Surprises in Surprise!

Bad Boys of Boston Pull Off a Few Surprises at the USTA National 60 Team Championships!

by Laury Hammel

The USTA New England Men’s 60’s Team recently returned from a highly successful tennis campaign at the USTA National Team Championships in Surprise, AZ.  And “surprise” was the operative word of this exhilarating and sometimes treacherous tennis journey—read on! 

The Plan to Surprise

In 2009, a Men’s 60’s New England team led by Captain Bill Drake and Lieutenant Bob McKinley played well at the USTA nationals.  However, they left that event with less than hoped for results, and were determined to come back in 2010 with a team that could win it all.  Beginning in the fall of 2009, with Henry Tiberio, New England’s tennis version of Yoda,as an inspiration, these two tennis leaders began assembling a band of veteran warriors with a single-minded mission of going to the nationals and bringing home the gold.  New England has a rich history of tough and rowdy tennis competitors, and gathering together the best 60+ doubles players available was the first order of business. 

The search began in earnest.  Henry Tiberio and Bob McKinley have kept Men’s 50’s and 60’s doubles alive and well at the Bass River Sunday morning doubles league in Beverly, MA, and this group provided a deep reservoir of highly talented men ready to step up to the plate and take a few swings for the pride of New England.  However, it was clear to all that to bring home the gold required attracting talent from a broader population to field the ideal team of eight competitors. This proved to be no small task.  Sadly many of the brothers of the senior tennis fraternity have passed on or are out of tennis because of injuries, or even worse, have gone to the dark side and taken up playing the G-word!  Captain Drake called in a few chits from his 38 years of playing and coaching tennis at the highest levels, and seven other top tennis dudes (three of whom are in the New England Tennis Hall of Fame) signed on to what became known as the Bad Boys of Boston. These New England guys were baaad! (As in good!)    

The Bad Boys of Boston

Bill Drake, The Captain

Bill is two-time #1 New England Men’s Open player, highly successful national senior player, Director of Tennis at The Country Club in Brookline, MA, and part-owner of the Kingsbury Clubs.

Bob McKinley, The Lieutenant

Bob is aptly called The Lieutenant because he was in the navy for three years and won the all-Navy tennis singles championships.  He played junior tennis in Buffalo, NY and played number one singles and doubles at MIT.   Bob’s been a perennial standout on New England senior doubles teams.

Chum Steele, The Legend

One of the best male players to ever play tennis in New England, Chum played at ten US National Championships at Forest Hills and five Wimbledon Championships.  At the US Professional Championships at Longwood he defeated the then number five player in the world—Thomas Koch. 

 

John Mayotte, The Agent

A New England native and a top junior and Men’s Open player in New England, and brother and agent of the highly successful ATP tennis professional, Tim Mayotte.

Mike Beautyman, The Manly Man

Mike has a long history as a highly successful tennis competitor in the juniors, the men’s open, and as a senior.  In 2006 he earned the #1 singles ranking in the nation in the Men’s 60’s Singles. 

Laury ‘Hopalong’ Hammel

Laury is a highly ranked national senior player, has earned seven New England number one senior singles rankings, and is the owner of The Longfellow Clubs

George Deptula, The Microwave

George is one of the biggest hitters in New England senior tennis who can heat up like a microwave.  A late-bloomer, he has been a strong competitor for many years as a top senior singles and doubles player in New England and national competition. 

The Team

The October Surprise

By October of 2009, Captain Drake and Lieutenant McKinley felt like they had taken a big step by assembling a stellar group of eight tennis competitors.  The Captain knew that the Bad Boys of Boston needed eight players because the threat of injury was always present.  Unfortunately, the Bad Boys were reduced to seven players before the journey even started when one of the recruits was ranked a 5.0 by the USTA and not eligible to play.  This left the team with only seven members —the Bad Boys were feeling a bit nervous!

Now the next challenge became finding ways to guide this talented and experienced group of guys into doubles shape, find the best doubles combinations, and jell as a team.  

The rules of USTA national team tennis are understandably strict:

*The rooster of players had to be submitted by October 31, 2009

* The team had to qualify to represent New England by defeating other New England teams vying for the honor of representing the section (one other team stepped forward)

* Once qualified, no additional players can be added to the team

*If a section cannot field a complete team of six players, the whole team cannot compete and must default all of its matches.

Then at one of the first practices at Bass River in October, Bill and Laury were playing doubles together for the first time ever, and in the middle of the second set, the captain had to stop because of a tweaked calf muscle.  That injury kept the Captain out of serious tennis for a few months.  Fortunately, by March, he was back on the court and raising his level of play every week.  The Boys were breathing easier knowing The Captain was back, and leading the charge! 

The March Surprise

But right around the time that the Captain was getting back into tip top condition, the Bad Boy’s encountered another surprise.  Mike Beautyman’s arm began acting up again (he had recently been out of action for an extended period of time with a bad elbow) and he had to withdraw just a few weeks before the competition began on April 30th.   That news hit the Boys hard. They were now down to six players and there was no margin for error. 

The April 25th Surprise

In early April, even though Chum was nursing a sore arm, it appeared the Boys were ready to roll!  Three weeks before the trip to Surprise, Laury competed in doubles every day for a week at the national 60 Hardcourts and playing with a fine pick-up partner reached the finals of a highly competitive 32-draw consolation bracket.  He returned to Boston in terrific doubles shape and excellent physical condition—he was primed to help pull a few surprises in Surprise! 

Three days before the Boy’s took flight, Laury and The Captain for the second time were playing solid doubles together at Bass River and out of nowhere a new and devastating surprise hit the Bad Boys--Laury felt a pop in his left calf on a routine shot and stopped playing immediately.  The Captain, the Lieutenant, and the Microwave were all present and saw their plans to pull off a few surprises at the nationals disappear before their eyes.  No sixth man means no team!  Laury straps ice on his calf, and as he hops to his car, it  looks like the Bad Boy’s of Boston may be goners. 

Laury goes right to bed with his iced and raised leg in deep pain from this heel to his knee.  On Monday he goes to work on crutches, and his physical therapist diagnoses the injury as a torn Gastroc muscle and says “With any luck you’ll be able to play tennis in 4-6 weeks.”  He also tells Laury to get off the crutches, and start walking with the foot pointed to the side so as not to put too much pressure on the leg. 

 After limping around on Tuesday, it was clear that actually playing tennis this week wasn’t going to happen.  But being a man of his word, Laury took the Wednesday morning plane flight to Surprise, AZ so he could walk on the court, limp around, and give the Bad Boys of Boston a chance to at least give it a shot, with two (instead of three) real doubles teams. 

Laury in wheelchair

Wandering in desert before matches start

They even stayed until dusk!

 

The April 28th and 29th Surprises

On Wednesday April 28, the Boys saw three new surprises-two good, one bad.  By Wednesday, the pain in Laury’s leg had moved from a `ten’ of agony to a `seven’.  He took forever limping to the US Airlines gate so he could fly to Surprise to do his duty and pretend to play tennis.  Upon arrival The Captain said, “Laury come on out and see what you can do just standing and swinging.”  Surprise---amazingly enough with only ½ of a court to cover and having developed a unique `hopping technique’ coupled with a heavily spun serve, Laury actually played a set of doubles.  Surprise--Later that evening an angel appeared to give aid to the Boys.  The Lieutenant’s wife, Carol, was a “wannabe” massage therapist and got to work massaging Laury’s ailing leg. It made a huge difference.   Surprise--unfortunately, on the down side, The Lieutenant was feeling ill and weak and thought he might have a kidney stone.  He showed up for practice and gave it a go, but he was lacking his usual energy and looking pale.  Now there were two ailing Bad Boys of Boston fighting through their physical limitations in super windy conditions that, by the way, often didn’t feel like real tennis as the ball did multiple gyrations in the air.  The Captain would hear none of this `wind talk’, but out of The Captain’s ear shot, you could hear Chum cursing the wind with expletives no child should hear. 

When Thursday morning, April 29, arrived, the Captain cracked the whip. The Boys were out to practice at 7:00 am.  As it turned out this early practice was almost delayed because the Surprise facility staff was surprised when the Boys showed up--there was a mix-up and the facility wasn’t even open.  Not to be deterred, The Captain convinced a maintenance person to let the Boys jump (or limp as the case may be) on to the courts and the second day of practice in Surprise began. 

The big surprise on Thursday was that Carol’s handiwork had made a big difference on the healing of Laury’s calf and he had refined his “hopping technique” to a point where he and two different Bad Boy partners won two practice sets.  Bob was still feeling weak but he was making every legal effort to heal himself and to raise the level of energy in his game.  The Bad Boy’s of Boston were damaged but not down. They were warriors and just beginning to fight. 

The April 30th Surprises

The Men’s 60’s featured teams from ten sections who played in two separate round robins.  The two teams with the best records in round robin play make it to the semifinals on Sunday.  The opening match was Friday morning at 7:30 am against a tough Southwest team that had the home court advantage.  Bill and John won handily, while Chum and Laury lost a very close match and Bob and George also lost a tough one.   That was a deflating start because placing in the top two would be very tough if we had one more team loss. 

 

Not to be discouraged, the team grabbed a brunch at their favorite coffee shop and prepared for the next match at 1:30 pm (or so the Bad Boys of Boston thought).  The Bad Boys were a bit behind schedule and arrived at the courts later than planned (at 1:25 pm) and to their surprise were informed that, even though the match was scheduled for 1:30 pm, the default clock could begin anytime after 1 pm based on when the courts were ready.  (Now that is one for the books!  Who has ever heard of such a bizarre rule?)   This was the kind of surprise that the Bad Boys weren’t looking for.  But at this point they should’ve expected this since at every turn they were faced with such overwhelming adversity.

 

All three New England teams were penalized and began the set down two games to zero with the Missouri Valley team having choice of serve.    Amazingly enough, the whole team met this challenge with renewed vigor and even with Hopalong limping and The Lieutenant gasping, all three teams won their matches.  The Bad Boys dodged this bullet and emerged at the end of the day with a surprising record of 1-1 in team matches and 4-2 in matches.  Not too shabby, considering how bad it could have been for the Bad Boys.  

 

The May 1st Surprise

At 7:30 Am. sharp on Saturday morning the Bad Boys of Boston played the Beasts from the East, their arch rivals from New York.   Not only are the Bad Boys Yankee haters, but many still hold a grudge against the Giants and Eli Manning for that ridiculous helmet catch that prevented the Patriots from a perfect year.   This match was serious. 

Laury and Bob won fairly quickly and then morphed into cheerleaders for their brothers.  George and Chum were down match point in the Super TB but finally pulled it out in dramatic fashion 11-9!  The attention was then on Bill and John who won the first set and had a match point (on their opponent’s serve) and finally lost in a highly competitive Super TB. 

The Boys had pulled out another surprise and were now sitting at 2-1 in team matches and the potential for a Miracle on Cement was taking shape.  The next match was against the highly touted and undefeated Texas team that brought ten players filled with several ringers—everywhere you looked was a Texan with their uniforms and hats.  The Boys knew they were in for a tough one, and they relished this challenge.  Laury and Bob lost a close one to a highly experienced and talented Texas team, George and Chum went down to another fine Texas team.  Fortunately, Bill and John pulled out a key match in the Super Tiebreaker after being down match point-- in the end turned out to be a huge win. 

The Bad Boys of Boston were now at 2-2 in team matches and the Boys were feeling down because it appeared that all was lost and the biggest surprise would turn out to be that the Bad Boys were once again making an early exit.  Pulling off the planned Surprise in Surprise seemed like a pipe dream, and    Chum and others were already checking out early flights home. 

But wait! Laury, an admitted pathological optimist and team mathematician, did some quick calculations and pointed out that if the East beat the Southwest, there would be a three-way tie for second place with the East, the Southwest, and New England.  They would all be tied at 2-2 and then it would be up to the number of matches won as the first tiebreaker. 

Now for possibly the first time ever, the Boys of Boston found themselves rooting for the Beasts from East against the Southwest in the last match of the day.    The match was incredibly close and tied at 1-1. The season was on the shoulders of the number one East doubles team as the New England team crossed their collective fingers and prayed to the tennis gods for salvation.   Predictably, it went to a super Tie Break in the last match and had not Doug Barrow of the East hit three unreal overheads, the Bad Boys season would’ve been over.  As fate would have it, the East won, creating a three-way tie for third.  As we were walking over to the tournament desk the Tournament Director announced “New England advances!”  because the Boys had won one more match. (Doug and his boys let the Bad Boys know New England owed him one.)   The big surprise in Surprise had happened--the Bad Boys of Boston had reached the championship round for the first time in recent New England senior men’s history.

There was a short time of celebrating and hanging out in the hotel whirlpool swapping stories, that if recorded would’ve been a fine oral history of New England tennis over the past 50 years.    Despite all the adversity, the Bad Boys had pulled off a surprise and were now gearing up for creating a few more surprises.

The May 2nd Surprise

Sunday was another early morning and the Boys were at the courts at the crack of dawn warming up.   Things were looking good.  Carol continued hammering Laury’s leg on a nightly basis with her painful but healing leg massages which made a huge difference.  Bob was just about back to his usual high energy self, and everyone believed we had a few more surprises up our sleeve!  The semifinal match was against the team that won the whole thing the past two years—the South.   The Boys were oozing confidence after making the final round on Sunday (by the hair on their chinny chin chins).  The chant became “Bring ‘em on!” 

George and Chum lost a tough match against a very strong Southern team which meant New England had to win both of the remaining matches to make the finals.  Bill and John, and Laury and Bob were in the middle of two closely contested matches that could have gone either way.  Laury and Bob lost the first set and then stormed back to win the second set carrying major momentum going into the Super TB.  Even though the South jumped to an early lead, Bob and Laury hung tough and just about tied it up, only to lose on a couple of incredible shots by the South to close it out.  John and Bill beat a terrific team in a third set Tie-Break, but the Boys lost 2-1 to the South—it all came down to one very close Super TB.  Had Laury and Bob won that TB, the Bad Boys of Boston would’ve pulled off another big surprise and reached the finals.  So close, so close, so close! 

The playoff against Southern California was a bit anti-climatic, but again it came down to the last match where Bob and George lost in a very close Super TB. 

Surprise Was Filled with Surprises!

The Bad Boys of Boston shook hands, gave goodbye hugs, and rode off into the desert sunset with their heads held high, knowing they pulled off a major surprise in Surprise.  New England sent a message that we are force to be dealt with and that in the future, New England teams that contend for the crown will be the expectation, not a surprise.   None of these things could’ve happened without the incredible practical, emotional, and spiritual support from the Bad Girls who made the trip (Carol, Liz, and Jolita).  The Bad Boys of Boston wonder, what might happen if they have seven, or even six, fully healthy guys?  Tune in next year and find out!