Discovering tennis and becoming a die-hard player in my 40’s, I naturally wish I’d started earlier, especially as I face opponents who did. Despite ample coaching and court time, I can’t seem to match those who learned and drilled the fundamentals of the sport in their youth. Even these guys, however, talk with some regret about getting older and losing the athleticism they once had. It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one sometimes wishing I were younger.
The older we get, the more we ourselves tend to root for the older guys. I never got as caught up with my personal favorite Andre Agassi as much as I did when with debilitating back pain he faced younger and tougher opponents.
I now join scores of tennis fans all over the world who cheer for Roger Ferderer to win at least one more grand slam. We sense how much more tennis must mean to him the older he gets. As we ourselves get older, we also know how much harder he has to train for it, and how much more devastating an injury now becomes.
At my own rec. level, however, the old veteran players who have logged decades of match play make it hard to feel too sorry for myself. Though they don’t have the serves they used to, and they’ve obviously lost considerable mobility, they compensate with amazing court sense and a will to fight through the limitations of age. The ones I know have this attitude of giving all they can, seemingly with less of that ridiculous pride found in me and my friends who obviously missed our dreams of playing the U.S. Open but still act like we might belong there. These old guys just come to play, and they can still play hard.
When Stefano, my Italian singles rival a few years older than me, first invited me to play doubles with him against a couple of guys around 70, I jokingly asked him if they could even move that well. “Be careful,” said Stefano. “They’re strong here.” He pointed at his head. Soon into the match these old men, Ed and Bob, got into my head. They played us with incredible consistency and at times with the ferocity to match. I quickly found out that Ed, my neighbor, is an indomitable net man, tall and wide with surprisingly good reflexes. As a woman in her late 60’s I once interviewed at a tennis resort explained to me, “Don’t ever mess with us old folks at the net, Roger. It’s all we have, and we’re not surrendering there.” Well, Ed had the net, and he also had Badart (aka “Bob”), a small baseliner from India who repeatedly ripped backhand winners down the alley whenever I failed to sufficiently cover it.
When Stefano, my Italian singles rival a few years older than me, first invited me to play doubles with him against a couple of guys around 70, I jokingly asked him if they could even move that well. “Be careful,” said Stefano. “
A couple of years since this match, (which we lost), I still play with these older guys on the weekends at my neighborhood courts. We play year round, and considering I live in New Jersey, that adds even more heroism to their description. As long as there is no snow or rain on the courts, we’re out there at 9:00 am for two hours in freezing temperatures. Since I’ve improved some, along with Stefano, sometimes we mix up partners. Even so, both Ed and Bob continue to hold their own. Last summer, when Stefano couldn’t make it, I brought my friend Germán for a doubles match against them. He too assumed this would be a cake walk, just like me before I saw them in action. They looked so good out there (ultimately taking us in a three set battle) that they ended up inspiring me to rewrite Yeats:
Foot-Working from Byzantium
This is no doubles court for younger men.
Germán and I play seventy-year olds:
Tall Brit at net, small baseline Indian.
Their serves are not that strong, but each one holds
His game. Then they break ours, a timeless win.
Germán says it’s because we’re fighting colds.
“Come on,” I say, “We both have to admit,
We’re younger, but they’re more mentally fit.”
An aging tennis player’s inspiring
For what he fights against. They moved with grace
And struck tight angles, even while limping
Between each point, their knees and elbows braced
Like exo-skeletons, decay preserved:
Batman’s grandfather seeking his revenge
On loss of youth, inverted justice served
And volleyed at young punks. We came unhinged
By their mental conditioning: Decades
Of focus we can’t match, which never fades.
Oh tennis maestros making your last stand
Like battle-proven generals on the field,
Sprint for short balls, lean into your forehand,
Show weekend warriors power that you wield.
Yeats trash talked you (he could be such a dick).
Old age, he claimed, at best rests within art.
If he had balls he would’ve grabbed a stick
Instead of his lame pen and served with heart
Despite the thought of self as museum,
Foot-working out of old Byzantium.