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For a thriving culture
of active seniors,
tennis is the elixir of youth.
by Lisa Funderburg
FOR A SUNNY, breezy week in mid-July, the parking lot of
Philadelphia's Germantown Cricket Club is Filled with
out-of-state plates. Each day, one gargantuan silver GMC
Yukon occupies a prime spot - under a shade tree and as close
to the courts as you can get. The Yukon's three
passengers, who chatted their way through the 450-mile drive
from North Carolina, use it as a portable locker room, fishing
their gear and bottled water from it throughout the day.
The three friends have come for the 2003 USTA Senior Women's
Grass Court Championships, where they'll play with and against
each other for the top spots in the 75s.
The Golden Girls, as the members of the trio call
themselves (the SUV's owner is Peggy Golden), are part of a
vital tennis subculture: the uppermost age groups of senior
women. More than 2,200 senior women played USTA
tournaments last year, and a solid third were 65 and older, a
sector that's expanded over the last four years. Credit
increasing life spans, aging baby boomers, or the national
obsession with fitness - these women prove that tennis is a
Despite the prevalence of knee braces and arthritic hitches
in many player's gait, the women are unusually fit for their
age, which makes them oddities in their hometowns. "This
is someplace we can go to play with people our age who are
active," says Donna Moore, 84, from Northern California.
"At home we have to play with people 30, 40, 50 years old."
Moore says most players know they won't be taking home a gold
ball, the coveted first prize. "The top group takes
everything all the time, " she says, exaggerating only
slightly, "so we're just morale builders."
For these women to be competitive is no small
accomplishment. Older seniors grew up when assertiveness
and aggression were frowned upon in females, on the court and
off. "It made them stand out in college and in high
school," says Patricia Graham, a 60s player and vice-chair of
the USTA Adult and Senior Competition Committee, "and it was
difficult for them to do sports - no one else was doing it."
Player Joyce Rabensburg, for example, who was a 1936 Texas
states doubles champion and just played in the 2003 Friendship
Cup in Austria, was awarded the first letter sweater ever
given by her high school to a female athlete.
Moore still aims high despite the current odds - and has a
pretty good track record to show for it. She's given a
gold ball to her daughter and granddaughter and medals to
three of her four great-grandchildren. "Now I just need
one more," she says.
Irene Shepard, 75, admits the lure of winning. "You
can't imagine what a thrill it is to hold that little ball in
your hand," she says in a thick Massachusetts accent, full of
long A's and dropped R's. Shepard, who won her first
gold ball in 1995, figures her chances will improve in 2007,
when she turns 79 and can start playing in the 80s division.
"It's your big year when you're the baby on the block," she
explains. "You leave behind a few of the people higher
Competitive natures don't wane and love of the sport
endures, says Al Shepard, Irene's husband and a juniors
referee for the Southern section of the USTA, but the actual
game changes as bodies age.
"Younger people play with power up until about the age of
40," says Al, who drove up from Martinez, GA., with his wife
in their fully equipped Coachman motor home. "Older
people play with talent and their head." They'll pay
more attention to opponents' strengths and weaknesses, and use
more lobs and drop shots. "The difference is smarts," he
says. "The older players use their smarts. And
Carol Wood, a retired physical therapist from Potomac, Md.,
who plays in the 65s says most players are in great shape -
for their ages. Still, she jokes, "most of us are
orthopedically impaired. Sometimes the greeting is not,
'How are you?' but 'How's your elbow?'"
Sure enough, courtside chat is pepped with comments about
the merits of glucosamine and Tylenol with codeine. As
players deal out hands of bridge or work on needlepoint
projects between matches, they speculate about whether this
one has had knee surgery, how that one with the hip shoulder
replacement is getting on, or how one favorite player who's
been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease is faring, how well
she still plays when she doesn't loser her focus.
Longevity is a common thread, and not just in terms of life
span. Sprinkled throughout the draw are former
world-class players, women who competed at Wimbledon and the
Australian Open half a century ago. Tournament Director
Whitney Springstead marvels at how long some have faced off
across the net. "A lot have been following each other
around since the juniors." Springstead says. "They
really know each others' games."
Even "newer" players have been at the sport 20 and 30
years, taking up tennis after graduating from college or
raising families. Others were competitive in different
sports - one held world records in track and field - until
circumstance or injury forced the change. Golden, for
example, is retired physical education teacher who started
playing tennis at 49, after she got her children through
college. She lives in Sanford, N.C., and drives to most
tournaments accompanied by fellow Golden Girls Martha Norman,
from Asheboro, and Kay Wakley, from Greensboro. The
three were on a Super Seniors team earlier in the year, and
two of them, Wakley and Golden, have played league tennis in
Younger players, even those in their 50s, are likely to
have personal trainers and to lift weights. Few of
today's oldest seniors are gym rats, more inclined to practice
simply by playing. "I've never done any gym stuff," says
Irene Shepard, who joined the national circuit 15 years ago,
when she retired from nursing. "But from April to
September I garden."
When Shepard was growing up in New Bedford, Mass., tennis
wasn't popular in her crowd. "It was a rich man's game,"
she remembers. But an uncle who worked at a
Wilson-Spalding plant gave Shepard and her nine siblings all
the balls and racquets they could use. The family lived
in a classic New England triple-decker, shoulder-to-shoulder
with its neighbors. Shepard used the building walls as
backboards. "I used to drive the neighbors crazy with
all that clop-clop-clop. But that's what I attribute my
Norman also came to the sport in early childhood. She
played barefoot as a girl and didn't own a racquet until she
made her high school team. A philanthropic neighbor
bought it for her, which she has always considered the best
thing that ever happened to her. "I can still smell that
racquet to this day," she recalls. What did it smell
like? "Newness," she answers, reveling in the memory.
Over time, however, the pleasures of the game begin to
compete with the costs of entry fees and travel, taking a toll
even before the tournaments begin. "Let me tell you,"
Moore says, "it's hard to get here - getting to the airport,
renting the car, getting to the hotel. Especially when
you're 80 or 85, you don't have the energy. Everything's
so fast today. You get worn out. Well, the body
wears out, but the brain's still going."
But not all the bodies wear out. Most 45-year-olds
would be thrilled to look like Barbara Milliken, a lithe
67-year-old with fashionably tousled blonde hair, a perfect
manicure and a sparkling smile. "We all look good until
you get close," says the Pittsburgh hair salon owner. A
few men from the club hover around the players like vintage
Lotharios. They approach the "girls" to see if anyone
will play. And anyone who's free says yes, anzious to
warm up or keep busy in the gaps between matches.
All the years of playing lead to deep and enduring
friendships. "I like to go to the tournaments so I can see all
my buds," says Carol Clay, a top 55s player who coordinates
the rankings for the 75s. "You won't believe how agile
these women are, how funny. They're sharp as tacks."
Sally Grinch, 74, played in her first national championship
only two years ago. She was hooked by the level of play
and the friendliness of the other players. For this
weeklong even, she has driven two hours from her home in
Ridgewood, N.J. "It's a little vacation for me," Grinch
says. "I don't have to shop for food or keep house."
Everyone on this circuit knows the game of the nearly
unbeatable Dodo Cheney, 88, who plays in modest sun-blocking
slacks and long-sleeved shirts - outfits we're unlikely to see
on Serena or Venus Williams anytime soon. Milliken is
happy to fall into a different age group from Cheney, who's
been playing for more than 70 years and has won over 330 gold
balls. The two have found a level playing field, though,
with bridge and ultra low-stakes poker. Does Milliken
ever win at cards?
"Dodo's tough," Milliken hedges.
Cheney serves as inspiration for many of the women on the
senior circuit, including Shepard. She remembers when
she first saw Cheney play at the Longwood Cricket Club in
Brookline, Mass. Shepard was 21 at the time. "I was in
awe of her then," she says, "and I'm in awe of her now."
Cheney may be a symbol of endurance, but Wakley is
hands-down the group's symbol of courage and fortitude these
days. Wakley still bears slight traces of an accent from
her native England, and when she comes off the court, she
towels off her smart, cropped brown hair and freshens her
lipstick, a coral pink that illuminates her tanned skin.
When she's on the court, she keeps her feet moving more than
most, ready to spring into action.
"She never misses a ball," says one fellow player,
observing from the sidelines. Says another, "We didn't
know if she'd be here this year."
Wakley was diagnosed two years ago with colon cancer, which
subsequently spread to her liver and lymph nodes. She's
had two surgeries since then and is still on chemotherapy.
When she was recuperating, Golden and Norman would bring cards
back from tournaments, signed by fellow players.
A year ago, Wakely wasn't sure until the last minute that
she'd be able to play the grass nationals - she couldn't
tolerate the infusions she was receiving at the time.
But she switched medications and came to play. She won
the silver doubles that year, with Golden as her partner.
"Everyone's been so supportive since I got sick," Wakley says.
"They sent cards and emails telling me I was in their prayers,
that they knew I'd come through it, and that they knew I'd get
back to playing again. So I felt obliged to do that."
Norman chimes in: "She had to get better. She had
Golden and Norman are eliminated in the first round of
doubles play. Wakley makes it to the final with Shepard
as her partner. In the championship match, Elaine Mason
and June Dickey win 6-2, 6-1. Wakley's never won a gold
ball but is unfailingly gracious about the outcome. "Win
or lose, I really enjoy it," she says. "Most of the time
we're all just thankful to be out here."
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