Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Return to the other hardwood

Continuing with my ambition to get in better shape before my 30th bday, last night I made my vaunted return to the hardwood of the 4 walled kind. Yep, after a several year layoff, I have returned to the competitive racquetball circuit, having sucked up my long standing boycott of NYHR&C (New York Health & Racquet Club) to join their racquetball ladder. Why the boycott. Well why have Racquet in your name if all of your courts formerly used for racquetball have been turned into spinning classes and yoga studios? Anyway, being I’d have to travel to the armpit of Brooklyn (Canarsie) or up to Jonkers (Yonkers) to play, I decided to bite the bullet and join the evil empire of NYHR&C (I did NOT however sign up for membership, thank you. Paying enough just to play racquetball).

For those who don't know I played collegiate racquetball for three years at Marist College. Yes, we had a team and yes we had a league, competing in the ECRC (Eastern Collegiate Racquetball Conference). Here's an article from the mecca of journalistic integrity "The Circle" to prove we had a team!

Marist has since lost their team, thanks in part to the sports medicine department ripping down the courts to build a new state of the art training and medical facility for the other "student athletes". But back in the day we were very competitive in racquetball, playing the likes of Army, Penn State, Virginia Tech, Kentucky, Providence, RPI and national champion Nichols College, among others. We mostly played on the road since we only had two terrible courts at Marist, so part of the perks of playing were road trips to Happy Valley, Providence College, West Point and Albany. Plus we had no coach, so no one to really breathe down our necks. Not to say competition wasn't intense, but we had a more relaxed attitude during the events since we were flying solo. Think of it as VCU going in as a team without a coach to play Duke w/ coach K.

I played singles and doubles at Marist. Our doubles team (Nick Kost & I) were known as "Air Marist" due to our bodies flying all over the court to get the ball. (See the below articles for more info about "Air Marist"). Most of our matches had blood delays and I can't think of a match where our knees weren't bloodied from diving on the floor. If our dive count wasn't high that meant we probably weren't in the match. Of course that's led to permanent scarring on my knees and legs but at the time it was well worth it!).

"Air Marist" getting some ink

I played some semi-pro after college at a league in Brooklyn but once I moved out of Brooklyn there went that league. So now, 4 years later I decided to make my return to the sport I once loved. NYHR&C has a ladder system where you can move up and down the ranks. Instead of throwing myself to the wolves right away, I inserted myself into the B division for now. The divisions are Open (the top level, next level down from professional), A division (excellent players who don’t necessary want to play Open ball), B division (advanced players), C (intermediate) and D (beginners). Due to my past experience I’m starting the season ranked #20 in both the Whitehall Street location and 56th Street location brackets.

I got to the courts an hour early last night to warm up and hit a little before my match. The pro met me at the court to introduce himself and we watched a match going on between two A level players. He told me my opponent tonight was one of the better players in the league at the B level. Watching these A players I could tell they were definitely great players. But watching them I got a feeling I could hang with them, especially being I used to play against the best players in the country.

After their match was done, I went into the court to warm up. Can you spell rusty? I was as rusty as a pier in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. Every ball I was hitting was waste high coming back (for those who don’t know the game well in racquetball you want to keep the ball low as possible to “kill” the point). After about 5 minutes I finally got my stroke back and was hitting the ball a little better. Suddenly there was a knock on the door and it was one of the A division players I was just watching. He wanted to have a match with me. Mind you, my official match wasn’t starting for another 30 minutes but being that stamina is a big issue having not played in 4 years, I was asking for trouble if I overextended myself. Anyway, being that I can’t back down from a challenge I took the offer for the match. Might as well just jump right in right?

One thing I noticed is I had a lot more power than him. My racquet (E-Force) is a heavy hitters racquet but lacks control (my other racquets are more control and less power). Granted these racquets are 5+ years old so I’m sure they’ve made a lot better advancements in the racquet technology (side note: later on in the evening one guy commented that my racquet was a relic and the “top of its game” during its heyday. Ouch). Anyway, I held my own against this fellow but I was more concerned about getting my court awareness back (positioning, angles, etc). There were a few shots I messed up but that was ok with me because the idea was there. We played a match to 15 and I ended up losing 15-5. I played myself out of a lot of points with bad shots that gave him easy shots. But overall not bad considering I wasn’t playing full tilt yet and that I was basically starting from scratch.

A few minutes later I go back into the court to take a few more shots and the other player from the match I was watching wants a match. Jesus, maybe it was a conspiracy by the guy I was supposed to play to wear me down before our match. Nonetheless this guy was apparently the top player in the entire league so I wanted to see where I stood against him. Again, I hung in there with him scoring a few points on my forehand and backhand much to his surprise. We played to 11 and the score was 11-6. I had a bunch of unforced errors which ultimately did me in. But I was happy that I was playing better. I definitely pushed myself a little more during that match knowing he was the best player in the league and wanted to put on a good showing.

My match finally showed up and I was gassed a little at that point. But I figured that if I could hang with the best player in our league, I could definitely hang with someone in my own division. Much to my dismay though my opponent was a fellow lefty (I’ve made my living playing against righties as a lefty – a definite advantage for me). So now my whole gameplan was shot to shit because I really don’t have a good serve to lefties and all of my passing shots would basically have to go to the other side of the court.

The first few points were hard to come by for both of us as we adjusted to each other’s playing styles. After being down 4-1 I went on a mini-run to make the score 8-4. We traded points but eventually I pulled ahead 13-6. I was killing him with ceiling shots, which basically consist of hitting the ball off the ceiling, having it take a high bounce and backing the opponent up all the way to the back wall. Shots like that are defensive shots that allow you to establish court position. Although if your ceiling shot is off it leaves your opponent with a chance to make a kill shot. Anyway, I don’t think he was ready for those shots and I was putting them on his backhand which made it even harder for him. Final score of set one, 15-9.

We took a quick break and I was definitely out of stream having played hard to put him away in the 1st set. The second set my footwork abandoned me like a red headed stepchild and I began to make unforced errors. I battled for points but he was getting great bounces off the wall on his serve (the ball was basically dying off the wall making the ball unhittable). After giving up 7 straight points I finally smoked a backhand to get back on serve. I went on a mini-run to make the score 7-3. However another error gave him the ball back and a few more unhittable serves coupled with some great shots by him pretty much was the set. I went for more kill shots than ceiling shots which was definitely a bad strategy since my shots were off a bit due to fatigue. Set two went to him 15-5.

In hindsight I should have called a timeout but wasn’t sure how these guys would take to that. So I basically just sucked it up on the court and was completely spent. I guzzled down a bottle of water between the 2nd and 3rd set knowing that I needed to get something back.

The start of the 3rd set was much like the second set for me. I went down early 4-0. Finally I got a second wind and rattled him with a mix up in serves (I started serving to his forehand which threw him off). After battling back to 4-4, he went on a run to make it 8-4. Instead of going for more kill shots I decided to switch back to a defensive game like set 1. Using ceiling shots and passing shots, I was able to hang in and cut the lead to 8-7. Back and forth we went as eventually he took a 13-8 lead. At this point I knew I had to step it up a notch if I wanted to win the match. I started taking to the air much like the days of yore and hit a few beautiful diving shots to win points. I got more aggressive and played up front on the court, forcing him to try to hit the ball past me instead of playing back and letting him put touch shots on the wall. The tactic worked as a cut the score to 13-12. After just missing a kill shot he got his serve back and scored a quick point to go up 14-12. At this point I thought that win or lose I played great and I’ve officially gotten back into the game and only stamina and lazy feet because of being tired were my downfalls. I got the serve back and ripped off a nasty serve for an ace to make it 14-13. The next point went on for a good 2 minutes back and forth but finally I was able to make a diving backhand in the frontcourt that just was out of his reach to tie it up at 14. Laying on the floor I smiled knowing that getting down and dirty was just what I need to pump myself up.

I tried to put him away with a drive serve but the serve was long (hit the back wall first). Next serve left too much of the ball for him to hit and he killed it to get his serve back. Fortunately for me I broke his serve and got my serve back. Back and forth we went for 4 points as we both laughed each time serve was broken. It was truly a spirited match and win or lose it was definitely a good battle. He was on serve and we had a volley going. He hit a ceiling shot to back me up but the ball came down short in front of me. I had two options. Hit a ceiling shot right back or go for a kill. I decided to go for the kill. Bad decision. The ball missed the corner by inches and skipped short. I let out a frustrated yell and then laughed knowing that was my fault. Third set goes to him, 15-14.

We leave the court and he tells me that’s the best match he’s had in 3 years. Since that’s the only match I’ve had in 5 years I tell him the same to some laughter. I packed up my bag and got more water and much to my surprise he went right to the pro to tell him how good the match was. I definitely took that as a compliment knowing that he was one of the better players in my division.
If I could hang with him and almost beat him, I have a decent shot to move up the ranks quickly.

Tonight I have match #2. My knee is a little sore from diving on the floor and my muscles are tight. But you bet your ass I’m gonna go in that court tonight and try to smoke my opponent like a hash pipe. Either that or I’ll need to smoke up afterwards to relieve all of the muscle pain.

P.S. Sorry for the “not funny blog” but who said all of my blog postings had to be funny?? :)


neil from the uk said...

Not dignified enough to play squash huh? ;)

gary said...

racquetball is for pansies!