On May 8, I flew cross country to play in the first national USTA Category 1 tournament since the onset of Covid. The last time I competed was January 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida, and now, 3,000 miles away, I hoped I was ready (or ready enough) to play a national event. With 16 long months since my last tournament (including a cold winter where I was at least getting some indoor masked play), trying to get ready to compete for an outdoor (what is that?) event was tortuous.
Indoor tennis seems so simple … the sounds are clear and clean, the ball travels true, no wind, no sun, and definitely less footwork. The April/May temperatures at home did not help … highs of 52 degrees and wind gusts over 20 mph served to whittle down my nerve and enthusiasm. No matter how much I had practiced, mostly indoors, during the last many months, what lay ahead would be an enormous challenge.
Competing against your practice partners has very little relationship to actual tournament competition. I was not sure I was up to the test. As is my usual, I arrived in California on May 8 with my first match not scheduled until May 11. Even though La Jolla was in the throes of May Gray (no sun and cool), a few days of outdoor play prior to my first match would be valuable.
As it turned out my first opponent, who currently lives in San Diego with her husband, was brought up in the New York-New Jersey area. When I inquired further, it turns out that she was born and lived in the town in which I grew up … Montclair, New Jersey. We were chatting about Montclair and recognizable sites when the ref told us to get on with playing! Along with my first tournament win in 16 months, I was left with the continued knowledge that tennis brings so many people together and creates warm connections that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
In the second round, I played Lois Harris from Virginia, who plays an unorthodox game. She didn’t allow me to get any rhythm, powering her forehand, slicing her backhand, hitting a soft spin serve and a multitude of drop shots, all on a windy day. At the end of this 6-3, 6-1 win, my brain was tired from staying focused while I often wanted to tear my hair out! The semi finals were next, and I played Cathie Anderson from San Diego. I knew her from playing many of the same tournaments and also because she was on the 75 World Team in 2020. I knew not to let her dictate the points, and my strategy of hitting down the line to her backhand (her better shot) worked, as well as keeping the pace up on my ground strokes. I won this match 6-0, 6-0 to reach the finals, in which I would play Barbara Hubbard from Hawaii.
I mentioned in another La Jolla tournament report years ago that Barbara was the only player out practicing at 7am prior to match play. This year she was out there again, each morning at 7. In Hawaii, she apparently is on the ball machine for 2 hours each morning. Barbara is a fierce competitor who runs down every ball, seldom misses, and smiles the entire time. I needed to be ready. She also plays using a lot of moon balls, and to be successful I needed to take her ball out of the air, while also not hitting deep from corner to corner, but instead moving the ball on sharper diagonals to pull her off the baseline.
These strategies worked, and with this 6-3, 6-1 victory, I won the USTA 70s National Championships! I was both happy and relieved. I had been seeded number 1 going into the tournament and for me the idea of defending is much more difficult. Expectations … much tougher for my head!
In doubles action, I again partnered with my childhood friend Vicky McEvoy who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Vicky had rotator cuff surgery less than a year ago and our expectations were low. While we were seeded second, I knew that there were a number of teams that were dangerous. We won our round robin matches easily and then were placed in a quarterfinal draw. In the semi’s, we squeaked out a win in a third-set tie breaker 11-9 to move on. The win over Cindy Babb and Sue Bramlette could have gone either way. Cindy is an excellent doubles player who applies pressure by taking the net away, and Sue with two hands off both sides plays with sharp angles.
In the finals we played Carol Gay and Kathy Barnes, both Californians. The day before the finals they had upset the first seeded team so we kept our expectations low. The match was played at 8am as Vicky had a 1:00 flight home and the weather was cool and misting. We won the first set 6-3 and were ahead 5-1 when we made some silly mistakes, took our foot off the gas and found ourselves in a muddle at 5-5. We squandered a couple of match points on easy balls, and then lost confidence. Even after getting ahead 6-5 we still couldn’t close. Aware that the rain was coming, Vicky’s looming flight home, lost chances to end the match etc., the smoke was coming out of my ears! We stayed the course despite these frustrations, played a strong tiebreaker, and closed out the play to win the gold ball — very happy to do so, but also happy the match was over.
In all, it was a great week. While the tournament was played with Covid protocols, no tournament desk check-in, no visitors (supposedly), no hanging around before or after matches, everyone was so excited to be there competing and catching up with friends. I had dinner plans every night and sometimes forgot that my preparation for the next morning was supposed to be my main focus. Playing senior tournaments and remembering the deep connection that many of us have from around the country is one of the finest gifts of playing tennis into my 70’s. We had been set free from the stress of the last 16 months and now together again, it was as if we had never missed a beat. How lucky I feel to be able to compete, but even luckier to rekindle friendships that stand the test of time.
Thank you to tennis and to my friends.
Click here to subscribe to receive my Tennis Techniques and Strategies newsletters. Next, I’ll be talking about the importance of strategy when competing, focusing on using the Australian doubles formation.