2/27/11

Fresh Oregano

     Much of what I was taught about competing in tennis was adopted from one family. The Vitas of McKinney, Texas were wild, rough, and full of go. Both of 'em. Joe cut a figure, VITA with blue lettering on the back of his gold helmet in the summer of 84 two-a-days. First time I ever saw the word Vita. Standing in line with the receivers, new in town and waiting to run my first 10 yard button hook. My hands were among the best to ever cradle a football, but my speed was never near enough. Had quick feet, just couldn't run fast. Soon they moved my 160 pound body to guard, hoping I'd follow my older brother's growth patterns and become something. Church on Sunday days. Billy, William Vita Jr., was younger, wilder, and more rebellious. Won some brother battles, I'm sure. Saw a couple. Seemed to always have a rip in some part of his shirt. From tugging, pulling, rustling, something. Italians, of course, but very distinctly Philly and very distinctly, for me at least, McKinney. Both played tennis tenaciously and followed exotic tennis players. Lendl, Wilander, and the argentine Guillermo Vilas. I was a disciple of McEnroe, Conners, and Borg. They had stacks of tennis magazines. Imagine, 14/15 year old boys staring at tennis magazines for hours. Thinking back, what were we doing? We thought we lived on a higher plane. Just as well, we did play a lot of tennis and won and lost many games, sets, and matches.

     Joe held an unbeatable aura that has held to this very day in the 41st year of my life. I've never beaten the man in singles. Taken some sets, won some pong, plenty of doubles victories, but never a singles match. He may not even be aware. We've played consistently, and competitively, through the years. Through various stages of shape and the normal maladies and struggles that hinder men living their lives. Joe is a man with a strong family, because he is a man from a strong family. Same with BV. The Vitas are people that live. Because they grew up with a cross above the doorways and on the shelves and on the necks of their father and mother. Bill Sr. and Mary Anne. Food in the fridge. Fresh food all the time. Always something on the stove. Huge pots cooking. Bill Sr. stirring and talking. Talking about the squid. "See boys, we cook it slow, simmering, all damn day. The octopus is a tough fish. The meat is tough unless you break it down. Add a little salt." He shook the salt vigorously over the just boiling soup. "Mary Anne!” he cried above all the noises, "We got the good oregano from the market, or do we got only the bottled kind?" Of course the fresh oregano was available and used once Mary Anne quietly and with a huge smile presented it to him :15 seconds later. "Can't hear ourselves think in here sometimes. These damn birds." She laughed and talked. She knew her boys and she knew her husband. A loud family, in love. Prayers ascend, now especially, for the loud, and in love, Vita family.

     Joe Vita seemed melancholy and preoccupied during the first doubles mahut ever played. Along with Keck, we had arrived, after scurrying around Allen for an available court, onto the middle court of the Allen Freshman Center expecting to drill and perhaps play some Australian or California version of regular scoring. The singles player gets the doubles lines; the doubles players only get the singles lines. It's a good method to create some match like conditions. In fact, ISM (Isner Scoring Method) could be leveraged through 2 on 1 matches, especially if there is reliability and commitment from the players. At this point, I don't think it's ever been tried.

     The court lights were decent. The early January night came quick. Cool and breezy, but no bite from real cold. We commented on long time lapses, business deals, family deals, traffic deals, insufficient court deals, music deals, and other deals. Joe, perfectly outfitted, and Keck, in a green Fila leisure style suit, started on one side and we began to warm up. With my planter fascia tendon well enough to be forgotten and my legs and shoulders fairly well stretched, we started blasting forehands and backhands. Joe had powerful swings that produced violent spins and made consistent solid contact. Keck was the machine, tuned by ISM scoring methodology and in the midst of a prison workout process. No weights or machines he previously informed me, just what you can do with your body. Maybe a crossbar. Mainly, it was back to the basics, in an extreme manner. The hope is to get an authentic ex convict to be on the DVD. Or he could just stream the video on the internet. Let customers burn their own DVD if they wanted. Really, this could be up and running quickly through a blog site. From there it's marketing. And sit-ups, pushups, pull ups (the crossbar), running, no sugars, lose the bread (and chips); take vitamins, every dang day. Keck could make it work. He flicked his forehands, he sawed his backhands, he returned everything. Joe, not as much, but I was having trouble handling the increased pace of his shots because I generally play with the slower paced Keck. Joe moved his feet very well, no dragging or giving up on wide shots. He knew those were the shots that won matches. Perhaps a desperate running forehand down the line to make it deuce and fend off game point in the 9th game in the 5th mahut of an Isner match. Perhaps you came back and won the game to make it 3/6, a chance at a 4/6 mahut, relieved that you avoided a 2/8 mahut, and highly motivated to avoid a 3/7 mahut. Perhaps 4/6 would bring the Isner tally to 17-33, above the important 0.5 (0.515) Isner player comparison ratio. Fall below the 0.5 mark and your partner should really find someone better to play, his 1.94 player comparison ratio with you is still in a productive range, worthy of his time, but unless you sustain your efforts the ratios can move quickly. Either way. Every point matters. Every game matters. Every mahut matters. Every Isner match matters. Joe could be the greatest of all Isner players, but he hadn't embraced ISM fully. Yet. To his credit, he had played the 2nd Isner match with Keck the previous summer/fall and his ratios were significantly better than mine and above the 0.5 mark. I had a 0.44 player comparison ratio with Keck, from a 31-70 finish in the 1st ever Isner, completed a month prior to the completion of the Keck/Vita match (70-35). My second Isner match with Keck was coming to a close and the ratios were very similar. Considering two consecutive 1/9 mahuts in mahut #1 and mahut #2, my improved ratios of late were encouraging and a 6/4 win in mahut #7 was my first ever mahut win. I currently stood at 1-17-1 in mahuts with Keck. Humbled, but aware of what it takes to improve, fight, and win. I should be grateful with a ratio in the forties, especially considering the planter fascia injury. As we continued to warm up, a man with 120 tennis balls all over the side court was hitting shot after shot furiously. He was drenched. Eventually, he approached us about playing doubles. We all seemed fine with it and, after introductions and handshakes we moved to his court (the better court due to being near a fence) and teams were formed. Keck and I were on the same side and standing next to each other so we nodded and teamed up. Joe and the Floridian Jim did the same. As we continued warming up and I began thinking about the note-worthiness of the moment. This was to be the first Isner doubles mahut.

     Keck and I performed as we expected, our play sharpened by the previous month's ISM matches and mahuts. The Floridian seemed a bit flustered at first, but settled in and tortured us late in the match with swirling, spinning serves. The kind of serves cooked up on the clay courts of Florida. No clay courts in Texas. Outdoors at least. The Texas sun, hotter and longer than the Florida sun, would burn them and the cracks would grow wide and deep. Only hard, concrete courts outside in Texas. Fast, but still not as fast as the Wimbledon grass Isner and Mahut occupied in the summer of 2010. Despite the Floridian’s service tricks, Keck and I were too much and too constant. The Isner match was played under the cover of a regular match (no time to explain ISM to the Floridian) and at 6-0, 2-2, I looked at Keck after he put away a forehand volley to win the game and said, "8-2 in the first ever doubles mahut." For a moment, he hesitated, then finally offered a knowing look and gave the accomplishment its propers. Keck and I would go on to win 6-4 in the final antique set to win the antique match, our focus and sharpness somehow diminished after the quiet mahut celebration. Joe found his tennis game during the match and nearly broke my wrist as I attempted to volley one of his screaming down the line attempts, but was handicapped by the Floridian. Despite his late serving success, the rest of the man's game was in shambles. The electric ball machine he was using before we arrived needed more court time. On reflection, maybe it needed more storage time. Only constant human play can sustain success. Like fresh oregano, authenticity cannot be replicated.