Ryan Bamford, the UMASS Athletic Director, gave me a rocking chair upon retiring as the tennis coach for 25 years and then quipped that he doubted I would use it. Seems he was right! Since the unexpectedly dramatic finish to the 2016-2017 Women’s Tennis season (I’ll share more about that another time), my retirement has been far from restful. Along with starting to write a memoir (and this blog) and teaching and being on the board of directors for Moving On Up (a National Junior Tennis League program designed to teach tennis to inner city children ages 6-16 in the Springfield area), I started training after committing myself to a full schedule of competitive tournament tennis, with my sights set on representing the United States on the 65+ tennis team that will compete at the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Championships in Croatia. That was over a year ago, and perhaps even as you are reading this I am on a flight to Croatia to play on the U.S. team!
I have always been a huge fan of team events — it’s great fun supporting teammates and being a part of a group of talented women. In November of 2017, I was one of the 6-woman New England 65+ team and played #1 singles and doubles at the Intersectional Championships. Despite injury, we beat Florida in the semi’s, Southern California in the finals, and won the gold! But team play would not secure the points needed to join the U.S. team at the ITF 65+ International Championships. So, after 25 years away from singles competition, at 68 years old, and with some reservations, I joined the 65+ tennis circuit.
I worried about how much time would be needed to compete well — the training required, the loneliness of the hotel rooms (been there, done that), the worry about whether or not my body would hold up (especially considering my health issues, which I will talk about more at another time), and the uncertainty about whether or not this would be the best use of my retirement time? Despite my concerns, I planned to begin my re-entry with a small local event in Chicopee. One phone call led to another, and before I knew it, I was signed up to compete in the World Championships in Orlando, Florida, both as a singles player and with my doubles partner.
Truly, we who live in the colder climate states are at a disadvantage when we head to warmer states. And, as you might expect, most of the tournaments are held outdoors in warm states. Although it can take two or three days ahead of matches to acclimate, I knew I’d rarely have a chance to arrive early enough to do that. Despite these disadvantages, I weathered extreme heat (90 degrees off-court, and much hotter on!) and my heart rate in Florida to get to the final 8 in singles and the finals in doubles. I was thrilled to have done so well. It certainly helped that I had no expectations and that it was just too hot to be nervous. As for my game, I have always been much better in doubles than in singles, probably because I like the quickness of doubles and the team concept. I knew I had to learn to play with more patience and depth in singles. The best senior players in the world move well, change spins, hit with amazing depth and control, and do not overplay. This was my work as I prepared for the next tournament.
In February, I flew to Houston to play in the National Clay Courts tournament in the 65+ division. The tournament was held at the Houston Racket Club and included singles and doubles in these age divisions — 35+, 45+, 55+, 65+, 75+, 85+, and 90+. There were 6 women competing in the 90+ singles division, and not only were they in excellent shape with not a knee or arm brace among them, but when the two finalists split sets they both were determined to play a third instead of the designated 10-point set tiebreaker! I was in awe and hope that when I grow up I will still be healthy and competing as they are.
As is my usual, I trained hard the weeks leading up to the tournament. I knew practicing on indoor hard courts would not give me the best opportunity, but I was able to arrive two days early to get acclimated to outdoor clay courts. Before the tournament began, however, I developed golfer’s elbow, which is similar to tennis elbow but on the inside of the arm on the bone. This made playing excruciating, particularly when hitting a forehand or a forehand volley. Since I was committed to playing doubles with Vicky, a friend I had known since grade school, I just toughed it out. Ibuprofen, ice, more ibuprofen, physio tape… all provided some relief. I was seeded third in both singles and doubles and considered this lucky since I have a spare record at best, with this, only my second tournament in 25 years.
In the first round I played a woman from Florida who is a sea captain on large schooners traveling in exotic locations. Certainly, she is one of few women in her field, and after the match we had a fascinating conversation about her life on the sea. In the second round, I played the 5th seed, a tennis instructor from New York City. I knew that at least she had not been practicing outdoors either. I dispatched her 6-2, 6-0, using a drop shot effectively. In the afternoon Vicky (my doubles partner) and I played this same player and her partner from Florida and squeezed out a rough three-set match in windy conditions. In the semi’s, I played Tina Karwasky who is S #1 in the country in my age division and one of the top players in the world. I was very sloppy in the first set and could not get any rhythm. This was partially due to Tina’s game, which kept me off balance, and partially due to my faulty footwork. By the time I got going in the second set it was too late. I lost 6-2, 6-3. In the doubles semi’s we beat the #1 seeds in three sets 5-7, 6-2, 6-2. It took us a set to figure out how to play this team who play 1 up, 1 back, but when we did, we rolled. The final doubles match was closely contested until I made a mental mistake. We won the first set against the #1 team in the U.S. 7-5. At 4-4 I was serving and the game was going deuce, ad, deuce, ad. We were down breakpoint, and I served a first serve that I thought was called out by the player so I stopped the ball as it was returned. There were many people watching the match, many people drinking and talking, and I was sure that I heard an out call. Nonetheless, I was wrong and lost the point. We then lost the set and never recovered. 5-7, 6-4, 6-0. Lesson learned.
In all, except for playing in pain and the work it takes to recover, I enjoyed competing. It continues to be a bit of a lonely experience, as well as a bit narcissistic. However senior women are much more social than the pro tour ever was and friendships here are important. On the elevator, I ran into one of the women who had played in the 90+ division. I told her how much I admired her game. She replied, “But I lost.” I told her that it was my goal to play for as long and as well as she and that she should be proud to be at the tournament competing as well as she was. She teared up, and we became friends. She asked me to visit her my next time in town. Besides earning the results that secured my place on the United States team to play for the ITF International Championship in Croatia, September 16-21, it’s the moments of connecting with amazing women with interesting lives who are still playing tennis that have assured me I made the right decision to try.
Click here to read about the ITF World Championships:
To see my seniors tournament record, visit the ITF site and click on the Activity tab. To follow senior tennis competition, visit Carolyn Nichols Tennis Website. I hope you’ll join me for this journey — visit my home page or go below to sign up for my blog.