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Youth and Experience
Talking with Blake Anderson and Mike Stulac, Part One
What makes their story so interesting? Both were Junior National Champions, Mike Stulac has two Open Nationals titles, and the May-December pairing has found success in the big arena this year.
How old were you when you started playing paddle?
BA: I started playing paddle at the age of seven at the Noe Pond Club in Chatham, NJ. My father started taking me out on the court and hitting with me.
MS: I was literally born with a paddle in my hand. A friend of my parents, Don Ferguson, had lived in NJ for a few years, fell in love with the game, and put a court in his backyard. The group of families got too big for the backyard so with the help of a grant, they put a four-court facility into a local park. I spent most of my time on those courts.
How did you start playing with each other?
BA: I have played with several partners. When I realized that I was getting better and better, I was looking for a veteran presence on the court. Mike and I have always played pickup matches together. We decided to play Patterson and see what happened. We took John Hughes/Marc Powers to three sets and so we kept playing more together.
MS: He is a great guy, he is young, quick and incredibly talented. I begged!
What do you enjoy most about playing with each other?
BA: What I enjoymost is the competitiveness we both bring to every match. We both want to win so badly so we give it our all on each and every point. I find that we complement each other very well, so it’s always fun, win or lose.
MS: It was great having a partner for the whole year because you get time to talk strategy and make changes to make the team better. Blake enjoys the strategy side of the game and, even at this late stage in my career, I was able to learn a lot. Also, Blake is so talented, it was just great to get in the mix of some of these tournaments again and be competitive.
Your results together have really been improving.-Do you get a chance to practice together a lot?
BA: We try to get out one to two times a week and work on different strategy. We have been using the Australian formation a lot more and we seem to be getting more comfortable with every match. It makes it easy that we live near each other. We practice a lot with the "Spoon Squad" at the Short Hills Club, which is a group of young guys that enjoy the occasional slash and beer.
MS: I would reiterate what Blake said—we tried to really focus on strategy when we were playing. We spent a lot of time discussing what strategies can work and where we were vulnerable and how we can limit those type of points. Overall, I was happy with our year as we did not lose a main draw match in two sets, which means we were competitive, but is also a bit frustrating that we didn’t find a way to close out those matches.
What is it like having a partner who is twenty years older/younger than you? Are there specific strengths/weaknesses that you think come with age/youth?
BA: I really enjoy playing the role I have in our partnership. I love moving around the court. I think Mike would agree that I’m slightly faster than he is so I usually run for the drop shots but Mike has been to every stage of the game. It is very beneficial to learn from him. I benefit from the veteran status that Mike brings and I think he benefits from me because the game is changing and I have been learning through that change so we use a combination of the tactics and strategy to create a game plan.
MS: At this stage in my career, I need a partner with weapons from the backcourt and good overheads and Blake has both. He has a very strong overhead, can hit off both sides in the backcourt, and, thankfully, get any short balls. His ability to control the court allowed us to compete very well all year with everyone we played. My goal is to volley well, get Blake opportunities to attack in the backcourt, and try to add a bit of wisdom when the match tempo is not in our favor.
Blake won Junior Nationals the same year (2011) that Mike won regular Nationals. How much do you think experience counts for in paddle?
BA: I think experience really plays a big role. I have not been in bigger matches until this year but with each match I go through I gain a mental and physical advantage for the next one. With the game changing so fast, it is great to have an old school vision from Mike combined with the newer strategy that I bring. You can definitely tell that because of the experience that Mike has, he really keeps us together as a team through deep matches.
MS: Wow, that really makes me feel old! The year I won the Nationals, I was already trying to find younger partners to help provide more weapons and speed, something Mark Parsons did incredibly well. My experience on the paddle court, I think generally brings a comfort level to my partners when things get tight. I generally like those matches and opportunities. But you don’t have to have played years of paddle to bring a wealth of experience to your partners. So many of the tennis players, like Jared Palmer, Marc Powers, and Parsons, to name a few, all bring years of training, wins and losses, and a mental strength that has been built from years of competition that gives them an advantage. Blake is a bit of an old soul and he has really spent time thinking about strategy and has no problem playing the long points. I learned a lot from him and, surprisingly, would push him to be more aggressive given all of his weapons.
Look for PART TWO coming next week.