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The Most Fun Losing 12/11/2010 - 7:00 AM

Readers of Tennis magazine might remember a terrific column Joe Samuel "Sam" Starnes wrote a few years back, when he went to find the grave of that disgraced tennis icon, Big Bill Tilden. Sam, who's 43,  agreed to contribute the piece below, on his battle with Anna Mamalat, a 15-year old who's highly ranked by the USTA and already in the WTA Top 1000.

I've known Sam for a few years now (great guy). He's  and a novelist and journalist living in Philadelphia; you can read him at his Topspin blog. NewSouth Books will publish Fall Line, his second novel in October 2011. He also recently  finished a novel, Red Dirt, which is the story of Jaxie Skinner, an unlikely tennis pro from a blue-collar family in rural Georgia. 

At 18, Jaxie qualifies for the French Open and reaches the semifinals, but then plummets as quickly as he rose.  After wasted years off, he mounts a long comeback in the grind of the satellite tours, setting his sights on reaching the U.S. Open. Literary agent Scott Miller, vice president at Trident Media Group, is currently looking for a home for the novel, so if any of you are publishers, speak now or forever hold your peace. I'm hoping Sam will jump on periodically over the weekend to answer any questions you put to him.

- PB

By Joe Samuel Starnes

My year started off with an intriguing voice message — would I be interested in a singles match against an “up-and-comer”?

I returned the call and learned that a 15-year-old girl from Philadelphia who was preparing to play a professional tournament in Florida needed a practice match on clay. Why me? Our club was one of the few locally with soft indoor Har-Tru courts, thanks to an inflatable bubble raised for the winter.  Having been runner-up in the club’s singles tournament, I was deemed one of the best members for her to play.

Starnes & Mamalat match Sure, I said, I’d love to do it, regretting immediately all the overeating I’d done during the holidays, and also not exercising as much as I had planned.  At least I’d been hitting the ball regularly, playing doubles once or twice a week, although I had not played singles since September.
I immediately looked her up.  Anna Mamalat, 15, ranked 920 at the time in the WTA based on a 6-6 record in professional tournaments.  She had finished second in the 18-and-under 2009 USTA Winter National Championships, losing in the finals 7-5, 7-5. 

In the photos I found online, she looked very young, and one newspaper article said she appeared smaller than her reported size of 5-feet, 2-inches and 115 pounds.  I had been told that she was being homeschooled to allow more time to focus on tennis, and that her coach would accompany her to our match.

At the time I was two weeks shy of 43, 6-feet, hovering around a post-Christmas weight of 190, making my ritualistic New Year’s resolution to drop 15 pounds.  I have a 4.5 NTRP rating with a winning record in USTA league play, but my best tennis was 25 years ago when I was a junior player in Georgia.  How would I fare against a girl not even old enough to drive?  A girl born in March 1994, five years after I graduated college?  I have T-shirts older than she is.  Would I win a single game?  Or did I have a chance to win a set, maybe even the match? 

I met Anna and her coach, Joe Totoro, at the Green Valley Tennis Club in Haddon Township, N.J., on a frigid Wednesday night.  She looked like a high school freshmen or even junior high school girl, with a brown medium-length ponytail and a baby face that could pass for younger than 15.  She smiled warmly and shook my hand in a very light grip. She spoke softly, too, like a kid from whom you might order an ice cream sundae. 

I had worried that she might have something in her game that I didn’t see often, a style that would make me look silly, such as a nasty lefty spin, or ferocious topspin groundstrokes that would eat me up, or maybe two hands from both sides.  My suspicion turned out to be correct—she hit two hands on both wings, her forehand peculiarly so.  A righty, she had a normal one-handed forehand grip, but placed her left-hand on top of her right hand so that it overlapped, releasing her left hand on the follow through. 

She struck her groundstrokes early and very cleanly, driving them deep with intense velocity and angles.  I knew after only two balls in the warm up that there was no way I could hang with her from the baseline.  My only hope was to bash the ball, rush the net, and play quick points—my natural inclination, especially since I’d been playing mostly doubles.

I double-faulted on the first point, trying for too much when I saw her move several feet  inside the baseline (she didn’t seem small anymore, waiting to pounce on my second serve). I went on to hit a few strong first serves and charged the net for all I was worth and nailed some crisp volley winners.  I saved a few break points and won the long, first game.  I felt relief changing sides, knowing I wouldn’t be skunked. 

Anna's serve was not on par with her groundstrokes, but she spun it consistently deep into the box.  I tried to chip and charge, but unless I hit a very hard and low stinger, she passed me, nailing lines down both sides with precise groundstrokes fired like bullets. 

I held serve to go up 2-1, but then she rolled through five games to clinch the first set.  I didn’t serve well on the big points.  If I couldn’t get a first serve in, I had little chance unless I really popped the second ball, which I did on a few occasions, an attempt that led to too many double faults. 

In the second set I relaxed and my serve came back, and she lost concentration or maybe was being polite in order to let the old man win a few.  I went ahead 3-0, and then 4-2, but she woke up and realized it was getting late and started to play better.  I also had the dooming realization, “Hey, maybe I can actually win a set,” and tensed up.   My serve disappeared again, and she rolled off four games in a row to finish me off 6-2, 6-4.

I was happy with the result, a respectable showing against an accomplished junior with victories in professional events.  At least I had given her some practice returning serves and hitting passing shots.  I figure if I played her 20 times, I might win once or twice if my serve went into the zone and I could hit some lucky return winners.

And the match was the most fun I have ever had losing.  I had been expecting a prima donna, but Anna was as sweet as could be, smiling and friendly and polite, not to mention being very generous with line calls, particularly on my serves, one or two that may have been as much as a foot out.

I also had assumed I would be playing a rich kid from Philly’s Main Line, but she is a first-generation American from a Ukrainian family who live in an apartment in the city’s Great Northeast, a sprawling section of working class neighborhoods west of the Delaware River.  Her dad works the night shift at UPS and her mother in a laboratory.  She is training and traveling on some grant money from the USTA, and also what Totoro and other supporters can pull together to fund her.

After the match I drove over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge toward my home in the city and thought about how damned difficult it is to make it as a professional tennis player, especially in the middle of winter in Philadelphia, where aspiring young stars occasionally have to scrape together practice matches with the likes of me. 

UPDATE:  Since I played Anna in early January, her WTA ranking remains relatively unchanged at 938.  Her best result for the year was winning an ITF Juniors event, the International Grass Court Championships in Philadelphia in June.  She was the number four alternate to get a spot in the Orange Bowl qualifying draw starting this week.


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Posted by Holds2Love 12/11/2010 at 08:30 AM

One to watch! Thanks for this account, Joe. I took up tennis late in life and started out with a 2HFH, to prevent injury. But I wonder if it doesn't give younger players a nice mix of power and control. She may grow restless with it and find it restrictive (already releasing on the follow through) as I did, or she may become the next Monica Seles. Hopefully she will find the financial support she needs to continue.

Posted by e normous 12/11/2010 at 09:14 AM

I'm probably being stupid, but what does that first line about Tilden have to do with the rest of the article? Good piece though.

Posted by e normous 12/11/2010 at 09:17 AM

Wait, who is Sam?

Posted by Ruth 12/11/2010 at 09:54 AM

Thank you for this wonderful story, James. Even if Anna doesn't add too many more inches or pounds to her frame, I hope that she'll be able to do very well and prove that size does not mean everything. Time for a few more Amanda Coetzer's to come on to the scene. :) As someone who lived in the Philadelphia area for 40 years, your piece resonated with me in many ways, epecially your mention of Anna's winning the ITF grasscourt event in Philadelphia.

Many years ago, when I used to jog on the track of the Chestnut Hill Academy across Willow Grove Avenue from the Philadelphia Cricket Club where those ITF events were held (and probably still are), I would stop to watch, through the open fences, the youngsters playing their competitive matches on those beautiful grass courts; and I'd wonder how many of them would be able to achieve their tennis dreams.

I wish Anna all the best, and I hope that she continues to find good people like you to help her work to achieve her personal tennis goals.

Posted by Ruth 12/11/2010 at 09:58 AM

Oops, I meant to type "Joe," of course, not "James." Sorry.

Posted by Holds2Love 12/11/2010 at 10:09 AM

Ruth, thanks for sharing your memories and for the reference to Amanda Coetzer. I'd never heard of her, so did a quick google search -- very impressive! Learn something new at TW every day. :) btw, this talk of aspiring juniors nicely complements Steve's fictional piece over on CE. It is a good reminder of how much else these kids have going on in their lives as they try to make their way in competitive tennis. Good luck to Anna!

Posted by Queeny 12/11/2010 at 11:31 AM

One only has to look at Melanie Oudin to realize that size matters. I remember once seeing a very talented Russian girl on tour( can't think of her name)who was 5'2 and she just sinmply got blasted off the court by the bigger women.It's a shame but that's reality!

Posted by Annie (Vamos Heavenly Creature) 12/11/2010 at 12:15 PM

Great story, Joe! Any chance you were a bit intimidated? Or did this girl really really beat you? Whatever, I'm impressed with you both.

Posted by Pspace 12/11/2010 at 01:04 PM

Great story! 2 & 4 is nothing to be embarrassed about. I remember seeing this young girl in Philly holding her own with 5.0 guys from the baseline (perhaps it was Anna...does she ever play at the Penn courts?). In practise sets, where both players were allowed only one serve, she would win about 50% of the time. I would've been happy to lose 2 & 2.

Posted by jb (chocolate FTW!!!) 12/11/2010 at 02:09 PM

Very fun read Joe! I'll remember Ana's name, see if she 'makes' it up in the rankings a bit.

Thanks for helping us get through the 'no tennis zone'....

:)

Posted by CL 12/11/2010 at 03:15 PM

Mr. Starnes - this is just a flat out wonderful story. Told with perfect touch and tone. Many thanks - and thanks to Pete for making it, and you, available to us here at TW.

Posted by Corrie 12/11/2010 at 04:27 PM

Like everyone else I think it's a great story. So often the kids from migrant families have the drive and work ethic to make it to the top, and I hope Anna does.

I also hope she grows some more just to make it a bit easier. Amanda Coetzer was probably the most successful ultra small player ever. It was amazing to see her beat Steffi Graf. But it's got harder to do it these days.

Posted by Diane 12/11/2010 at 06:25 PM

Joe

Thank you for this great tennis story.

As a mom who traveled all over Georgia with both my kids, I know what the junior circuit is like.

And as an older player I know what it feels like to be outclassed on a court by a youngster; both my kids did that and complained that they would need someone else to warm them up for thier matches.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 12/11/2010 at 11:15 PM

If one takes doubles play into account, 5'2" HOF member Rosie Casals, who reached a no. 3 rank in singles, was probably at least as successful as Coetzer.

Don't know if Casals was as successful as Coetzer at taking out no. 1 ranked players, one of Coetzer's specialties.

Posted by Samantha Elin, Caro 2010 YE #1 12/12/2010 at 07:23 AM

Queeny, would agree that size does matter. Of course we can all name a few scattered players here and there who have been short and made it, but this is clearly not the norm and reflect that the power game is what dominate in tennis. Yes, size does matter, not all the time, but it's no accident that players that players with tremendous power have been very successful i the WTA. In regards to your comments about Oudin, size is only one of the factor why she hadn't done well(In 2010, she was out of about 90% of her tournaments by the first to second round.) Other factors beside height include a lack of serve, no consistent weapon, prone to errors on both wings and a lack of power. On the update, I noticed that Anna's WTA ranking remained the same, but good luck to her. For every Coetzer and Justine, you have tens of power players. Sure it sounds great to say, size doesn't matter, it is very politically correct, and it sounds great, but is it reality when you look at the height of the average WTA player? Kom sa, Caro, Kom igen, Robin!!!

Posted by Samantha Elin, Caro 2010 YE #1 12/12/2010 at 07:52 AM

In regards to American tennis, I don't think the future looks very bright. I don't see any future prospect which even remotely look like they can replace Venus or Serena when they retire. I was a little surprise when I watch Coco at the Fed cup. Prior to this match, I had never seen her play, but had heard so much from American commentators that she played liked Davenport, had a big serve , powerful ground strokes and great potential. What I actually saw was a player with an average serve which her opponents had no problems breaking many times, poor footwork and a power level that didn't bother her opponent. P-mac has been telling us for years that Isner and Quarrey are top ten players and yet their results and rankings don't support this. Yes, American commentators have free reign to hype a player, tell us how great they're, but what good does that do, if a player fails to live up to this?? Fed cup captain told us that Oudin was "top ten potential" after she beat Frannie who committed 35 UFE. By the next week, she was going out to a player ranked 74. America is a great tennis nation, but hype isn't what makes a player great because eventually people catch on to that nonsense and may call you on it. Kom sa, Caro. Kom igen, Robin.

Posted by jackson 12/12/2010 at 07:58 AM

ROFL. Has this been posted before? So apropos for the Fedal wars around here and the tics of both players are spot on. Too funny. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrQwsxarrig

Posted by Ruth 12/12/2010 at 09:10 AM

" Sure it sounds great to say, size doesn't matter, it is very politically correct, and it sounds great..."

SamE: Nobody -- at least nobody commenting on this thread -- has said that size does not matter. That would be silly in light of today's game.

H2L: I posted a comment yesterday saying how, like you, I immediately thought of Steve's current post on CE as I was reading Joe's piece. Wonder if I put my comment on the wrong thread or if it's just one of those Typepad disappearing acts? :)

Posted by Carol (vamos Rafa and Wade, you're my heroes) 12/12/2010 at 10:45 AM

Hi everybody

LOL jackson, funny vid and nice story Joe!

Posted by darthhelmethead 12/12/2010 at 11:01 AM

This piece reminds me of when I played a middle-aged player in a practice set on a couple of public courts, me being 18 at the time. We were both 4.5 players but it was like we learned tennis on two different planets. He had continental grips, played the angles, liked to come to net. I had the extreme grips with the elaborate swings. The only similarity between us were onehanded backhands. The guy showed me experience matters, and when I threw everything and the kitchen sink at him he trounced me 6-2. Watch out for those older guys was the lesson of the day.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 12/12/2010 at 11:07 AM

I've had similar experiences, Joe, playing young up-and-coming boys in the 14-to-17 age range, and know precisely how you felt. Despite the inevitable loss (I mean, these kids train four hours a day, seven days a week), I felt a sense of accomplishment for hanging in there and making all of them play with a modicum of intensity to beat me. Then again, maybe "intensw" is the simply the best word to describe these hungry young guns.

Posted by Team FEDAL(deal with it haha) 12/12/2010 at 12:31 PM

Joe,

I enjoyed the piece! GOod luck to this young lady, maybe she is one to watch.

Posted by Team FEDAL(deal with it haha) 12/12/2010 at 12:45 PM

@Joe,


Any way we could see a copy or at least a preview of this novel "red Clay"? It sounds very interesting.

Posted by Joe Samuel Starnes 12/12/2010 at 05:15 PM

Thanks everyone for the questions and kind comments on my article. Much appreciated. To answer a few questions posed:

--Joe and Sam here are one and the same -- my full, legal name is Joe Samuel Starnes, not a pen name I made up -- although I've always gone by Sam. I'll gladly answer to Joe as well.

--Pete's reference to Tilden is about an article I wrote that ran in the August 2008 issue of the magazine. I went in search and found Tilden's nondescript grave in Philadelphia. I blogged about it some at www.topspinblog.com, and got a wide range of comments, pro and con. http://www.topspinblog.com/2009/09/1068/

--My novel RED DIRT is not ready for preview yet -- still in the manuscript stage. FALL LINE will be out next year in Octobmer. You can find my 2005 novel, CALLING, in Amazon and other places on line. My author web site is www.joesamuelstarnes.com.

Joe Samuel Starnes

Posted by Joe Samuel Starnes 12/12/2010 at 06:15 PM

Annie, I was intimidated, worried that I would not win a game at all, especially since a number of my buddies were watching and one joked that I shouldn't lose to a "little girl." Later in the year Anna played a match against our club champion and beat him too, although he played her closer than I did (5 & 3, I think it was). Later in the spring, a friend who is a 5.0 player and I beat Anna and doubles partner Robin Anderson, a New Jersey junior who did well at the U.S. Open juniors. Our old man doubles savvy negated their youth and power. (Pete blogged about Robin after she beat Laura Robson. http://tennisworld.typepad.com/tennisworld/2010/09/rockin-robin.html)


Posted by Joe Samuel Starnes 12/13/2010 at 02:01 PM

One more update: Anna got a wild card into the Orange Bowl 18s, and won her first round, but then lost in second round to No. 8 seed Lauren Davis. Davis went all the way to win the tournament.
See draw at http://tinyurl.com/28ksvp9

Posted by Old Man Fed/Puny Server Rafa Fan 12/13/2010 at 05:59 PM

oy boring. Dec 21, c'mon already. Okay, poking the dead GOAT debate once again.

1. Fed (16 slams+zillion consecutive SF+5 YEC)
2. Laver (2 calender slams)
3. Sampras (14 slams+6 consecutive year-end 1.+5 YEC)
4. Borg (5 WImby+6 French+done at 25)
5. Emerson (13 slam+16 DB slam)
6. Tilden/Rafa (one or 2 more slam win(s) -> Rafa will be sole 6)

Those of you brave souls, bring it!

Posted by Diane 12/13/2010 at 07:36 PM

Old Man Fed

You must really be bored to bring up those stats and you know what kind of reaction you will get!!!!

Must admit that it's so cold here in Atlanta that instead of finishing my Christmas shopping. I'm watching endless repeats on TC and also some of my saved Fed matches. Guess I will never delete that French Open win.

Posted by Carol (vamos Rafa and Wade, you're my heroes) 12/13/2010 at 10:37 PM

I don't care about those stats, just I know that RAFA is the best and the HEAT too
Vamos Rafa and Wade!!!!!!!!

Posted by Ci-Sun 12/18/2010 at 05:34 AM

Very instructive and interesting story...Thanks Sam and Peter...good luck Anna!!!
I agree,RAFA is the Best!

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