Saturday, December 13, 2014


I had, at one point, become a decent competitive tennis player.  At my level I had won a number of consecutive tournaments, and had a string of victories against strong USTA players rated at my level.

I saw an advertisement for a tournament for those 45 years and older.  I was 48 or 49, in good shape, and had had the successes referred to above. So, I signed up and figured this would be a whole lot easier than beating the 20 somethings and 30 somethings who typically played in my league.

Very wrong. These tournaments were populated by former high school and college players.  Very strong players who, as time went on, kept their competitive energies active by traveling to these age-level tournaments.  I did not know this when I signed up.

As I warmed up with my first round opponent I saw that I was in for trouble. This guy looked good. My tennis game was about getting the ball back. I was a retriever who could find a way to stay in points and then when the opponent was tired from a long rally see him deposit the ball in the net, or get out of position so I could hit a winner. I figured that I would have to be at my retrieving best to have a chance against this guy.  And I was.  The first point itself took twenty or so shots.  And for each point I chased down the balls and retrieved as many as I could.  It was as good as I can play.

And he killed me. Destroyed. 6-0, 6-1.  He must have fallen asleep in the game I won.  The guy was just in another league.

In these tournaments, you have only an hour between matches if you are victorious. As the loser I had all weekend. So I went into the locker room and took a long shower.   Sat in the steam room. Dawdled. I came back outside to the courts to see how the guy who had pummeled me was doing in his second match. I figured this guy would win the tournament.  He just was great.

When I got to the courts, I saw his match was over.  He had been shellacked 6-0, 6-0. So the guy who destroyed me 6-0, 6-1, had been clobbered by someone else.  And I had had a winning streak going against very competitive players for quite a stretch.

So, the point is that in sports there are levels. And the amateur folks like me, have no real sense of how good the really good players are. When we yell at our tv screen at someone who we think is underperforming, the likelihood is that this underperforming object of our wrath--is great.  He or she is just playing against someone who is a level up.

Annually, I find myself following the Division 3 football championship tournament. Division 3 does it right. They have a tournament at the end of the year which involves the top 32 teams in the country.  And then each weekend beginning around Thanksgiving they play a one and done tournament.

This year I had an added interest because the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--the school that makes Harvard look like a third tier community college--had had an undefeated season.   There is a quip that it doesn't take a rocket scientist to play football. Well, (and this is not original, I read it in Sports Illustrated a while back) the MIT guys ARE rocket scientists--or at least rocket scientists in training.  Yet they were undefeated and were invited to participate in the Division 3 tournament.

The Engineers won their first game of the tournament with a thrilling overtime victory.  Then they went to play Wesley College in their second round.  Wesley won by over 50 points.

Fifty points!  The MIT Engineers had had an undefeated season and won a playoff game and in the second round lost by fifty points to Wesley.

Today Wesley is playing in the semi finals.  The last time I looked they were losing 42-0 in the first half.

This phenomenon of significantly different levels of skill is likely a reality in all fields: Teaching, Medicine, Lawyering.  You think you are a great lawyer.  Well, you may be. But someone else makes your ability to make sense of the law seem primitive.

Yet in sports it has seemed to me to be more glaring.

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