Jul/18

29

Winning Mixed with an Olympic Gold Medalist

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By Scoop Malinowski

I first saw Natalia Shaposhnikova playing tennis at my club two years ago, hitting in the morning with a ball machine on the red clay court at the Packanack Lake Tennis Club.

She was quick, fit and though she looked like a beginner she also hit the ball well with two hands on both sides. She could hit a lot of balls into the court. I introduced myself and found her to be a fun, pleasant person, who just started playing tennis less than a year earlier. She had been an Olympic gold medalist gymnast for Russia in 1980.

She absolutely loves tennis and was intrigued to hear some of my stories. We connected and began to hit once in a while. She was still some time away from competing but it was just a matter of months or a couple of years.

About a month ago we played a set of doubles against each other and I was surprised how much she improved, able to to hit extended rallies cross court with far more experienced players and she could move the ball around and hit smart high lobs.

The inaugural North Jersey Mixed Doubles tournament in late July was in the back of my mind and my regular mixed partner was unable to commit because of work so I decided to ask Natalia and she quickly agreed despite her lack of competitive experience. This would be her first real tournament. And it would be our first time playing doubles together.

We practiced twice to get ready and though I knew she had some weaknesses – serve was weak, no volleys, overheads and lack of power, there was something there that I thought could handle basic slow-footed older women players.

However, our first round match we drew two former college players, one a head pro at a local club and the woman was a recent club champion. Each had been playing tennis for thirty years at least while Natalia is still just  in her third year.

We got smoked but we competed well. There were some positive signs. I had no problem with this 5.0’s pace or serve – I returned every one of his serves all match long. For her it was very hard because she wasn’t accustomed to playing two very strong players who both had good pace, spin and consistency. She was overwhelmed at times but she hung in there and kept trying and never showed any frustration at being the clear weak link on the court. And she did make progress during the match, making some impressive shots despite being totally out of her level.

I was inspired by her enthusiasm and spirit through the awkward situation. The enthusiasm and hop in her step never wavered. She kept trying her best like a true warrior. I like a warrior. We agreed to try the consolation bracket the next day. I knew it would be a big challenge because, to my surprise, all eight of the teams in this tournament were strong. I had expected it to be a very small tournament with weak woman players who I could frustrate with my heavy spin varieties but all of them were far better than I expected.

We got a walkover in the consolation bracket semi over a team that didn’t show up after losing a heartbreaker the night before. So in the final we faced a team of two solid 4.0 players. I realized quickly in the warmup they were consistent and had good power and they were going to attack Natalia relentlessly just like the previous day.

Before the match we hit for ten minutes on a side court and I was shocked that Natalia didn’t miss one ball in the first three minutes. I never saw her hit better. She hit a little before I got there but I think Friday’s match sharpened her and helped her immensely. Facing the best can leave a residue on to the beaten, weaker player and Natalia gained some valuable experience and confidence and, without a doubt, improved over night.

She quickly proved it in the first set yesterday. We leaped to a surprising 3-love lead. Because Natalia was not missing and I was very aggressive at the net and attacking the net and upsetting their rhythms. The opponents’ shots were also easier for Natalia to handle. Despite some adversity, we managed to close out the first set 6-3. I tried many different tactics to prevent this team from isolating their attacks on Natalia and was successful early on most of my poaches and overheads.

The second set changed because they grew more patient and continued their attacks on Natalia who played only at the baseline, never at net, she doesn’t like net and volleys uncomfortably with two hands. They were able to avoid me more. So she was on one side of the court and they zeroed in on her. My serve wasn’t on and couldn’t deliver any free points any more. And Natalia started to miss more. Still she stayed positive and never showed any frustration or anger or any negative. I could sense she still maintained belief that we could win. That sparked me.  I guess that’s why she is special. To win an Olympic gold medal is extraordinary. She has something in her that us regular athletes do not.

Down 1-4 in the second with the other team openly chattering and smiling and laughing and totally confident, we were in deep trouble. They were up 4-1 and 40-15 with Natalia serving. Natalia from her deuce side, hit a forehand that their woman somehow netted while standing less than a yard from the net. Then I won the next point and it was suddenly deuce. They got tight. We won that game, 2-4. We broke the guy for 3-4.

We had momentum now. I served and changed our plan. I wanted Natalia at net to give them a new look, so they could not attack her on the first ball and hone in on her. With her at net, they would have to change their pattern. They both returned to me and I won both points for 30-0. But we ended up losing that game and the next. But I felt those changes helped to rebuild our confidence and belief and stopped their momentum. We also injected some worry into their psyches.

I knew we had to mix it up to beat them in the match tiebreaker, not play the same patterns as we did the whole match, they had grown comfortable with. I had to be a kamikazee at net, make things happen and be the best player on the court. Noo unforced errors or errors, period.

The tiebreak was close, we were up 3-1 then it was 3-3. Natalia was hanging in there making shots, sustaining rallies which allowed me to be very aggressive at net which bothered them. It was tense because everyone knew it could go either way. Someone had to step up, or someone would choke. Somehow we kept it close.

It’s all a blur now but I remember Natalia held her two points on serve and we were up 9-6 with two match points. They key point was her serve from ad court. For the first time in the match I stood to her left to take away the cross court return to Natalia and forced them to go to her forehand, then I attacked the net which scared them. We won that point on an error. Three match points.

He hit a great backhand cross court angle on the first. The next one…I totally forget now! I think one of them sailed a shot wide, I was at net and turned around and saw Natalia was about as excited as I was. It really felt like we won Wimbledon! I can tell you, having won over 30 tournaments in singles this one was more thrilling and special. Wait, we didn’t even win this tournament, just the consolation bracket!

But it was very special to get the win for Natalia. Despite how less experienced she was and how much she was attacked in the two matches, she never lost her spirit and enthusiasm, her will was never broken. And she raised her game so much in the span of less then 24 hours. What a valuable tennis experience this was for her and that was what I told her before the first match. Win or lose or get killed this would be a valuable experience.

Our prizes were $20 gift cards to Starbucks and discount memberships at the Wayne Racquet Club. Later I joked that this win might have been more exciting than when Natalia won Olympic gold and she agreed, because tennis is such a new different challenge for her and gymnastics is what she is.

By the way, the team we lost to on Friday won the championship – without having lost a set in three matches.

So that’s the story about a meaningless consolation bracket mixed doubles match. Which I’m sure will always be one of the most memorable, special experiences of my tennis playing activity. To steal a win from the jaws of defeat is the stuff dreams are made of.

If Hollywood is interested in the book or movie rights to this match, please contact me directly 🙂

 

Scoop’s seventh tennis book Facing Marat Safin will be published in August.

3 comments

  • Coach Skelly · July 30, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    Hell yeah!!!Great going Scoop and Nadia!????????????

  • Jack · July 30, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    Great story, Scoop! That’s why we play this game, to have experiences like the one you describe. I’m sure the elation you and Natalia felt in winning the consies at the NJ Mixed Doubles tourney equaled or exceeded that of the winners in a grand slam tournament.

  • Al Bracco · August 2, 2018 at 10:38 am

    I remember watching Natalia move around the court and noticing how she always seemed to be up on her toes. Makes sense now – ha! I also noticed how she didn’t get frustrated despite being the weakest player in your matches. Just kept coming back for more with a smile on her face. Anyway, thanks again for participating – we all had a great time.

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