Friday, June 6, 2014

Louis Burnoski - The journey to 100 wins

It is a lovely autumn evening in northeast Ohio and a beautiful day for tennis. The fall season is about half over and my record in the upper of two Tennis Cleveland divisions is 5-4. Among the 21 players in the more advanced league, I am about the 6th or 7th best player. I have qualified for the playoffs so wins and losses are not as important at this point. My goals for the rest of the season are to get 20 matches played and keep improving. Tonight I have my second match of the year against Sukumar Gogoi.  He is the 3.5 Marat Safin. He can crush it, especially on his forehand, but he tends to spray the ball around a lot. In our one previous match he broke me in the first game by ripping return winners, but that was the only game he won. I know he is a dangerous player, but I expect a relatively easy win. The first set goes according to plan as I take it 6-2.

I found out about the Tennis League Network in the spring of 2012. My wife had bought us each six week tennis lessons on Groupon that began in February. One of us became quite enamored of the sport. While searching for a place to continue my new infatuation, I found the Tennis Cleveland website. I signed up for the introductory partner program, liked it, then played in all the 2012 leagues – spring, summer and fall. I played a lot of baseball growing up, so the hand-eye coordination required for tennis was already there. And tennis proved to be a great outlet for my natural competitiveness. Logistically tennis also has a great advantage over baseball; you only need to find one other player for a match. I advanced pretty quickly from my lowly beginnings. I figured out that my natural athleticism worked well with a strategy of not missing while chasing down every ball. In the summer of 2012, this brilliant game plan, combined with the occasional net rush, allowed me to peel off ten consecutive league wins and a promotion to the A league.

There is a bit of a change in momentum at the beginning of the second set. Whether it was Gogoi bearing down after losing the first, me relaxing and losing focus a bit, or him finding the range on his high velocity ground strokes, I quickly find myself down 3-0. I right the ship by running off three straight games of my own. I think I may be able to blitz him off the court now, but no. He responds in kind by winning three games in a row himself to take the second set 6-3. I have a real match on my hands now. I am serving first in the third set and we split holds the first three games before I get a crucial break to go up 3-1. Am I home free? Au contraire. Not only do I not consolidate the break, but Gogoi wins four straight games! I find myself having to hold serve down 3-5 in the third set against a guy I easily outclassed less than a month ago. I liked it better when I was the one on the steep part of the development curve.

I quickly came back to earth after my promotion to the more advanced league. Ten straight B league victories were followed by 6 straight A league losses. Upon finally notching my maiden big league victory, a 3-hour, 3-set come-from behind triumph, my wife exclaimed, “I thought you were never going to win again.” I did finish the summer season with 22 league matches played against 22 different opponents (and a free season for my efforts). After going 2-6 against the big boys in the summer of 2012, I defeated several of my former nemeses in the fall of 2012, going 12-7 in a full season in the majors. I would like to think I am better player now than I was then, but my development hit an inflection point around the end of 2012/beginning of 2013.

Other than playing a rapidly improving opponent, how did I find myself down 3-5 in the third set against a guy I recently dominated? Well anytime I left a ball even a bit short to his forehand it was getting crushed. And anytime I came to the net without a great approach shot I was getting passed. I kept telling myself, “Keep every shot deep,” and, “Only hit approaches to his backhand corner.” We have been playing almost two and a half hours and Gogoi is pretty gassed, going to the towel after almost every point and to his water bottle during the middle of games. So I know I have a chance if I can just right the ship. I manage to win that crucial 3-5 game and he is forced to serve it out. We switch sides and this is the moment of the match. Gogoi definitely is tightening up, not going for his shots when they are there and pulling the trigger too soon when he is out of position. I break him rather easily and he is starting to lose it mentally. I hold serve without trouble and now he has to hold serve to force a winner-take-all tiebreaker. He calms himself a bit on the changeover and then does just that. I am now serving first in the match determining third set tiebreaker. My opponent is tiring, but he gives everything he has over these next few minutes knowing it will all be over soon one way or the other. I go with my natural plan A in the tiebreaker, keep everything in play, and he obliges with missing just enough to put me ahead 4-2 when we switch sides. He wins his second service point to stay within striking distance at 4-3. I win my first service point but give the minibreak back on the second point.  He is now serving at 4-5.  Whether it is weariness or nerves, he does not get much on either first serve allowing me to control the points and eventually force misses. I take the tiebreaker 7-4 and the match 6-2, 3-6, 7-6. Gogoi is despondent. I offer a few words of solace but I need to get some rest. I have another match tomorrow.

In March of 2013, we found out my wife was pregnant with our first kid, to be born in November.  Now that was perfect timing as far as tennis is concerned (although it did make attendance at the year-end Miami tournament an impossibility). I can finish up the fall season, have the kid, and by the time spring 2014 rolls around we should have a pretty good comfort level so I can resume playing again. I know that once the baby is here I will be limited to playing tennis but twice a week. Therefore my goal for 2013 was to play as much as possible (three times a week) because I may never have the chance to play this much tennis again. I did not necessarily want to play on consecutive days, but sometimes that was what the weather and schedules dictated. Thus I find myself playing my great rival, Brian Patrick, the following day.

As a 6 foot tall speed demon I try to leverage my top weapon (court coverage). On the contrary, Brian is a 6’5’’ power server who does not provide a lot of windows for passing shots and lobs when he advances to the net. Our games usually come down to how many of his serves I can get back in play and how well I can keep him off the net. When we get in ground-stroke rallies, we are playing on my terms. This will be our ninth and final match in 2013. Matches numbers 2 through 7 all followed a similar pattern.  Brian would win the first set (when he is serving biggest) and I would win the second set (as the balls start to play slower). In four out of the six matches I won the third set as well, so I felt like I was slightly ahead of him. But match #8 was different. Brian beat me fairly easily, 6-1, 6-3, and it was not just the score line that was different; it was the way he beat me. He was outhitting me from the baseline and basically just blasted me off the court. I need to play better to have a chance tonight.

I win the toss and elect to serve first. I begin the match well. I cannot get an early break but I am holding easily, getting good pace and depth on my groundstrokes. Things proceed on serve until I break him when he is serving at 3-4. Here is my chance to end a seven match long first set losing streak.  But I immediately give the break back. We continue on serve until the first set tiebreaker. We switch sides at 3-3. I win the ensuing point, then take one of two service points. He is serving at 4-5. I win that critical first point. He fights off the first set point. I have one more opportunity to take the crucial opening set, this time on my racket. I go for my best first serve, wide to his backhand. He returns it center court and I whip a forehand cross court.  After going from one sideline to the other, his off balance running forehand sails long.  Things are looking up.

When we found out we were going to have a daughter I was disappointed for about one second until I realized the best sport for a girl is tennis! I made big plans to be the next Richard Williams, only the greatest tennis coach in history. (No other person has ever taught the game to two #1 players.) I fantasized about building a tennis ball mobile. I imagined evenings and weekends spent drilling my very own prodigy, teaching her the finer points of the topspin forehand and when in doubt hit crosscourt. Our daughter was born on November 22, 2013 and fatherhood has proven to be a great joy thus far. It certainly helps to have a baby who seems to like you so much. Being around an infant is also a great arena to fully unleash my innate silliness/playfulness without fear of embarrassment.

We trade breaks to start the second set and then Brian wins two games in a row. I storm back to win four straight games. I am on the precipice of a straight set victory as he serves to stay in the match at 3-5. At 30-all I approach the net and slam an overhead for match point. At 30-40 he hits a good serve and I can only muster a midcourt return. His subsequent approach shot is a bit cautious and I hit a dipping topspin pass. On the full stretch he executes an exquisite drop volley. On the following deuce point I move him around until he misses but again he saves match point, this time with a hard serve wide I cannot keep in play. He wins the next point, but I force another deuce. I think he is about to crack. Proving his mettle, Brian wins the next two points to force me to serve out the match at 5-4. Unfortunately, whether it is tension or fatigue, my serve is getting weaker. He is hitting deep returns or chip and charging and I do not see another match point. Spurred on by his game saving performance, Brian breaks me for 5-5, holds serve with ease and then earns a break point with me serving to stay in the set at 5-6. On a deep approach to my backhand corner I hit a weak lob that gets smashed into the fence. Brian does a little jump and fist pump. This thing is going the distance.

My tennis goal for 2014 is to consolidate my pretty decent standard of play and ascent from novice to 3.75ish level. If I can limit any regression, maybe in a few years, when I have more time to play, I can be really good. When my wife heard a commentator claim that 36 year old Tommy Haas was playing the best tennis of his life, she said this means I still have several years of improvement forthcoming. And since I did not start playing until my late twenties I would be a young 36.

The third set begins with Brian serving first and we split the first four games, all breaks of serve. The receiver’s dominance finally ends when Brian holds to take a 3-2 lead. I realize on the subsequent changeover that this is an extremely important game. I have gotten broken four straight times. My first serve is not getting me ahead in any points and my second serve is just inviting him to attack the net. Evaluating my options, I come up with a radical, nothing-to-lose, change in strategy. Why not serve and volley a few points? And not just on the first serve, which is usually keeping him back and giving a neutral start to the point, but on the second serve too? The tactic surprises him and leads to several missed returns and one put away volley as I hold serve at 15 to even the set at 3 apiece. My new found energy gives me a bit of a boost as I break him and then hold serve again to take a 5-3 lead. He is serving to stay in the match at 3-5, the same situation as in the second set. Brian wins that game to force me to serve at out at 5-4. Can I hold serve to win a set? He is catching on to my serve and volley tactics by placing returns well and I net a volley or two to lose the game. Now it is 5 all. I break him again for another chance to serve out the match at 6-5. But it is not to be. This thing is header for a tiebreaker.

In addition to the physical aspect of tennis, it also provides plenty of challenge on the mental side. With one player facing another mano-a-mano and only marginal differences in player skill, strategy can play a big part in a match. The comparison to the great board game of chess is apt. But unlike chess, every tennis match has a winner or loser, but if any match of mine ever felt like a stalemate, it was this one.

After a set in which each of us held serve only two out of six times, the third set tiebreaker is on serve until I win the 2-2 point. I know the next point is critical but I miss my first serve. I reckon it is time to go for another second serve, serve and volley point and the tactic forces an errant return. I have the 4-2 edge when we change ends. This advantage holds up when I get my serve back at 5-4. If I can just win two service points in a row victory is mine. But no, I drop the first point to even the tiebreaker. I win the 5 all point as Brian nets a backhand. I now have my third match point, the other two coming an hour (and a set) ago. Brian gamely wins the first point with a big serve to even the match at 6-6. On the next point, receiving on the deuce court, I am able to hit a deep return forcing a short response. I angle a ball away from Brian and he cannot get a clean hit on it. I now finally have a match point on my own racket. Serving at 7-6 I go for the body serve right at the tallest player I have ever played. He hits a short response and I go forehand down the line to his backhand and rush the net. He gets to it in the nick of time and tries to pass me with a flat two-hander cross court. I lunge but it is out of my reach. But it also lands just wide. Brian collapses to the ground while I instinctively retrieve the ball. 7-6, 5-7, 7-6.

So after notching my one hundredth Tennis Cleveland victory in the spring of 2014, among which include a doubles championship with the unusual score of 1-6, 6-0, 6-1, these two matches, winning 7-6 in the third on consecutive days, stand out as my crowning achievement: a testament to the level of fitness and devotion and mental fortitude I was able to bring to this great sport and something I may never be able to do again.

-Written by Louis Burnoski, player: 

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