I remember thinking, years ago, that when I retired I was going to play a lot more tennis. I'd always loved the game, and I knew exercise became even more important as you got older. What I didn't know was how weird and funny tennis could get when played by a bunch of aging, would-be jocks.
Let me introduce you to my summertime tennis club, whose name I will not mention for reasons that will soon become obvious. That goes for the characters I'm about to describe as well. In addition to being archetypes, they're real.
The headquarters of the club is a shack just big enough to hold a desk, a chair, and a cold-drink dispenser. All eight outdoor courts are clay. The players' average age, weekdays, is around 70, which dips down as far as 50 on summer weekends. In this club, 50-year-olds are kids. In some of my games, 70-year-olds are kids.
Meet Frank, a retired accountant who's known locally as the deli man: He's always slicing. When he's not slicing the ball, he's lobbing or dinking. "Play like a man," we shout, to no avail. We're all pretty competitive at the club, but Frank is off the charts. Funny how often he sees opponents' balls out when the rest of us see them in.
Larry's 87 and out on the court every day. He can't move more than a few inches in any direction, but if he can reach a ball, he'll get it back with a zip. Impressive, right? But Larry's not exactly a charmer. His court conversation is limited to such billet-doux as "That was a stupid shot" or, "Whoever told you you could play tennis?"
Mike, a retired lawyer, arrives at the club at the start of the summer carrying two racquets ("I hit so hard, I could break a string anytime.") and wearing ankle supports and braces on his knees and wrists. He lasts a week or two before pulling a muscle. I've been there, done that, myself, ignoring my wife's entreaties to "start slow." For the local physical therapist, our club is like an annuity.
Bill was once a surgeon, and it shows. He's always a few minutes late, roaring up in his Beemer convertible. He insists upon deciding who his doubles partner will be. He's the only member who plays without a shirt — a habit he began when he was a well-muscled 50 and maintains as a pot-bellied 72. He's constantly taking lessons with the pro to improve his serve, but he always hits the first ball with all his might and it always goes into the net. To my certain knowledge, he has been doing this for more than 30 years.
You might think that senior players would have the maturity and wisdom to see tennis as a game, pure and simple. In fact, the emotions run high. Arguments are frequent, the shouts ringing around the courts: "It was 40-30, you fool, not 30-40!" (Did I mention? Our memories aren't so good.) "You have to be blind if you call that serve in." (Ditto, our eyesight.) Bill still refuses to play with Larry since Larry hit the ball at his head, hard, from a distance of two feet. Mike won't play with Frank since Frank called him a "hypochondriac cripple."
Crazy, right? Yet for all the silliness, our club offers us something unique and precious. In the course of an hour or two of tennis, there's a good chance that, even at our age, we'll make an impossible shot or get to a ball no one thought we could reach. For that brief moment, we're heroes — to our peers and to ourselves. That's nothing to sneeze at, especially at our age.
Robert W. Stock is a New York-based writer and editor. Find more of my writing in Living At Its Best!