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Aces at Any Age : These seniors don't just play tennis for their health. Hardly. They're in it for the thrill of victory.

October 05, 1994|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ed Saunders steps on the tennis court looking like one of those scraggly men in the ads for Skid Row missions: His gray beard a bit unkempt, pot belly hanging out of his shorts and, on his head, an ear-flap hat.

At 73, he appears barely alive. Indeed, the issue seems in doubt during warm-up--he doesn't even try to reach any ball that doesn't come directly at his racket. A foot to the side, he lets it go.

But when the game begins, a transformation unfolds. As he's about to serve, he switches the racket from his right hand to his left and sends the ball curving to the far corner of the service box--with outside spin, so it skids away from the helpless opponent.

"Fifteen love," says Saunders, a former University of Texas player who a few years ago--before he got his artificial hip--was undefeated in Southern California's "super senior" mixed doubles, where the man is at least 65, the woman 60.

Observers often patronize senior athletes, saying it's cute that they're still doing what they're doing at 65, 75--hey, some are out there at 90. But these observers miss by a mile the true spirit of these athletes, who smile wryly when the younger set speaks again of how what's important is the exercise, keeping the blood circulating, all that garbage.

In the dusk of life, you see, they're liberated from the platitudes. They're free to relish the true pleasure of competition--as the one socially acceptable way to humiliate your fellow man.

"Your serve," Saunders says.

*

The fitness craze that hit the United States in the 1970s carried a religious fervor to it, including faith there would be medicinal benefits from, say, running five miles each morning. If exercise wasn't viewed as the new Fountain of Youth, it was pretty darn close.

Two decades later, medical experts still are grappling to figure out the benefits of all that sweat. The New England Journal of Medicine reported a survey of 10,000 Harvard graduates, suggesting those who took up "moderately vigorous sports" in middle age lived 10 months longer than those who were sedentary.

The study, however, was based on questionnaires filled out by the participants. Physical tests have produced more modest findings.

A team of Baltimore physicians began probing "master athletes" in 1958, focusing on long-distance runners. Pounding the pavement, they found, doesn't necessarily clear the arteries. "Our studies don't indicate any lower evidence of cardiac disease," says Dr. Jerome L. Fleg, a member of the team.

What is boosted by the exercise, though, is the participants' "maximal oxygen consumption," more commonly known as "aerobic capacity." Whereas it declines 1% each year in most seniors, the drop is half that in the athletes.

It's not surprising, of course, that they can keep going better than their sedate counterparts; that's what "being in shape" means. But if they can't have eternal life, this seems a reasonable consolation prize: the ability to perform better, to keep kicking butt.

"These guys compete," Fleg notes. "They're not doing it because they want to live an extra two or three years. They want to put more life in their years rather than more years in their life."

*

Kill them. Kill them. Kill them.

Sven Davidson smiles as he explains his philosophy 40 years after he was Sweden's star on the world tennis circuit. Now 66 and living in Arcadia, he for years terrorized players far younger--when his health permitted. He once collapsed on the court with a heart attack and was all but pronounced dead. Four months later, he was competing again.

"I think our Greek friends had it down pat 2,500 years ago," he says, then quoting the original Greek, "A healthy mind in a healthy body."

While there are senior leagues in many sports, from track to skiing, tennis is particularly intense because players compete not against the clock, but directly against each other. You can win not only by elevating your own game, but by making your opponent fold.

At a party during the Audi championships outside Palm Springs, players swapped stories about a 70-plus fellow from Northern California who drives a custom Cadillac with a stained glass window and who reads the Bible between games, looking for a spiritual edge.

Much of the tension in the senior ranks is generated by relative newcomers to the sport, often retired executives who seem driven to prove themselves in a new environment, preferably by knocking off a former world-class performer such as Davidson.

A prime example was the Palm Springs tournament organizer, Steve Solomon, a former college basketball player who took up tennis at 30 while a corporate vice president. "I would go out and make a list of people who wouldn't play me because I 'wasn't good enough,' " he recalls. "I'd say to myself, 'Next year, you're mine.' "

Now he is nationally ranked in the 55-and-over doubles, competing with legends such as Pancho Gonzalez.

A Friday morning match at Solomon's tournament, on the women's side, featured a similar newcomer-versus-legend pairing.

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