Devil to Play

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As a result, a 4.5 rating seems to represent the threshold so many club tennis players long to cross. Below it, the game involves a bit of strategy but more often ends up being won or lost when someone finally makes a mistake. Above it, through a combination of reliable skills and mental clarity, players begin to actually win their points; the game starts to look truly professional.

Rating players "is not a science, it's an art," cautions Tom Van De Hey, co-chair of the USTA's Colorado Verification Committee. Still, there are guidelines for each level, and a 4.5-level player is described by the USTA as follows: "Starting to master the use of power and spins and beginning to handle pace, has sound footwork, can control depth of shots and is beginning to vary game plan according to opponents. Can hit first serves with power and accuracy and place the second serve. Tends to overhit on difficult shots. Aggressive net play is common in doubles."

That's the book version, anyway. From the sidelines, the level has a decidedly middle-age bent. Conversations list toward injured knees, creaky backs and chiropractic visits. Limbs must be carefully stretched, pulled and warmed before and after matches; many are supported by bandages, braces and wraps. And while some 4.5 players can be beautiful to watch, most are simply good at winning. Four-five may be the last rating at which a player can still win ugly.

None of this is news to Larry Gabler, who, in Colorado, is the guy you go to if you want to win at 4.5 men's tennis. In his spare time, Gabler, 55, is a dentist. When he can get away from the office, he coaches and plays and talks tennis. In 1995 he took his team to the national championships and came in third. In 1997 his players earned a spot in the national tournament again. Last year his latest team, the Denver Tennis Club's 4.5 men's squad (on which he also plays), went to the USTA national championship in Tucson and won.

At first glance, the team seems an implausible group of champions. Most of the players are over age fifty. Unlike many other 4.5 team captains, who sign up 4.0 players as they improve, Gabler likes to pluck his team members from the ranks of the aging 5.0s--guys who were once very, very good but have recently sunk to very good. "The trick is to get them on the way down," he explains. "Most of my guys have played at a higher level, while the teams we play have guys who've moved up. It makes for a total mismatch."

Although time always takes a toll on a players' athleticism, Gabler appreciates that, at a certain age, most players have reached the understanding that they are not going to win Wimbledon. It's a revelation that could potentially improve their games, but few players take advantage of that insight.

"You get these young guys out here pounding the ball, and they'll hit some winners," explains Chris Anton, 47, a member of Gabler's team. "But they'll also hit the fence. And that's the difference: You can hit winners, but at this level, that isn't the way most points are won."

"We don't always win pretty," Gabler agrees. "But tennis is a game of putting the ball between the lines. We just want to do it one more time than the other guys."

The oldest player on Gabler's team is Joe Martin, who is 64 years old. At tournaments, Gabler loves to observe people watching Martin play. "These 28-year-old guys get out there thinking, 'I'm going to crush this old guy.' And he carves them up like a pizza," he says. "It's beautiful."

Every year, about sixty 4.5-level teams that have won their local leagues across Colorado compete for the state USTA championship in Denver. The winner goes on to the Intermountain Regional Championships in Salt Lake City, where top teams from the eight mountain states compete. From there, one winning team goes to the nationals. This year's tournament is in Mobile, Alabama, in October.

All of which is to say that Gabler's record of bringing three teams in four years to the national finals is remarkable. Especially since the USTA--because of its nature, as well as its personal dislike of Gabler--keeps trying to stop him.

"We've got 400,000 players nationwide," explains Van De Hey. "What they look forward to, the carrot, is getting the opportunity to advance in these state, regional and national tournaments. If we've got people trying to unfairly hoard the carrot, it tends to kill our program."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer