Winners: Awakening a Passion for Tennis

By Bill Gray

May is National Tennis Month, 31 days in which we celebrate the sport. Of course, for those people who make tennis a part of their everyday lives, each of those days is its own celebration. Those who live tennis, love tennis—and perhaps no one better epitomizes that statement, the essence of National Tennis Month, or the idea of tennis as a lifetime sport, more than Alex Swetka, a wiry and wily world-class senior just eight birthdays shy of his centennial, and a man who celebrates tennis year-round.

If he’s not behind the wheel of his RV with Sally, his wife of 51 years, en route to the myriad national tournaments where he’s always a bigger odds-on favorite than Roger Federer at the US Open, Swetka is playing at home in Mountain View, Calif., mostly against players half his age. As he notes, understatedly, “Not that many guys my age can give me a game.”

A school teacher turned tennis shop owner, Swetka has been the top player in his age division since he was in the 65s, and last year he swept the USTA’s singles and doubles titles in the 90s on hard court, grass, indoor and clay. All told, this decidedly super senior has racked up an amazing lifetime total of 60 gold balls.

How dominant is Swetka? Consider that he won the clay doubles in Pinehurst, N.C., last year after his regular partner turned up lame the night before the tournament, causing Swetka to scour the drawsheet for a sub. He managed to secure Ed Osgood from San Francisco, a good player who promptly dumped his regular partner for the opportunity to play with the senior division’s version of Mr. Perfect.

Swetka’s strength is obvious to anyone who has played against him or seen him play. He’s a hare among tortoises in his age division, running his opponents ragged from the baseline into the grass, dirt and hard court. Pick a surface, he’ll plant you in it.

“Old guys can’t move” is how he explains his overpowering advantage, comparing his style to former French Open champion and human backboard, Michael Chang. “I’m a defensive player with a pretty good drop shot and a lot of different spins. A little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

Add to that a lot of exercise. Swetka’s daily regimen includes sit-ups, leg lifts and wrist curls, and he combines those with a balanced diet that includes lots of water and Gatorade, and no beer or coffee. If he has a secret weapon, it’s the Aleve tablets he pops just before a match.

Sure, he’s had some aches and pains, but they’ve been few, and none too serious. “Two orthos on both knees, tennis elbow, I don’t think I’ve had a shoulder injury, but if I did I played through it,” he says. “And, oh yeah, my back gave out on me a couple of years ago, but I can’t put a finger on why it got better.”

Swetka started playing tennis in 1948 as a freshman at San Francisco State College. “It looked like fun,” he recalls. After spending a year hitting against a wall, he tried out for the team and played No. 5 singles. By the time he was a junior, he’d moved up to No. 1.

When many others his age started slowing down, Alex started heating up. He didn’t enter his first national tournament until he was 55, losing six times to Bobby Riggs before finally beating him. Aside from Riggs, Swetka recalls former U.S. Davis Cup standout Gardner Mulloy as a tough test. “But,” Swetka says, “he’s older than me.”

As good as he is, Swetka knows he can’t stay on the top of the heap forever. Next year he’ll face his biggest rival since Riggs, an up-and-coming whippersnapper he’s never beaten by the name of Robert Sherman, who turns 90 in 2010.

If he loses, that’s okay. “The thrill of winning is fine,” he says, “but it’s the running and the hitting—even the lousy shots—that I enjoy the most.”
 
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