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The Magic of Tennis at 83

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I teach tennis and this is Burt. He is 83 years old. Burt has a tennis court at his home and we hit twice a week and have been doing that for over three years. He was one of my first tennis clients when I first switched careers. I can still remember our first lesson when he said he was 79 years old. I was in shock. I had seen players his age at senior age group tournaments and am always amazed at how healthy people can be at his age, compared to most of my personal training clients.

Burt started playing tennis in high school and has played most of his life, but never competed except for his on his high school tennis team. His high school tennis coach wasn’t a real tennis player, just a teacher willing to show up and make the schedule and clap. When I asked him why he played tennis in his youth he said, “Well Jewish boys couldn’t play football, baseball or basketball, no one would choose us for a team. So all that was left was tennis and well no one was cut from the team for lack of ability so I did tennis.”

He had built the court many years ago at his home for his children who played in high school and he continued to play for many years with men his age at a local park and tennis club. Then in his 70s, many of his male friends he played with began to drop out of the game. They were overweight, getting sick and no longer physically able to play. He continued to go the gym daily and always ate well and stayed thin but didn’t have anyone to play tennis with for about 10 years.

Then his daughter got married to a big football looking 6’2” 240lb former college athlete. His daughter came to visit and she suggested to her husband that he go outside and play tennis with her dad, so they could bond. Burt was happy to get back on the tennis court and then the son-in-law beat him 6-0 6-1. Burt was no longer happy and went online and found me.

For our first lesson, he had on shoes that were over 10 years old, those old flat Adidas ones, and a racket from the 1980s. I went along with it, fed him a few balls, he swung with just his right arm, hitting the ball into the net as hard as he could or slicing it short and usually off the court. He only used his right arm, his left arm clung to his side with no shoulder turn at all and straight legs. He acted very serious and cussing at himself when he missed the ball which was 70% of the time. Once time he swung so hard he did a 360 and fell down. Scared the shit out of me.

“Burt, please tell me why you want to now at 79 take tennis lessons.” Burt had told me had never taken formal tennis lessons his whole life.

“Vanessa, I want to beat my son-in-law.” He then told me about his son-in-law. “Oh, and I don’t like him.”

OK, this was a tall order. “Ok Burt, let me teach you a real forehand. How long until he comes to visit again?”

“6 or so months.”

And we got to work. Burt was very dedicated. He went to the local tennis store I sent him to, bought two new rackets and new shoes, would go to the gym and worked on the stability exercises I showed him and his balance. He watched tennis on TV for the first time in his life and was hooked. He was now having such fun playing and feeling secure not just with the racket but his overall movement.

One day he was hitting his forehand well and I am a counter and I figured I would see how long we could keep this rally going. We kept the same ball going for 173 shots in a cross-court forehand rally. I was literally holding my breath that I wouldn’t make a mistake, and relieved when he hit it in the net. He was so happy he called all his family and a business associate to tell him. His wife said he was walking on air all week with joy.

But that wasn’t the test.

The son-in-law came to visit and said, “hey Burt, let’s hit a few balls.”

I had worked out a game plan, 2 balls one side of the court long, angle to the other side of the court short, get in trouble, lob. That was it. Burt beat him 6-1 6-0. I got a nice bonus, but more than that, I got to share the happiness that tennis has brought me with someone else. Priceless. I am still not happy when occasionally, Burt can ace me with that short slow slice off the court serve, but I only have myself to blame for teaching him.

Tennis can be played different ways, and sometimes, less power works beautifully. That is why this is the game for any age, everyone can always play and be successful and have fun. And winning doesn’t suck either.