug the baseline can be the difference between a win and a loss in doubles. The position you select will depend upon factors such as the strength of your opponents' serves, the quality of your partner's serve return, and so on. Obviously, holding solid court position requires ongoing communication with your partner.

Play to your strengths: It's important to recognize your team's capacities and disabilities. If your partner has an offensive serve return, treat it as an opportunity for attack. If he or she doesn't, prepare to step back and defend the point. Your strategy should adapt to the specifics of each serve/return paradigm.

Exploit your opponents' weaknesses: I'm reminded of warm-ups before matches. My team is always scouting the oppositions' strokes and searching for vulnerabilities. "This guy has no backhand" or "The other guy doesn't move forward well" are examples of the flaws we look for. If we perceive no initial failings, we search for them as the match develops. We also presume that the other team is engaging in a similar process, so such analysis is a reciprocal equation that can also be used against us.

Here's the link to the video:    





Monday, May 6, 2013

The Courts Are Clear, Thanks to Maksim and Oprah

In the wee hours of last Thursday morn, in the midst of our unseasonable and unprecedented snowstorm, a bizarre event befell my wife and me. As we lay fast asleep, our mammoth German Shepherd, whose custom is to lounge beside our bed, leapt up and began to bark ferociously, seemingly without cause. He was drawn to a window that looks out on our front yard. Curious and concerned, my wife climbed out of bed, threw back the shutters, and investigated the scene. Her findings were both alarming and confounding.

“There’s a guy in a yellow bathrobe jumping up and down in our yard,” she said.

I yawned and rubbed my eyes. “Are you sure it’s not your dad?”
“Whatever. This guy’s disguised in goggles and a snorkel, and he has a quiver filled with arrows on his back, though I don’t see a bow. He’s also holding a torch of some sort, which appears to be a burning tennis racket. And I think he’s wearing Hello Kitty snow boots. He’s probably a friend of yours.“

“How tall is he?”
“About eight feet or so. Maybe even taller.”

A feeling of illness rose in my stomach. Getting up reluctantly, I walked as slowly as possible to the window, hoping not to see what I anticipated. Moments later, my greatest fears were confirmed. The lunatic in my yard was Maksim Lecic, founder and CEO of the Rochester Tennis League. My day was done for before it began.
I put on a coat, a pair of lumberjack boots, and a Canadian trapper’s hat and ventured outside to address the emergency. When I reached my yard, Maksim was building a snowman that resembled Al Franken and was singing a Justin Bieber song. Already I regretted my decision to confront him.

Noticing me –- and sneering as though I was an interloper on my own property -- Maksim threatened to arrest me if I didn't leave the premises. Then his insanity became even more palpable. 

“It’s snowing again, and we have RTL matches to play,” he said. “We have to make it stop.”
“No problem. I’ll drop God an email. I’m sure he takes weather requests.”

“We have to melt the snow.”
“Sure thing. I’ll dash out to the garage and get my flamethrower. It’s on a shelf next to my grenades and bayonets.”

“I have a plan.”
“I don’t want to hear it. I suspect the FBI has already wired your snow boots.”

“You have to help me. You will help me.”
And with that cryptic statement he reached into his pocket and withdrew a bottle of ketchup. Realizing he had accessed the wrong pocket, however, he screeched like an exotic fowl, restored the ketchup to the first pocket, placed his hand in another pocket, and produced a can of lighter fluid. I knew his tennis-racket torch had to be linked to some sinister aim, and my prediction came true in a heartbeat. 

“My plan looks something like this,” he said.

Racing toward a helpless tree, he doused its bark with toxic fluid, waved his flaming racket around the trunk, and set the scene ablaze. The timber incinerated in seconds, surprisingly to my pleasure. I intend to replace the tree with rubber shrubbery, as I loathe raking leaves in October.

Still, it was time to intervene, and I had to act quickly. Lacking expertise in the behavioral sciences, I concluded that enlisting the authorities was my only option. I phoned the Big Barn Looney Bin and patiently awaited their arrival.

The Big Barn Looney Bin is just that, a big barn that houses loonies. It’s a squalid den of vice and misery, but it's the only place prepared to detain someone as deranged as Maksim. In addition, the Big Barn has a makeshift wading pool, so I thought Maksim might find some application for his goggles and snorkel. It’s important for a psychotic to achieve a sense of productivity, especially when he has a penchant for pyromania.
As I stood in my driveway, Maksim worked calmly on his snow woman, which was starting to look like Michelle Bachman. He was bellowing the second verse of some Whitney Houston song when the Looney Van pulled up to the curb. Relief washed over me, and I looked forward to returning to bed.

Without warning, a rather burly chap emanated from the van, tackling Maksim upon sight. I could hear Maksim weeping gently, but I knew his turmoil would eventually give way to tranquility. I was thinking the same for myself until a Looney official addressed me.

“Sir, your friend has no identification, so you’ll need to serve as his primary contact.”

“Please don’t publicize him as my friend. I have a reputation to uphold in the local community. Also, I’m leaving town soon.”

“About thirty seconds from now.“
“Where are you going?”

“Into an oncoming train or off the highest cliff I can find. I need to erase this experience from memory.”
The warden didn’t approve, requiring me to stick around. I watched the van pull away in the dim morning light. Maksim’s contorted face, made even stranger by his goggles and snorkel, was plastered to the back window. Damp and depleted, I went back inside and had a bottle of Scotch for breakfast. I should have downed two bottles, for nothing could have fortified me for the onslaught that followed.

Right around noon, just after I had swallowed ninety-thousand milligrams of ibuprofen in an effort to combat my pounding head, distressing news arrived by telephone. A Looney Bin administrator reported that Maksim had covered himself in Vaseline and had slipped through an aperture in the back of his cell, earning his liberty by covert means. How he attained the Vaseline remained a mystery, but I informed the administrator that Maksim’s robe was practically a Wal-Mart made of cotton, containing a vast array of pharmaceuticals, auto supplies, and lawn furniture. She seemed impressed, inquiring where she might find a similar garment.

I scrambled to pack my bags, knowing that my chances of escape were poor. Carrying a toothbrush in one hand and a new bottle of Scotch in the other, I leapt into my SUV, revved up the engine, and put the pedal to the floor. Unfortunately, the transmission was in drive rather than reverse, and I left a gaping hole in the wall of my garage. After scolding myself, I backed out slowly, regaining my composure and pondering my destination.
As I drove down Highway 52, I thought I smelled lighter fluid, an illusion I attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder. But when I glanced through my rear view mirror and saw the tip of a snorkel bobbing up and down, I knew my fate was sealed. Maksim had broken into my garage and stowed himself away in my vehicle. The horrors of hell couldn’t have been so unsettling.

Caked in Vaseline, Maksim slithered into the front seat and started barking commands.
“Take me to a hardware store!”

“For what? You’ve already got a tool chest in your robe.”
“Follow my orders. Now!”

He snorted, snickered, and sighed. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out the bottle of ketchup, and paraded it as though wielding a weapon. Fear overwhelmed me. I had on a nice jacket, and ketchup stains are hard to remove.

“Okay. Please don’t open that bottle.”

As I waited in the parking lot of Ace Hardware, I thought of fleeing but realized the futility of the maneuver. You can’t run away from a boob in a bathrobe. He’ll track you down every time. As I weighed my alternatives, Maksim returned with two large lollipops and three-million pounds of wood chips. Something they injected him with at the Looney Bin must have given him superhuman strength. He tied down the lumber on my utility rack and fell into the front seat.
“Would you like a lollipop?” he asked.

“Take me to Soldiers Field.”

“But I was hoping . . .”

Take me there! Now!”
He started to reach for the bottle of ketchup, but I gave in before you could say “unnecessary cleaning bill.”

There’s a time in every man’s life when a transcendental revelation descends upon him, often against his own will. His doubts transform quietly into unquestioned truths, and the supernatural seems as tactile as a bottle of beer. What happened at Soldiers Field was such an experience for me.

The snow-covered parking lot at Soldiers marked the end of our drive.

“Stay in the car,” commanded Maksim.” And hold this until I get back.”
He handed me a Frisbee that bore the inscription “Hawaii is a nice place to eat a frog.” The force of the sentiment remains beyond my grasp. Like the enigma of the Holy Trinity, I’ll never unravel it.

Trudging through the slush, Maksim unloaded his inventory of woodchips, evenly distributing them on the frozen courts. He kneeled on the ground and lifted his head to the heavens, entreating every deity in the history of Western Civilization. His mastery of classical literature surprised me. He invoked Zeus and Jupiter, Hermes and Metis, Cronus and Phoebe, and the fearsome Poseidon, king of the sea. He even gave a shout out to Oprah Winfrey, who probably possesses more power than all gods combined.
Having completed his archaic ceremony, Maksim bathed the woodchips in lighter fluid, struck fifty matches, and sparked a pyre that produced enough carbon monoxide to make an elephant lose his lunch. Within five minutes, the snow had vanished, and the courts were ready for tennis. I can’t help but think that Oprah played a critical role in the restoration. It's not as though she has anything better to do. 

Makism is currently on display at the Sociopathic Museum of Tennis History. You can view him for an admission fee of ten dollars. If you give him a lollipop, he might sing a song for you. But please practice extreme caution when approaching him. He sometimes pees on people. 



Monday, June 4, 2012

Final Standings, Community, and Tedious Statistics: A Season in Review

The final scores are in, and the standings are up to date. Here are the winners:

Division One: Jones/Pewowaruk/Hodge

Division Two: Fursa/Hettinger

I present my team's lineup not in order of importance but in accordance with the roster listed on the league website. Ours was an evenly distributed effort from start to finish. When Dave P. went down in week three, Dave Hodge stepped in to keep us afloat. Then, like clockwork, when I fell prey to a mild bout of forearm strain last week, Dave P. returned from retirement to seal our first-place status with a week-seven win. It's an inspiring reminder that cooperation and commitment form the foundation of a doubles squad's success.

What a session of memorable matches we witnessed! There were lots of three setters and countless extended points. No one enters a tennis match with the belief that losing is desirable, but I'd like to think (hoping not to sound cliche) that the most rewarding benefit we've derived over the last seven weeks is a strong sense of community with our fellow players. It's great to be able to hop on my bike on any given evening and find league participants slugging it out at Soldiers Field. Such a setting in every way mirrors the underlying purpose of a local tennis league.

I'm not fond of numbers, but I guess I'll provide a few. Division One saw a match-completion rate of 86 percent. The 14-percent deficit represents repeated forfeits by one team. In Division Two, 67 percent of all matches were played, with several forfeits spawned by injuries. Match completion is a delicate and vulnerable entity. It's also the most reliable measurement of a league's potency. If we aren't playing matches, we don't have much of a tennis league. I hope we can improve our numbers a bit next year. Thanks, however, to those of you who did everything in your power to play every week.

As you know, the structure of our first doubles session was governed by trial and error in many ways. Maksim and I have several changes in mind for next year. One involves the implementation of three-player teams rather than two-player teams with subs. Maybe three-player teams with subs would work as well. If you have thoughts on how we might improve the league in any fashion, please don't hesitate to pass them on. Just email Maksim or me at your convenience.

The potential still exists for a mid-summer or late-summer doubles tournament. We'll be in touch as details take shape. Feel free to offer input on that possibility as well. 

Thanks to Maksim for taking on the herculean task of adding doubles to his already demanding management duties. Thanks also to Steven Soltis for improving the efficiency of the documents we use to calculate standings. And thanks, of course, to everyone who participated in the doubles league this session. We hope to see you again next spring.    


Monday, May 21, 2012

Match of the Week: A Tall Tale

After endless blather and unbearable anticipation, here's the first edition of the incomparably riveting, inimitably engaging, and unprecedentedly delightful "Match of the Week." The stars of this week's tall tale: Jones/Hodge vs. Hubert/Soltis. It's so unbelievable that it has to be told.

I know what you're thinking. What's wrong with this chump? Why's he writing about one of his own matches? How narcissistic do you have to be to highlight your own performance when you're the administrator of the doubles league? Does this loser spend half his time flexing his muscles in a mirror and the other half pretending to comb hair that he hasn't had in over a decade? 

While the preceding criticisms have numerous merits, I can assure you that my decision is perfectly logical. First, I haven't seen other league matches in their entirety, so I'm unqualified to elaborate on them. Second, all participants in the match I've chosen to cover (including Maksim, a spectator) have encouraged me to write this narrative (except maybe Hodge, who replied with silence). Thus, on one hand, I'm simply making maximum use of my limited knowledge. On the other, I'm catering to the call of my public. Please read with patience before hurling blunt objects.

It was last Thursday evening, a clear night permeated by mild air. I rode my new bicycle, a replication of a 1930s cruiser, to Soldiers Field, feeling that I should be sporting knickers rather than Nikes. When I dismounted, Soltis and Hodge were warming up alone. According to Soltis, Hubert was running a trifle late. I envisioned Hubert lounging in the parking lot of a Kwik Trip, chugging a forty-ounce malt liquor and gorging a box of glazed donuts. He was seeking, no doubt, to stifle his fear. It was a futile exercise he would live to regret.

Hubert arrived moments later, wearing a mask of indifference. Carrying his tennis bag at his side like a stoic assassin, he said, "I don't need to warm up." Then the clouds parted, revealing the secret of his tardiness: He had been hitting for an hour with a tennis pro, a last-ditch effort to disguise the crippling flaws of his game. I committed myself to making him regret his ridiculous waste of time and money.

I had already hit plenty of groundstrokes during my warm-up, but I told Hubert I needed a few volleys. He launched each ball toward my head, chest, and stomach, an act of aggression I found most unsportsmanlike. Naturally, I fielded each attack with precision and grace, but the sentiment was nevertheless unsettling.

Then the battle started.

Hodge and I have taken each other on lots of times in singles matches, but we don't have a lengthy heritage as a doubles team. Since Dave P.'s career-ending injury, Hodge and I have established the custom of getting off to slow starts in doubles matches. This outing was no different. Early on, we played well at times, but our shots were either just long or wide at fatal moments, and we rapidly found ourselves in a 2/5 hole.

As a rule, Hodge is a self-possessed, well-behaved fellow, and I've never had reason to fear him. But during our court transition at 2/5, only one loss away from dropping the first set, something demonic took hold of him, and I considered fleeing the scene. He employed every insult in the book in an effort to summon my competitive spirit. He assured me that if I didn't get focused and turn things around, he would box my ears, destroy my rackets, and reduce my home to a mound of ashes. He even went so far as to threaten the safety of the children my wife and I are yet to conceive. I never dreamed that such a consummate gentleman as Hodge could be so vile in his pursuit of victory. Spellbound, I listened obediently. 

Needless to state, Hodge provided a stern wake-up call that brought out the best in my game. A forehand winner here, a brilliant volley there, and we turned the tables in the blink of an eye, taking five straight games and prevailing 7-5 in the first set. Soltis looked dazed and in need of a blood transfusion. Hubert feigned composure, but I could tell he was devastated internally. His universe had come unhinged, its bottom on the verge of crumbling.

I don't mind admitting that a slight arrogance may have overwhelmed Hodge and me, leading us to grow lax in the second set. As I recall, we traded games with Hubert and Soltis until they came up with a break point and took the set 6-4. We braced ourselves for a long night of turmoil.

I really needed to pee. Soldiers Field isn't quite the Wimbledon Lawn and Racket Club, so I had to settle for a Porta-Potty, a plastic vault of pestilence that I've never entered without wishing I hadn't. As I emerged from the sewage, delirium gripped me, and my senses were distant and dulled. To my horror, I thought I beheld an albino Sasquatch lumbering about the courts. I soon realized, however, that Hubert had simply removed his shirt. I'm not a very politically active chap, but I plan to storm the mayor's office to demand that the following policies be implemented at once:

I. Rochester must increase its selection of lighted tennis courts.

II. Bob Hubert will be subject to felony charges should he disrobe in public.

The third set unfolded.

What a cyclone of lead changes we withstood! One team would go up a game, only to lose the next one. Then a team would go up 40/love and soon find themselves in an ad-out conundrum. It was Lob City every other point, and when Hubert and I were at the net, Hodge and Soltis exchanged a few cross-court rallies that made the Second Coming of Christ seem like a two-minute wait. 

Hodge hit a cross-court forehand.

"What will I have for breakfast tomorrow?" I thought.

Soltis hit a cross-court backhand.

"Have we ever elected a bearded president, or have presidents always grown beards after their inaugurations?" I pondered. 

Hodge hit a drop shot and retreated to the baseline.

"Maybe I can pee again and make it back before the end of the rally," I wondered.

Soltis volleyed and retreated to the baseline.

"If I threw my racket at Hubert, would he duck in time?" I asked.

It went on like that for bloody ever. I even toyed with the idea of going home to wash my SUV. Alas, the rallies concluded, and Hodge and I were up 5-4. It was my serve.

As I released my first toss of the game, violence swept over me. I wanted to unleash heavy artillery, and I struck the ball cunningly and with science. My serves were offensive and well placed, but they were no better than the pinpoint volleys Hodge put to rest. We were up 40/love. I served harshly to Soltis's backhand, and his return sailed beyond the baseline. Hodge and I planted our flag, and the bugles sang our triumph. Our three-set Civil War had come to an end.

Hubert handled the loss with pride and confidence, but Soltis's cheeks were stained with tears. Believe it or not, his bitterness culminated in theft. After the match, he asked if he might try out my new bicycle. Knowing he's an avid cyclist, I granted his request. But he hopped on the seat and raced down the street, laughing savagely as he disappeared in the darkness. I telephoned the police, and they apprehended him on North Broadway. To my knowledge, he remains imprisoned. To my relief, my bicycle is safe and sound.