She doesn’t dare move to wipe the sweat from her brow as she grips her racket, bracing herself for her opponent’s hit. Her knuckles are white, pale skin stretched over fragile, tired bones. Her knees are slightly bent at the ready, her back hunched noticeably. The woman’s stance is strong, yet cautious. She bounces on the balls of her feet momentarily and hesitates before repositioning herself a little to the left.
The yellow ball bounds over the net and she lunges with the speed only a woman in her sixties or seventies can manage. The whoosh! of the racket flying through the air and the connection of ball on nylon synthetic reverberates from where I sit on the cold, metal bleachers. But the hit is a little too hard, a little too off course, and the ball is no longer in play.
“Well, that right there sure was a homerun!” The baseball terminology feels out of place on the tennis courts.
It’s the Cleveland County Senior Games. Men and women – ages ranging from sixties to nineties – compete in events throughout the county, whether they be track and field, basketball, badmitton, the infamous shuffleboard, or in this case, tennis. There are five competitors today: two women and three men. The women, Beth “Pro” Tamara and Beth “Sunshine” Clare, are competing in doubles while the three men have chosen to take on the daunting task of singles tennis. The women are up first.
Pro pulls at the hem of her white tee. Sporadically sewn on sequins glisten in the sun around her neckline. Her shorts are also non-athletic, but the brown corduroy compliments her outfit sufficiently. Dirt ridden tennis shoes, complete with fraying laces, look out of place on her feet in comparison. One of her crew cut socks has become bunched down on her leg in all of the commotion. She pops her gum like a teenager and moves back into place. The wrinkles on her forehead are twice as noticeable as her eyebrows angle downward in frustration.
Sunshine, noticing the glare Pro has shot in her direction, ammends, “Well, it was a homerun, Bethy. Hold back a little bit next time… di’you have too many Cheerios this mornin’?”
Pro cordially chooses not to answer her teammate’s witty response. Sunshine shrugs it off and begins smiling and humming softly to herself. If her personality doesn’t reflect her nickname, her yellow tee certainly does. Black sweatpants contrast the bright color, but it returns in the lime green shade of her stylized tennis shoes. Glasses perch on the bridge of her nose, and her grey-streaked blonde hair frames her full face.
Their opponents have retrieved the ball, and all eyes shift from the elderly women to the other end of the court. Two male college students retake their positions. One is tall and lanky with a beard adorning his face while the other is shorter and stocky, heavy set with a thick build. It’s an interesting match-up to say the least, but these are only the preliminary rounds, and according to the competition’s guidelines, the senior citizens can play against anybody. If anything, it certainly makes for a good spectator game.
“Don’t choke!” Sure enough, Pro has taken up trash talking.
“Take it easy on us,” Stocky shoots back.
Lanky tosses up the ball for his serve, swings, and connects with the net. The ball rebounds and rolls back across the court as Stocky lets a colorful four-letter word escape under his breath.
The one-on-one tennis matches won’t begin until after the women finish up their double, so the three elderly men stand on the sidelines inside the courts. One looks significantly younger than the others, and he acts it too as he blows off the game to talk with a few of the college students assisting with the competition. He wears a plain red tee and sunglasses, despite the overcast skies.
The second is in his mid-eighties and portrays a slight resemblance to a turtle. Baggy athletic clothes hang from his wiry frame, but he’s ornamented them with a tattered blue plaid vest. His back is curved, yet his neck sticks out from his body even further, giving the appearance of a turtle poking its head from its shell. A well-worn blue ball cap rests atop his head and brittle, silver hair pokes out from underneath. He pays little attention to the action as he swings his arms around his body, lost in his own little world. It takes me a minute to make the connection that he’s warming up for his game by practicing his swing… despite the fact he isn’t holding a racket. To anybody else, it’d look as though he were swatting at bees.
The last man, though, leans against the back of the bench between the two courts, his cane resting beside him. His eyes are fixated on the match laid out in front of him. An oversized cowboy hat sits low on his head and a sweatshirt depicting the American flag and a grand eagle encompasses his upper body, a picture perfect representation of the U.S.A. at its finest.
“I thought the object was to git the ball over the net!” He has chosen to join in on Pro’s trash talk, and he chuckles loudly at his own commentary.
“Oh, please,” Stocky mutters as Lanky retrieves the ball and prepares for his second serve.
It’s a clean hit, and the ball flies over the net into Pro’s box. She backhands it effortlessly to Stocky, and it remains in bounds this time. He returns the ball in Sunshine’s direction, but before she can reach it, Pro comes up from behind and snaps it over the net directly in front of her face. Sunshine lets out a high-pitched squeal and ducks as the racket narrowly misses her. Distracted by the chaos, the ball bounces twice in the boys’ court, and the winning game point is awarded to the women.
Cheers fill the air as they celebrate their victory. Stocky drops his racket to the ground and falls to his knees, his face buried in the palms of his hands. Lanky shamefully drags his feet as he exits the court.
The gentleman in the cowboy hat, on the other hand, picks up his cane and maneuvers to the edge of the court. He sets it on the sidelines, grasps onto the handle of a racket, and proceeds to take his turn in the spotlight.