As our first dual match got closer, I had no idea what to expect from our opponents but felt good about our team. The week of our first match, one of the players in my line-up failed to measure up to our weekly academic eligibility standards. I was down to 5 players I trusted to perform at this level. It was quite unfair to call upon my other first-year players who were adapting to tennis more slowly. Yet, I had to ask two of them to step up and either win or lose our first varsity dual match.
I could tell early on that Kevin would have an uphill battle versus their #1 singles player. Kevin was more consistent from the baseline, but his opponent was a tall player with a big serve, a good net game, and solid enough baseline play. Kevin’s biggest weakness was that his serve was not strong. He never double-faulted, but he never won free points either. His opponent was cracking service winners, holding with ease, and taking cuts when returning. The match wasn’t going to be over quickly as Kevin would win a lot of games, but I remember the serve differential really telling the tale.
Before first singles had ended, Ryan and Tyler won first doubles. Tyler had a big serve, and Ryan’s slice serves and angle volleys made them a formidable team against most opponents in our region. It was good to get a quick win, but second doubles and third singles were heading toward equally quick losses. We were down 2-1 and heading toward a loss in first singles as Steve battled away in a 50-50 match in second singles on a cold day in early spring.
I clung to hope that Kevin could overcome the free point differential and that Steve would win. This was our first match and the guys had worked extremely hard. I wanted a win for them to show them that the work mattered. When Kevin’s match ended, I knew our first team win would have to come on a different day. Steve’s match was in the third set. The temperature was in the low 40s, and at a change over Steve asked me if Kevin had won. I told him, “No, but we need this win.” I made some joke about never forgiving him if he tanked to avoid hypothermia. Steve laughed and promptly got a key service break. Steve won the match, but we fell 2-3. I was upset with myself for not putting one of my top freshmen at #3 singles despite all of his practice coming in doubles. I was happy that our guys fought as well as they did on a cold day in March.
Our next match was in the same week so we were still down a man from our strongest line-up. I kept our line-up the same for some unknown reason. Luckily, Kevin was far superior to this school’s #1 player. We won 1st singles and 1st doubles in under an hour. Steve was well on his way to winning 2nd singles and our make-shift 2nd doubles team was grinding out a win. The 3rd singles match came in as a loss, but we won 4-1 to level our season at 1-1.
The other coach congratulated us and told me I had to call the newspaper as the winning coach. That was a welcome new duty, but again it was one of those things for which a year as an assistant coach would have prepared me. Instead, I was hastily asking team parents if they had a cell phone I could borrow. I remember feeling quite happy for the guys as we had overcome some problems to have split two matches. Grades had improved by week’s end, and we were ready for the rest of the season.
Memories from the Middle
- We had an acrimonious road trip to a school 45 minutes away. There were bad calls right and left on the 1st doubles court. The other school was not nearly as good as we were, but the drive seemingly put everyone into a trance and all of our players fell behind in their matches. We won 3-2, with a 3 set win in 1st doubles.
- Tyler and Ryan proved to be our most bankable point as we only lost in 1st doubles a few times.
- We won and lost a number of dual matches 3-2 or 2-3 as our lineup was really strong at 6 of the 7 spots, but we were almost always giving away a point at the last slot.
- Jimmy and Michael developed into a really nice team. Jimmy had a big serve, good hands at the net, and a big overhead smash. Michael had a great return, was exceptionally quick, and hit great lobs and angle volleys.
- I tried to project calmness (even if my guts were churning) when coaching at changeovers as most teens seemed to be highly strung in my limited teaching/coaching experience. Calm compliments would wrap up a single piece of advice even if they needed more than one piece of advice. I figured if one thing starts working and they know that I am happy with them, other aspects of their games might start to fall in line too.
- Jimmy and Michael were my exceptions to this rule. They would often jump to a lead and then squander it. I would often raise my voice a bit and get on their case. Michael would laugh, Jimmy would smile, and they’d say, “Okay coach, we’ll get it together.”
- Our two doubles teams were pushing each other in practice. Tyler and Ryan almost always won their practice sets, but nearly every set was 6-4 or closer. Ryan and Tyler were both named to the prestigious Kentucky Governor’s Scholar’s Program and were at times annoyed at their rowdy and flighty 9th-grade challengers.
- Trying to keep track of 5 simultaneous matches was more than a little taxing.
- Steve had a nasty high-ankle sprain in off-season basketball training right as the tennis season was nearing its close.
The Regular Season Finale
We were 4-7 heading into our regular season finale. Two schools in our part of the state were just way too good. I accepted those losses with no issues. We were 4-5 against teams with similar rosters to ours. I wanted this last win for the guys as they had come so far, but Steve’s ankle injury made things quite complicated in terms of where to play people. Our opponents were the third best team in our region based upon two really strong year-round tennis players. Steve was medically cleared to play, but his movement was nowhere near where it had been for the entire season. I did not want to put him out there in singles so I decided to switch him and Ryan. Ryan would play second singles.
I put my line-up on the court, and to my surprise, our opponents put their top two players at #1 doubles. Their coach explained that regionals were coming up and the only way these two young men would make it to the state tournament was to play as a doubles team. I tried to spare Steve and had instead fed him to the sharks. I figured we’d get pasted at 1st and 2nd singles, win both doubles points, and then the 3rd singles slot would again determine our fate. This was totally unexpected, but it did open a door for us that the other coach likely didn’t think we could walk through.
Kevin won his match in under 30 minutes. We had a lead. 1st doubles fell shortly after. We were tied 1-1. Michael and Jimmy won 2nd doubles, but we lost at 3rd singles. 2-2. Ryan lost the 1st set of 2nd singles 6-7, but he rebounded to take the second set 6-2. I talked to him heading into the 3rd set. He said, “I’ve got no choice. I have to win this set.” I was proud of his stoic acceptance of what would be the biggest win of our season resting on his racket. Ryan won the match 6-7, 6-2, 7-6. Doing that on the road against the 3rd best team in the region took some guts.
Ryan came through and we went to regionals finishing 5-7! I was told by multiple people that 5-7 was our best record in boys’ tennis history. I never checked the archives, but it sounded pretty good to me.
PostScript – Regionals
At regionals, we played reasonably well. Kentucky’s high school regional tournament used a format in which each school would enter two singles players and two doubles teams. Each match won would count as a point for that school. The school with the most points would send all 6 players to state. Any player or doubles team that reached a regional final would also be sent to the state tournament. Year-round tennis players with USTA rankings dominated in this format as one would expect. Still, we had multiple players win matches. The season ended on a high note, but I felt like a 3rd singles player would make next season something special as we had everyone returning from our scrappy 5-7 road warrior squad.