“You don’t quit playing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop playing,” read the sign at the YMCA in the small town where I grew up.
Charlie Cook of Midlothian, a Dr Pepper retiree, and friend Bill Wittig organized seniors tennis for Chesterfield in the spring of 1992. They received approval from the Chesterfield Department of Parks and Recreation to reserve the nine courts at Rockwood Park on Monday mornings for players age 55 and over. The group is still going strong, although Charlie makes only an occasional visit now.
Cook and Wittig recruited players, and new players recruited players, and play continues year-round. Participants include men and women from a variety of racial backgrounds, with a continuing theme of diversity.
Play starts sharply at 9 a.m. in March, April and May; 8 a.m. in June, July and August; 9 a.m. in September, October and November; and 10 a.m. in December, January and February. Weather is a big factor. Players often bring brooms if it has rained, and sometimes they have brushed off a light snow.
Someone brings playing cards and foursomes are determined by drawing. Those with fours play on court four, those with fives on five, and so on. As Cook pointed out recently, “Over a four-week period, you may meet 12 new people. You may find yourself with a terrible group one week, and the next week you may be the terrible one.”
Emphasizing diversity, Cook said that early on he “observed a group in which one lady was from France, another from Holland, one was from England and one was a Canadian.” Those four are still playing regularly.
At this age, tennis is a sociable event rather than a competitive one, and there is no argument or hostile outbreak over a call, something that occurred during a recent U. S. Open. The players on the side of the net where the ball has hit make the call.
Some of us do forget the score, however. Legend has it that the strange way of scoring points – 15, 30, 40, game – originated in France, where only gentlemen played, and servants kept score on the face of a large clock by positioning the hands. The logical 45 changed to 40. There’s a saying: “You can’t win if you can’t keep score.”
Seniors like to play with new balls because they bounce equally and are more visible. At a cost of two bucks per can, most seniors can afford to supply three balls once a month. A racket of good quality can be purchased at Walmart for about $20. As an alternative to golf, which involves similar skills, tennis is affordable, and players say they get more exercise in two hours than in a whole day on the links.
In spring, we have had 32 participants, while on a cold day in winter there may be only a half dozen. The year-round average is about 16 to 20. If an even multiple of four is not present, one court arranges a rotation so that all can play. One group of four, consisting of very fine players, arranged always to play together, something that suits them as well as those of us who are less skilled.
Three sets are played with the players changing partners each set. The first server is chosen by spinning a racket on the ground. In the next sets, the first server is determined by what has become known as the Rockwood Rule: The person who last served cannot serve, his/her former partner cannot serve and his new partner cannot serve. It works!
Friendships have developed at the Monday meetings, and subgroups have formed to play on other days. Chesterfield County has built and maintained fine tennis facilities at other sites: Garland Dodd Park at Point of Rocks, named for a former County Supervisor from Chester, the Harry Daniels Park and the Harrowgate sports complex.
Other facilities where seniors play include the Chester Recreational Association and the Hopewell Community Center, where memberships may be required. Most of the county high schools have tennis courts, and there are several private courts where seniors play by invitation, including Judge Bill Shelton’s clay court in Chester and Dr. David Ameen’s grass court in Hopewell.
Volunteers run Chesterfield senior activities, which now include basketball, volley ball and badminton. “Pickle-ball,” much like tennis and played with wooden paddles, is being introduced.
Judy Jones of Parks and Recreation maintains a list of seniors and may be reached at 751-4135. Players often know each other by their first names only.
Cuts in the county budget will reduce many senior activities, but tennis will continue. Join us if you’re 55 and have some tennis experience. Although the group is proud of its diversity, there are few overweight tennis players.