Tennis Titans and Challengers

Conspiracy theorists, listen up – I think I’ve got one you can sink your teeth into.

Theoretically, the somewhat oxymoronically named University High School is called that because of its location adjacent to the University of California, Irvine. But it could just be a clever ruse. See, when the bus pulls into the school parking lot to pick up the UHS boy’s tennis team and transport it to their matches, who would be the wiser if by some “snafu” in communications the UCI tennis team happened to board. An honest mistake. I mean, they’re right next door. And if caught, they could always laugh it off as an innocent joke. After all, Will Ferrell is a University High graduate. I mean, how else can you explain a team winning the CIF Southern Section Division 1 Championship by a margin of 17-1?

A little background here…in CIF-SS Championship tournament tennis play, each match involves nine players from each team. Three are designated singles players, while the other six play doubles. In round-robin fashion, every singles player takes on the three singles players from the other team – each in a one-set match. Ditto for the doubles teams. All of this creates 18 different matches, all of which earn the winning team one point. With this format, it’s not as if one player can get hot and carry a team to victory, as perhaps a dominating pitcher or a red-hot batter can do in baseball. So for UHS to win all but one of 18 matches? To lose just three combined games in the nine singles matches? Against tennis powerhouse Santa Barbara, the #2 ranked team in Southern California? Something’s fishy here.

Fortunately, acting on an anonymous tip, your Sports Fan on the beat was there at Claremont Club to check out University High School – if indeed that was truly who they were. Here is a partial transcript of my notes (and make sure you eat these after reading them):

• Hmmm. They look like high school kids. And they sure talk like high school kids.
• Aha! Santa Barbara’s best singles player is out with an undisclosed “illness”.
• This looks interesting…Uni’s got Michael Chang listed as a reserve. Isn’t he way past high school age?
• Man, that serve by Ryan Cheung is just about unhittable.
• How does this Gage Brymer kid get so much spin on the ball?
• Do they EVER make an unforced error?
• Well, they are 22-0 this season, and I guess it would probably be tough to smuggle in collegiate players 22 different times.
• Sorry guys, this looks legit – this team is just that good. My work here is done…hey, wait a second, what’s going on over there?

At that point in the day, what had been a persistent low roar from several courts over began to reach new heights. I consulted the posted match assignments and learned that courts 19-24 were being used for the Division 2 Championship between Palm Desert and Brentwood. And from the sounds of it, there was a lot of action going on. How could I NOT drop by?

This was a matchup of city vs. desert; L.A. cool and Palm Springs hot. Brentwood is just down Wilshire Boulevard from Beverly Hills, and home to many of L.A.’s movers and shakers. Palm Desert, on the other hand, has more of a mixed population which includes the work-a-day people that keep the Coachella Valley’s many resorts running smoothly. So when I ventured around the corner into the middle of this match it didn’t surprise me that the Palm Desert contingent clearly had the upper hand in emoting, if nothing else.

Of the six courts allocated to the Palm Desert-Brentwood match, only two were in use when I arrived on the scene, and all eyes were on a singles match being contested on the far court. I asked a bystander who appeared to be in the know for a quick synopsis, and he told me that this was the conclusion of the second set of six matches, and that the singles match in progress was a key point. In general, Brentwood was the better singles team, while Palm Desert excelled in doubles. For either team to lay claim on the title, they were going to have to steal a point from their opponent’s strong suit, and the match between Brentwood’s Adam Schwartz and Palm Desert’s Nick Wood was shaping up to present just that opportunity for Palm Desert.

Wood had been down 3-0, but had clawed back into the match at just about the point when all of the other second-round matches had been completed. Now both teams and entourages were glued to the action in full force, and when Wood held serve in a game that was in deuce for at least twenty minutes, it was 4-4.

During the changeover break it occurred to me that, should anyone doubt that pro athletes are role models, all they have to do to test the theory is go to back-to-back high school games involving different sports. In my case, it was baseball one day, followed by tennis the next. Every sport has its own set of cultures and mores, based largely upon the personalities of the titans of that game at the professional level.

For example, the El Dorado baseball team I saw the previous day clearly takes its lead from the Yankees. They dress like them and they wear the numbers of the Yankee stars – and they comported themselves according to the uniforms they wore. They were the embodiment of the icy cool of A-Rod and Jeter. They celebrated their own good play, but not excessively – and they gave the opposition no mind whatsoever, other than to congratulate them at the end of the game.

On the other hand, the Palm Desert tennis team that I watched play the rest of this day had clearly adopted the classic “bad boy” persona, a la John McEnroe. They exuberantly celebrated almost every point earned, and loudly shouted the call when their opponent’s shots landed out of bounds. It was borderline “in your face” stuff, which in another sport perhaps would have drawn at least a “Dude…seriously?” from one’s own teammates. And on one particularly close call that a Brentwood player signaled out, his Palm Desert opponent went through an entire Passion Play, ending with hands lifted to the heavens, beseeching his coach “Can’t we get a line judge here?” If I’m the Brentwood player I’m thinking – “This guy just called me a cheat”. But everyone pretty much shrugged and carried on.

Sure enough though, composure won out, and the taciturn Schwartz came out of the changeover to win the final two games and secure the key point in his match against Wood. The overall team match ended at 9-9, but defending champion Brentwood held on to their title by the slimmest of margins, due to the fact that they had won five more total games during the course of the overall match.

In thinking back and contrasting the two events, I can’t help but think that the framing of a high school athletic event has to come from somewhere – and in my opinion it’s taken from the pros that play that sport. Either that, or from rap stars. Then again, I find it pretty easy to blame rap music for everything, up to and including global warming. But that’s just me.

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