Thursday, May 21, 2009

SB Tennis Misadventures

"Nice serve there, Billy Idol!"

Last night was league night. My team, the Yacht Club, has been the dominant team in our league for the past three years, running roughshod over the likes of La Cumbre, Knowlwood, and the perennial cellar-dwelling Cathedral Oaks. This summer, however, Tennis Club of Santa Barbara has risen up as a formidable challenger. After 3 weeks of play we were both 3-0, distancing ourselves from the rest of the pack. Last night we faced off at their courts up on Foothill Rd.

Our captain's lineup card had me playing at #2 doubles with my friend Marcus. That was ideal. My game meshes well with Marcus', and I've played with him often enough to have the comfort level necessary to ride out rough patches in play. We started to warm up with our opponents, Ed and Justin, who looked fairly solid. Ed served to open the match, and his deliberate service motion was followed by a deliberate serve. Marcus hammered back a forehand return but Ed surprised us with exceptionally good hands at the net, volleying past us for a winner. I drilled my first two returns into the net, still feeling the early match jitters, but then we started to pick up our play. Justin, as it turned out, did not present as formidable a net presence, and we started directing traffic his way. We broke and I stepped up to serve.

In doubles I generally stick with a heavy kick serve even on my first delivery. My strategy is to keep a high percentage of first serves in and place the serve to set up a volley winner by my partner. If the quality of the returner is higher I'll start going for more on serve, but my serve was diving down into the corners and giving our opponents fits. I held easily and we started to open up a groove. I felt like I could do anything with my volley, directing them deep to a corner or finishing off with a delicate drop shot out of their reach. Marcus and I established a good momentum and picked up a 2nd break on our way to a 6-2 first set victory.

On the changeover I enjoyed some grape Gatorade (my fave) and looked around to see how our other teams were doing. Over on Court 1 Wooten and Anthony looked to be in a bit of trouble. Wooten had accidentally spiked Anthony in the back with a serve and the mood was dark. After their errors they glared at the ball with disdain; even winning shots they hit were celebrated with nothing more than silent resignation. It didn't look good.

Marcus and I started the second set hot, going up an early break at 2-1, which we promptly gave back. Both teams accumulated holds, but there grew a sense of foreboding as we pushed on to 3-all, then 4-all. These crucial games went by, and the question in my mind turned from "when are we going to break these guys?" to "if we don't break soon we're going to be in danger" to "crap we need to hold on just to get to the tiebreaker!" I tried to fight against this rising sense of panic. Feeling that way can lead to paralysis, and one of the worst things you can do in doubles is stop being aggressive. Meanwhile our opponents had definitely upped their level of play. Ed moved to cut off volleys whenever he had the chance, and they hardly missed any returns. Marcus and I were fighting hard just to hold, but we pushed it to the tiebreaker. I like tiebreakers. I fully expected to steamroll Ed and Justin in this breaker, but to my ever-growing horror we won the first point and then lost the next 5 in a row. Shortly thereafter they closed it out 7-2, and knotted the match at 1 set apiece.

At this point all the other matches had long since finished. The rest of the guys from both teams were up on the clubhouse deck, already breaking into the post-match beers. We had a choice whether we wanted to play out the 3rd set, or finish things in a sudden-death Match Tiebreaker. I definitely wanted to play the 3rd set out, despite the late hour. A tiebreaker is a little bit of a crap shoot, and I wanted the longer 3rd set to let our quality win out. Everyone else felt the same way (but maybe not about our quality), so we decided to play it out. We picked up our bags and transferred over to center court, right next to the clubhouse deck, and turned the stadium lights on. The drinkers, now with gladiators to entertain them, roared their approval. We had an audience.

We started to play it out to exhortations from our fellow teammates. I've recently become a "rubio de farmacia" (blonde by way of the pharmacy), hence the cheer from above. During one point our opponents threw up a lob, and I came up with an overhead (never my strongest shot), slicing it away for a clean winner. Ryan shouted "When did Jesse learn to hit an overhead?!" and someone else shot back "That's not Jesse, can't you see he has blonde hair!" Despite this, Marcus and I were playing hesitant tennis, meeting the ball a fraction too late and missing our target more often than not. We went down a break, then another break, and all of a sudden Justin served for the match at 5-2. Marcus and I slapped hands on the changeover, giving each other a "let's take this one point at a time" when we really meant "well, here goes". With such a large deficit to overcome the pressure was off, and of course Marcus and I started to dial it in. I began to hit my backhand like I should have from the beginning, driving through my return and dipping the ball at their feet. We quickly broke to a chorus of cheers from the Yacht Clubbers. Dan leaned over the fence and told me, "we're down 3-2. If you guys win we'll tie 3-3". I stepped up to serve at 3-5, but after a few hard-fought points we were down break point, facing match point. At this point I was like a cornered wildcat, pissed off about the situation and almost snarling to myself. I threw everything I had into a kicker out wide, which Justin could only bat back into the net. Another break point, two more, and we saved them both. Finally we got to Ad-In, and I reached back to send another one to his backhand. Marcus closed off the net for a volley winner and we held! I punched the air, loosed a "C'MAAAWWWWN!" and the crowd went nuts. We were nearing 2.5 hrs and by this point I had finished the Gatorade and started in on water. After the changeover we lined up to receive serve, but unfortunately Ed and Justin quelled our uprising and held to take the match 6-4.

I still have a bad taste in my mouth from this loss, a day later. The champs have been knocked down and there's a new team to beat; TCSB has taken the #1 spot in the standings. Check back throughout the summer to see how the Yacht Club responds, as we go through the regular season and ramp it up for what should be an exciting playoff!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Federer opens a Magic Box of whupass on Nadal

Time flies when you're ignoring your blog, doesn't it? A week slips by, then two, and you realize you haven't posted anything. Like a high school ex-girlfriend, you start avoiding eye contact with her in the hall, devising alternate routes to class, anything to miss the awkwardness of that first conversation. A month goes by and you realize you can't keep this up forever, but now that you've waited so long you better have something important/interesting to say.

Well, Sunday's match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal saved the day and provided the icebreaker! Federer and Nadal met in the final of the Madrid 1000, a top clay tournament and the final tune-up to the French Open. Against all predictions, Federer stunned Nadal in a straight-set shocker, snapping Rafa's 33 match win streak on clay (and simultaneously ending Federer's title drought).

This wasn't their highest-quality match; I don't have the stats in front of me atm but I believe Federer was only even in the winners to unforced errors ratio and Nadal was in the negative. Yes, Djokovic had worn Nadal down the day before with a 4 hr semifinal, but more important was the way Federer played this match and what it could mean for the near future. Federer finally made a few changes to his game to switch things up against Nadal: he ran around his backhand and hit his forehand inside-in (up the line to Nadal's backhand, instead of inside-out to Nadal's more powerful forehand), he serve-volleyed on occasion, and he made liberal use of the dropshot.

Quickly then, since this is our first post back and we don't want to seem boring to our new ex-girlfriend: The importance of Federer's win outweighs the importance of Nadal's loss. Nadal wrote this off as a bad day on a very fast clay court. "To me, this tournament has nothing to do with Paris. This tournament is practically another surface compared to Paris," he said. For Federer though, this win provides a much-needed confidence boost one week before the only Grand Slam he has yet to win starts. If they meet again on June 7, Federer's quest for the career Grand Slam would seem a lot more attainable.