Believe or not but the 2011 Men’s National Champions almost did not play together in Chicago. We interviewed them after the victory and found out their secrets. Mike thinks people consider him an “old timer” and Mark calls playing tournaments “going to work.” Learn why the MVP of their team may have been Kerri Delmonico. Here is an excerpt of our talk with the “Champs.”
Paddle Times: Did you think that on your first season together you were going to end up as National Champions?
Mike Stulac: Mark and I joked about winning Nationals when we decided to team up this summer. Personally, I was not sure I would ever get a chance to play for the National title again.
Mark Parsons: We had a conversation before the season and decided that the goal was to win Nationals. Where we were ranked didn’t matter. We entered the year with that goal and felt we could accomplish that.
PT: When did you realize you had a chance to win Nationals?
Mark: I felt after we won Lehigh that we had figured some things out. It had been a tough year up till then but that was probably the turning point for us.
Mike: The first time I thought about winning was serving at 5-3 in the final, and given I faulted twice and hit an overhead almost into the side screen on the fly it is good that I didn’t think about it earlier. Mark said to me after the match that when we won he couldn’t tell whether I didn’t know the score or was just surprised we won. I was definitely shocked we had won it.
PT: Did you think you could lose any of your matches?
Mike: I thought we were going to lose our first round match. I worked all morning trying to get a project done before our match and I showed up stressed and not ready to play. We were playing Riva-Wiese. They started off playing well and I was really struggling (one of my drop shots hit the side screen in the air). I kept telling Mark that I would get better; he told me later that he was thinking it better happen quickly or he was going to find a casino to blow some money for the rest of the weekend.
Mark: Absolutely. We had a scare in the first round. In paddle I think you have the ability to lose any match if you take any match for granted.
PT: Which one was the toughest match?
Mark: The Easterbrook-Jonason was a very tough match for us. They had beaten us earlier in the year and it was a big mental battle for us. The Bondurant-Johnson match was tough for me as I had never played them before. As is the case with any tournament the last match is always the hardest. Nerves kick in and can really change the outcome. I was very lucky to have Mike on my side keeping my as calm as possible.
Mike: We played pretty talented teams the whole way through and if we had not played well from the 16’s in we could have easily lost any of those matches. Easterbrook-Jonason, Arraya-Bancila and Bondurant-Johnson are all great teams and we were pleased to win all of those rounds. But I think the toughest match was the final because unless you are Goodspeed-Mansager you are not going to get too many opportunities to win the Nationals. DuRandt-Porter are a very good team and we knew we were going to have to play well to win. DuRandt is just so talented and keeps so much pressure on because he is always moving forward. Matt Porter is always good but he really volleyed and hit his forehand at incredibly well that weekend.
PT: Did you use the same strategy in all your matches? or did you change it depending on who your opponents were?
Mike: Mark and I keep our strategy pretty simple, we just try to make sure we attack with our strengths. For each match we plan where to hit our overheads if we are in trouble and then depending on the team may play a little or a lot of Australian that is about it. We knew our opponents fairly well and I do not remember altering our strategy too much during any of the matches.
Mark: We would enter the match with a specific strategy based on who we were playing. As is the case in all paddle matches, strategy has to change as the match goes on.
PT: During the first part of the season your results were not good as everyone thought. What happened at Lehigh? Did you guys find the magic formula?
Mark: I think early in the season we felt as though we should have been having better results. I know personally I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to win. I was forcing a lot and was not playing my best paddle. I think the best thing that could have happened was playing Lehigh. Mike mentioned at Short Hills that we should probably play and ended up being a very smart decision.
Mike: No, I really don’t think we discovered anything at Lehigh but the difference was we won which was important for our confidence. We really struggled for most of the year, including a 6-0, 6-0 loss to Berka-Eberle in Charities and lost a number of matches early where we really weren’t playing well. As the year went on we started competing better as a team but we just couldn’t win a big point. After Short Hills, I was so discouraged with my play I told Kerri (my wife) that I was going to call Mark to play with Scott Estes because Mike Cochrane had hurt his calf. Mark was really playing some good paddle and I was letting him down. Kerri said absolutely not! I’m glad I listened to her. Then Lehigh came along and we continued to fight well and started to win. That momentum just carried forward to the Nationals.
PT: Do you think that the decision not to play President’s Cup (you were ranked 10th before Chicago and eligible to play) played a big factor in winning Nationals?
Mike: President’s Cup is such a great part of the Nationals and I have absolutely loved playing over the years. I found that it really allows you to get your game grooved because you are playing 5 matches against the top teams in the country. That being said, the body is getting older and I did not want to risk not being able to play Nationals. I’m not sure why young Mr. Parsons, didn’t play though.
Mark: Yes and No. I personally love President’s Cup and have participated in the past. It goes back to what the goal for the year was to win nationals. I felt the added matches would not have benefited me so I decided not to play.
PT: Four non-American players reached the men’s final for the first time. Why do you think that is?
Mark: The addition of tennis players is expanding the sport. Foreigners dominate college tennis and nowadays when many of them are finished playing they turn to teaching. Paddle becomes a competitive outlet other than tennis. Most guys will tell you that they prefer to compete in paddle over tennis.
Mike: I think this is just a comment on how the game is growing and there is a lot of diversity in the game.
PT: Is the game changing, as many old timers claim? Why do you think that is?
Mike: Probably the biggest change is the depth of talent and the number of great athletes that are playing paddle now it is really incredible how deep the draws are these days. The change in equipment (bouncier ball and improved paddles) and racket skills of the players has led to more offense and a lot more spin. But at the end of the day, the game at the core is still the same – it is a game of mistakes and not winners. By the way, are you calling me an “old timer?”
Mark: The game has changed with the addition of tennis players being more involved and the new ball. The funny part is that the so called old timers are changing as well. They are adapting to the changes and are always a force to be reckoned with.
PT: Are you national heroes in Canada? Has any Canadian journalist or newspapers contacted you after your victory?
Mark: My mother said good job, my sister asked what paddle was and my kids were just happy that daddy was home from “work”. I’m not sure paddle is replacing Hockey in the great white north just yet, but maybe in the future.
Mike: Does congratulations from my Mom, friends in Toronto and people at Kingsway (club I grew up playing at in Toronto) make me a National Hero?
PT: Now that you are National Champions and ranked #2, will you play as many tournaments as you did last season? (You played 7 tournaments)
Mike: I would expect to play 4 or 5 with Mark and then play 2 or 3 with other partners I really think playing tournaments with different partners helps improve my game because you have to hit different shots and you can learn a lot from other people. Rankings and points don’t really concern me, the key for the season is to improve as a team and be ready to go for Nationals.
Mark: I think the original plan was 4 or 5 tournaments. Given our results at the beginning of the year, I think we realized a few more (losses) wouldn’t hurt. I think next year we will start with the first one and go from there. That is, of course, if Mike will have me back as a partner.
PT: Have you talked or decided which tournaments will you play next season? Can you reveal which ones you will play?
Mark: I hope that we could cut that 7 number down to maybe 5 so that we could both play with some other players. I think there is a huge advantage to playing with some different partners to see different views of the game. Again the goal will be to win Nationals. Whatever we feel is needed to make that goal possible is what we will do, 6 tournaments, 7 tournament, 8 tournaments, whatever it takes.
Mike: We haven’t really talked about what tourneys we will play next year but my guess is we will start with Chicago and then see how the season goes.
Albrikes-DuRandt won in Philly after playing on their first season together, and then Parsons-Stulac did the same in Chicago. Will the 2012 National Champions will be a new team?