The ball sailed over the net and landed in back of the baseline.
“Out,” our opponents called. Game, set, match. My sister Sue and I lost 6-2, 6-2. We’d fought hard, taking them to deuce and add on many games, but did not have the mental edge to close them out. But at least we were on the court longer than any of our teammates in that final round of the USTA women’s 4.5 team tennis sectional tournament.
The conditions in Indianapolis that August were ideal. A little hot but no wind; we wore hats and sunglasses so we could see the ball in the bright afternoon sunlight. Sue and I came to the court for our match with nothing to lose. We just only wanted to play good and prove to ourselves, and our captain, that we could compete at this level, in this league.
At 53 and 55, my sister and I were a lot older than our opponents at sectionals. Sometimes being older means being smarter, and on the tennis court, smarter often wins over skill, but not at this level. We were playing against 20-to 40-year-old women – many of whom had played Division III college tennis. They were match-tough.
After our losses at sectionals, our egos were bruised, but Sue and I didn’t limp away with our tails between our legs. We were Ironwomen, literally.
Thanks to passage of Title IX that ensured women had equal opportunity to play sports in high school and college, my sister and I had the privilege of playing on the first women’s tennis team in 1973 at Normal Community High School in Normal, IL. Our school’s athletic moniker was the Ironmen, and we became the Ironwomen.
In high school, we practiced and played at brand new asphalt courts bordering the cornfields on the west side of town where gale-force winds blew every day. I would hit the ball as hard as I could, only for it to come right back to me before it made it over the net.
There were no windscreens or trees. Sometimes, we wore gloves to keep our hands warm as the temperature dipped in the fall. Our school chant still resonates with me:
All my life, I want to be an Ironwoman.
Work, work, oh baby work, work.
Since then, I’ve played more competitive matches than I can count. But what is it about the game that keeps me on the court?
Well, for one thing, I like to win. And I like the physical exertion. Playing a hard-fought match or participating in an intense drill gets my body moving and blood pumping. I love to breathe toxic stench of plastic, rubber and ink that whooshes out when I pop the tab on a new can of Penn tennis balls.
I like it when I hit a ball in the sweet spot of my racquet and it pings off the strings with accuracy and pace. But I also like the mental side: the strategy it takes to come back and win when you and you’re partner are down. And even though it is as mental as it is physical, being on the court gives me a certain mental break. It is my de-stressor.
With tennis it is all about the camaraderie when you are playing on a team.
Some of the women I’ve met through tennis have become my good friends. We share a love of the game that bonds us as only sports can do.
Over the years, I’ve watched many of my tennis friends get older and stop playing competitively. Some of them have struggled with it – believing that they can still play at the level they used to when they can’t.
I don’t want to be that person. I’m not that person. Yet.
Even though we did have some former Division III college tennis players on our team who advanced to sectionals in Indianapolis that year, none of them were under the age of 32. We were mostly middle-aged moms with kids, jobs, aging parents and other worries.
Today we battle with bad knees, achy muscles, and sore tendons. A strict Advil regimen is a must.
Even though Sue and I were the oldest players on our team, we didn’t feel a disadvantage going into those matches at sectionals. We’d played together for years and knew each other’s games inside and out. But, after getting my butt kicked three times at Indianapolis – twice with Sue and once with another partner, I got a new appreciation of what it takes to win at that level.
We didn’t win much at sectionals. In fact we finished last. Even though it was disappointing, I was just glad to be there, still running around the court hitting an occasional winner past women half my age.
So, yes, I’m now 55 going on 56. Still playing on 18 and over USTA teams because there aren’t enough eligible players to fill up teams in the older age groups at the 4.5 level. For me, 55 is the new 4.5.
The essence of sports, at any level, is that you’ve never lost the game or match until the last point. I will always be up for the challenge as long as I’m still physically and mentally able to play tennis, even when it doesn’t count for anything but family bragging rights.
But hey, when that time comes I’ll just take up golf.