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Senior Achievement: For a thriving culture of active seniors, tennis is the elixir of youth.
By Lise Funderburg
 
USTA Magazine
November/December 2003
 
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 CMC 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 in 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 lifetime sport.
 
Despite the prevalence of knee braces and arthritic hitches in many a 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 state 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 than you."
 
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 their wrists."
 
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 back? How's your knee? How's your elbow?'"
 
Sure enough, courtside chat is peppered 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 and 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 lose 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 a 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 Greensboro.
 
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 tenement, 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 consistency to."
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, anxious 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 event, she has driven two hours from her home in Ridge-wood, 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 and 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, Wakley 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 in 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 to."
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."