Devil to Play

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Gabler had always been a 5.0- and, at times, even a 5.5-level player. But in 1992 he started losing tournaments; matches that he would have won a few years earlier began slipping away. To people who don't understand competitive athletics, signs of aging might be considered depressing. For someone like Gabler, however, it simply represented a new and better chance to win against lesser players. When his coach suggested he drop a level to 4.5, he readily agreed.

The following year, Gabler played for the Denver Tennis Club's 4.5 USTA league team. "We were just fair," he recalls. "And I realized that nobody in Colorado had ever organized a good 4.5 team. I saw everybody else making all the mistakes, and as a player, I got tired of it. My goal from the beginning was always to get better players than me and go to the nationals." The victory last year, in other words, was the culmination of a very specific, very single-minded quest to acquire the title.

Recently, Gabler has begun to find more enjoyment in coaching than in winning on the court himself. "Now I would almost rather not play and just watch the guys I put out there," he says, "see how I've done. Did I make the right move?" This evening, he is at ease on the sidelines, watching his first doubles team.

The duties are being handled by Dave Gamba, a tall IBM salesman who once was interviewed by Connie Chung for having more frequent-flier miles than anyone else in the country; and Chris Anton, a commercial real-estate salesman. The two have never played as doubles partners before, but Gabler wants to see how they fit each other. He'll watch, and then store the information in the card catalogue he keeps in his head. In this way, he keeps tabs on every talented tennis player in the state who has the potential to someday be an opponent or a recruit.

A longtime friend of Gabler's, Gamba is 57 years old and lanky, with a huge reach that at times seems to encompass the entire court. His serve looks awkward--he faces more forward than sideways and uses a cramped windup--but it has a misleading pace, and he never double-faults. The rest of his game relies on remarkable consistency, the relentless depth of his ground strokes and a flummoxing lob.

It is Anton who draws the eye, however. He hits classically beautiful, fluent strokes. With enough preparation time, he also whips a powerful top-spin backhand that plunges over the net and rockets up and out toward the baseline. At the net, he unerringly places deep, strong volleys.

By the middle of the first set, the match has effectively been decided. Anton and Gamba move around each other easily during the rapid-fire rallies of the doubles play. They seldom talk, covering for each other instinctively. Even more telling, they don't compliment each other for this; they're good enough to expect it.

Across the net, the team from Greenwood is mismatched, both in this contest as well as with each other. One of the men is a superb player for this level, with the huge legs and loose gait of a former college athlete. But his partner lacks the crucial skill--particularly in doubles--to end a point. He misses open put-aways far too often; twice he whiffs overheads.

He also double-faults, which infuriates Gabler: Shabby competition is degrading to everyone.

"Look at that," he hisses. "Guys with one serve and no second serve. If a guy came to me with one serve, he has one match to get a second serve. His second serve doesn't kick, he comes back when it does. This guy's a 4.0. And not a very good one, at that."

By the end of the first set, the Greenwood team is already frustrated. The lesser player has begun talking to himself. When he nets an easy backhand volley that should have been a put-away, he picks up the ball and slams it in disgust into the net cord. His partner, meanwhile, has started to reach back and swing with the abandon of a player who has admitted to himself that there is no reasonable hope of winning. Some of the shots go in; most do not. The final score is 6-1, 6-2.

Like many sports, tennis can reveal larger truths. One of these shows up in the difference between how men and women regard their USTA ratings. "With the men, it's seen as better to play at a lower level and win matches and tournaments than to play at a higher level and lose," explains Van De Hey. "Women, on the other hand, seem to look at the ratings system like a badge of achievement; having the rating is more important than their performance."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer