In the United States Tennis Association, there are three age groups—18 and over, 40 and over, and 55 and over. But there are eight men playing near Newbury Park High School who make up their own age bracket. The youngest is 74!
The four oldest have played together for 25 years—Bob Fisher, the eldest at 92; Mark Stern and Jerry Lewi, both 91; and Bob Swanstrom, who is 90.
Most started the sport as kids. Jerry joked, “I’ve played longer than I’ve been married.”
Anecdotes abound among these eight seniors. Once, Mark asked Bob Fisher to meet him on the court early. When he arrived, Mark instructed him to serve balls to him over and over. Mark didn’t actually want to play—he only needed Bob to make him look good for the local paper’s photographer!
This story was shared, along with other anecdotes, at a recent breakfast. Interesting life events were spoken of with youthful infectious energy that belied their age. They toasted Mal Sein’s 88th birthday with champagne, followed by cake. Their fun twist on this tradition is that the celebrant pays. If it’s a month without a birthday, they’ll still get together for a “ROMEO” (Retired Old Men Eating Out) breakfast and again for Christmas. Families are welcome.
They have matches three times a week. Word of mouth brought them together. Mal told his brother, Tin Sein, 76. Erich Struthoff, 74, heard about it from another person. Then Larry LaMonica, 85, happened to see them. Most of them also play elsewhere, bringing their weekly matches to six.
When questioned as to why tennis and not pickleball, a few answered that they play both. The rest replied that pickleball wasn’t as good because it used a smaller court, so they didn’t move as much. Still capable of playing tennis, they preferred its tougher workout.
Tennis for the Body and Soul
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts closed. As soon as they partially reopened, the seniors all resumed tennis. No one waited the two months it took for a full reopening. None of them believe their age puts them at a higher risk on the courts. In fact, playing keeps their spirits up and helps them avoid the depression often linked to the pandemic.
The steps each takes to minimize exposure varies. Mal believes he has a strong genetic resistance to the virus. He changes his routine as necessary, per the state’s requirements and to ease the mind of his wife, 86, who has not been out since the beginning of the shutdown. By their arrangement, errand running is done by him.
It’s the same for Bob Swanstrom. Since outdoor tennis is not a close-range sport, he isn’t anxious about contagion. His wife worries more, so he shops. He, his wife, and his family meet with their church group in the park on Saturday mornings. They follow all safety protocols. Erich has not missed a day of work. Believing many restrictions are politically driven, he doesn’t alter his habits unless forced to.
Bob F. doesn’t go out as much as he used to. He stopped rehearsing with his church choir for now. When he does go out, he wears a mask and practices social distancing. He misses seeing his grandchildren and hasn’t seen his daughter since February. Zoom video conferencing helps, but it’s not the same as an in-person visit.
Jerry thinks University Village where he lives took the lockdown seriously enough so that he feels safer there than anywhere else. The Continuous Care Retirement Community is slowly relaxing their policies. Outside dining is now open. Specially designated areas allow for family gatherings. Assemblies and entertainment are broadcast via Zoom or closed-circuit TV.
Larry believes that other illnesses and diseases have higher death rates, so he isn’t concerned. He said it’s out of his control, and God will tell him when “it’s time for you to visit me.”
Not officially sponsored through Conejo Recreation and Park Department, their league formed by their common interest in a new group. Their love of tennis and reciprocal high regard for one another are what has kept them together for years.
With their advanced ages, it’s not surprising previous players have passed. A total of 12 have departed. Attending those funerals is the only time they get together outside of their games, birthday breakfasts, and Christmas breakfasts. For example, Willis Martin, the league’s founder, is remembered with sad fondness. He was the one who came up with the birthday payment idea. Tired of the bickering over the bill one day, he grabbed it and paid for it himself.
In early 2020 Ron Hedin passed away. A tennis coach both for Thousand Oaks High School and locally, he offered tips to his teammates when asked. Yet even the sorrow of losing someone has been accepted as an inevitable part of life—disruptions that are necessarily a part of any dynamic sport for seniors.
Sharp minds and capable bodies are associated with people decades younger. Could this be a secret anti-aging society? The members of the league didn’t answer questions about diet and lifestyle, but there were some hints as to their longevity. During their matches, for example, the competitive tension often felt at fierce matches was missing. They congratulated others for their skilled hits. Missed balls resulted in good-natured ribbing. Mutual respect ran strong. While they were at breakfast, the relaxed ease seen only in the presence of long-term friends was evident.
Playing tennis, bonding with friends, trusting a higher authority, and socializing regularly all serve to give these seniors an advantage in the game of life.
Cover photo credit: Bob Swanstrom. Story photos courtesy of Susan Pertessis.