The Four Horsemen

Prologue

If you play platform tennis tournaments and have a top 25 APTA ranking you are not a professional athlete. You are the closest thing to it without actually being one. In platform tennis, there is no prize money. Instead, you need to have money in order to play the sport. Over 95% of all platform tennis courts across the country can be found in exclusive country clubs where only the 1 or 2% of the population has access to them. This exclusivity angle puts platform tennis on par with squash in that regard and it makes tennis look blue collar by comparison. Despite this small sample size, some of the best athletes I have seen in my life are platform tennis players. How can that be!? Most of these players are the clubs’ pros (Director of Racquet Sports, Head Pro, Assistant Pros, etc.) while most of those who are not in the Racquets business are still young and fit thirty or fortysomethings (there are more and more good players in their twenties nowadays) who share a similar tennis background with the clubs’ pros. A lot of them were or still are pretty good tennis players, some are great, and all are much better at platform tennis than they have ever been at tennis. The court is smaller, you play only doubles, and the size of the competition is far smaller than in tennis. A smaller percentage of platform tennis players do not have a tennis background at all but have excelled nevertheless at various other non-racquet sports growing up and in college (hockey, soccer, wrestling, skiing, etc.). All this potpourri of different athletic backgrounds and abilities comes together in the cage and makes for some of the most exciting up close action you will ever see in any sport.

At the next APTA Men’s Open National Championships, there will be about ten teams or so that could win the whole thing. These are teams that have all won on the big stages before (not necessarily at the Nationals) and are not afraid of victory – a seemingly contradictory term that separates great players from merely good ones. Things change precipitously during the long platform tennis season and, unlike in tennis where players look to peak during the four Majors that are spread throughout eight months, platform tennis teams want to peak in March at the Nationals. One tournament a year, one weekend, one shot, that’s it. Teams that start the season strong rarely finish it the same way. In the last decade, no team that has won the Chicago Charities tournament (the second strongest tournament of the calendar with virtually the same draw as the Nationals) has also won in March. You need a lot of things to go your way in order to win a platform tennis tournament let alone the Nationals: first, you need to be really good, not just good but really, really good. And not just in your head – competitive athletes are usually paranoid and platform tennis players are no different – you also want your opponents to know and be aware that you are good. Second, you need to have the belief that you will be the last team standing on Sunday afternoon. You have to have a certain something other than your game that will get into your opponents’ heads during matches. That certain something is called confidence, unwavering confidence – a blind belief that despite all adversity, you will win in the end. Third, you and your partner need to be fit – tournaments are held on weekends only and on Saturday you can play four matches. You could be on the court anywhere from five to eight hours in one day. There are a lot of teams that can produce upsets but only elite teams can beat three or four great teams in a row which is what you will need to do in order to win the Nationals or any other major tournament. Next, you and your partner need to play well at the same time and, more importantly, at the right time. Last but not least, you need to get a little lucky. Without luck, things are not going to happen for you. You need bounces to go your way. Some claim that you make your own luck and that luck is nothing but preparation meets opportunity. To that, my diplomatic answer is – please allow me to choose my words carefully: bullshit!!! Regardless of how many claim otherwise, there is such thing as pure luck (Taleb’s Black Swan anyone!?). A let cord, a ball that misses (or goes in) by a hair, or a timely hook at a crucial stage can each change the dynamics of a match and subsequently, the outcome of an entire tournament. The team who will win the Nationals in Long Island in March of 2012 will be good, both players and anyone else will know they are good, they will play well as a team, will be fit, will be confident, will play the important points that weekend better than anyone else, and, last but not least, will be lucky when it counts.

Part I
The Players – Who Are They!?

If the Nationals were held tomorrow, the winner will most likely be one of those ten teams. But the teams to beat would undoubtedly be the two that are currently at the top of the rankings: the defending National Champions Mark Parsons and Mike Stulac and the hottest team of the last half of last year and the beginning of this year, Drew Broderick and Chris Gambino. There are a lot of similarities between the two teams. Both are new partnerships and started playing together at the exact same time: at the Shore for the Cure charity tournament in New Jersey in 2010, a non-APTA event that does not count towards your ranking. They met in the final and Gambino/Broderick won after being down a set and match point. Each team features an all-time great and sure future Hall of Famer: Stulac and Gambino. The two are members of a club that is even more exclusive than the National Champions’ club: they both belong to the multiple National Champions club, one that features (only) legendary names such as Rich Maier, Steve Baird, Hank Irvine, Flip Goodspeed, Scott Mansager, Dave Ohlmuller, and Brian Uihlein. A club so exclusive that even all-time greats Scott Estes Jr. and Mike Cochrane are not a part of (as of yet, at least). Gambino has won his two National titles alongside Dave Ohlmuller while Stulac won his first with Bill Anderson and his second with Parsons last year. The remaining half of each team is made of younger, hungry yins to the veterans’ yangs.: Parsons and Broderick. Each discovered the taste of big time tournament wins relatively recent. They like the high you get from it and, unfortunately for the field, have indulged in it quite a bit lately. Of the last three tournaments they have played together (Lehigh, Nationals, and the Chicago Charities), Parsons and Stulac have won the first two and made the final of the third. Broderick and Gambino won a staggering five out of the seven tournaments they played together. It is not quite the run that Gambino and Ohlmuller had during the 2002-03 season where they lost one set (one set!) during the entire year (a feat that will never be duplicated in platform tennis or any other sport) but is impressive nonetheless. The similarities do not end here: there is almost the same age difference between the players of either team: Gambino is 42 and Broderick is 34 while Stulac is 41 and Parsons is 32. The younger guys each play the ad side.

Personality wise, Gambino and Stulac are the two who are most alike of the four. They are complete gentlemen, on and off the court. Each is low key, soft spoken, and modest to a fault. Getting them to talk about their achievements is like pulling teeth. You would not be able to tell how great they are at this sport just by having a conversation with either. If you would meet them at a party, you could go through an entire evening without a clue that if either would stop playing tomorrow, each would already have his place cemented in the history of the sport as one of the greatest players to have ever played the game. Make no mistake though, once they step on the court, there is a furnace burning inside them. They are two of the toughest competitors you will ever see on any court that has a net between the lines. Their playing styles however could not be any more different: Gambino is the former tennis stud from Matawan, NJ who was introduced to platform tennis 1996 by John Milbank at the Morristown Field Club in New Jersey. He played #1 singles and doubles for Arizona State University and is one of the best tennis players to ever come out of New Jersey. He has wins over Todd Martin (three wins), Alex O’Brien, Jonathan Stark, Justin Gimelstob, and Brian McPhie. He also lost twice in three sets to a guy named Sampras. That would be Pete, not Stella (the UCLA women’s coach) nor Gus (their dad). A former tennis and platform tennis professional at the Navesink Country Club in NJ, he is currently a Managing Director at Advanced Equities, a venture capital investment bank in Chicago, IL. He is in a serious relationship so he is off the market – we might have just lost a third of the female readers with that last sentence but we are willing to risk that in the spirit of full disclosure.

At 5’9’ and a half inches tall, Gambino can do it all on the platform tennis court and look very good while at it: he is smooth and can beat you with talent or patience, depending on what the situation calls for or what he feels like. Many people overlook how patient he actually is precisely because he is so flashy. As a testament to his ability to play long points, I remember a few years ago at Short Hills, Brad Easterbrook and I played him and Dave Ohlmuller in the quarters and we had a 12 minute and 52 seconds point! The previous point was also a very long one so someone decided to time the next one out of curiosity. They were in the backcourt and we were at the net, no positional exchange between the two teams or among the four players throughout the point. They won it with a Gambino hit let cord drive that went over Brad’s paddle – of course! When you play a three minute point, on the court it feels like two weeks. When the point lasts four times as much, you feel like you were born on that court and probably will die there as well. On the court next to us, Caldwell-Cordish and Broderick-Moore played five games during that point! The only two shots Gambino does not hit are the heavy side spin overhead (prefers the roller) and the backhand drive (he has a one hander). He likes playing way off the net, a style he embraced both out of necessity (does not like moving back and forth between lobs and volleys) and thanks to superior volleying skills and feel (the further off the net you are the more difficult it becomes to volley).

Mike Stulac is originally from Toronto, Canada and currently lives in NY with his wife Kerri (platform tennis great Kerri Delmonico) where he works for JP Morgan Chase. He grew up playing a variety of sports: soccer, baseball, basketball, and platform tennis but hockey was always his favorite sport. Along with Dave Ohlmuller and Scott Estes, Jr., he is one of the few players who grew up playing platform tennis (he won the 1989 US Junior National Championships with Chris Jackson). He did so at Kingsway Platform Tennis Club, a five court volunteer ran club in the middle of a public park that his parents and a group of friends helped build. He is blessed with superior athletic genes, which might partly explain his success as a platform tennis player: his dad Joseph and his uncle George were both Olympic athletes. Joseph played in the 1964 Olympics in basketball and George played in three consecutive Summer Olympics (1956, 1960 and 1964). In 1956 and 1964 he played basketball and in 1960 he competed in the men’s decathlon. Throughout the last decade, he has won every conceivable tournament in platform tennis, including the Mixed and Husband-Wife Nationals with wife Kerri. Maybe he has not won your club’s Member-Guest yet but trust me, he will if he decides to show up.

Playing wise, Stulac is an interesting dichotomy: at 5’11’, he is one of the game’s best players and premier athletes without being however a supremely talented racquets player. His only shot that looks like a tennis shot is his backhand drive, which you do not want to find too often. His forehand is awkward looking and he cannot drive it well unless he makes contact at shoulder height. He uses his legs and his upper body so well however that he (almost totally) compensates for the fact that the shot is mechanically wrong in pretty much every aspect. He has some of the quickest hands in the business yet he does not have the softest of hands, not in the classic sense anyway. Think more Agassi than McEnroe. Even his signature shot, the drop shot (his is the best in the game), which by definition is a touch shot, looks somewhat labored and becomes less effective when he relies only on his touch (hands) to hit it – the way the best drop shot hitters usually do. Instead, Stulac’s drop shot is hit more so from the way he uses his legs and upper body to absorb the pace of the incoming ball, literally hovering over the ball with his entire body. Ohlmuller, Easterbrook, DeRose, etc. get higher marks on the artistic impression when hitting this shot but Stulac’s is the most feared by players because he can seemingly hit it for a winner at will. He is the only player who can take your best drive and hit a drop shot winner off it. Not just any drive, your best drive. More so than his drop shot however, Stulac’s best feature as a player is the fact that he is a winner. He wins more tournaments with different partners than anyone else. He was able to win one even handicapped with me as his partner – am sure that must have felt like a mini Everest to him. From a mental fortitude angle, Stulac is the closest thing to Nadal platform tennis has at the moment: an outstanding athlete with a ferocious will to win, gritty mindset, and winning mentality. He is beatable (just like anyone else) but he never beats himself. Time and again, he manufactures wins out of nothing – he wins more matches playing badly than anyone else – that’s a true mark of a great player. He is also my dad’s favorite player, along with David Caldwell.

Originally from Bayonne, NJ, Drew Broderick is 34 and started playing platform tennis in 2003 while working for his brother Dave at the Short Hills Club. He credits Ron Cummins with teaching him how to play the game. He currently lives in Fairfield, NJ where he is the Director of Racquet Sports at the Essex Fells Country Club. Married to golf pro Juliet Little (who has recently picked up paddle so watch out!), Drew played #1 singles and doubles for the University of Connecticut’s Men’s tennis team and won the 2004 New Jersey State Men’s Open doubles title. He is no dilettante in tennis either. A huge U Conn basketball fan, he will arrange his entire schedule around the latter stages of the NCAA tournament if the Huskies are still in it.

Drew and I started playing tournaments at the same time. I vividly remember we met each other in the final of some back draw (probably the consolation reprieve, usually the draw where players who do not win any matches end up) in our first tournament ever at Lehigh. We were ushered off the court halfway through the first set in order to make room for the tournament’s final and were told that “the real players need to take the court”. We still talk about that to this day. Well, in the years since, Drew has become one of those “real players”. All four players whom this piece is dedicated to know they are good but each shows it differently. Stulac and Gambino would never admit it out loud while Parsons only says it under the cover of pseudonyms on various platform tennis websites. Drew is the one of the four who most projects that he knows he is good. Probably because of that, some find him arrogant. I never thought that and have always liked him. Even if you are a little cocky but can back it up when it counts, it is fair game as far as I am concerned. Cocky or not, bottom line is that Broderick can back it up. Big time. His game progressed steadily each year and culminated with his capturing the 2011 Chicago Charities title, the biggest title of his career so far. Standing five feet eight inches tall, Broderick’s playing style reminds me most of Flip Goodspeed: a younger, lefty version of the legendary nine-time National Champion. Why Flip and not Scott Estes, Jr. you might wonder!? Junior would be the more obvious choice since he is a lefty just like Broderick and their games are indeed very similar. They both play very smart. In my opinion however, Drew is closer in style to Flip than he is to Junior because, like Flip, he plays almost exclusively the ad side, which makes him see more balls and move in the backcourt more than Junior does. I am not sure if Broderick modeled his game after Flip but to me he is the player who most resembles the Flipper: he has no weaknesses in his game, is (almost) as good a lobber as Flip and is very adept at playing a quick game if needed but only likes doing so on his own terms.

Mark Parsons. How can you have a conversation about great paddle players without mentioning Mark Parsons’ name!? No, seriously: is it possible for a change to talk about great paddle players without this fuckin’ guy’s name popping up!? I guess not. One, he is a cool dude with a dry and self-deprecating sense of humor. Secondly, he is that good a player. Originally from Newfoundland, Canada (which is to platform tennis what Siberia is to tennis so there you have the Maria Sharapova – Mark Parsons connection), Parsons went on to play tennis at the University of Tennessee where he was an All-American. He flirted with turning pro and was even a part of the Canadian Davis Cup team. He currently lives in Norwalk, CT with wife Dana and children Maddox (3) and McKenzie (2) and is the Director of Racquet Sports at the Manursing Island Club in Rye, NY, the second club that, chronologically speaking, embraced Fessenden Blanchard and James Cogswell’s silly tennis lookalike sport. 32 years young and standing six foot two, he was introduced to the game six years ago by platform tennis legend Steve Baird.

Playing wise, his serve is suspect, particularly on the deuce side. He has not found yet the optimal spin to power ratio, a common struggle for world class tennis players due to the fact that in platform tennis, the relationship between the server and the returner is the opposite from tennis – in platform tennis the returner has a huge edge and it is very difficult to hold serve. His forehand is good but far from great, he’ll be the first one to admit that. He still hits more forehand volleys than he needs to but has actually cut down on those in the last year or so. His backhand on the other hand is one of the greatest shots in the game, maybe in the history of the sport. He has not yet seen a backhand he cannot drive, off the deck or off the screens. And, in the true style of Mike Cochrane, one of his early mentors, he is one of the few players who can consistently drive the one screen combination that should not be driven: the side-back screen. He does not really hit overheads (not in the traditional sense anyway) and instead has embraced almost exclusively the roll forehand swing volley that was first introduced to the game almost two decades ago by Flip Goodspeed and has been perfected by Scott Mansager (Scott added the heavy topspin to it). The ball stays low, both off the deck and off the screens due to the heavy topspin so it is difficult to generate any offense off those shots. His backhand volleys, for which he always uses two hands are much better than they look (he sort of squats low to net level when he hits them so his volleys are not as smooth looking as those of Gambino, Ohlmuller, Estes, etc.) and his hands are underrated. He will not back off from a “whose hands are quicker” exchange at the net against anyone. All in all, his game is not bulletproof but his strengths are so huge that he gets away with it at the highest level of the game.
Part II of The Four Horsemen (player interviews with Chris Gambino, Drew Broderick, Mike Stulac, and Mark Parsons) coming soon. Please come back and visit us or be on the lookout from updates from us on Twitter. @PaddlePlayerAB, @PaddlePlayerDB, @PaddlePlayerJD, and @PaddlePlayerMP.

By Alex Bancila
All rights to this article belong to Alex Bancila and PaddlePlayer.com.