Miracle comeback spurs Missouri Valley men to Nationals

Jim Keller (left) and Mike Chico.
By J. Fred Sidhu, special to USTA.com
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Thanks to a tennis miracle earlier this year, the 4.0 Senior men’s team representing the USTA Missouri Valley Section is competing in this weekend’s USTA League National Championships at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
The Missouri Valley men’s team, which plays at the Wood Valley Racquet Club in Topeka, Kan., reached its sectional final in late August against a team from Omaha, Neb.
The teams were tied at 1-1 after splitting the number one and number three doubles matches. The number two doubles match would determine which team would advance to the National Championships.
Mike Chico and Jim Keller of the Missouri Valley team won the first set 6-2 and looked to be in control of the match. However, Chico, the 57-year-old team co-captain, pulled his left calf muscle.
"I injured it at the beginning of the second set. We went to the sideline and I taped it up as tight as I could," Chico said. "I was just limping around. I just couldn’t do anything. I figured we were done. I couldn’t move."
With his movement on the court limited, Chico began playing further back instead of playing at the net so his opponents would not lob over him. Chico and Keller, a 64-year-old lawyer from Topeka, went on to drop the second set 6-4 to even the match at one-set all.
A match tie-break (first team to 10 points with at least a two-point advantage) would decide the Missouri Valley sectional winner.
With the members of each team loudly cheering on their teammates from the sidelines, Chico and Keller lost eight of the first nine points in the match tie-break and fell behind 8-1 as they looked all but finished. Looking back at that moment, Chico thought, "It was a nice run. We’re going home."
The miracle comeback began on the tenth point. Playing with nothing to lose, Keller slammed a forehand service return winner past his opponent at the net, who was poaching. That would be the first of nine consecutive points Keller and Chico would run off as they captured the match tie-break 10-8.
After Keller hit a backhand winner on match point, the rest of the Missouri Valley men’s team stormed the court to begin a wild celebration.
Chico and Keller credited their focus on playing one point at a time as the key to their comeback victory. In fact, they were both so focused they could only remember a few of the individual points during their comeback.
On one key point late in the match tie-break, Chico just managed to return two of his opponent’s overheads with lobs. His opponent smashed a third overhead wide to give Chico and Keller a crucial point in their comeback.
"I felt like I was so focused playing each point. I’m glad that I didn’t think about what this means and with everybody watching," Keller said. "I don’t think it hit me until it was over. We were so focused on each ball and each point that we were able to pull through."
At a team party prior to their trip to Indian Wells, a teammate presented Chico and Keller with the three tennis balls they used during their victorious match tie-break and will have them mounted as a trophy.
At this weekend’s Nationals, the Missouri Valley Men’s Senior 4.0 team is playing in Flight 8 and will face sectional teams from Pacific Northwest, Eastern and Mid-Atlantic as they attempt to reach Sunday’s semifinals.