Tennis seniors rely on smarts, not speed

March 21, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

Their shots aren't always as crisp as they once were, but occasionally they're as sharp as ever. Passing shots probe the corners of the tennis court, slams blast by opponents, and forehand and backhand drives snap across the net.

But most senior men's tennis is smart instead of fast. They don't throw themselves after the ball or try to blow their opponents off the court. They hit hard when they can, but use cuts and slices to make unreachable shots that just kiss over the net.

"Whatever it takes to win," said Richard H. Henry, 81, of Bethesda, just before he went on court yesterday to oppose Jesse Gay, 82, of Falls Church, Va., in an opening-round match in the Mid Atlantic Men's Indoor Hard Court Championship.

The event at the Perring Athletic Club in Parkville is for men 70 and older, a field that includes the two retired Navy captains, veteran players since childhood, who battled back and forth before Gay won, two sets to one.

Gay will return today in the semifinals and, with a good match, might make it to tomorrow's final. Henry left the court vowing to practice hard for the next time they meet.

Though Henry and Gay were the oldest players in the tournament's morning session, another singles match and two doubles matches occupied the other courts in the cavernous tennis barn.

Sixty-four players signed up to compete in the tournament, which began Monday.

Men's senior tournament tennis is thriving in the United States as more older men enter tournaments, played on grass, clay and hard courts. They play opponents in their own age groups: 70 to 75, 75 to 80, and 80 and up.

"Seniors tennis is growing because the population is getting older and healthier, so it has to grow," said Jim Cummings, 62, a former Mid Atlantic doubles champion who is the tournament referee at the Perring Athletic Club.

"This is just the start of it, a microcosm of what's happening around the country. The term 'old' doesn't count anymore," he said.

Five years ago, he said, five players in the area were in the 75-80 age group and none was in the 80s; now 12 are in the 75-80 division and five are 80 and older.

"There are no hackers here. They're still athletes, and they're still able to compete at a high level," Cummings said.

Doyle Royal, 78, of Bethesda, a former University of Maryland player and coach, said that this year for the first time, at the U.S. Tennis Association national championships in Boise, Idaho, there will be a division for players 90 and older. The tournament is expected to draw 15 to 20 such players, "in singles," Royal said.

"Seniors tennis is the best thing going, and it's growing," Royal said as he prepared for his match.

Forrest L. Gager, 75, of Sweet Briar, Va., said he has played tennis since learning as a youngster at summer camp. "But I didn't play in any tournaments until I was 70, and now I play in four or five a year. I play because I can and I'm happy to be able to."

Gay and Henry said that when they started to play tennis they used sneakers and wooden rackets strung with gut. Yesterday, all the players wore the latest sports shoes and were armed with large-head, graphite rackets strung to high tension with nylon or synthetic gut that adds power to their strokes.

Older players keep themselves in shape and have great endurance, Cummings said.

For example, one of the early matches in yesterday's tournament, between two 70-year-olds, became a four-hour, 10-minute endurance contest, "and they were playing as well at the end as at the beginning," Cummings said.

Both men are excellent back-court players -- "golden retrievers" -- Cummings said, "but neither had the big stroke to win, so they kept going at it, back and forth."

"The seniors know how to play the game. They play at a less physical but no less intellectual level. Age is relative; look at these guys," Cummings said.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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