MEN'S OPEN SINGLES

BY BEN BRETTNER

 One of the great things about watching championship sporting events, such as the Super Bowl, World Series, or Boxing matches is hoping an underdog can upset all the predictions and create magic that we'll remember for years to come.

 Fathers still telltheir children about the miracle Mets of '69. Joe Namath's boast of "I guarantee that we'll  win" is part of sports folklore. Buster Douglas vs. Mike Tyson is one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.

 Well, such a Cinderella story was written in the 2002 USHA National Championships. In a star making performance that will be remembered for years by all who witnessed it, Yuber "Pee-Wee" Castro was magnificent in slamming in the singles and doubles.

 The pre-tournament favorites mentioned to capture the singles included the current champ Cesar Sala, former winners Joe Durso, Joe Kaplan and Robert Sostre as well the Satish Jagnandan who vanquished all in this year's Mayor's Cup and Bailey Park singles.

 How about Pee-Wee? Nice big blue player, but too inexperienced in small ball to be given a chance was the general opinion. One of the bettors even laid him $200 to $10 that he couldn't win the singles. After all, he was entering only his second Nationals.

 Let's stop for a moment and think about what experts look for in judging athletes. They put them through a battery of tests. They time their speed, measure their strength and test their reflexes. But the one thing you can not measure; that you have to be born with is heart.

 How many athletes can you recall that possessed tremendous physical tools but never acheived the greatness predicted for them. And how many lesser skilled performers have you seen seize the moment when their were doubters all around them. It comes down to heart, desire and fight.

 Pee-Wee, nicknamed so because of his size, comes up big in all those qualities that coaches look for and fans love to watch.

 How many times have you heard a baseball manager or football coach point NOT to one of his stars and say "give me a team with more players like him and I'll take on anybody." That's the kind of heart Pee-Wee displayed in overcoming 4 days of oppressive heat and humidity, injury, and more skilled players than himself.

 Pee-Wee began his assent to the top with a win over paul Williams. Paul's varied roles and responsibilities in the USHA keep him from being sharp resulting in the first hurdle for Pee-Wee. Next up was the current National and World singles champion Cesar Sala. If you make a checklist of all the handball skills (serve, opposite hand, power and speed) Cesar could come out on top. But I'm sure you've heard the expression "the game is not played on paper". Pee-Wee outlasted cesar in an exciting 3 game match. he did it by bringing his big blue game to small ball; which features a devasting overhand serve with tremendous pace and power behind it. He almost resembles a tennis player when serving.

 Next up was Joe Durso who had pulled off a big upset in beating Sostre in 3 games. Durso has faced Sostre many times with Sostre winning all, with the exception of their first meeting at the '97 Nationals, of their encounters prior to Sunday. Their many classic battles reminds me of two figthers who have met many times in the ring, leaving their blood and sweat on the floor and a resoect for each toher. Joe took the early rounds with a 15-5 lead in the first game that had a thrilling 21-20 ending. Robert came back with a vengance taking the middle rounds with a 21-1 second game win. Joe took the late rounds, after a long controversy in which Sostre was denied a ball change and eventually charged with a technical for throwing the ball away, and the decision with an 11-8 victory in the tiebreaker.

 At an age where most players would drop down to the Masters, Joe can now boast of Jagnandan and Sostre in the last two Nationals.

 The young and brash Joe Durso demanded respect based solely on his play. The older Joe is garnering respect and cheers for two decades of excellence. I wouldn't be surprised to see him enter next year in his quest for another title.

 Joe's startegy was to overplay to the left. But that only gave Pee-Wee numerous opporunities to serve to an open right side. Pee-Wee's young legs and stamina led to a two game victory.

 That set the stage for Pee-Wee versus Joe Kaplan. Despite three impressive victories, the feeling I got from the crowd before the match was Kaplan in two straight games. Joe took the first game 21-12, Pee-Wee stormed back to take the second game 21-14. There is that word heart again.

 That set the stage for one of the most thrilling finishes I've ever seen. Joe jumped out to a 6-0 lead. I think at that time the small ball establishment breathed a collective sigh of relief, that the title would remain with a small ball player, not a big blue player. But Pee-Wee knotted the score at 7-7, setting the scene for a furious finish. You could hear the crowd cheer for each well played point or moan for each error as if they were in the game. It was a roller coaster of emotions. But just as it looked like the ride would end, Kaplan served out at match point! Pee-Wee took advantage of that costly mistake to win 11-10.

 The first person to greet him was his lovely girlfriend, Brenda, who jumped into his arms and the well deserved celebration began.

 

MEN'S OPEN DOUBLES

BY BEN BRETTNER

 Picture the wild scene that takes place on the field and in the locker room after a team has won a championship. Players pile on top of each other in one mass group hug. In the locker room cameras and microphones are recording the celebrating. Champagne is flowing everywhere.

 Well, after Pee-Wee won the singles title the celebrating was more reserved. Handshakes, back slaps, with water and gatorade flowing. The reason for the more sedate scene was that Pee-Wee's job was only half done. He had to refocus his energy and mind for the task at hand. That was to become the first player to slam since 1995.

 I've written about two players engaged in singles and compared them to fighters in a ring. Now I'd like you to use your imaginatiobn  and picture all the doubles teams as horses in a race and follow the race with me from start to finish. As I handicapped the field I made Castro and Roberts the fifth best team, a definite longshot.

 They opened up with a strong showing against Albert Apuzzi and Ervin Irizarry before falling back into the pack when they dropped the first game 21-19 against the reigning champs Dave Rojas and Rookie Wright. They regained momentum with a 21-5 second game win. In the tie-breaker Pee-Wee was almost knocked out of the race when he started developing leg cramps. Jesse Cevallos suggested that he drink pickle juice to replenish the salt his body had lost. I promptly sped off to purchase a bottle of pickles at the nearest supermarket. After Pee-Wee finished drinking the juice I used the pickles on the turkey sandwich I had just bought. They were back in the race and won the tie-breaker 11-5.

 On the other side of the draw Joe Kaplan and Cesar Sala received a default, in their semifinal match against Kendell Lewis and Robert Sostre, when Sostre failed to make it back in time from a paddleball tournament at Orchard Beach.

 Castro and Roberts opened up a one length lead with a 21-16 first game win. Kaplan and Sala pulled even going down the stretch with a 21-18 second game win. With the finish line in sight Joe and Cesar opened up the tie-breaker with a 7-1 lead. Pee-Wee and Tony pulled even at 7 all. Now they were neck in neck in the sprint to the finish line. The lead seesawed back and forth with Castro and Roberts winning by a nose 11-9.

 If Pee-Wee was the MVP of the tournament than Tony was the runner-up. A look at Robert's record shows 3 National Doubles titles, 2 World Doubles titles and a European Doubles Championships.

 What are the ingredients that make a successful doubles team? In handball as well as tennis players are always looking for the right combination of playing style and personality that will mesh into a championship team. One ingredient in the formula would be to have Tony Roberts as your partner. He has won his many titles with 3 different partners. He has a great game face; serious, asll business, and completely supportive of his partner. He possesses perhaps the best hands in handball. Whatever shot is called for he can produce - fly kills with either hand, sidearm, underhand, power, and finesse.

 He's always accompanied by his girlfriend Melody, his number one fan. Melody is also a player moving up in the rankings among the women players, can always be heard encouraging Tony with the phrase "Come on honey!!".  What's in store for Pee-Wee and Tony next year? Winning the first is hard, repeating is even harder. injuries, complacency and other factors can make this year's champion next year's also-ran. But one thing Castro and Roberts will never be lacking in is heart.

 In an era where millionaire athletes are often critized for lack of hustle it's a pleasure to watch all the players performing for the sheer love of the sport.

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