Sunday, December 4, 2011

Rafael Rios: A (Tennis) Tale of Two City Championships

What began as a “filler sport” for Rafael Rios led him to being a different kind of 2-time champion. Although it has been done before, it’s a feat to win just one championship, let alone two. What hasn’t been done is for one of our players to spread a tennis footprint from Tennis NorthEast in the Boston area all the way to Tennis New York. Apparently, this 4.0 player is a tennis champion wherever he goes. Which makes him an unusual Tennis League Network (TLN) player, and the only one of his kind.
So what league is he actually a member of? It depends on when you ask him. “I’m a current member of Tennis NewYork, and a former member of Tennis NorthEast. I’ve been a TennisNewYork league member since July 2011, when I switched over from the Tennis NorthEast League, which I had joined in July of 2010. I was relocated to New York this year for work and immediately switched leagues. I pushed my way through some solid competition in this league and was happy to come out on top again in the Summer 2011 season. I think from all my playing with Tennis NorthEast, I was well prepared for the competition in Tennis New York.” (How does the song go? If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…

It’s up to you - New York, New York)
Rafael learned about the Tennis League Network from James Lee, a fellow league member in Tennis NorthEast. “We were both in the same work league (Raytheon Tennis League) and he suggested I join Tennis NorthEast for the larger pool of players and increased level of competition. I did just that and have been enjoying it since.”

After joining Tennis NorthEast in July 2010, he quickly jumped from a 3.25 to a 3.5 level. “Not having played competitively since high school, I was very rusty at first, but quickly got better and better with each match. By the end of the fall season, I was back in form and winning most matches. I also started playing the 4.0 division to with some success.” At season’s end, Rafael was playing only a couple of times a month due to a hectic work schedule that involves a lot of travel. “But when I first started last year, I could not get enough. Between Tennis NorthEast and my work league, I’d sometimes play two matches in the same day and do it all again two days later. That was one factor, I think, that led to an ankle injury in August, 2010, which put me out for a good six months. “Steve (TLN Admin) graciously allowed me to get back into playing shape before finally playing our Finals match in April of 2011.”

When did Rafael start playing tennis?
“I started playing tennis my sophomore year in high school (2003 for Billerica Memorial High School). Before that year, I had never picked up a tennis racquet in my life. Growing up, my sports were always soccer in the spring/summer, soccer or football in the fall, and basketball in the winter. In high school I stuck with soccer, but I needed a filler sport for the spring. I tried doing track as a freshman but hated it and switched to tennis the next year. By my senior year I made captain and was playing second/third singles. I finished my senior year with a 13-2 record and our team made it to the state tournament.”

When he graduated high school in 2005, he went to college at Massachusetts Maritime Academy-- a school that had no tennis team (can you imagine?)-- but “I played on and off my four years there, mostly with friends, and training up my brother, who was three grades behind me and still on the high school team. “ He took a year off from tennis in 2009, when he started his current job with Raytheon. “After that year I noticed that the working world was making me fat and lazy, so I decided to pick up tennis again and started looking for leagues because I wanted to stay in shape. And because I love the sport.”

So, Rafael, what are your memorable league matches?

“I’ve had many memorable matches both good and bad. From Tennis NorthEast, one of the most memorable matches was with Don Tran in the summer playoffs. I’ve played more matches with Don than with anyone else (most of them off-the-record), and when we play it always seems to be a chess match-- picking at each other’s weaknesses, with a constant ballet of drop shots, lobs, and cross court forehands. I took the first set 6-4 on a few lucky points that helped me break his serve. In the second set, I think I won the first few games outright and then sort of relaxed, feeling like I could coast the rest of the set.

“This proved to be a mistake, since Don is a guy who brings it all on every point. He ended up tying up the games and at that point you mentally start to break down and play ‘not to lose’ rather just playing your game. By the third set I was so worn out and demoralized that he made quick work of me, 6-1. It’s matches like those that teach me the most and help improve my game. I make it a point now to try and play like I’ve got nothing to lose and just play hard every point, regardless of the score. Tennis is an awesome game of momentum and mental toughness.”

In Tennis NewYork, two very memorable matches have come against Christian Roumain and Orlando Jones (who was also profiled in this blog in October). I’ve played two 10- game pro set matches against Chris and in both I was down something like 5-1 and came back to win. Those were long rally matches where the points came from forcing opponent errors rather than winners. My only match against Orlando was in this summer’s playoffs. Lucky for me, that day I was nailing my first serves and it seems that I hit every line edge about ten times. I’m really looking forward to playing him again.”

Rafael’s biggest league rivalries “still remain in Tennis NorthEast with the likes of Jeff MacMonagle, Don Tran and James Lee. As I mentioned, I’ve played more off-the-record matches with Don Tran and, no matter the occasion, we always battle long and hard; I’ve had some of my best wins and losses with him. Same goes for Jeff in terms of intensity. Playing matches with James was always fun because his level of play was so high it just made you feel good when you finally took a game or two away from him, never mind a set.”

On the other hand, Rafael has begun “some good rivalries here with Tennis NewYork. As I described, my matches with Christian were epic in nature and Buddy Koehler and I play such similar styles that it’s like playing myself (very exhausting). Bernardo Gomes is also a very good hitter who I’m looking forward to playing some more.”

We can probably bet on the fact that Rafael has some other interesting rivalries -- outside the TLN leagues-- and inside the Rios League. “My younger brother, Billy, and my father became my default hitting partners as I learned the game, and Billy became a very good player. We played together my senior year in high school. Admittedly, he has beaten me on many occasions and is one of my personal motivators, as well as a rival; but luckily also one of my best friends. As soon as he graduates, I will personally see to it that he joins the league so that we may have our matches on record and finally settle who is the better player!”

Rafael looks forward to continuing to be an active member in Tennis New York. “I have really enjoyed my experience thus far. I hope to make the trip down to Miami next year and play in the National Tourney. And I hear that there’s a Raytheon in San Diego… who knows… maybe my job will send me there next and I’ll shoot for 3 Championships in 3 Cities. (Ha Ha)

Watch out Tennis League San Diego!

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