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Health & Fitness

Playing with a partner makes tennis an ideal sport for seniors

Roger M. Williams


Although most promotional slogans bear more hot air than truth, “tennis, the sport for a lifetime” is a notable exception.  

As long as you can run a little, or at least shuffle, you can continue to play and enjoy tennis. Sweden ’s former King Gustav played well into his 90s, and 85- and 90-year-olds compete regularly in national tournaments—even in singles.

For the great majority of retirees, however, doubles is the tennis game of choice. Doubles has numerous advantages. You need “cover” only half the court—and can conveniently call “Yours!” when a shot is just out of reach. With two on a side, it’s easier to keep the ball in play.

If you’re playing poorly, you can hope your partner can propel your team to victory; if that doesn’t happen, you can—silently, one hopes—blame him or her. Most seniors want to play doubles, so you have a wider pool of players than for singles.

Far from least, doubles is a great social sport. Except in tournaments, you’re playing for fun, not blood, and all levels of players, from “hit and giggle” novices to semi-professionals, enjoy the communal good feeling that accompanies a hard-fought point.

“The social side is very, very important to me,” says Nancy Howell, an NEA-Retired member in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

“Tennis offers one of the most important of my groups of friends.” Through her two regular doubles games she plays each week, plus substituting in others, Howell plays with at least a dozen different women each week. Somebody invariably brings post-match snacks, “or we go out for a meal together.”

NEA-Retired member Linda Tavares, who lives in Hawaii, quickly ticks off the reasons she loves tennis: “The exercise really helps people our age stay in shape.

The relationships you form on the court are healthy and good. There’s plenty of good humor and laughter. Even your mind gets sharper—thinking of where you should serve and hit your next your shot and where the opponent will hit his or hers.” Tavares sums up: “I’ll be 66 soon, but I don’t feel it. And tennis is a big part of why I don’t.”

Unless you play at a pricey country club, tennis is a lot less expensive than either golf or skiing. In most cities and towns, courts are plentiful, and the tennis “boom” that crowded them in the late ’70s is long gone. That makes it easier to get a court when you want one.

Tennis lessons—good ones—aren’t cheap, but you shouldn’t need many to get to a point where you can enjoy playing. If you can hit the ball fairly consistently, and you don’t intend to play singles, don’t spend much on individual sessions.

Smart teaching pros offer doubles lessons that mix instruction on strokes with tips on the strategy and shotmaking that make doubles a special game. Your entire group can hire a pro for a couple of hours, or you can get a spot in a group he or she is forming.

Make sure, though, that everybody in that group plays at roughly your level. In doubles lessons, as in doubles itself, remember this maxim: the game is only as good as its weakest player.

A final tip: be careful choosing a partner for mixed (one man, one woman) doubles. “Mixed” has strained many a sound marriage, as in “How did you miss that one, DEAR!?”

Get in the Game

Racquets—If you’re a beginner, buy from a tennis shop. Prices will be higher than elsewhere, but salespeople there provide the best advice. Intermediate and advanced players should consider the shops, too, because they offer “demo” racquets; you can borrow several before choosing one.

Racquets often come with strings, and better players usually replace them with higher-quality ones strung to the player’s preferred tension. 

Lessons—a sound investment if you find a pro whose teaching style clicks with you. To avoid overload, concentrate on only one or two weaknesses at a time. A savvy pro won’t attempt, or even want, to remake your entire game.

He or she will instead build on your strengths and accept a less-than-classic stroke if it gets the job done. Don’t try to apply what you’ve just learned during matches; instead, find a hitting partner or a backboard.  If doubles is your game, take doubles lessons.

Competition—Accept offers of games from somewhat-weaker players, so you can work on your problematic shots (partly by playing to the other guy’s strengths.)

For real match play, join the U.S. Tennis Association, which sponsors team leagues at various levels throughout the country. Membership is inexpensive, and you’ll meet people you can later hit with for fun.

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