By the time I turned 50, I’d already been playing tennis for more than 40 years. My first racquet was a wooden Jack Kramer Autograph with a screw-on racquet press to keep it from warping in damp weather. If I’m lucky, I figure I have another 20 years of tennis in me.
One of the great things about tennis is you’re never too young to start. Or too old.
I started playing tennis when I was barely taller than the net. Bob Tate of Portland, on the other hand, didn’t pick up a racquet until he was 50. That’s when he and his wife joined a community tennis clinic to learn the game.
After those first few clinics, Tate’s wife continued playing, but he wasn’t as dedicated. Later, though, he found inspiration when he and his wife got out on the court together. “When we started playing together and she was beating me, I thought, ‘This can’t happen!’” he says. “So I decided to take a few more lessons.”
Tennis is now one of Tate’s passions. At age 68, he plays four times a week—staying fit, having fun, making friends.
You don’t have to be named Federer to know the many benefits of playing tennis. It reduces our risk of heart disease, improves our balance and coordination and helps us keep us off the pounds. It also keeps us mentally agile; you’re constantly making split-second decisions on the court, looking ahead two or three shots and developing a court strategy, much like a game of chess.
Tennis great Bjorn Borg once said a tennis match is like a thousand little sprints. So it’s no surprise that an hour of play can burn a lot of calories. According to various studies, playing an hour of singles can burn between 600 and 800. That’s more than high-impact aerobics, cross-country skiing or working out on an elliptical.
But the benefits of tennis go beyond your physical health. Through the years, I’ve established countless friendships with people I’ve played in tennis leagues from all walks of life.
Bob Tate knows all about this. He’s struck up plenty of relationships on the court that carried over to going out for coffee after doubles matches. For many years, he and his wife and three other couples they met playing tennis had monthly “Smash and Snarf” dinners together at their homes.
While on vacation, they’ll play in tennis clinics in the morning, then hit the beach and relax before having dinner and/or drinks at the end of the day with other vacationers they met on the court.
Tate’s only regret? “I tell my wife that if I could do it over, I would have taken tennis up a young kid. Just to have the lifetime experience.”
I’m fortunate that I took up tennis before I could barely tie my shoes, learning on a lumpy clay court at a boys’ camp owned by my grandfather in eastern Maine. I have many tennis memories: playing in tournaments at my grandfather’s camp, taking lessons from Jimmy Connors’ mother, beating an opponent in high school when I was down 0-5, love-40 in the final set of a match.
Now that I’m older, I like to keep score on the little scoreboards on the sides of the court so I don’t forget the score. I also like to make my opponents run from side-to-side more (while hoping they won’t make me run).
And I’m not so fond of playing young whippersnappers who seemingly don’t break a sweat while I’m huffing and puffing.
With the arrival of warm weather, I’ve taken my game from indoors to out, an annual ritual that hopefully will continue until I can no longer pick up a racquet.
But whether I’m playing inside or outside, an opponent young or old, for fun or in competition, one thing never changes—the smile on my face.
Clarke Canfield is a longtime journalist, writer and editor who likes to be active. He is the communications director at Southern Maine Community College.