Tennis in Tennessee

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April 30th 2017
Published: May 2nd 2017
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The purpose of my whole trip was to come and support my alma mater's tennis team in the SEC tournament, taking place in Knoxville, TN, from April 26-30. I'm also one of the unofficial photographers of the team, and several of the players' parents have told me that they like my photos the best. Aw shucks. They're probably just being nice, but I'll take the compliments. I like taking pictures, particularly of sports, and plus I know several of these players. It's always easier to photograph a subject that you're actually interested in. And since these guys do a lot more winning than losing, it makes the matches (and following the team) that much better. Since my Racquet Dawgs (that's what I call the UGA men's tennis team) tied for 1st place in the regular season, they didn't have to play until the quarterfinal round, which was Friday, April 28th.

Their opponent in the quarterfinals was Arkansas, a team they had already beaten in the regular season. For that matter, they only lost one conference match all season, their final match on the road against Texas A&M. That meant UGA had the #2 seed while A&M, with an identical record in the conference, had the #1 seed. Arkansas played hard, but UGA played better - the doubles point was easily taken care of, which meant they only needed to win 3 of the 6 singles matches. In NCAA tennis, there are 7 points possible, so the first team to earn 4 points wins. The 3 doubles matches count as a single point, with a point going to the team that wins 2 of the 3 doubles matches. Doubles are played before singles now, and there are 6 singles matches in all. Usually, play will be suspended once a team reaches 4 points. So winning the doubles points gives a little momentum and little bit of breathing room to that team. But singles matches have a very different feel than doubles matches. Success in one doesn't always translate to success in the other. Against Arkansas, the singles matches were not so easy. The Racquet Dawgs earned 2 of the singles points without much fuss, but Arkansas pulled off its own singles point to make the score 3-1 in favor of UGA. Those singles matches were won by Paul Oosterbaan and Walker Duncan, in that order; the loss was against Jan Zielinski,
Walker Duncan is one of the more enthusiastic playersWalker Duncan is one of the more enthusiastic playersWalker Duncan is one of the more enthusiastic players

This was right before he clinched his match, but I just like how it looks like the ball is stuck to the racket.
a guy who is very entertaining and who is usually a reliable win (or at least a difficult loss). Of the remaining 3 matches, 2 of them were going in favor of Arkansas before Emil Reinberg won his match for UGA to give the Racquet Dawgs the requisite 4 points and a victory to advance to the semifinals against Florida on Friday.

Friday's match was the earlier of two for the day: Georgia vs third-seed Florida, followed by top-seed Texas A&M vs fifth-seed Mississippi State. The morning match featured great tennis weather - still some shade, not too hot, and a light breeze. By the end of the match, however, the temperature was near 90 degrees F. This match was a street brawl of a tennis match - nothing went easily for anyone. The doubles matches were tooth and nail - Walker and Wayne lost to Florida first, which seemed to give the Gators the momentum. But Paul and Emil came back to win their match on court 2 before Robert Loeb and Jan took care of business, clinching the point for UGA. That's always a relief, and it's a great improvement from the start of the season, when they had difficulty keeping the doubles point from the opposing team. At singles, things were basically a toss up. The only surprise, and easy point, of the match was UGA's Nathan Ponwith forfeiting his singles match due to injury. Apparently, that was the plan since yesterday, because he had hurt himself at some point. Without him in the lineup, the players would've been playing in a different arrangement. In NCAA tennis, you're only allowed to move players up or down by one court (so from 2 to 1, or 4 to 5) from previous lineups, so the coaches took a strategic risk by planning a forfeit, which essentially tied the match at 1-1 within minutes of the start of singles. That didn't bode well. Emil today had a much easier go of it than yesterday, giving the Racquet Dawgs their 1st singles point of the day and a lead of 2-1. But Florida took care of Robert and Walker to actually go up 3-2. It was looking like that forfeit was a costly gamble. All eyes were on Wayne and Jan. Wayne fared much better today, destroying his opponent 6-1 in the first set but then lost 1-6 in the
When your teammate takes down your arch-rivalWhen your teammate takes down your arch-rivalWhen your teammate takes down your arch-rival

Jan receives a big hug from Walker to celebrate the victory
second set. His third set started slowly but he finally pulled it out to tie the match at 3-3. Jan won his first set and had come back after being down in the second set to tie it at 6-6, resulting in a tie-break series - first to 7 points. His early lead vanished at 4-4, but with the match on the line, Florida choked, and Jan came out on top. His tie-break win in the second set sealed the match for UGA at 4-3 over Florida.

It sure was nice to beat Florida for a 2nd time in the same season. It was also nice to beat them in the tournament this year, since they beat the Racquet Dawgs in the finals last year to win the tournament.

So for the umpteenth consecutive time, the Racquet Dawgs found themselves in the SEC tournament title game. I went to get some lunch after the match, since I was exhausted and hungry. When I got back, Texas A&M had just taken the doubles point from Mississippi State and seemed destined to win the match. After all, they were the #1 seed, so you expect to see the #1 and #2 teams in the finals. But Mississippi State wouldn't go down quietly. After all, this was the only conference team that had beaten Texas A&M all season. It was a hot and long afternoon, but I stayed through the singles matches until it was official: Mississippi State had done it again, but this time they advanced to the finals by taking down Texas A&M 4-3. It looked like the final was going to be an all-Bulldog affair - those of Georgia vs. those of Mississippi State. Their match, however, had lasted about an hour longer than the morning match. Would that mean they were more wiped out for the finals? Or would it mean they had extra motivation after beating the top team in the conference?

It was the latter - Mississippi State came out swinging, taking the doubles point in a close match at court 1 that presaged the rest of the match. The semifinals were close, brutal contests that ended in 4-3 wins for both sets of Bulldogs. The same happened in the finals. But Mississippi State had to deal with a little déjà vu - they had lost the doubles point but came back to win against A&M by winning 4 of the 6 singles matches in the semifinals. UGA gave them the same treatment, I am happy to say. It's always disheartening to lose the doubles point, being in the hole after a grueling trio of matches. But the Racquet Dawgs began the Spring season that way for the first several matches, though they typically came back due to strong performances in the singles. We needed them today. Jan Zielinski won his singles match in straight sets, actually giving UGA the first point of the day, the first singles match to complete, which tied the score at 1-1. Not long afterward, though, Paul Oosterbaan dropped his match after some very questionable calls from the ref as Mississippi State retook the lead 2-1. Walker Duncan gave a much better performance in his singles match, winning a tight match in straight sets against Gio Oradini, the guy who clinched the win over A&M the day before, tying us up again at 2-2. Then we got a boost from Wayne Montgomery, who needed 3 sets to take down his opponent and give UGA the first lead of the day at 3-2. To many people's surprise, Nate Ponwith was back in the lineup after recuperating overnight. While he didn't win his singles match, he dominated the first set and gave a close performance in the 3rd set. But his loss tied up the score again at 3-3. It all came down to Emil Reinberg, who had clinched the match for UGA against Arkansas on Friday. He won his first set and looked like he was cruising to a straight-set victory before his opponent tied it all up at 5-5 before taking the lead at 6-5. Then Emil won his 6th game in the set to force a tie-break. Of course - why wouldn't it all come down to a tie-break? Emil was playing for an SEC title while his opponent was playing to force a 3rd set. We all wanted to get out of the sun and enjoy the rest of our lives. The people working the match were pulling for Georgia because they got to go home when it was over. Emil took an early lead, but every time he looked like he was getting a break, his opponent would come back and tie it up. 2-0 then 2-2. Then Emil was down 5-2 before tying it up at 6-6. Seriously? Yes. The next point would determine whether we celebrated or settled in for a 3rd set. Emil delivered, we cheered, and then it was time for the presentation of the hardware to the victors. Emil was even given the tournament MVP award - no doubt because he clinched 2 matches for the ultimate winning team.

I hung out on the court and got some good pictures of the festivities and trophy presentations, congratulated some of the players, chit-chatted with parents, and then made my way to the car. It was warm, and I had been sunburnt for at least 3 days thanks to my lack of foresight concerning aloe and sunscreen. But I left Knoxville with a winning feeling.

What else did I do in Knoxville, in between my time at the tournament? I stayed in a couple of hotels, neither of which I could really recommend. The Select Inn was in the process of total renovations to become a new Holiday Inn, and while the construction was no problem for me (I wasn't there during the noisy times), it really felt like they were just going through the motions. The reception was fine, but they pointed out that there would be no breakfast. The rooms themselves gave the impression of being ready to be overhauled. That is to say that there were markings and stains on the wall and carpet (not the sheets!). At least they had full curtains with blackout. It had okay recommendations (there were comments about the construction, but again, I had no problems with this), and price couldn't be beat. My second hotel was the Red Roof Inn, and it came with decent recommendations and an adequate price. Here, the reception was also great, and the rooms are wood floored (laminate). But the bathroom is in less-than-spectacular condition (though clean), and I found a clipped toe nail in my bed spread. Yummy.

I also went to go see the film Their Finest, which I highly recommend. It's a British film, and it wasn't heavily marketed in the US. But as soon as I saw the actors and the setting - WWII in England - I knew I wanted to see it. Plus, it had gotten significant praise from critics and non-critics alike. I enjoyed it, though I think there was one death too many during the film. If you see it, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

In touristy things, I went to see the World's Fair Park and Sunsphere. One of the Passport (summer camp that I've done for years with my church) folks asked if I would be doing that part of town, and when I said yes, he asked if I wanted to do it now. Luckily, the match had concluded (on Friday) and I was at my hotel, so I could accommodate. I got to walk around the area, which is nicely done, and even go up to the observation level of the Sunsphere (which is free). I'd say the Sunsphere is the only real "landmark" in downtown Knoxville - it's visible from most parts of town and probably serves as a good reference point. It's golden, which makes it even easier to spot. I've probably been to Knoxville 3 or 4 times before this trip, but I'll admit to never having spotted this obvious landmark before. Now I know. The observation level is completely enclosed in glass, and the glass wasn't all that clean when I went up. The point would be to get a panoramic view of the city, which you can get, but the glass is both tinted and dirty - regular wear and tear, I'm sure. Maybe they don't clean it because it's free to go up there, and so they get no revenue. I don't know. But a good cleaning would help make the view/experience better.

Tonight I got to hang out with Paxton and Andrew, some of the guys from my mission group at Passport camp last summer. They live in Knoxville, and when they found out I would be here for a few days, they insisted on spending a little time together. So we met at the local mall. How clichéd. But I was nearby, and so were they. I guess it's what you do in Knoxville on a Saturday evening in the Spring. We got some food, which would not normally be noteworthy. But at one point, we were talking and, since I'm apparently funny, I said something that made them both laugh. Well, Andrew was chewing at the time and something went down the wrong pipe, so he stands up and turns his back to us. Paxton and I both thought he was just laughing, but when he turned around, he was pointing
Hanging out with a pair of jokers in KnoxvilleHanging out with a pair of jokers in KnoxvilleHanging out with a pair of jokers in Knoxville

Andrew is on the left, Paxton on the right
to his chest and his face was turning blue. Not good. I stood up and gave him a couple of thuds on the chest, then the back, and he was still not getting better. Hello, Dr. Heimlich. I put him directly in front of me, with his back to me, and wrapped my arms in the maneuver position, gave about 3 thrusts, and he was breathing again. We provided quite a bit of entertainment to some stunned food court-goers. One guy asked if Andrew was okay, and since he was still trying to catch his breath and wipe the tears from his eyes, I said it was all fine. I guess some people just assumed it was a joke or something. That blue face was all I needed to see to convince me otherwise. And that marks the first time I've ever had to use all that CPR training I got when I worked at camp. The more you know...

The rest of our mall journey was uneventful. We took some ridiculous pictures, walked around as the mall was closing up, and then a little after 9, we parted ways. It was good to catch up, especially since I won't be going back to camp this summer. Both of them seemed pretty bummed about that. I am, in a way, but I know there are other things out there waiting. It's just good to make friendships that keep coming back, though

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