With the U.S. Open underway, Serena Williams and Roger Federer might be receiving all the attention for defying Father Time, but they aren’t the only players who seem to be thriving longer than expected. Away from the cameras, older amateurs are giving their younger counterparts unexpected competition.
I discovered these aging warriors after being promoted to the “elite” division of my local tennis league. I promptly lost six straight matches, but what really disheartened me was that I dropped a few contests to players nearing retirement age. One of them, almost two decades my senior, beat me with such ease that he ran laps around the court afterward for a better workout; another planned to have a second match later that day. Gradually, however, my discouragement turned to curiosity.
Since then, I’ve asked older tennis players from around the country to serve up their longevity secrets. There were plenty such players to choose from — 62 percent of the U.S. Tennis Association’s 310,000 league players are 45 or older. That’s partly a matter of demographics; as baby boomers age, seniors make up more of the population. But it’s also due to greater awareness, compared with previous generations, of the keys to aging gracefully. “More adults are wanting to learn and get better as they get older,” said Joanne Wallen, the USTA’s director of adult competitive play.
Their lessons for body, mind and soul transcend tennis to other sports and overall health.
1. Keep a 1:1 ratioAfter winning one of the USTA’s most competitive amateur championships in 2006, Harris Rosenblatt attracted a gaggle of players who want to improve later in life, teaching them at his clinic in Potomac, Maryland. “If they want the same success I’ve had,” said Rosenblatt, 50, “they’ve got to apply the 1-to-1 ratio.” This means striking a balance between hours spent on the court and lower-impact, joint-friendly exercise and therapy.
Henry Forster, who attends the clinic, lives by the ratio. Too much tennis and “my body wouldn’t put up with it.” On days the 57-year-old isn’t playing, he swims, rides an exercise bike and does yoga. Tennis or not, he stretches 20 minutes every day and watches his calories.
Remaining mostly injury-free has enabled steady improvement. He didn’t take up the sport until graduate school, yet he plays as a 4.0 out of seven levels in the USTA’s rating system, what you would expect for his age if he had ranked among the best juniors in the country growing up. He won a USTA national title as part of a team in 2001, competing in a division for ages 18-and-over. This year and last, he led Montgomery County’s championship team in the 40-and-over group. Although he’s lost a step athletically since his graduate school days, his improved skill-set compensates. Asked how he and his contemporaries feel about excelling in their 50s, he said, “We kind of live for it.”
2. Find a good recovery routineLike Forster, District of Columbia resident Sylvia Okala, 76, caught the tennis bug relatively late — when she was in her 30s. Just six years ago, she captained her “D.C. Firecrackers” team, coached by her husband, to the USTA’s Mid-Atlantic championship at the 3.5 level. As she approaches 80, she continues to hit about four days every week, sometimes challenging 4.0 players — “big bangers,” she calls them. And her confidence to reach any drop shot rivals Rafael Nadal’s. “I don’t think I’ve changed at all,” she told me. “I can still run.”
To sustain her performance, she’s tried nearly every form of therapy over the years, keeping what works — and she’s kept a lot. Her backyard hot tub made the cut in 1983. Since then, its massage jets have been a pillar of her tennis recovery; hot water immersion has been shown to help athletes bounce back after exertion. Another pillar: acupuncture; she’s been getting as many as four treatments per month for 20 years, both electro-acupuncture through adhesive pads and sterile needles. Studies suggest the approach can ease pain, and Okala thinks it’s healed her tennis elbow, stiff neck and knee arthritis.
Her routine continues: yoga each morning, plenty of table massages, icing, kinesio tape for muscle support, visiting her PT to nip potential injuries in the bud and, last but not least, frequenting the dance floor, where she mixes conventional dancing with flurries of jumping jacks to stay limber and elevate her heart rate.
What motivates a 76-year-old to work so hard at maintaining her tennis game? The other players are her friends. “I’m an energetic person, and I like being around positive people.” They share longevity tips and reinforce good habits, like the folks in Rosenblatt’s clinic, who said they often trade advice as well. If there’s no tennis scheduled, Okala sleeps late, but if she’s got a match, she’s up at 5:30 a.m. to prepare. At her age, “I’m so proud when I win a match. Like I climbed the mountain — I’m alive!”
3. Lose the focus on winningAll the players I spoke with shared a passion for the sport that transcends concerns about winning. For Bob Litwin, a 71-year-old resident of Boulder, Colorado, the main goal is detaching from the outcome while enjoying the challenge of competing. Another late bloomer, his tennis mania didn’t start until he neared age 30. Since then, he’s put more effort into his inner game than practicing his strokes. He’s reduced his frustration and anxiety through journaling, writing “stories” about the different ways he can “win” — for example, not being too hard on himself.
It’s paid off physically. “When I was 40, every point was a stressful, win-lose experience, and after a match, I couldn’t walk up and down the steps. Now I play like a kid in the backyard, and I’m not sore afterward.” He paused, then said, “It’s peculiar to me, too!”
Ironically, his results have been spectacular: 24 USTA national championship titles, the International Tennis Federation’s championship in 2005 and, following two hip surgeries, reclaiming the top ranking in the 65-and-over division. Meanwhile, he’s become a performance coach and wrote a book to help others overcome their mental hurdles.
Detaching from the result was Gigi Fernández’s motto even while she was on the pro tour. “It’s not easy, but it’s a must,” she told me. Regarded as one of the greatest doubles players of all time, she’s sharing her Gigi Method with older players, teaching doubles strategy and how to perform under pressure — diaphragmatic breathing and mental toughness in between points. “The older you get, the more you can benefit from it,” she explained. “Roger and Serena are role models. They give hope to all the weekend warriors that they can continue improving into their 60s.”
Fernández suggests meditation and yoga, and Litwin has successfully leveraged both. Back in the ’90s, he was known on the amateur circuit for striking yoga poses during changeovers — fitness hygiene with a dash of gamesmanship. “Warrior posture, tree posture.” He laughed. “Yoga was new to tennis then. It made other players a little less comfortable.”
Nearly all the super seniors I talked with praised yoga. “I’ve seen strong growth [among older players] for the past 10-plus years,” said Lisa Wellstead, who teaches yoga and mindfulness at a tennis club in Atlanta. Like Fernández, she noted the influence of the pros; whenever Serena or Novak Djokovic talks up yoga in the media, she gets a spike of interest.
4. Just play, with people you enjoyOlder players offer tips such as taking the joint supplements glucosamine and chondroitin or doing single-leg squats for strength and balance, but tennis itself is a boon to longevity. A study last year found that playing the sport adds 9.7 years to a life span. Tennis raises the heart rate intermittently, offering many health benefits.
“Starting at age 40, we know you get about a 10 percent drop-off each decade in muscle mass, strength, and power,” said Mark Kovacs, a sports scientist who coaches pro and amateur athletes at his Kovacs Institute. He believes that if we train, though, we can limit the decline to just 2 to 4 percent.
Extended life spans for tennis players could also stem from the psychological effects of connecting with each other. Social interaction is associated with good health for seniors.
The fitness and social benefits might explain why Brenda Carter of Charleston, S.C., still thrives at age 73 doing little besides tennis. “I’ve never been a big exerciser,” she acknowledged — except playing five to six days per week for decades. For her, tennis is the spice that makes exercise palatable, and she’s enjoyed the taste of ranking first in the country for her USTA age group many of the past 20 years. One of her top accomplishments was winning a championship with her husband in a national doubles tournament for married couples with combined ages over 140. Whether it’s her husband or friends, “the special part is the people you meet along the way.”