Requiem for a Season

This afternoon, as I was biking along Parker Street, a school bus ahead of me turned left onto Clark Street. Unconsciously, I pulled over to watch it drive onto Route 9 West. “That could have been our bus,” I mused, “had we won our tournament match.” Last Thursday the Newton South girls’ tennis team, seeded eleventh, lost to Dual County League rival Westford, the sixth seed, by the score of 4-1. The overall match, in truth, was much closer, lasting three hours, with every point contested. In two of the four matches we lost, we had taken the first set. Had our girls held on, we would have advanced to play a much weaker foe in the second round, Lowell, leading to a semifinal tilt today against another league rival, Acton. We had split with both Acton and Westford in the regular season.

It was a misfortune, to be sure, to face a tough team like Westford in the first round. Seeding is done purely by record, with no account taken of the quality of opponents faced. Had the teams been seeded by quality, we would have been fourth or fifth, and we might not have faced a Dual County League foe until the final round. But tournament protocols determined otherwise, and now our season was over.

Every season, it takes me two or three days to recover from that final tournament defeat that ends the season. Last year took longer- we surprised everyone by winning three matches and advancing all the way to the sectional finals before losing to the eventual state champion, Andover. Each round some other player or doubles team pulled off a difficult victory to propel us forward. Not this year.

I slept but little on Thursday night. Instead, I tossed and turned as I reflected on my flaws as a coach. What should I have done to prepare my girls better for the challenges they faced? What about the regular season? Had something been missing in our practices that might have toughened up our players, strengthened them as competitors? I spend a great deal of time considering the team’s strengths and weaknesses and devising drills and competitions to help the girls improve. What we had tried this season, alas, hadn’t been enough.

At some point on Friday, it occurred to me that Bill Belichick had something to tell me: “It is what it is.” His mentor, Bill Parcells, might have added, “You are what your record says you are.” Our team probably went as far as it deserved to go; why fret? The girls themselves seemed to put the loss in perspective right away: no tears, no self-recrimination. On the long bus ride home they were smiling and laughing, their moods quite unlike my own mildly depressed state.

Every spring, as the season progresses, I always get addicted to the thrill of competition, with matches occurring every other day and sometimes every day. After the season ends, I go into withdrawal for a while. My players have no such luxury. At home a pile of papers and projects awaits them, which leads to a rapid transition from tennis to the rest of their lives. As for me, it is back to my normal routine in retirement: reading, writing, participating in various organizations, enjoying my family, and so forth.

All of which I thoroughly enjoy even if my life the other nine months of the year lacks the excitement of coaching. Right now, four days later on Monday afternoon, my recovery is almost complete. I will miss those daily interactions with my players. A pang of envy, no doubt, might briefly envelop me when I read in the paper about our rivals’ victories as they advance towards the championship. But I am moving on.

Despite our tremendous success over the twenty-six years I have coached the girls at South, we have never won the state championship. I enjoy what I do enough to accept that we probably never will. Fortunately, it remains challenging and exciting to work with my girls each spring in pursuit of excellence. This season might have died prematurely, but resurrection awaits us next spring.

In January 1015, I retired after teaching English for 34 years at Newton South High School. I continue as girls' tennis coach there, this being my 26th year in that role. My wife, Dahlia Rudavsky, to whom I have been married for forty-four years, is an employment lawyer on the side of the oppressed. My wife graduated from Newton South, and we have lived in Waban since 1980. My favorite pastimes are writing (see my periodic column in the Newton Tab) and playing tennis. I also help raise funds for Yad Chessed, a wonderful local charity. You might also find me supporting various causes around Newton.

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Marti Bowen
Marti Bowen

I admire your long dedication to teaching and coaching. I enjoyed your reflection on defeat and the questioning that comes afterward. It seems to be part of the human condition to rack our brains trying to discover what might have been lacking and how it could have been handled differently to achieve a winning outcome, even though it would require a Tardis to actually do so.

Tennis is in my genes. Both my father and older brother played for their colleges. I was on our tennis team in high school and college and continued to play competively in leagues for most of my adult life. I was never a coach but valued all of mine greatly. They were always there with just what I needed to bolster my confidence and give me that one last tip. My biggest hurdle was overcoming choking at the end of a set or match when I was on the verge of winning. Sometimes yes and sometimes no.

It’s great that the girls on the team could move on so easily. I am happy you reached acceptance relatively quickly and are enjoying your retirement. Next season will come soon enough and bring with it all kinds of new possibilities.

Julia Malakie

It sounds like your girls have the right perspective. All they can do is try their best, and enjoy the wins and bounce back from the defeats. I was never on a high school team, though I took up running, inspired by Kenneth Cooper’s “Aerobics” (back before aerobics was dancing). But I rowed four years of crew in college, and even though we lost WAY more races than we won, it was still great fun and great exercise. And tennis, more so than rowing, will be easy for them to keep enjoying their whole life.

I cover a lot of high school sports, and I’ve been noticing this spring, particularly in baseball, that there seems to be quite good sportsmanship in the tournament games, whether it’s a close game and tough loss for someone, or a mercy rule situation, the handshakes at the end are friendly.