BURLINGAME, Calif. — Most tennis players reach their competitive peak in their early 20s and are considered over the hill by their mid-30s.
Ken Beer hit the top of his game in his 80s.
At age 83, Beer is the Methuselah of amateur tennis tournaments in the United States as he dominates the over-80 age group--the oldest competitive senior group -- much like Martina Navratilova has dominated women's tennis.
Over the past four years, the former commercial airline pilot has played in 16 national singles championship events in over-80 competition, winning the title in 15 of them.
At 80, Beer achieved the singles "Grand Slam" for his age group as he won the national titles on hardcourt, clay, grass and indoors. He repeated the feat in 1985 and 1986.
"When my friends come out to watch, they say it's like watching Wimbledo--but in slow motion," says Beer with a glint in his eyes.
Standing 5-foot-8 and a trim 152 pounds, Beer competes against 25 to 30 of his peers who travel the circuit across the country. Like him, they are retirees, and so devoted to the game that the ailments that inevitably accompany age seldom hold them back.
One wears a pacemaker, another, following an operation for arthritis, began to use a strap around his hand and wrist to prevent his racket from slipping. Others have returned to competition after major surgery.
"We're all in about the same shape," Beer says. "Maybe I have fewer complaints than most."
Beer credits some of his late-life success to heredity. His parents were healthy into their 90s.
A non-smoker who eats and drinks moderately, Beer said he never had anything more serious than the flu, although he did have an operation to repair a torn achilles tendon -- a result of a ski accident.
He is still an avid skier.
Beer is in such good condition that he has little trouble withstanding matches that last two or more hours and once won a tournament with the temperature at 108 degrees, heat that could wilt a player 50 years his junior.
"Why do I do it?" he asks. "For the same reason a climber tackles a mountain -- because it's there. It's the challenge. The harder a match is, the more I grit my teeth.
"Out on a court you have to do it all yourself," he says. "I think a player can figure out important truths out there. For me, this is living life to the fullest."
Beer did not pick up a racket until he was 30, but then quickly caught the tennis bug. He took his racket everywhere he flew as a pilot for Pan American Airways, playing 15 times a month until he retired at age 60.
Success in tournament play did not come quickly. But his game steadily progressed and he moved up the national rankings in the various age groups until he came to dominate the over-80.
He sees each loss as "as an opportunity to learn a lesson," and analyzes the reason for the defeat, though his rare setbacks usually come when "playing down" in a younger age category.
"I had one loss last year," he says "and I see clearly now that I have to lob and hit all my strokes deeper, plus come to the net more.
"I don't like to lose. But I don't worship winning by any means. Losing is an apportunity that winning isn't."
His routine these days finds him driving from his Hillsborough, Calif. home to the local tennis club where he works against a ball machine from 7:30 a.m. to 9, Monday through Friday. At noon he'll play three or four practice sets with men 20 years younger.
"This year I've really got my teeth into it," he says. "I'll probably play 20 tournaments instead of my usual 15. I've got so much to learn and so little time."
Beer travels to tournaments with his wife of 53 years, Mavia, the mother of his four children. One of those children -- Fran Kristofferson, ex-wife of actor and musician Kris Kristofferson -- is ranked in the over-45 women's division in Northern California.
If he has any advice for younger players besides learn from their losses, it would be caution. "Don't try to come back too fast after an injury," he says. "Respect pain. It's a message to rest. But don't baby yourself."
He is also convinced that old dogs can learn new tricks, unless they're lazy. They can even learn new serves.
"A young person could probably develop a serve in 600 tries," he says. "It took me 10,000. I studied everybody who had a good serve. You get the right picture in mind and you can do it."