This Side Up

Set to play on Saturday


A 12-minute set,” Bob announced to those in the locker room Saturday.

There were incredulous responses.

“How did you manage that? You really must have been on top of your game.”

Indeed, the opening set of Saturday play at Tennis Rhode Island was one of the fastest I’ve played, and it wasn’t pretty. Bob Coker and I weren’t on top of our game. We didn’t have a game, or more properly put, I might have been better off without a racket.

Bob is an original of the Saturday league that he and former superintendent of schools Clyde Bennett started in 1972 soon after the opening of Toll Gate High School. Bob coached the Toll Gate tennis team, and Saturday morning play between faculty and their spouses was seen as a means of building school esprit de corps. All six courts at the club are used by the league.

In the early days, it was a truly Toll Gate affair. In one way or another, all the players either taught at the school or were related to someone who someone who worked there. The late Robert Shapiro, who went on to become superintendent of schools, was a regular, as was Ed McElroy, then a teacher and head of the Warwick Teachers Union who become president of the American Federation of Teachers. Ed loved close calls on the court and earned the reputation of “negotiating,” rather than winning, points.

But as the league evolved, it reached beyond the Toll Gate community to recruit subs and members. Former Beacon sports editor Tim Geary was invited to fill in one Saturday and soon became a regular. When he couldn’t make it one weekend, he asked me to cover, and I haven’t left the group since. There’s more to it than just a friendly morning of tennis. It’s friendly, but it’s also competitive.

The practice of rotating partners started early on, as did the use of the Van Alen method of scoring so that the team to first win four points wins the game. That pretty much ensured that over an hour and a half you would get to play a set with each of players assigned to a particular court for the morning, although even with playing the best of nine points in a game, sets can take 45 minutes.

Then there’s the score of sets won and how that affects the position on the ladder.

You can see the league has come a long way from a group of teachers looking to start the weekend off hitting tennis balls and having fun.

A tally of the sets won every six weeks determines a player’s ranking and the prospect of either moving up the 6-rung ladder or down a notch. It can get serious in the final weeks of play when winning a set can mean dropping a notch or elevating into the next level.

Saturday was the second week of another session, so there wasn’t the pressure. Surely, I didn’t feel it, for I’m at the bottom of the ladder so the future can only look good. Moving up, assuming I can win the points, is the only option. There’s no downside.

But that didn’t help. In the first three games, we only won one point a game. One unforced error followed the next.

For starters, I was glued to the court, and then when I reached a ball my placement was off and I handed our opponents, Steve and Richard, a put away. We all have days when things don’t click and you know you would have been better putting off what you had planned.

But tennis? It’s fun. It’s exercise. It’s getting out and getting going.

Joe Crowley, who’s been a league member for as long as I can remember, says it’s what we do so we can have breakfast.

Breakfast after tennis has been a part of the ritual for decades. The long gone New York System in Apponaug was a favorite, as was Miss Cranston before it was Miss Cranston over by Kent County Court. Miss Cranston has been gone for years. The breakfast gatherings are smaller now, but there is still a diehard few like Bob, his son Dave, Steve Andruchow, Eddie Blamires, Crowley and, of course, Clyde who gather over coffee at Panera to discuss the fine points of the morning matches, which usually lasts no more than a couple of minutes. Then just about everything is up for grabs, from politics to sports.

I skipped this Saturday’s breakfast club. No doubt the 12-minute set – we actually won a game that means each game averaged less than two minutes – was a topic of discussion.

Next Saturday it will be another topic. There will be those points won and lost on the court and the tally at the end of the day that will impact standings. Some would argue that’s what Saturday tennis is all about.

I would say they’re missing the better part of the experience – understanding that even a 12-minute set is a good start to a Saturday morning.


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