Monday, July 21, 2014

Buddy Koehler – New Yorker Won Three Championships with Plenty of Speed and A Quirky Backhand

      Our featured player this week is Buddy Koehler, whose reputation precedes him among Tennis New Yorkers. Buddy won the league championship in three seasons: Spring 2011, Spring 2012, and Summer 2012. Not only that, he was named Player of the Year in 2011. Buddy recently surpassed the impressive milestone of having played 200 matchesas of July 17, 2014 his record is 148-57so naturally we celebrated by interviewing him. Enjoy!

How did you get started playing tennis?
      I started playing tennis in high school back in New Jersey when my friends and I would play recreationally at the local courts. We all decided to join the high school tennis team as a goof, but I'm the only one who actually followed through! I was really bad then, I didn't even know what it meant when my opponent would put up his finger to signal the ball was out.  

And how is your tennis now?
      Fourteen years later, I now consider myself a 4.5, at least according to NYC standards—I hear the criteria for warmer cities are tougher. I’m trying to get to the next level by the end of the season. It's tough to do this without lessons though. And I’ve actually never had lessons, which led to a very awkward-looking but effective one-handed backhand that I get asked about constantly. I was even told once it was illegal!

What is the appeal of tennis for you?
      Well, I grew up playing soccer, but I decided to stop in high school because I hated the long distance running during practice. Physically, I love the short sprinting in tennis, especially since speed is a big weapon of mine. I also like that it's not a team sport. I randomly joined a baseball league a couple years ago, and after playing tennis, it seemed so boring since 90% of the three-hour game is just waiting. I won't even play doubles since I hate not having full ownership over a match and feeling like I need to apologize to my partner when I make an error.  

Where do you usually play?
      I'm a five-minute walk away from the thirty Central Park courts so I play there very often.

Which division are you in, and how did you first learned about the league?
      I'm in the advanced division and have been in the league for five years already, which I only recently realized by looking up my first match in the records. I'm sure I first found out about it from doing a Google search of "NYC tennis league." There was another one that came up but I remember there was a mandatory trip to Florida so it seemed like more of an expensive social club than a tennis league, so New York City Tennis League was the obvious choice. I also tried a USTA flex league once and was disappointed to find that no one really played. The playoff system and prizes are the other things that separate Tennis New York from other flex leagues. I remember the USTA league just ending anticlimactically when the following season started. 

How much do you play nowadays?
      I'm playing more than ever now, probably twice or three times a week. I even bought my own stringing machine since I was going through strings so quickly. I always recommend for any semi-serious player to do the same. It saves so much time and money, plus it teaches you a lot about the importance of strings and tension. It was a little intimidating at first since I had no idea what I was doing, but I quickly learned from watching Youtube videos. 

Any favorite rivalries?
      A couple of my favorite rivalries have been Frank Poerio and Orlando Jones. Frank and I played really close matches when I first started and then he took a few seasons off. I've improved quite a bit since I've been playing consistently, so it's interesting to play him now because it gives me an idea of the progress I've made. Orlando and I have had some great matches. Every time we play each other, we know we're in for a marathon. I can also tell I've got a budding rivalry with Marc Gibber, who nonchalant winners drive me crazy. I outlasted him in a three-setter yesterday though and have a finals rematch against Mathieu Brossard this Sunday so hopefully I'll get my 4th title! (Update: Sadly, Buddy ended up losing to Mathieu in the finals. But he didn't go down easilythe final score was 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. There’s always next season’s championship, Buddy!) 

Who are your favorite pro players? 
      My favorite pros to watch are Nadal, Federer, and randomly, Dustin Brown. I love the relentless nature of Nadal, which I try to bring to the court myself. My opponents frequently tell me that my speed pressures them into going for more, which lead to more errors. So, I could only imagine how Nadal's opponents feel. Federer has always seemed like a tennis magician to me. The shots he comes up with sometimes are ridiculously angled or really clever, not to mention how gracefully he moves. And of course his accomplishments are extraordinary. I just discovered Dustin Brown recently at the French Open, and I think he's the most exciting player to watch. He's got the same devil-may-care attitude as Gael Monfils, and nearly the same speed too, but the difference is that Dustin Brown is a serve-and-volley player with incredibly soft hands, which makes each point really fun to watch.   

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tom Trotter – Fort Lauderdale Tennis Warrior with Inextinguishable Passion

        When we first approached Tom Trotter about this blog profile, the 66-year-old Tennis Fort Lauderdale player was a bit reluctant. He claimed that he lost more than he won matches and therefore unsure if he’d make the cut. Since we had access to Tom’s playing records, however, we knew he was being way too modest. First of all, it should be said out loud that the league is not about winning—IT'S ABOUT PLAYING. And Tom sure does play a lot. These days, he gets on the court four or five times a week, sometimes twice a day. Since Spring 2012, when he joined the league for the first time, he’s played close to 200 matches. And this year, Tom is leading the race for Player of the Year (POTY) with 471 points, which is more than triple the number of points that his closest competitor has amassed. One secret weapon in Tom’s campaign is referrals—he’s made 9 so far, and keep in mind we are only about halfway through the Ft. Lauderdale year. In short, Tom is as close as it gets to the perfect league player: someone whose passion for the game is so strong that it’s irresistibly contagious.

        Before joining the league in 2012, Tom had only played tennis for about a year back in 1975. At the time, tennis enjoyed an upsurge in popularity—this was when the US dominated the Davis Cup for a good part of the decade. Tom never picked up the racquet again until two years ago, when he spotted a flyer about the league at his home court in Hardy Park, and so his recent dedication is even the more impressive. Or perhaps this is also a testament to the league’s effectiveness in getting people to play. As Tom points out, the league provides the right balance between structure and flexibility. Plus, it’s fun to record match results and reference the stats. And not to forget, a big bonus of being on the league is having the chance to connect and compete with other tennis players from all around the country by participating in the End of Year National Tournament at Crandon Tennis Center on Key Biscayne (the same venue where Sony Open is held annually).

        Tom rates himself as a 3.0 player whose primary strengths are his serve and overall sound mechanics: “When I'm practicing my serve sufficiently to keep it fluid and grooved, and I’m getting a high percentage in, it becomes a reliable weapon. Same with my strokes: When I'm practicing them sufficiently, I'm a somewhat more fluid and effective ball striker than most of my opponents at my current level of play (3.0 - 3.25).” 

        Tom nevertheless humbly acknowledges that strong serving and ball striking are just two aspects of competing at tennis. Reflecting on his weaknesses on the court, he says that he often has poor movement due to a lack of energy and stamina. He has Crohn's disease, which can become active for over a year at a time. It often gives him sub-par recovery capability, which can negatively affect his mental state during a match. Despite these challenges, which Tom tries to mitigate by taking iron pills, vitamin B-12, and folic acid supplements, he is still upbeat: “The league provides motivation to play, and the playing keeps me healthy. So, even when I lose a match, I win.”  

        Among the players who have given Tom a hard time (or a great time, if you ask him) on the court are Tatz Tanaka, John Hernandez, and Dan Kerness. Tom’s records against them, respectively, are 1-20, 4-9, and 3-6. According to Tom, Tatz is a 3.5 player who is “good ball striker with nice fluid strokes. He often hits with a lot of topspin, but can flatten the ball out or hit effective slice off both sides. He’s 50, but is very quick, fast, and athletic." John is a 3.25 player who has “a great first serve, and is very hard—pretty much impossible—to beat when he’s getting a high percentage in.” Dan is a 3.0 player and “a tenacious fighter who makes up for somewhat unorthodox form with great quickness.” 

        Did you notice that one win that Tom has against Tatz? It certainly made it onto Tom’s list of most memorable matches. At the time, Tatz had beaten Tom seventeen straight times (!). He won the first set 6-0, then Tom won the second 6-4, and in the tiebreak he hit three service aces to win it 7-3. The glory, however, was short-lived. Since then, Tatz has beaten Tom three times, but there have apparently been enough close points to keep Tatz on his toes! 

        When asked about his favorite players, Tom spewed out a long list of players. Among the retired ones are Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Năstase, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe. And among the current ones are Alexandr Dolgopolov, Grigor Dimitrov, Tommy Haas, Philipp Kohlschreiber, and Andy Murray. Given this packed list, we asked Tom what he appreciates about them: “The common denominator among these players is that each has a very unique style of play. What I like the most about the game are the unique nuances of players' stroke mechanics, which are often very subtle. A particular stroking style that results in consistently good, effective shots is for me the most beautiful aspect of the game. But I also pay attention to players' movement and footwork, shot selection, point construction, and attitude. I try to develop an appreciation for and derive the same level of joy in watching these things as I do the way a player hits the ball.” 

        This season, Tom’s goal is to play 30 matches, to learn something from each one, and to win enough matches to get into the playoffs. He currently has played 11 matches (36 percent there) and still looking to win 3 that are needed to make into the playoffs. He has, however, learned something from every single match, and is therefore on pace for a 100 percent success rate in one of his goals. We wish you the best, Tom—those wins are not going to be elusive for much longer! 

Tom's video from the 2013 End of Year National Tournament

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Martin Rubeo - A Pittsburgh Native's Quest for Stat-Driven Improvement

        What feature of the league is the most appealing to you? If you ask Martin Rubeo, a player in the Pittsburgh Tennis League who leads a double life as a history teacher and a musician*, it’s the neat record-keeping that the site maintains online. For Martin, the ability to quantitatively track progress ranks among the most exciting aspects of playing in the league. The most memorable matches are not necessarily the ones in which he blew out the opponent or staged an impossible comeback, but simply the ones that demonstrate improvement over past matches.

        Martin joined the league in Fall 2012 and won the championship only two seasons later in Summer 2013. This accomplishment is quite impressive, considering that Martin had just started playing tennis right before joining the league. (All that love for stat tracking seems to pays off!) Before tennis, Martin’s sport of choice was ice hockey, but he started to feel a tad too old for all the skating and body-checking. That's when he decided to put down the blades and pick up the racquet. As he explains, “Tennis is a nice exercise. It’s fun to chase a ball, as opposed to chasing nothing as a runner.”

        Martin is currently a 3.5 player, and he tries to play 2 or 3 times a week. In the past two years, he has put together a nice list of favorite rivals: Justin Macuga, Kent Jones, Justin Linette, and Gabriel Pascasu. Justin Macuga has a special place on this list—he was Martin’s first opponent ever in the league. Not surprisingly, they have compiled quite a history of matches, but Martin is comfortably leading the head-to-head 10-5 at the moment. Martin also remarks that each of the other three players has unique strengths: “Kent is a great athlete and gamer who never gives up a point. Justin Linette has a power game, and when he’s on, his topspin is intimidating. Gabriel has a tough mental game that makes you stay on your toes.”

        Reflecting on his own game, Martin describes himself as a defensive player—a pusher who can get a lot back. Not content with this, he wants to be more aggressive and maybe even channel Stefan Edberg’s serve-and-volley game. This year, he's promised himself to take more chances and hit winners rather than wait for the opponent to make unforced errors. Martin also aspires to be more consistent and self-aware, both of which are qualities he most admires in pro players. To get a step closer to reaching these goals, he practices with a ball machine, watches tennis lessons on Youtube, and occasionally trains with a coach. 

        Martin draws a lot of inspiration from the mental aspect of tennis: “Focus is required in tennis, and it translates into life in general. It’s important to practice being even-keeled and not let emotions—both positive and negative—guide our actions.” He also notes that while he's struggled a little bit with his technique recently, he still loves getting on the court: “Not losing sight of that love is crucial. It’s what makes things fun and worth persevering for.” 

       Martin is currently leading the 2014 Player of the Year competition in Pittsburgh:

        *Check out Martin’s band, Gramsci Melodic: They are on Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify. They played alongside Elvis Costello recently!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Jherson Baylon – A Future Champion's First Match Jitters

        As one of the newest members on, only joining in June 2014, Jherson Baylon still vividly remembers the butterflies in his stomach before his first match: “While I was on my way to the tennis court, I felt so excited to play. But when I got there and saw my opponent, my legs felt stiff, and I started sweating profusely. Suddenly my excitement went away, replaced by a feeling of seriousness. I tried to reduce my anxiety by joking around with my opponent. I could tell that he was a really nice person, but also that he was determined and ready to play. I felt scared and intimidated. We then started playing, and I lost the first set. I told myself to just have fun and enjoy each rally. My opponent was giving everything, so I should too.” 

        It turns out the story has a satisfying ending: Despite losing the first set, Jherson won the match 4-6, 7-6, 14-12 (tie-break). In fact, Jherson is actually still unbeaten this season—he has a 4-0 record so far (as of July 9th). 

        Tennis-Orlando is Jherson’s first experience playing tennis in a league. He first learned about it from a fellow league player and good friend, Ernesto Mariquit, whom he likes to call Uncle Ernie.  He is very excited about this new experience, eager to demonstrate his tennis skills and to meet different people with various personalities and playing styles.

        Jherson considers himself an athletic person. He loves to play other sports besides tennis, such as basketball and volleyball. He is quite serious about maintaining his skills in all of his sports, making sure to allocate enough time to practice in each. Nevertheless, he does have a special fondness for tennis, “Tennis stands out among all the sports I know. It looks so classy and professional—definitely a gentleman’s game. I also like the fact that there’s no contact with the opponent, so there’s less of an injury risk. Plus, tennis makes for great socializing. You could easily start good friendships with your opponents.”

        Jherson has his dad to thank for introducing him to tennis while growing up in the Philippines, and his dad is apparently very good! As Jherson says, “He is the best example of a man who has great fundamentals in his game. A lot of what he does is actually very basic, but those things have brought him many championship titles. He let me start by just being a ball boy at first, and then he started training me when I was seven years old. Unfortunately though, I had to stop at age nine due to some financial problems in our family.” 

        Thankfully, Jherson was able to pick up the racquet again in college. It wasn’t easy to get back into it, “I had to learn everything again pretty much from zero. It felt as if I had never played tennis in my life before. I struggled a lot with proper form and positioning, but I kept on going, and I kept on playing because I knew someday it would all pay off. I was driven by the belief that I’d end up playing better than everybody else.” 

        Evidently, Jherson is not shy about setting ambitious goals. After all, his motto is “Always strive for the goals that you never thought were possible.” This year, he hopes to win the championship and get promoted to a higher division. Jherson is not just being dreamy, mind you. He actively takes the steps to reach those goals not just on the court but also off it: He carefully watches his weight, maintains a pescetarian diet, eats lots of fruits and vegetables, and does fitness training—all in the name of improving his game. This concerted effort is partly inspired by his new realization, “My recent games opened my eyes that in order to become a champion, I need to conquer my fear. I need to improve every day because there are many very good players out there who are not just going to let me be the champion. I need to earn and deserve it.” 

        Jherson’s inspirational goals don’t just end there. His ultimate wish is to play as beautifully as his favorite player, Roger Federer, whom he considers the best example of a gentleman on the tennis court: “I want to have good form all the time like him.” Hmm, Jherson, we love your passion and tenacity, but wanting to be the Maestro himself might be a little out of reach! ;)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Gabe Weaver - A Tale of Two Leagues

      Watch out Tennis Portland, there’s a new player in town: Gabe Weaver. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that he’s a newbie though. While it’s true that Gabe joined Tennis Portland only a few months ago, he’s actually a veteran who spent many years actively playing in Tennis Los Angeles before arriving in Portland.

      This recent move to Portland was a little bit of a homecoming. Gabe grew up in Palmer, Alaska, then moved across the country to study law at Boston University. He then began his legal career on Wall Street and stayed in New York for a year and a half. Los Angeles was next, and six years later, when Gabe’s wife was pregnant with their son, they decided to move to Portland to be closer to their families.

      One could say that Gabe hails from a tennis family. His dad introduced him to tennis while he was growing up in Alaska. (But summer is very short there, and there was no indoor court in his hometown, so his skills would atrophy every winter.) Gabe’s dad still plays these days—in fact, he just beat Gabe a few weeks ago in a singles game and hasn’t stopped gloating ever since. Gabe’s wife is also a good player and reliable hitting partner. Even the latest addition to the family, their 21-month-old son, is showing some interest in tennis already!

      Like many league members, Gabe initially joined Tennis Los Angeles to meet new people and also get a regular dose of tennis. He had played sporadically in the past and loved it. After all, it’s a good way to stay in shape, one that’s a lot more fun than running on a treadmill. Nevertheless, he also needed something structured to turn tennis into a staple activity. Tennis Los Angeles worked out perfectly—Gabe gives it full credit for making tennis a bigger part of his life. Nowadays, he plays doubles twice a week (on Tuesdays and Saturdays) and singles once a week. The latter is usually reserved for serious league matches. 

      One of Gabe’s doubles partners is an 80-year-old gentleman who stands at 4’11”. Gabe loves playing with him because he seems to have an amazing knack for knowing exactly where to be on the court—this is despite the fact that he doesn’t run very well. Plus, he can also place the ball anywhere. The combination of these two skills makes him a great doubles partner and a challenging opponent. Gabe said, “I love that tennis is equal parts physicality and strategy. It’s so cool that he is still getting to play the sport he loves at 80. I hope I am lucky enough to do the same. I’ve played a lot of sports in my life—football, hockey, baseball, wrestling—but tennis is the one I will stick with my whole life.” 

      As hinted by Gabe’s appreciation for his doubles partner’s game, he has high standards for tennis aesthetics and enjoys watching players who make art out of tennis. Naturally, he is a big fan of Roger Federer and Justine Henin. (Impeccable taste in tennis players, no? *This writer is biased.) He said, “Roger has a beautiful all-court game. Especially in his prime, he moved around the court so gracefully and could completely dominate a point while making the other guy work twice as hard.” Gabe is less enthusiastic about Roger’s nemesis, “I definitely respect Rafa Nadal's game, but it is not as exciting to watch him whale away from the baseline.” 

      Back to league business, Gabe points out that both Portland and Los Angeles leagues provide a really nice and non-threatening way to play competitive tennis. The people are super-friendly off the court but not hesitant to go for the kill on it. As proof, Gabe has many epic matches and blowouts in his record book. 

      He has two of those to share with you: Back in Los Angeles, he played against Jayjay Siazon in the Spring 2011 playoffs, and he was trailing 1-5, 0-40 in the first set. Up to that point, Gabe had been playing very tentatively, struggling with his first serve and relying too heavily on a weak second serve. Jayjay was playing very well, hitting the ball deep and applying consistent pressure. At that critical juncture, with the match hanging in the balance, Gabe switched to a more aggressive style of play. Instead of hanging back at the baseline, Gabe started to serve and volley, and won several points in a row at the net. Miraculously, Gabe won his service game and was back in the match. The rest of the match was competitive, but Gabe pulled out a narrow victory: 7-5 6-3. 

      The second one was more recent: The match was against Dave Allderdice in the Spring 2014 regular season. The second set was so close it had to be resolved by a brutal tie-breaker. Gabe couldn’t even recall the score for sure, but it’s something like 21-19. Guess who won it? That’s right, Gabe did! The final score was 6-4, 7-6.

      Gabe is currently a 3.5 player, but he’s hoping to make his way to 4.0. He has a solid forehand and can hit with power both cross court and down the line. He also has a very consistent backhand, which currently works more as a defensive shot, but which he hopes to add more power to and turn into an offensive weapon. Gabe’s serve can be lethal when it’s on, but consistency has been a bit of a problem. This can create a tricky situation since his second serve is less powerful. (As they say, you’re only good as your second serve, so you’d better take care of that, Gabe!) 

      This year, Gabe’s goal is to make the finals in at least one playoff season. He was on the right track in the Spring, but as fate would have it, Gabe had to face Dave Allderdice again in the quarterfinals, and this time Dave got his payback and won 6-3, 7-5. Gabe is now shaking off this heartbreak and focusing on the summer season. One player he keeps his eyes on is Munjal Shaw, whom he considers the best player in the league this year.