This summer, I turn 60 years old. My wife Tara surprised me with a fantasy match with Riley Newman and Matt Wright, my favorite men’s doubles pickleball team.
We became acquainted with Riley a little over two years ago when my wife (my girlfriend at the time) had first picked up the game and we took our first pickleball clinic in Atlanta.
Riley was the head instructor. We maintained a cordial relationship and cheer him and Matt loudly and proudly during the 2 or 3 tournaments we attend each year.
While I am in decent shape and mobile for my age, I cannot emulate Riley’s explosive speed, ambidextrous abilities, and cat-like reflexes.
So I’ve tried to model my game after Matt’s. He plays within himself, moves with precision and economy, hands out front, and plays reasonably conservatively until he is ready to attack or needs to defend.
He is a world-class player, but with a style and game I can copy and relate to.
As a 4.0 player who can occasionally get in the zone and play up, I was anxious to test my hands and my game against the pros.
We flew to the recent PPA tournament in Charlotte, NC and booked a court at LifeTime Fitness, where the tournament was held.
Tara rounded out our fourth. Riley and Matt split up. I played with Riley my first game and Matt my second.
When dinking against Matt, I found a dink is a dink. Dinking is a great skill set neutralizer. An unattackable dink is just that, regardless of who hits it – a “Joe” or a pro.
While pros can hit more unattackable dinks in succession, and a pro can be more patient or apply a bit more pressure than a Joe, a good dinker can hang in a dink rally with the pros.
Then, there was the speed up.
Early in my first game against Matt – who at the time was playing the left side and a bit off the line to protect the middle – I sped one up off the ground high to his stretched backhand.
To my great pleasure, he somewhat floated the ball he was trying to reset. I thought to myself, “I AM GOING TO PUT THE BALL AWAY ON A PRO ON MY BIRTHDAY!!! YAY ME!!!”
I proceeded to swing with the same power and determination of Paul Bunyon chopping a tree.
The ball shot off my paddle, taking air and rising like a golfer tee shot hitting 5 feet up against the back wall. Had this obstruction not been in place, I am convinced the ball would have landed somewhere in Delaware.
I learned pros are intimidating. They make us Joes try harder than we have to, resulting in greater unforced errors.
On another point, my wife Tara hit an attackable crosscourt dink to my forehand side. I attacked Matt, playing the left side, with a drive to his right hip.
I loaded up on the backhand side, expecting a high ball, while Riley simultaneously crashed middle.
Matt hit a sweeping backhand counter attack from the forehand side, hitting a clean winner down my now-unguarded line, the opposite of what I was expecting.
Matt, in a sportsmanlike manner, offered, “Good spot Joe.”
“Yeah,” I thought. “For me or for you!!”
Of course I kept the sarcasm to myself. I am 5ft 6. Matt is 6ft 2 and an attorney. I was afraid he might beat me up and then sue me.
I did try attacking him twice more. One resulted in another clean counter-attack winner and the other I defended, but put it back into the net.
The next game, I played with my worthy adversary Matt against Riley and Tara. In my opinion, Riley, JW Johnson, and Ben Johns have the quickest hands in the game. I told Matt I wanted to get into a few hands battles with Riley.
“It’s my birthday present Matt. I had a couple of tough years and I deserve it!!” Smiling, Matt uttered, “Go for it.”
My first test was a forehand crosscourt dink battle with Riley. I held my own for a few dinks.
I decided to try to press for an advantage by hitting a deep, middle-pressure dink. Unfortunately, I lifted the ball too high.
Riley quickly stepped around the ball and set up a two-handed backhand flick attack which I’ve seen on streaming video at least a million times.
I had a clear look at the slant of his paddle and I set up for a backhand counter attack from my left shoulder. Before I could react, Riley drills me in the right nipple.
He raised his hand and asked, “Are you OK?”
“Are you kidding?” I yelled back. “I JUST GOT DRILLED IN THE BOOB BY RILEY NEWMAN ON MY BIRTHDAY! THIS IS THE BEST BIRTHDAY EVER!!!!”
Before the end of the game, Riley drilled me twice more. Each time he yelled, “BEST BIRTHDAY EVER,” calling the shot before the ball left his paddle and struck my previously bruised nipple, much like Babe Ruth calling a home run before he hit one.
Later that weekend, Matt and Riley won their first gold medal in men’s doubles in 2023. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Tara and I gave them a champions warm up, and the newly minted Dura tattoo on my chest acted as a good luck charm propelling them to the gold medal stand.
Tara and I would like to publicly thank Riley and Matt for their gracious hospitality and giving us a wonderful memory.
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