Game, Set, Match

A glimpse into the joys of tennis
By William Campbell
October 25, 2001

I won a tennis tournament yesterday.

In the grand scheme of things, be it in the tennis world or planet earth at large, it’s really no big deal — a local tennis club competition. But I still find myself staring with as much pride at my trophy as if I’d won the U.S. Open.

The award, standing about 18 inches tall, has the following inscription engraved on the base:

Griffith Park Tennis Club
Fall 2001
C Mens Singles Winner

It’s my first tournament in about seven years. And did I mention I won? Yeah, baby! But this wasn’t some one-day, do-or-die affair. This thing stretched out over three weekends and five matches, wherein I had to make my way past three of the four top-seeded players in order to lay claim to the title.

Funny thing I do: first I minimize the event’s significance, then belabor how much effort it took to triumph. Better than the other way around, I guess.

I learned of the competition only after playing a recreational match September 27 with Jeff Holland, a friend and teammate of mine in the United States Tennis Association men’s doubles league within which we play. It was my first time playing at the Griffith Park tennis courts, and at the end of our two hours I saw a flier attached to the chain link fence promoting the challenge, dubbed the 77th Annual Griffith Park Tennis Club Fall Tennis Championship Tournamanet, scheduled to begin October 6 and continue to the finals October 20.

Seventy-seven years. Long time. That’s older than some of the oldest paved roads in the San Fernando Valley.

I also noticed that the deadline to enter, September 26, had past, but I took the flier home anyway, just in case I got the urge to call up to see if there was still room to participate.

The next day still jonesing to play I called and spoke with John Shaboo, the tournament’s organizer, who told me to get a check for the $22 entry fee into the mail, and he’d add me to the competitors’ ladder.

“What level do you play?” he asked, referring to the A,B and C levels available — A being best.

“Well, I’m rated at 3.5 for my USTA league, so I guess I’m, uh… C?”

And the following Saturday, October 6, 15 minutes early for my 9 a.m. match, there I was at Griffith Park, staring at the C Men’s Singles ladder. My name was there in the middle of some 30-odd other players. It seemed a long and improbable road for me to get to the finals.

Already there was a hitch. If I won today, my next match was the following morning at 9 a.m. Trouble was I’d just taken over captaining duties for my USTA team and our first league match with me at the helm was at the same time. If my tournament match couldn’t be rescheduled, I’d have to default. While as a player I could miss league play, I knew as the new captain, I couldn’t.

Luck, however was on my side. Turns out my first opponent failed to show and thus I won — easiest win of my tennis life. Even better, one of the opponents of the match with which I was to play the winner also didn’t materialize, thus, I was able to play the second round match right then and there. Conflict solved.

So I took to Court No. 5 to play against Jesus Monson, a compact young man whose English wasn’t very good, and on this day, neither was his game. I dispatched him 6-1, 6-0. Though frustrated by my game, he was gracious in defeat.

Sunday’s league match brought me back to earth by delivering my team a spanking at the hands of our opponent, one of the best teams in the region. We lost all three doubles matches pretty badly.

The following Saturday, I decided to commute to my third-round match via bus and bike. At 7:45 a.m. I boarded the Ventura Boulevard No. 150 bus to the Universal City Redline subway station, then biked the remaining 10 miles to the courts, arriving 10 minutes early. The ride on the warming sunny morning proved an excellent warm-up for my match with fourth-seeded Todd Landis.

Todd, a genial, stocky guy, eventually arrived a few minutes after 9 a.m. (the rules allow a 15-minute grace period) and we took to Court No. 4, for another relatively easy match that I won 6-3, 6-0). Unlike my match against Jesus, Todd and I chatted between changeovers, setting a tone more like that of a friendly match than a serious competition. I was able to master Todd with my first serve and by placing balls in the corners, a step or two just out of his reach.

It’s funny how matches develop for me. At the beginning, I’m almost always uptight and tense, as if I were playing against Andre Agassi on live television. If I get off to a bad start, that tension increases and it takes all the internal coaching I can muster to try to right the sinking ship. But if points go my way, I usually settle in comfortably around the fourth or fifth game of the first set and just roll along.

Afterwards, I hung around to watch the reigning A-level champion battle in his match and met Henry Nigos, who was to be my fourth-round opponent. We shook hands. Nice guy. After reporting my score to John, I stole a look at the ladder and saw that Henry’s victory had taken three sets — the second of which he lost badly, 1-6. Though he looked something of the prototypical tennis player — athletic, speedy, sure of himself — perhaps I had a chance against him.

I pondered that while biking down the Los Angeles River Bikeway to Philippe’s just outside Chinatown, where I enjoyed a double-dip lamb sandwich with bleu cheese, a side of potato salad, some custard and four lemonades. Ahhhh.

After that I rode through a mostly deserted downtown, past the barricades and armored vehicles deployed to protect City Hall and the County Superior Courts building from potential terrorist attacks. At the Central Library, I stopped to wander the fiction aisles and relax by pulling James Ellroy’s “The Cold Six-Thousand” and settling in to a comfy chair to nap between a read up to page 20. Though I’m an Ellroy fan, the novel’s sprea, hip, punched-up and frenetic, noirish style failed to hook me, so I put the book back on its shelf, unwilling to check the thing out lug it in my backpack the rest of the way home.

Heading west on Wilshire Boulevard out of downtown, I made my way to Western Avenue and found a stand selling earrings and incense. Looking for a small emerald to replace the earring lost during my move in August, I instead settled on a small hoop. I asked the incense vendor if he had a scent called Somali Rose, he said he was out of it but would be sure to have it next week. I biked away planning on making a trip after the finals next week — if I made it past Henry.

Eschewing mass transit, I rolled north through Hancock Park and Hollywood, stopping at the John Anson Ford parking lot before heading over Cahuenga Pass into the San Fernando Valley. While resting on a grassy knoll overlooking the Hollywood Freeway, I was somewhat surprised to find that, two months earringless, the hole in my left ear was still open and accepted the hoop that I pushed through it. And before pushing off, I even offered assistance to two French tourists who pulled up next to me in arental car looking for directions to the Hollywood sign.

“Head across the overpass, turn left and you’ll be going south on Highland Avenue. Look for a street called Franklin, about a half-mile down, make another left and stay on it until you get to Beachwood Canyon. Turn left on Beachwood and eventually, you’ll see it.”

In search of the landmark, they thanked me and took off. So did I in the other direction, eventually arriving home around 4 p.m. All in, I rode 40 miles and won a 75-minute tennis match. Not a bad day.

On Sunday, October 14, my USTA league team had a bye, and I drove to the match with Henry. When he arrived, we shook hands, but his mood was much less cordial than yesterday. When told we were to play our match on Court No. 5, he gruffly asked John if we could have the court closest to the spectator seating, which at that moment was empty. John said it was reserved for another match. Henry huffed away.

As I had presumed, Henry proved to be my toughest match to-date in the tournament. He could vary his serve from a spinner that kicked to the outside, to a powerball that came straight at me, and he had good technique with both his forehand and backhand. Fortunately my serve was working and again my size belied my ability to chase down and return a lot of his well-placed shots. I wasn’t winning games with heat, but rather I was playing steadily, consistently keeping the ball in play and generating points from his unforced errors. Still, the first set was close. The funny thing about it was neither of us able to hold serve when we were facing the sun from the north side of the court, and the set ended 6-4 in my favor.

The second set I was still playing steadily, whereas Henry tried raising the stakes of his game to no avail. There were several deuce points throughout, but overall I was able to breeze through it, winning 6-1.

Though he was clearly disappointed, we exchanged numbers after reporting the set scores to John, and I looked forward to playing recreationally with him in the near future.

But there I was in the finals. Henry and I looked at the ladder and saw that a fellow named George Marciano was to be my opponent. Henry shook his head.

“I’ve played George in the past, and I don’t think you’ll have much trouble beating him,” he said. “He doesn’t really have any weapons, but he can chase practically anything down and keep it in play.”

Interestingly enough, I approach a match where the less I know about an opponent — good or bad — the better. I didn’t even like meeting Henry the day before our match, because just seeing his physical attributes functioned as something of a catalyst for me to psyche myself out. So now I had a week to inflate and distort George into being some sort of gifted lightspeeder who I couldn’t get anything past. How the hell was I going to beat that given my predilection for a slow and steady game?

Saturday came quick enough. Again I bus and biked it to the courts, wherein I soon met George, whose angular features and strong handshake exuded confidence. But the sun and warmth of last week was gone, replaced by a moisture laden mist and cloud cover that elimnated the sun as a factor, but left a penetrating and sluggish dampness on everything: hands, clothes, racquet handles, towels. Yuck.

“Do you like this weather?” he inquired after we entered Court No. 4. I responded noncommittally.

“I prefer playing in the sun,” he said. “It gets the blood flowing faster.”

We warmed up quick, took some practice serves and were off. Henry had been right, George had no real weapons, but he possessed excellent ball control and consistency. With me playing nearly as steadily, the result was a number of long rallies for points. But I was a sucker for punishment whenever I’d come in to the net because he would always put it either down the line to my right, or across and into the corner to my left. I soon found myself down in the first set 2-4. Bearing down and staying away from the net, I won the next four games and took the first set 6-4.

The second set was just as close, but I was threatening to go up 5-4, when at ad-in I gave up a crucial point by calling a ball in that was definitely out. Lingering at the baseline during another of our long back-and-forths, he had angled a shot for the corner – and it was close. Close enough that I hesitated in making the call. Now, my standard for calling a ball is that if I can’t see it clearly and make the call immediately — in our out — then I give the point to my opponent.

Trouble is I hesitated not because I didn’t see it clearly, but because it was close and my brain just plain got stuck. Thus, the point was his and it brought us back to deuce. We had a few more deuce points, in a game that probably took 10 minutes by itself, but at the final ad-out he wound up putting one out of my reach to my left and taking the game.

I tried to rally myself to bring it to 5-5, but mentally I was already putting the second set behind me and gearing up for the tie-breaking final set. George took the last game and the second set, 6-4.

Fortunately for me, I’ve always had the ability to shut down any dwelling on past mistakes or disappointments, and instead of being frustrated by my generosity in incorrectly calling a ball to the benefit of my opponent, I focused on starting hard and fast in the third. It worked.

I stepped my first serve up and took the first game quickly. After the changeover I broke George’s serve almost as quickly. The third game was a bit more of a fight, but at the next changeover I was up 3-0, which is a great place to be because it takes a lot of the pressure off and puts it square on the back of your opponent. All I had to do was hold my serve and the match was mine. For George, not only did he have to hold his serve, but he now had the added burden of being forced to break mine, something he hadn’t been able to do very often in the first two sets.

The fourth game was close, but he held serve, making the set score 3-1. Next game, I held serve again, 4-1. We battled to deuce again on his serve, but he prevailed, 4-2. I held again, 5-2. He held, 5-3. Serving from the north side, with the sun beginning to peek through the thick haze, I won the first point, he won the second, he won the third, then I won the fourth and fifth. At 40-30 — double match point — I thought to myself “Time to close this thing out!” and my first serve came at him quick. He booted it wide to my left out of bounds.

The game, the set, the 2-1/2 hour match, the tournament… was mine.

Walking off the court, he said “I can hear her now. My wife is going to tell me ‘I told you so!’ because I woke up this morning telling her I was feeling really confident that I was going to win.”

After John presented me with my winner’s trophy and George with his finalist’s award, we posed for pictures, and then George called his wife on his cell phone.

“Guess what? They matched me against an android! He just wouldn’t quit… I lost. Yeah… I knew you were going to say that.”

Bidding John farewell, I was off, once again heading downtown to Philippe’s for lunch, followed by a subway trip to Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue to pick up my Somali rose incense — but the vendor wasn’t to be found. Oh well.

Doubling back along Wilshire to Vermont Avenue to catch the subway up to North Hollywood, the thought crossed my mind to strap my trophy to my handlebars like Marlon Brando did in “The Wild One,” but I decided not to.

Besides, the only string I had was on my tennis racquet, which was where it belonged.