Haters, do you have someone in your tennis circle whom you just can't beat? Someone who makes you feel like he should be paying you for being his ball machine?
For me, it's my Worthy Opponent Robert Kaplan.
We play weekly. He gets to practice hitting stinging, short, cross-court winners and his signature inside-out forehand deep in the corner to my backhand. I get to practice anger management: It's not failure, it's a learning experience! Accept the outcome, but keep an optimistic focus!
Kaplan doesn't hit lobs, like I do, to get himself out of a jam or to force errors from opponents uncomforable with overheads. He scrambles into position for a forehand and hits right through you, blasting his way out of trouble.
He admits his backhand is his weaker wing. He says his son refers to it as "what backhand."
Nice kid. I haven't even met him, and I like him already.
But Kaplan's backhand is accurate enough to keep the ball in play. Most of the time, Robert doesn't even have to hit it. He's got plenty of time with my slow rollers to run around it.
There's a chance to attack him on his serve, but he's great at turning defense into offense and I've yet to really hurt him there, either.
Kaplan's parents played tennis, and he picked it up in his early teens at the El Caribe Cabana Club in Mill Basin, Brooklyn. He was on the Madison High School tennis team "occasionally," as he puts it.
A memorable moment was the theft of the team's warm-up suits during a match at Lincoln High School. Don't remember anything about the match, but I still miss the warm-up suit."
Kaplan took a 20-year hiatus from the sport. You'd think that would have caused his skills to deteriorate to my level, allowing me to crush him once, just once. Um, no. This is what I envy about people who started early. They never lose that muscle memory, that coordination. He credits the late, great Prospect Park Tennis Center denizen, Larry Frost, with cajoling him into playing with the big boys, and not just with his son.
"Now, some 4 years later, I'm playing 2-3 times per week on average and just can't get enough!" Giant mechanical claw from heaven, where are you when I need you?
Robert Kaplan's advice for haters: "Stay relaxed and get into the zone, where you're hitting the ball on auto pilot. And when smashing the racquet in that occasional fit of anger [Editor's note: what does he mean by "occasional"?], try to avoid those precious body parts like arms and legs that you'll need for the next point."
Year to Date record:
Kaplan: 3. Me: 0. One sign of progress: our last outing, I won a game!
Well, I'll be darned. I took two -- TWO! -- games off the Mighty Kaplan this morning. It didn't require a giant claw from the sky. It took keeping the ball deep, guarding my backhand, and staying farther back behind the baseline than I've been standing.
I know, that's being defensive, but hey, Rafa does it. And it kept me in several bruising rallies that, even though I came out on the losing end, were full of satisfying moments of focused bliss.
Next week: going for 3!