By Peter Keiser
Every club, county, region has one; the last player anyone wants to face if he or she is intent on advancing in a tournament or playing in a league match. We’re not talking about pros, here. We’re talking about a top shelf B club player who gives everybody fits, including the pros. You don’t mind going against the person in a spirited, for fun match because you will encounter a style of play clearly not the norm; a style of play that poses a challenge to any and all opponents. Plus in most cases as added value, you can count on a lot of paddle and a long time on the court, in most cases, a VERY long time!
This player might strike the ball in unusual, unorthodox, even awkward ways – nothing to be afraid of, you understand – and yet their shots go just where you’re not. It could be a looping, plopped in, maddeningly soft serve. It sits up there so easy to crush, and whacko-presto you slam your return into the bottom of the net OR that bozo adversary gets up to the mesh in a hurry and blocks a perfect volley right back at your advancing feet leaving you flailing and feeling foolish.
Junius “Juni” Clark, known throughout the realm as JC (“never confuse me with The Big Guy”) is a Fairfield County, CT legend with a reputation that extends well beyond that geographic constraint. Mention his name and you’ll get head shakes, eye-rolls, groans of admiration and exasperation, all seasoned liberally with expletives indicating frustration, maybe even despair. It is not a wailing, gnashing of teeth, rending of hair scenario; but a lot of paddle player vessels have been ship wrecked on the shoals of the Juni Clark reef. If you play paddle with passion – and who doesn’t – is it any wonder that should you ever run across this fellow JC or a similar, singular character, your response would be the same?
But don’t get me wrong. Juni Clark is not an awkward, non-athletic presence on the court. He lettered in three sports during high school – football, wrestling, baseball – and played football as a defensive back throughout his college years at Western Connecticut State University. He is an athlete who takes pride in both his physical capabilities and the competitive instincts that have molded his paddle game. You don’t win 33 straight matches covering six Major B tournaments, as he and his partner Michael Chen did from 2013 through 2016 without a high level of ability.
Clark, now in his 50’s, grew up in Darien and was not a particularly avid paddle player early on. “We lived within walking distance of the Middlesex Club from the time I was in first grade until I was eighteen,” he says. “I was introduced to paddle there and played in some parent/child tournaments with my dad. “ Clark also played tennis participating in club tournaments as well.
“I never went to any paddle clinics and I didn’t play all the time. Paddle really started for me after college when I was living in Rowayton. I got a chance to play a lot with guys like Andy Kinney, Paul McNulty, Hal Schaefer, Tim Widmer, Bert McManus, Jack Wilson.”
Clark would move his paddle playing base from Rowayton to the Darien Town courts at Weed Beach. But a bigger move came when he expanded the reach of his paddle activity to Westchester and started playing with teams in the leagues there. “The first time I played in front of a lot of people was in Westchester. I played in a Tuesday night league down there for ten or twelve years from around 2005 or so until 2015, and it prepared me to play in front of the crowds you’d get when you played in the FCPTL (Fairfield County Platform Tennis League). “
Clark recalls playing local tournaments in the early days of his career. He also remembers vividly when he changed his style of play forever. “My first tournament was the Wilton YMCA Open in 1991. My partner was Timmy Widmer and we had two back draw wins.” He and Widmer played again in 1992 at The Wilton Y Open and it was during or just after that event when Clark decided his forehand drive “… was a low percentage shot and I hit it for the last time.”
As Clark tells it, he just loved to play the game. “I love to play. The love is the competition. At first I just played. The strategy came later.” As that strategy emerged, Clark found himself more enthralled by the game as he became a student of it.
“ I read more about how to play paddle in articles and magazines and when I read this stuff that’s when I started formulating how I would play. Certain things really stuck in my mind like Alex Bancila’s words about how 95 out of 100 points end due to an error. Then there was The Top Ten Ways to Win a Paddle Match – that’s my Bible. It said that the last person who touches the ball makes the error. I never wanted to be that last guy.”
What Juni Clark did was to reinvent his game. Once he did that, he focused on what he could do well. Then he drove himself to do that even better as he relentlessly pursued and continues to pursue the ideal – the perfect screen shot, the perfect set up and …Oh Halleluiah, the perfect lob! “I wanted to be known as ‘The Lob Master’. You’ve got to play really long points. And you can’t miss. The fact that every point can go on forever means you have to be ‘Positive Aggressive’ and that’s just what a good lob is.”
Clark’s quasi paddle obsession spiked incalculably when he became aware of and then met Drew Broderick. “I saw this guy Drew, a lefty like I am, doing what I do. What I mean by that is I love the fighting spirit Drew has. Mentally, he seems to say: ‘I’m going to fight you.’ He hates losing more than anything. He takes it personally. That’s the way I am. I hate to lose and I think because of it I enjoy every win more than anybody else.”
There is no confusion when it comes to the difference in talent level between the two. “I’m a poor man’s Drew Broderick – no, wait a minute – I am a below-the-poverty-line Drew Broderick,” Clark laughs referring to the gap between his ability and that of the elite Broderick. But when it comes to mental toughness and the will to win, the match up between them is far more equal.
“I listened to Drew talk to Jared Palmer, pre-game strategy early in their partnership. ‘Every single point can be contested,’ he said. ‘And the screen is your friend!’” When I started playing a lot of tournaments, I looked for a partner based on the fact that he approached the game and played it like Drew.”
Like Broderick, Clark wound up playing the ad court, which is somewhat of an anomaly given that most often the right-hander will play there putting two forehands in the middle. “Way back when I started playing those tournaments at the Wilton Y with Tim Widmer, I didn’t know anything about the standard set-up where the lefty plays the deuce court. I just liked to play the Ad court because I could use my forehand to get balls that dropped down after hitting the side and back wires.”
When Clark started to play in Westchester he acquired versatility to his game that continues to serve him well to this day. ”In the Westchester league, I would play with and against people I didn’t know. I began to play both the Deuce and the Ad courts. I learned both sides equally well so that I could play either side with any partner at any time.”
By his own admission, Clark’s evolution as a paddle player reached its zenith when he and Chen went on their 33-match tear that included three New Jersey Winnable B Tournaments, two Sound Shore (CT, NY) and one Long Island Invitational (NY).
“Around 2005 or so, Michael Chen and I met when we both played paddle at Weed Beach in Darien. He is a great strategist and loved to study the game. He was strictly a Deuce court player and I felt very comfortable in the Ad. I saw myself as a good complementary player, an assist guy who can set up an aggressive partner. He was the alpha and I was the beta trying to get him in the best position to make his shots. My role was to complement the strengths of my partner as well as to figure out how I could get him to keep the ball away from the other team’s strengths.
“We started to play together for the Darien Town team. We had some good wins; upset a number of teams and that led to our wanting to play some big B Tournaments together. What I learned from being his partner was how important it was for us to keep a point alive if we were going to win. We had to work so hard to get a point. But it worked. And so I began to realize I could be the best partner possible by keeping the ball in play in a positive way.”
“I can remember the match that triggered the run of 33. We were playing Mike Montalbano and Bill Horn and we were up 5-3 in the final set… and we LOST. You can see where Monty and Bill are now, both Nationally ranked Monty in the top twenty anyway and Bill not far behind. We were so close to beating them, should have beaten them and I think we both got an idea of how good we could be.”
And they were. “Anytime you can go undefeated three times in those Winnable B tournaments that have all those players from clubs like Canoe Brook, Center Court, Short Hills – what I call “The Jersey Triangle” – you’ve really achieved something,” exults Clark.
For me,” Clark observes, “I think winning those matches had a lot to do with the approach we adopted with differing opponents. I have grown to believe that it’s about getting the people I’m playing against to play my game. It’s not so much about my raising the level of my game as it is about getting them to change their approach because they have become uncomfortable in it. That’s why I believe in scouting reports as part of my strategy. I find out what people like to hit and make sure I never hit the ball there, never let them see a chance to hit their shot.”
The great thing about JC is that the intensity of his focus on and commitment to winning is not so over the top that it robs him of his genuine love of the game. He is not a sore loser. The qualities that got him voted “Easiest to Get Along With” in high school assert themselves in the wake of a loss on the court. His affable and enthusiastic nature will surface but there is a trick to it.
“From the time I got serious about paddle,” he says, “I always was a competitor. I came to play. But as soon as a match is over, if I lose, I take some me time.” You can see it. In the crowded, paddle hut aftermath of post battle camaraderie, Clark will disappear for an emotion calming down time and then re-emerge to celebrate amidst a jovial throng.
Clark realizes, grudgingly, that he’s reached a paddle- playing peak. The run of 33 (which actually may be thirty five or six) finally came to an end. “Age catches up,” says JC. “We got beat by younger guys. When you’re a grind player and you can’t grind, you won’t win.”
The beauty of paddle for Clark, however, is that it has so many other facets he can enjoy, so many outlets for him to express his love of the game. “People used to tell me that I would be good at teaching the sport. I didn’t really think much about it but I finally tried it. What is it that I liked about it?” he asks. “I love to see people improve. I get a kick out of seeing a little kid hitting the first ball they’ve ever hit, their first one in the middle of the racquet.”
He is intrigued by and heartily supports the technology that can spread paddle to a larger demographic. “Live streaming of paddle is a thing of the future that’s here now,” he says. “I love to watch it. I get to see and to study the best players in the world.”
Then there is his rampant deployment of video as he tapes matches of all types and levels taking great delight in both the placement of a camera/smart phone and the incidental wonder that it records. The fact that he can post these images on social media makes the whole process even more compelling. By far his most favorite post has to be the six- minute, 40-second video of ONE POINT – Two hundred and fifty-seven hits – in a match he played with Judd Staniar, Nate deKanter, and Tom Richardson. There are few if any better examples of paddle playing patience and “positive aggressive”.
But Clark is quick to point out that these qualities are not limited to the court. “I am a cancer survivor. I had surgeries in both 2002 and 2006 with extensive follow up treatment that has been successful.” Excepting momentary pauses directly after he had surgeries, Clark never really stopped playing paddle. “It helped me to have a positive mental attitude, “ he says simply.
Juni Clark is an exception, yet he is everyman – unique but one of us. He will never be a Nationals champion but that doesn’t mean he can’t approach the game like one. He has developed his talents, honed them into a stylistic niche that drives his opponents crazy. And for that he has received his due. “I’m not famous,” he says with a belly chuckle. “I’m infamous. There’s nobody like me. When people play me and my partner, they might not like us or our game, but they’ll always remember us.”