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“Bubba Ball” makes its mark at League 3.5 Nationals

October 12, 2013 12:30 AM
Photo Credit: Michael LeBrecht
Joe O’Connor’s unorthodox brand of tennis – “Bubba Ball,” as described by his son-in-law, Gordy – makes the 67-year-old one of the most dangerous players in the 2013 USTA League Nationals field in Indian Wells, Calif.
By J. Fred Sidhu, special to USTA.com
A day before the USTA League Adult 40 & Over 3.5 National Championships got underway in Indian Wells, Calif., Tom Gorman, a former ATP Top 10 player, addressed those in attendance at the captain’s meeting at the La Quinta Resort and Club, where he serves as director of tennis.
Gorman, a former United States Davis Cup captain and three-time Grand Slam semifinalist, joked with the crowd, saying he had thought he had seen every kind of tennis shot imaginable -- until he saw some 3.5 players practicing at the resort earlier in the day. 
One of the players Gorman may have watched was 67-year-old Joe O’Connor, a member of the USTA Eastern section men’s 3.5 team. The Buffalo, N.Y., native is one of the oldest players at this weekend’s 3.5 National Championships, and certainly among the most unorthodox. O’Connor uses a two-handed grip on his backhand and puts deceptive underspin on his shots, which is effective in keeping his opponents off balance. O’Connor hits many of his shots with very little pace and forces opponents to adjust their games and produce their own pace.
“A lot of players that I face think my game is very irritating because it consists mostly of lobs and drop shots. That’s my style, so they have to get used to it or they get beat,” he said. “I just love the game. I think it’s a great common denominator in life. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people along the way and I’m just thrilled I can play the game at my age. 
“It’s a thrill of a lifetime to be here.”
Playing USTA League tennis is a family affair for O’Connor. His son-in-law, Gordy Sage, is the captain of the men’s Eastern Team that represents the Miller Tennis Center in Buffalo. Sage credits O’Connor for getting him into tennis as a way to stay active and social and then, eventually, into USTA League play.
When asked how it felt to play on the same team as his father-in-law, Sage said, “It’s fantastic. We call him ‘Bubba.’ My wife’s children couldn’t call him Grandpa and they called him Bubba. We call his style of game ‘Bubba Ball,’ a lot of lobs and a lot of slice.
“He moves the opponents around versus them moving him around,” added Sage. “He can drop the ball on a dime. Nobody likes playing against him. He runs you ragged. I had four pulled hamstrings playing against him to attest to his style of game.”
When Sage put his team together earlier this year, he told his wife that he wanted to bring Bubba Ball to Nationals. Now they’re here -- and with Joe O’Connor on the court, no hamstring is safe.
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