Devil to Play

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USTA rules state that in the year following a national championship run, a team may return only three players from its core squad. In theory, this breaks up championship teams and permits others to have a chance. In practice, Gabler gets around the rule so easily that he doesn't even really consider it an impediment. The catch, he explains, is that players bumped off a championship squad must stay off it for only one year.

"So I have a pool of 25 players to draw from every year," Gabler explains. "Breaking up my team basically means I just recycle guys from 1997 to 1999. That really pisses off the powers that be."

In fact, there is a lot about Larry Gabler that pisses off the powers that be. "Larry could write a book on how to be a successful coach for USTA tennis," says Scott Richardson, who has played on Gabler's teams for several years. "He's figured out the system; he knows it better than they do. And as soon as they change something and try to stop him, he figures out a way to get around it. He flaunts it."

Gabler insists that he is doing only what is necessary--things that may be, if you insist on getting technical, illegal--to overcome an unjust system. It's more conscientious objection than dishonesty.

"To guys like Van De Hey," he says, "it's apparently okay for teams from Colorado to get killed every year, as long as we're 'playing by the rules.' I don't necessarily think that's so good."

Van De Hey agrees that the ratings system is often in direct conflict with serious coaches bent on winning. "If I'm a coach, I'm looking for the best players," he says. "But in some cases the best players you can find are too good for that level. Every system has its loopholes. Some people are just more adept at finding them," he concludes. "And we have team captains who are so...motivated to win that they push the envelope.

"Larry Gabler," Van De Hey adds carefully, "is extremely motivated."
"Fine," Gabler responds. "Call me a poor sport."
The third match of the 1999 season pits Gabler's 4.5 team against the Greenwood Athletic Club. This seems like it could be a fair contest. Nestled in the tony Greenwood Village neighborhood, the club practically screams "affluent tennis lifestyle." It is one of the few in the region to boast indoor clay courts. Members take their tennis very seriously.

After depositing a half-case each of cheap beer and soda in a refrigerator, Gabler begins to assess the competition, something he does obsessively, even while playing a match of his own. "On paper, this match is a joke," he says, looking at his scorecard. "We should be outta here by"--he checks his watch, which reads 6 p.m.--"about seven."

"You'd think that they'd be a good team," Gabler explains, softening his tone a bit. "And there are a lot of good players out there. But with these closed clubs, a lot of good players who want to be on competitive teams just say 'screw it' and go to teams like ours."

A long time ago, when white balls were struck with tiny wooden racquets and players wore all-white togs, tennis clubs fielded teams made up entirely of their members. These days, however, if a club really wants to be competitive, it needs to cast its net wider--and not just for players who are highly skilled. The players also must have the drive and commitment needed to win a national title that returns no money (worse, players pay their own way) and promises no prestige outside a small group of fanatics.

Unlike Greenwood Village, Gabler's club is essentially a Denver All-Star team consisting of players from across the city. "To compete at a national level, you have to have deeper teams than what any club can have on its own without going out and recruiting," says Andy Reinhart, who is studying Gabler closely as part of his attempt to build his own nationally competitive 4.0 team out of Denver. At 4.5, "Larry is really a guru. He knows everybody, and when you have that kind of success, everyone knows him."

"I've sort of cornered the market in 4.5 tennis," acknowledges Gabler, shrugging. "Generally, if I want somebody on my team, I get them."

Part of the reason Gabler has such command over the local talent pool is that after a half-century of the sport, there is little about tennis that Gabler doesn't know or hasn't thought about. He began playing when he was eight years old. Gabler graduated from Brooklyn College, where he competed mostly at singles, and in 1973 moved to Colorado. By the time he turned 35, he was ranked fifth in the state in that age group. In the 1980s, when the USTA began its national league competitions, he played for a few local teams, with some success.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer