February 21, 2008

Tennis' road to Ohio is paved with Subway Sandwiches

What happens when the Maroons hit the road and have to take their game beyond the Ivory Tower? Sports staff writer and men's tennis starter Steve Saltarelli provides some insight as he takes us around DIII as a part of his column.

Tennis is a weird college sport. In its natural environment, tennis is played either individually or as a doubles team. This is the way all players know the sport growing up and traveling to play tournaments. Then, when college comes around, this strange notion of team comes into play. Now, you are playing the same exact sport, except with a school name on your chest. Now you can win your match, yet the team can lose.

That team dimension takes on a whole new meaning when you start sharing a bus or hotel room and need to drown out the fans of opposing squads during a match. Last weekend's trip to Gambier, OH had all of these elements going for it.

The trip began Thursday night, in preparation for a Friday evening meeting with Denison and a Saturday afternoon showdown with the host squad from Kenyon College. Along with the women's team and two coaches, the nine members of the guys' team sprawled out on a coach bus. After stopping along the way for a feast at the home of the always-hospitable family of teammate second-year Garrett Brinker, we settled into the realization that Gambier, OH is a long way away. Bad Chris Tucker movies can only kill so much time, and conversation and intermittent naps accounted for the rest.

We finally arrived at a little past 3 a.m. local time and checked into the only hotel in town—Holiday Inn Express. Hotel rooms are always booked three to a room, and at this point "freshmen take the pull-out" is standard operating procedure.

The night before a match usually consists of stretching, wholesale hydration, and a lot of sleep. A 4 a.m. bedtime isn't usually ideal, but we were given the luxury of a 7 p.m. match the next day, pushing back the alarm for a 1 p.m. wake-up call.

Fourth-year Bharath Sithian, third-year Alex Winney, Brinker, and myself all knew what awaited us in the following days. We had made the trip to Gambier last year for a pair of losses, falling 5–4 to Denison and 6–3 to Kenyon, and had another round of long nights at the tennis center, fiercely contested matches, and a disgusting amount of Subway sandwiches to look forward to. Our four newcomers on the trip would understand soon.

The next morning we got up, ate brunch at Subway (Meatball Sub), and headed to the $70 million Kenyon Athletic Center complete with a great open view overlooking the courts and electronic scoreboards. The almost entirely glass structure is impressive, making Ratner look like a YMCA. We got in a light warm-up on Kenyon's four slow-paced hard courts.

After our warm-up we went back to the hotel and prepared for our matches (read: watched T.V.).

When we returned to the tennis center at 6:30 p.m., we realized we were in for a later night than expected. The women's match against Denison before us was running long, pushing back our start time. To eat up some minutes, we observed some quality women's tennis and used heating pads from the training room to loosen up.

Only having four courts makes playing the singles matches difficult because lines five and six can't go on until two matches ahead of them finish. The last match finished around 12:30 a.m. when Mark Bonner awkwardly celebrated a win at sixth singles, claiming a 6–3 victory for us. All during the match, Kenyon looked ominously on from the stands, scouting out the next day's competition.

While the women had to check out of the Holiday Inn Express at 8 a.m., we lucked out with another late wake-up before squaring off against Kenyon. This time when we arrived at the tennis center, Subway in tow, the atmosphere had changed. Again, the women were running late, but now the stands were packed, possibly as a result of the hosts' Facebook event calling for support against a squad representing the school "where fun comes to die."

Kenyon hecklers seated directly above the court would yell "Watch out!" as the server tossed the ball, and those of us waiting for an open court went upstairs to try and even out the fan section. Without the aide of an entire football team a la Kenyon, we spread out to canvas the four courts.

Motivating players from the stands is really an art form. It's about not only keeping your player pumped up and focused, but it is also about knocking down his opponent's confidence. The louder and more frequent, the better.

General decorum calls for civility to spectator comments, replacing words like "choking" with euphemistic phrases. Instead of announcing that a Kenyon player is choking, one can say "He doesn't want it [the match]."

The team eventually fell 6–3, a replica of the previous year’s result. This is perhaps deceptive because both teams have improved tremendously—Kenyon via a mysterious transfer by a starter from top D-I Wake Forest who first-year Willy Zhang almost defeated. We certainly had our chances to win, but since it's early in the season we can chalk it up as a "learning experience."

After another marathon bus ride, marked by never-ending The Simpson’s episodes, we were back in Chicago and ready for next week's trip to lovely Crawfordville, IN. Ah, the life of a Division-III athlete.