Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hacker heaven: Playing recently retired touring pro

Former touring professional Yasmin Schnack
follows through on a backhand during a recent
match against one of her pupils, Paul Bauman.
Photo by Dave Goldschmidt
   SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- For one fleeting moment, I felt as if I had just won Wimbledon.
   Or at least the Gerry Weber Open, a Wimbledon tuneup tournament in Halle, Germany. (By the way, who the hell is Gerry Weber? As a former newspaper colleague of mine used to say about any so-called bigwig, "Where did he ever tend bar?")
   I was playing Yasmin Schnack, my tennis teacher for the last six months and a recently retired professional player, on a chilly morning last week at the Rio del Oro Racquet Club.
   Late in the second set, I ripped a topspin cross-court passing shot with my one-handed backhand. My timing was perfect, for a change, and I hit a rocket a few inches over the net that left Schnack flat-footed. She had no chance.
   A wave of euphoria swept over me -- for a few seconds, anyway. It was the best I've ever felt on a tennis court, and at 58, I've been playing a long time.
   The rest of the match did not, um, go as well. I lost 6-0, 6-0. Not that that was any surprise.
   I'm a 4.0 player who didn't even play on my high school team. I got interested in tennis at the advanced age of 15, about the time of the Civil War, and I've played recreationally ever since.
   Schnack, meanwhile, played mixed doubles in the U.S. Open less than four months ago and women's doubles at Wimbledon last year. She lost in the first round each time and reached career highs of No. 140 in the world in doubles and No. 371 in singles before retiring last year at 24. (Schnack won a national playoff with Eric Roberson, a fellow pro at Rio del Oro, to earn a wild card into U.S. Open mixed doubles.)
   Schnack, 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and lean, won 11 doubles and two singles titles on the ITF circuit, the minor leagues in women's tennis.
   The daughter of a retired family doctor, Schnack will begin nursing school in Phoenix next month after having considered a return to pro tennis. Had she stayed on the tour, she almost certainly would have cracked the top 100 in the world in doubles.
   "I've always thought she had amazing potential from when we were little," 5-foot-5 (1.65-meter) Vania King -- Schnack's best friend, her partner at Wimbledon and a two-time Grand Slam champion in women's doubles -- said in March. "She never had proper coaching or support. She's more talented than I am."
   At UCLA, Schnack helped the Bruins win the 2008 NCAA title as a sophomore and was named the 2010 Pacific-10 Conference Women's Player of the Year.
   "She has great athletic ability," Stella Sampras Webster, Pete's older sister and the UCLA women's coach, told The Sacramento Bee in 2010. "She's a shotmaker. She has a lot of weapons and can dominate a lot of players with big groundstrokes. She's powerful but also very graceful. She moves very well. ... Her (two-handed) backhand is one of the prettiest you'll ever see." 
As Schnack has been telling me during my lessons, I need
to snap my wrist more on my serve. Maybe that's why it
lacked pop during our match. Photo by Dave Goldschmidt
   Schnack, who was born four months before my son at the same hospital in Reno, is by far the best player I've ever faced in a match. She is not, however, the best player with whom I've ever hit. I rallied with Bjorn Borg for five minutes almost exactly 24 years ago -- on Dec. 5, 1989 -- in Tokyo. I was working at an English-language newspaper there at the time, and he made a promotional appearance for his fashion company.
   Here's what I wrote in my journal about the session with Borg: "I was a little nervous. He told me I was taking my racket back late. I hit some good shots, and I don't think he missed one." 
   Schnack, in turn, used to hit with Pete Sampras at UCLA. She commented to The Bee in 2010: "At first, it was nerve-wracking and scary. I must have said "Sorry" about a hundred times. His shots have so much pace and weight -- every ball is deep -- that it's hard to control."
   I felt similarly against Schnack.
   The question wasn't whether I'd win any games. It was whether I'd win any points. There was a distinct possibility of Schnack pulling off at least one golden set -- winning all 24 points.
   That has happened only twice at the top level of men's or women's tennis. American Bill Scanlon destroyed Marcos Hocevar of Brazil 6-2, 6-0 in the first round at Delray Beach, Fla., in 1983, and 5-foot-11 (1.80-meter) Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan drubbed 5-foot-4 1/2 (1.64-meter) Sara Errani of Italy 6-0, 6-4 in the third round at Wimbledon last year.
   Shvedova and King won the women's doubles title at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2010.
   And Errani is no slouch. Ranked No. 10 in the world at the time, she's now No. 7 in singles and No. 1 in doubles with countrywoman Roberta Vinci.
   So at least I was in good company if I suffered the same fate. That's how it was looking for a while.
   Schnack reeled off the first 19 points. Finally, at 4-0, 40-0, I hit a decent first serve to Schnack's backhand that she returned wide.
   Schnack also double-faulted at 5-0, 30-0 for my only other point of the first set, which lasted all of 15 minutes, 37 seconds.
   In the second set, I managed to win five points -- a veritable bonanza as Schnack probably let down.
   Overall in the match, I reached 30 in a game only once and led in a game only once, 15-0 late in the second set.
   Basically, it was 33 minutes of target practice for Schnack, who's an inch taller than I am. She pounced on my weak first serve and took immediate control of almost every point with her impeccable groundstrokes. I spent most of the time watching passing shots whiz by, scrambling to get a racket on shots to the corners or hitting feeble replies that Schnack put away at the net.
   Most of all, Schnack is an incredible volleyer with textbook form. Twice when she was at the net, I blasted forehands at her shoetops only to watch her counter with effortless, amazing drop volleys for winners.
   Given Schnack's height and athleticism, I didn't want to lob her. But sometimes I had no choice, and I paid the price.
   With nothing to lose, I did want to play aggressively. But that's not my nature, and Schnack gave me little chance. The match was over before I knew it.
   I was fortunate to win seven points. Schnack struggled on her serve, the weakest part of her game. Her first-serve percentage was low, especially in the opening set, and although she placed her second serve well to my backhand, I usually was able to return it.
   That's more than I can say about facing Schnack's other strokes, but I've never had so much fun getting my butt kicked. It was an honor to be on the court with such a skilled player.
   And I'll always have that topspin backhand passing shot.
   Coming soon -- Schnack reflects on the highs and lows of her pro career.        

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