Bill Stetzer's 8.0 team out of Arlington Tennis Center had just walked off the court Sunday after winning the USTA Senior Mixed Doubles National Invitational Championships when he thought he would have some fun with his teammates.
Stetzer (the team captain), Bob Barrie, Martha Benson, Skip Butler, Cheryl Halpern, Susan Hull and Gina Tallant had just won the 8.0 division after three days of tennis, tennis and more tennis -- interrupted only by rain delays -- and were headed for the showers, if not the airport. The rain delays had cost them so many hours before the final that catching their scheduled flight home was in jeopardy.
"We finally got off the court at 4 o'clock, and our flight was at 4:20," said Stetzer, whose team fought off a match point to win a three-tiebreak thriller for the trophy. "We thought we couldn't get home until Monday."
But moments before the flight was scheduled to head back to DFW Airport, another delay occurred -- and this one was actually welcome. The flight got pushed back three hours because of mechanical problems, giving the players a shot at making the flight. The airport was a 45-minute drive from their hotel, which was located just a few minutes from the courts at Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex in Surprise, Ariz.
"I called everybody at the hotel and said, 'No showers, stay in your tennis clothes, grab your stuff , we're leaving in 10 minutes, let's go,'" Stetzer said. "But here's the fun part: I told everybody that I had told American [Airlines] that we had just won nationals and that they had delayed the flight just for us."
Did anybody buy his story?
"No," he said. "Nobody bought it."
Stetzer's team won sectionals way back in June and had gotten together to play only twice since. Other team members were Linda Bagley, Frank Carpenter, Jackie Reily, Darrell McCallum and Janice Stephenson. McCallum, Stetzer and Tallant were holdovers from the 2009 team that made the national semifinals.
The funky scheduling gave Stetzer and his teammates time to endure injuries -- but not fully recover from them. Butler, a former kicker for the Houston Oilers, is so banged up that he might be getting knee replacements.
"We are a bunch of vagabonds," Stetzer said of his team, whose players live all the way from Eagle Mountain to Fort Worth to Plano, "but we got the job done."
Their 9-1 record in tiebreaks made them a tough out. They had a few close calls, but they were so solid in tiebreaks -- both regular kind and the super-tiebreaks that serve as third sets -- that nobody could finish them off.
They beat a team from Miami (representing the Florida section), 2-1, in the semifinals, then held off a team from Hershey, Pa. (representing the Middle States), 2-1, in the final.
The format was three lines of mixed doubles, with teammates' levels equaling 8.0. Partners had to be within a 1.0 level of each other, so teams consisted of either two 4.0s or a 3.5 and a 4.5. To win a team match, you had to win two of the three lines of doubles. The tournament was for players ages 50-and-over, and Stetzer's nationals teammates ranged from 51-63.
"We got on the court so late for the final that I was like, 'We're not getting any younger,'" said Stetzer, a native Long Islander adept at timing jokes as well as volleys. "And we had to face Hershey, a really good team that had won its semi 3-0."
Against Hershey, Stetzer and Hull won the first set, lost the second and then lost the tiebreak that served as the third set, 11-9, after having come back from an 8-4 deficit.
Butler and Halpern nearly did the same thing: They won the first set, lost the second and got into a deep hole in the 10-point tiebreaker. Down 8-3, they won seven consecutive points for a 10-8 triumph. On match point, Halpern tossed in a serve and Butler poached for a backhand volley to put the return out of reach. Game over.
There was one match left to determine the national champion, and Barrie and Tallant were on the court. Tallant's job was to lob the opponents into submission, while Barrie's was to cover everything possible. They lost the first set and had to come back from match point down in the second set to force another -- you guessed it -- third-set tiebreak.
On match point, Barrie spun in a nasty lefty kick serve down the T, and the opponent framed the return. They won the tiebreak, 10-8, to complete the team's journey to becoming national champions. And now they're finally home.