All Roads Lead to the Nationals

 By Alex Bancila

The last month provided a very interesting stretch with three of the strongest tournaments of the year taking place during this timeframe:  the Midwesterns, the Boston Open, and the Short Hills Invitational.  Below you have a synopsis of what transpired at each of these tournaments.  As always, keep in mind that this is an editorial, which means that the thoughts below represent my opinion and my opinion only.  Some of the players’ names have been changed in order to protect their true identity while others represent composites of several players (for dramatic purposes).   The Cock however is still who you think he is.

The Midwesterns

This year’s draw was strong but not stupid strong.  It was exactly one great team short of being the latter.   You had the number one and number four teams in the country playing (Drew Broderick/Chris Gambino and Mike Marino/Dane Schmidgall)  – the favorites to meet in the final, at least ranking wise.  Additionally, the draw featured Scott Estes, Jr. and Mike Stulac (three National titles between the two), the newly minted top 10 team of Scott Kahler and Matt Riva, and perennial top 10 player Peter Berka.  Other notables included Brian Heil & Chris Struck and Marty Engel & Wade Martin (both teams long on talent but for whatever reason short on results so far) and, last but not least, red hot John Noble & the talented Mr. Rahaley.

The breakout player of the tournament was without a doubt Rob Bakker, a nice, flashy, and talented player who, up until a month ago, was nothing more than a nice, flashy, and talented player.  Add “great” to that list of epithets if you will because anyone who beats Estes/Stulac is great in my book.  Rob and his partner Eric Toth (I would be remiss not to acknowledge Eric’s supporting role in their great run to the semis) prefaced their win in the quarter-final with a straight set victory against Brian Heil & Chris Struck.  Gambino & Broderick cruised to the semis as did Kahler/Riva (they did have tough three set match however in the second round vs. Mike Chabraja and Adam Morgan).  For the first time this season, Berka & I didn’t feel like a team that is destined to 16 reprieves mediocrity.  We were able to overcome a slow and confused start (nothing new there) against Engel/Martin in the 16s and then played a flawless quarter-final against Marino & Schmidgall.

On Sunday morning during the semis the weather was weird: rain, sleet, sunny, windy – all at once.  I know Broderick/Gambino finished their match about 45 minutes before we did and I also know it was a three set match, 6-1, 4-6, 6-0.  That’s pretty much all I can tell you about it since Berka and I were entangled in our own semifinal battle vs. local heroes Bakker & Toth – nothing came easy in that match.  We won the first set 6-3 and then led throughout the entire second set before losing it 7-5.  Nothing like playing a third set on pouring rain (it had just started raining hard) and having every single spectator root against you (understandably so).  The ball was hydroplaning after each serve and overhead and I had no doubt that it would come down to a tie-breaker since it was virtually impossible to break serve – sometimes it was even difficult to make contact with the ball on the return of serve.  Somehow however (don’t ask me how) we broke Toth at 3-2 in the third and that was it – we won 6-3, 5-7, 6-3.  The final was almost two hours long but we lost 6-2, 6-3 – we never led and the better team clearly won, no doubt about it.  Some great points but not the most exciting match ever.  Congrats to Drew & Chris for a well deserved win!

A big thank you to Mark Kebe and his Tournament Committee for a flawlessly ran tournament!  Great (and different) favors & prizes – the Midwesterns is a really enjoyable experience!

Player of the tournament:  Rob Bakker

Boston Open

In speaking with some “grizzled veterans” of the men’s tour (Mike Gillespie, Rusty Wright, Mark Ruppert), this year’s Boston Open draw was as strong (if not stronger) than any tournament in the history of the sport outside of the Nationals.  Let’s do a quick round-up for the uninitiated:

Gambino/Broderick (#1 in the country)

Parsons/duRandt (# 2 in the country)

Arraya/Jonason (# 3 in the country)

Lubow/DeRose (#4 in the country)

Matt Porter (back to back runner-up at the last two Nationals)

Eberly/Uihlein (need I really say anything!?)

The Cock/Schmidgall (a superstar and a great player whose compatible styles of play could lead to greatness as a team)

Caldwell/Cordish (former #1 team in the country and Nationals finalists, currently #12 in the country)

Rothschild/Schmitt (former #2 team in the country and back-to-back Nationals semifinalists, currently #13 in the country)

Falatek/Najdek (#8 in the country)

McKnight/Rose (#11in the country)

Bredberg/Wilkinson (#10 in the country)

 

I think you get the point – if you don’t, you have no business reading any further and if you do that, I’ll take it as a personal insult!

I played this tournament with Matt Porter – it’s always interesting how (and if) things work out when you have never played with someone before.  Our first test came in the 16s against the very dangerous team of Benji McKnight & Pete Rose.  I got myself mentally ready for a two and a half hour war but, to my surprise, it was over in maybe 50 minutes, if that.  Could Ports and I have just played the perfect match in winning 6-0, 6-1!?I remember missing one drive into the net and Ports maybe missed two shots – other than that I don’t think we had any other errors.  We were also able to provide enough offense without ever having to press and our opponents got more and more frustrated as the match progressed against them.  I think way too many variables need to congregate together in order for a team to beat another team of relatively equal strength 0 & 0 or 0 & 1.  In recent years, I can think of only two other such abominations:  at the Charities in 2007, Brian Uihlein & Dave Keevins beat Flip Goodspeed & Scott Mansager 0 & 0 in the quarters.  Also at the Charities but in 2010, Peter Berka & Drew Eberly beat Mark Parsons & Mike Stulac 0 & 0.   That goes to show you how rare such an occurrence is.  Our match is the only round of 16 that I will be able to comment on – I did not see any of the other matches other than a few points here and there.  I know that duRandt & Parsons lost the middle set 6-3 to Mike “The Professor” Gillespie and Max LePivert but the fact that the sets they won were 0 & 0 almost offsets the loss of that one set.

The quarters featured some interesting match-ups, with the most intriguing one in my opinion the one between duRandt/Parsons and Eberly/The U.  The other three quarters featured Arraya/Jonason vs. Falatek/Najdek (who beat The Cock & Schmidgall in the 16s), Broderick/Gambino vs. Bredberg/Wilkinson and Lubow/DeRose vs. Porter/me.  Ports and I played once again very well and won our match 4 & 4 – I think that match-up might slightly favor us.  Other than Juan screaming and Len getting out of the way I could not tell what was going on in their match vs. Falatek & Najdek despite them playing on the court next to us.  Juan & Len won that one 7-6, 6-1.  I did not see one point of the Broderick/Gambino vs. Bredberg/Wilkinson quarter-final.  I did see the last game and a half of the duRandt/Parsons and Eberly/The U match – a couple of great points, every point seemed to be earned and not given away.  Parson & du won 4 & 5 but were down 5-4, 40-15 in the second set.  I still believe that could be the final at the Nationals and that it could go either way provided that Drew & The U get the right draw.

Our semi vs. duRandt & Parsons was a very high quality match played a very fast pace – overall they were the better and more confident team and deservedly won 6-2, 7-5.  We could have snatched the second set but we didn’t so despite matching their play for most of the match we still lost in straight sets.  Again, I cannot provide any commentary for the second semifinal between Broderick/Gambino and Arraya/Jonason since both matches started at the same time and they finished ten minutes or so before us.  I know Juan & Len won 6-4, 6-1 after being down 4-0 in the first set.  They won twelve out o the next thirteen games, which is extremely unusual, especially against a team of the highest caliber.  Paddle is just a very weird sport and, as hard as I would try, I cannot explain these momentum swings.

I watched the entire final, which was won by du & Parson 4 & 5.  As expected, it was extremely entertaining and played (mostly) at a very fast pace.  Despite the tight score, I never really felt that du & Parson were in any danger of losing the match.  I might be wrong on this, but I didn’t feel any of the four players thought that either.  This win puts du & Parson 3-0 vs. Juan & Len for the season and 6-1 in sets.  These stats should say something to Juan & Len – I am sure they will try to figure it out before the Nationals.

Having stayed with du for the weekend, I know how stressed out he was about tournament running smoothly since he was Tournament Director, in addition to top seed.  He was under a lot of pressure (most of it self-inflicted) and handled it superbly, on and off the court.  It was great to see APTA president Rob Coster genuinely fired up about his region hosting the strongest tournament outside of the Nationals!  Loud shoutout to SFV for a) being himself and b) picking me up from the airport!

Player of the tournament:  Johan duRandt

Short Hills

The 62nd annual Short Hills Invitational featured one of the strongest draws if not the strongest draw since I first played the tournament in 2005.  This has always been one of my favorite tournaments because some of my best memories are from playing here despite not achieving particularly great success over the years (and not for the lack of trying or high quality partners, that’s for sure).  The top three teams in the country were not here but three out of those six players were: Drew Broderick reteamed with Denny English (they won the tournament two years ago), Juan Arraya played with Brad Easterbrook, and Lennart Jonason partnered up with his Head Pro Martin Bostrom – a  Swedish dude whom I have never heard of nor would have been able to pick out of a line-up.  Other heavyweights include Future Hall of famers Mike Stulac & Scott Estes, Jr., supertalent Matt Porter (my partner once again for this tournament), legends David Caldwell & Blake Cordish, all-time greats John Schmitt & Danny Rothschild, and top 10ers Scott Falatek & Vlatko Najdek, Scott Kahler & Matt Riva, and Sebastian Bredberg & George Wilkinson.  This was no Boston Open my friends but it was certainly stronger than the Midwesterns.  Having made three consecutive semifinals (one with Brad Easterbrook and two with Juan Arraya), I was hoping to better that result since it started feeling that I might never make it past that round there no matter what.

The quarterfinals provided intriguing match-ups, none probably more so than Ports & me vs. Juan Arraya & Brad Easterbrook if only for the fact that I was playing my former partner and my former-former partner!  Ports and I won 7-6, 6-4 and a lot of players told me afterwards that they enjoyed watching the match and that it was very entertaining – I doubt all of them were lying but it certainly didn’t feel that way to me. I felt all four of us were fairly tight and that it was more of a grind than a great, free-flowing match.  The Bradford told me afterwards that it’s probably the way it should be given the fact that all of us are pretty good volleyers – we need to grind out points from the baseline until the tiniest opening come up.  I tend to agree with him.

Certain sections of the draw were out of whack (due to neverending early-rounds matches) so even had I tried I could not really see most of the matches.  Estes/Stulac beat Bredberg/Wilkinson 6 & 2 after being 5-2 down in the first set. I have been told that the first point in the tie-breaker lasted over five minutes!  In what was certainly a huge upset, Jonason/Bostrom beat first seeds Lubow/DeRose 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 after defeating in the 16s Falatek/Najdek, also in three tight sets!  Caldwell/Cordish beat Moore & Grangeiro 6-4 in the third after a very long match – Marco & Curtis were giving up the net after each serve, which is something that I have been (sort of unsuccessfully so far) trying to teach club players for quite sometime.  Ports and I were waiting for the winners of that match for our semifinal and we didn’t get on the court until 7:45PM or so.  Neither David nor Blake had anything left in the tank for our semis and the match had no history, we won 6-0, 6-2.  They had left everything on the court in their previous match and simply ran out of gas.  Unfortunately, we were not able to have the kind of match that we should have – a highly entertaining one that could have gone either way.  Jonason/Bostrom continued their unlikely run by dispatching Estes/Stulac 7-5, 6-1 and producing another major upset.  Did not see one point of that match.

Sunday’s final couldn’t have started any worse for us: we lost the first set 6-1 in about eight minutes or so.  It was a weird feeling, we were losing every point and losing them fast.  I think at one point I got hit by a push overhead which tells you the kind of state of mind we were in – most of it due to how well our opponents were playing, make no mistake.  We were able to regroup and avoid an embarrassing 25 minute loss (trust me, it crossed my mind) and proceeded to win eight out of the next nine games.  We won the second set 6-1 and went up 2-0 in the third set.  At this point, maybe it’s hindsight (maybe not) but I felt that I played not to lose instead of playing to win.  You cannot play not to lose in a final because chances are in a final you are playing against a great player (which we were in Jonason).  Bostrom was also playing like a great player (whom he is not right now but who might become one real soon if this past weekend is any indication).  I became too passive and did not bring enough offense from my side of the court nor did I look to threaten and establish my presence through the middle of the court.  I hit way too few overheads and was too content in letting Ports generate pretty much all the offense from both ends of the court.  Whenever I am passive like that, I am a slightly above-average player at best.  And slightly above-average players do not win tournaments.  I am not at my best when I try to do too much either but rather need to be somewhere in between comatose and David Caldwell – “controlled aggression” the way I like calling it.  We lost the third set 6-3 and cannot help but thinking that we let a huge momentum wave slip away from us.  On the other hand, Len & Martin didn’t fold (and they could have, especially Martin due to his inexperience).  Losing this one really hurt but when I shook Ports’ hand and that of Len and Martin I realized I played on the same court as three gentlemen.  It still sucked but not as much.

Many thanks to the Short Hills Tournament Committee:  Mike Stulac, Guido Graff, Jimmy Clark, Mark Bliss, Katie Bliss, Lloyd Ucko, Chris Ucko, and Dave Broderick for their truly warm hospitality.  Always a first rate event!

Player of the tournament:  Martin Bostrom

Random thoughts:

Of all the teams who will enter the Nationals in March, only four have a chance of winning it:  duRandt/Parsons, Gambino/Broderick, Arraya/Jonason, and Eberly/The U – it’s a four horse race and those teams should be in the semis too except that I think Eberly/The U’s shitty ranking going into the Nationals might make them meet one of the other three teams earlier in the draw…that means that one other team might sneak in the semis…I’ll say it again in case anyone is confused:  the 2013 National Champions will be one of those four teams mentioned above (and please, no e-mails, phone calls, texts about how I am wrong about this – write your own fuckin’ piece if you disagree)…There are a number of teams who can produce upsets but I am convinced that nobody else can go all the way…Anyone (anyone) defeating duRandt/Parsons would be considered a major upset – they are as heavy a favorite of winning the Nationals as there has ever been one…I know they’ve had some injuries along with some brutal draws but where’s the swagger of Rothschild/Schmitt!?  It’s no shame losing to Broderick/Gambino or to Arraya/Easterbrook but in both matches combined they didn’t win enough games to bring them to double digits…I know those guys are much better than they are currently playing and I would like to see them back on top form…Schmitty looks a decade younger than he is and Danny is my age so that should not be a factor.  I think confidence (or lack of) is…they have always been one of the more exciting teams out there and there is no doubt in my mind they can still recreate that…There is a huge void atop of the rankings after the 3rd ranked team…that will be up for grabs after the Nationals as I doubt Indy and/or Lehigh will significantly change that…It’s interesting how with some players you never know whether they are winning or losing just by watching them and without knowing the score (The U, Stulac, Jonason, DeRose, etc.).  With Arraya, you always think he is LOSING…A few ideas for a reality TV show:  Number 3: put a camera (sound too!) on Kerri Delmonico whenever her husband Mike Stulac is playing a match – very funny, not just the facial expressions but the comments too!  Number 2:  Scott Estes Jr. should have had a camera on him whenever he was playing with The Cock.  Number 1:  put a camera on The Cock while he is already wearing a camera on himself to give the world The Cock’s perspective…oh wait, half of that has already been done at the Boston Open, nevermind…Paddle players, not unlike any other group of individuals, are split between gentlemen and assholes, with the percentages heavily skewed in favor of the former…Even if he would try really hard, Stulac can never be an asshole.  I cannot think of any other player who is genuinely liked by all as much as Stulac is…I kept hearing from a few different people how they were curious to find out how well Porter would do without duRandt…well, I’m no duRandt but I can tell you this:  while Ports might not be duRandt either, he’s pretty damn close to it…he is without a doubt on the short list of the top individual players in the sport.