Posted on Aug 26, 2019, 8 p.m.
Watching the US Open it’s plain to see that Serena Williams and Roger Federer are aging very well, but they are not the only players to be thriving longer than one would expect. Although not catching much camera time older tennis amateurs are giving younger players some unexpected competition.
These aging athletic warriors can most often be found at gyms and sports arenas kicking butt, it’s not uncommon to see a younger player losing to a person close to being two times their seniors, and some with apparent ease.
According to the U.S Tennis Association 62% of their some 310,000 league players are aged 45+. This is partially to do with demographics as due to the baby boomers aging seniors make up more of the population. Compared to previous generations baby boomers are also more aware of the keys to aging more gracefully and most aren’t afraid to put in a little work for it.
“More adults are wanting to learn and get better as they get older,” said Joanne Wallen, the USTA’s director of adult competitive play.
The baby boomers learned lessons for body, mind, and soul are also being transferred to tennis and other sports for a healthy lifestyle promoting overall health.
Harris Rosenblatt has attracted much attention after winning in competitive ameteur champiosnhips in 2006, he now teaches a clinic aimed at helping others improve. “If they want the same success I’ve had,” said Rosenblatt, aged 50, “they’ve got to apply the 1-to-1 ratio.” The 1:1 ratio means striking a balance between hours spent on the court and lower-impact, joint-friendly exercise and therapy such as swimming, riding a bike, and yoga.
Sylvia Okala, aged 76, started playing in her 30s, and captained her team to the USTA’s Mid-Atlantic championship at the 3.5 level only 6 years ago. She still plays about 4 days a week, and likes to challenge 4.0 players. Her confidence is inspiring, “I don’t think I’ve changed at all, I can still run.” She has tried just about every form of therapy over the years to help her sustain her performance, and stands by her backyard hot tub to help her bounce back after exertion. She also has been getting 4 monthly acupuncture treatments for 20 years to keep tennis elbow, stiff neck, and knee arthritis in check.
Oklala’s routine consists of morning yoga, table massages, icing, kinesio tape for muscle support, visiting her trainer, and frequenting the dance floor where she combines dancing with aerobics to stay limber and elevate her heart rate. Oklala is inspired by the other players which have become her friends, and they work together to share longevity tips and reinforce healthy habits. “I’m an energetic person, and I like being around positive people. I’m so proud when I win a match. Like I climbed the mountain — I’m alive!”
Although they enjoy winning, these older players typically all have one thing in common, they focus on fun rather than winning. Such as Bob Litwin, aged 71, who says detaching from the outcome to enjoy the challenge of competing is less stressful, and makes it easier to play which pays off physically. “When I was 40, every point was a stressful, win-lose experience, and after a match, I couldn’t walk up and down the steps. Now I play like a kid in the backyard, and I’m not sore afterward. It’s peculiar to me, too!”
Litwin is a performance coach and an author, he also holds some impressive results including 24 USTA national championship titles, and International Tennis Federation championship, and was able to reclaim top ranking in the 65 and over division after having two hip surgeries.
Gigi Fernandez also believes in detaching from the results. Fernandez was one of the best doubles players of all time, now she teaches others strategy, breathing, and how to perform under pressure. Litwin and Fernandez recommend meditation and yoga as part of fitness hygiene to help keep up gamesmanship, nearly all of these seniors tell tales of yoga praise.
The older players share tips on taking joint supplements such as chondroitin and glucosamine, doing single leg squats for balance and strength, and of course tennis itself to provide a boost to longevity. A study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that playing sports can help to add 9.7 years to lifespan. Tennis itself raises the heart rate which can offer many health benefits.
According to sports scientist Mark Kovacs “Starting at age 40, we know you get about a 10 percent drop-off each decade in muscle mass, strength, and power,” he goes on to suggest that through regular training we can limit this decline to 2-4%.
Social interaction is also associated with good health and may be partially responsible for these extended lifespans for tennis players. Brenda Carter, aged 73, has been ranked first in her USTA age group for the past two decades, and won a championship with her husband in a national doubles tournament for married couples with a combined age of over 140. For her tennis is the spice of life as she plays 5-6 days a week, “I’ve never been a big exerciser, the special part is the people you meet along the way.”
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This article is not intended to provide medical diagnosis, advice, treatment, or endorsement.