Team tennis enjoying net gains

Play: The squad approach to the game has seen significant growth in Howard County in recent years.

Howard At Play

September 09, 2001|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

People who grow up playing team sports love the camaraderie and the competition.

They also appreciate playing teams of comparable ability, having a schedule of games and having a league coordinator to round up opponents, schedule officials and book playing fields. And it never hurts to adjourn to a local watering hole to rehash the finer moments.

Which might explain why team tennis is a growing phenomenon in Howard County.

"I would say our leagues have grown roughly 15 percent per year in the three years I've been here," says Bruce Holbrook, the Columbia Association's tennis director.

James J. Lawson Sr., the association's team tennis league coordinator, said that last year the adult league consisted of 47 teams; this year it has 54 teams, which means an additional 75 players.

But what exactly is team tennis, and how is it played?

Jennifer Gregg, recreation administrator for the U.S. Tennis Association's Maryland office, explains that team tennis "is a very malleable system."

A team must have at least six players - in Howard County, an adult team may have a maximum of 16 players - and teams may play in different formats, such as a round-robin system.

Senior leagues of players 50 and older usually play doubles. A youth team might play two singles matches and one doubles match.

In an adult league, one setup is to have five different doubles matches going on, and the team that prevails in three of the five matches wins. Or the league might choose to arrange three doubles and two singles matches. Each league has a coordinator to work out the details, and leagues may be mixed or single-gender.

One thing that makes team tennis so appealing is that the teams are all competitive, because players have numerical rankings (see box) indicating relative skill levels. Teams play only other teams with the same caliber of players.

"If I were to play Pete Sampras, it wouldn't be a game at all," said Holbrook, who added that the largest number of players in Howard County fall into the 2.5 and 3.0 ranking, he said.

Ellicott City's Deb McCoy is the captain of a 15-member, 3.0 women's team that will be heading to Tucson, Ariz., for the USTA national championships that begin Oct. 11. A senior men's team from Columbia qualified in two national-level events last year.

But first McCoy's team had to get by 14 other county 3.0 teams to make it to the district playoffs (against teams from Frederick, Washington and Southern Maryland) and then the sectional playoffs (against teams from Virginia) and next the nationals.

"To strive to be No. 1 out of 15, it takes a lot of practice, a lot of coaching," she said, adding she relished the hard work as a competitive person. "Our goal from the beginning has been life beyond Columbia."

Members of her team are Sue Brim and Sophie Novinsky of Ellicott City; Columbia's Janet Briel, Lisa Martinez, Kim Nowalk, Patti Ward and Deidre Johnson; Laurel's Pam Leffler, Marian Boring and Debbie Shaw; Connie Bowman of Glenwood; Norma Stephens of Marriottsville; Lynda Smith of Gambrills; and Jackie Berry of Odenton.

In Tucson, McCoy's team will play in a facility that has 21 courts, and the first match will be against a team from the Caribbean. To prepare, McCoy and her teammates have been practicing against 3.5 teams. Her only regret is that she didn't start playing tennis earlier - the 44-year-old former racquetball player took up tennis at 39.

Whether on a competitive team or one that is more social, local players find their niche.

The adult season runs from late April through July, a senior league plays in July and August and a mixed doubles league plays in the fall and the winter. Teams usually have one match a week. Most of the play occurs at the Wilde Lake and Owen Brown tennis centers.

Youth leagues abound, too. Statewide, more than 5,000 kids participate. Last year, Wilde Lake High School's mixed doubles team won the state championship.

"It's a chance for kids who play an individual sport to play on a team," Gregg said. "You don't have to show up at some park and hope there's someone to play with. And parents love it, because it's a schedule."

The team tennis movement, which started in the mid-1980s, originally was developed for youth.

"It was kind of like Little League," said Gregg. "It was the same concept for kids who wanted to have fun. As it got popular, adults realized it would be more recreational and fun. They're out there to win, but also to socialize and just basically have a good time."

Tennis ratings

If a tennis-playing friend or neighbor says she's in a 3.5 USTA league, it doesn't mean 3 1/2 of anything. That number describes where on a scale of 1.5 to 7 the league's (and player's) skill level belongs.

1.5 - Beginner. Working to get the ball into play.

2.0 - Needs on-court experience. Has obvious stroke weaknesses but is familiar with basic singles and doubles positions.

2.5 - Can sustain short rally at slow pace.

3.0 - Fairly consistent in hitting medium-pace shots but not comfortable with all strokes and lacks execution in terms of controlling direction, depth or power.

3.5 - Adds directional control on moderate shots but lacks depth, variety. More aggressive at net, developing teamwork in doubles.

4.0 - Dependable strokes, control and depth on moderate shots made forehand and backhand; can lob, and hit overheads, approach shots and volleys with success. Sometimes forces foe's errors when serving.

4.5 - Starting to master power and spins, has sound footwork, depth control, strong first serves, but tends to overhit difficult shots.

5.0 - Can regularly hit winners or force errors off short balls. Often has an outstanding shot or attribute around which a "game" can be structured.

5.5 - 7.0 - Relative progression in skill, ability to win, perform in tournaments. A 7.0 player is a world-class athlete.

SOURCE: U.S. Tennis Association

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