A League of Their Own: Howard Helene
We call it the “Sport of a Lifetime”, and there’s a reason for that. Tennis is a non-contact physical activity you can enjoy when you’re five, or 85. And if you are of a certain age, study after study has touted what the game can do for your mind and body: It’s great for your heart; it can extend your life longer than any other sport; it boosts your musculoskeletal function and improves balance; it enhances your overall well-being.
But beyond its many health benefits, tennis is just fun. You can play casually or competitively, hit with your friends or family, and in many cases, make new friends and find new family. In our online series A League of Their Own, we’ll spotlight several members of USTA Eastern’s 65 & Over League community to learn what keeps them coming back for more. Here, we speak with Howard Helene—a 65 & Over League player from New York City—about picking up the sport after a date with his future wife, competing against players in their 30s and holding out hope for a “good backhand”.
When did you first pick up a racquet?
Helene: Well, as you know, being 65 and over, that goes pretty far back. But it was really not until I was almost 30. It was on one of the first dates I had with my now-wife of many decades, Carol (pictured, above left, with Helene). She grew up playing tennis, and as a Columbia University alum, she was able to use their courts. So we went and played tennis. And maybe it was being with her, maybe it was being on the court, but something really clicked in terms of what the game could be, what the essence of the game is. From that moment, it's really been one of the things that is most enjoyable for me to do.
I’m assuming, having never played before, that your wife beat you pretty handily?
Helene: I don't know if there was even a score—I only have a memory of the event! It was just fun, a lot of fun. And from there it's just been decades and decades of tennis camps, team play, tournament play, club play, travel play. You name it, we've managed to do it—together.
What compelled you to start entering tournaments and playing more competitively?
Helene: We were renting a house in Columbia County, New York, which had and still has, a wonderful tennis-playing community. They had Memorial Day tournaments, July 4th tournaments, Labor Day tournaments. And there were just so many players. So we entered one of those tournaments. And then we started entering them every year. And astonishingly, we won a couple of those tournaments together. That was when it really took hold. I particularly loved doubles because it's just a totally different game. It's so fast, there's a lot of strategy and tactics, there’s a social aspect. It's just much more enjoyable. And I had a built-in partner. Carol is a very good player. We just played a lot, and saved I don't know how many tens of thousands of dollars in therapy [Laughs].
You’re still competing today—with your wife and in a USTA Eastern 65 & Over League. What do you enjoy about playing with that group?
Helene: Mostly it's the guys. We have all reached a certain point in life. The teams I’ve played with have some really, really good players. I'm very respectful of the caliber of the play. They're smart players. A lot of one-handed backhands, as you might imagine. But the competition is terrific, the people are wonderful and it's just a lot of fun. And we've been fortunate enough to go on to USTA Eastern Sectional Championships and the USTA National Championships a couple of times, where the play is even better. It just keeps you thinking the right thoughts when you're in your 60s and 70s and you're playing competitively at a high level. It's terrific.
You’ve captained many USTA League teams over the years. How do you convince new players to join?
Helene: It’s not difficult. I have been part of many good teams and have come to know many fine players over the years who have become friends. I’m also fortunate to belong to the Heights Casino, an historic club in Brooklyn Heights with many good players. If I find a player I think is a good fit, and think he would help the team that I'm on, I try to recruit him to play. With club play, you’re playing with the same players while USTA League play provides the opportunity to play against different players. That gives you the opportunity to shape your game, to make adjustments on the fly, to understand tactics. Everything that is good about tennis can be found in USTA League play.
Are you still looking for ways to improve your game after so many decades?
Helene: There's always some way you can get better. I know that sounds like a cliché, but I actually do believe it. Even though I'm 73, I still believe. I still believe that one day I'm going to have a good backhand. [Laughs] I really do. I'm not sure when, but I'm holding out hope.
Conversely, what do you do better now that you maybe didn’t do as well before?
Helene: Nothing. Your mind plays tricks on you. You think that something's going to happen because it happened in the past, and it doesn't happen. Stuff just doesn't work the way it used to. It's hard to adjust. But I'm in the mode of terminal adjusting, trying to figure out how to play the game moving forward [while] incorporating my physical reality. Carol and I play in husband-wife tournaments in 140 and over combined age bracket. We're impressed at how good some of these players are in their mid-70s. And we say, "Well, maybe we can figure out how to get to that level." But it's been like that the entire time I've been playing tennis. Try to get better, realizing that there's always so many players ahead of you.
Why do you keep playing? What motivates you to continue hitting the court?
Helene: Well, you know the answer. The alternative is not very appealing. Tennis has been known to be one of the best games to play, because it combines both your mind and your body. So that's enough. And it's also fun. It checks all the boxes for me, as it does for most of the people I play with. It gives us mental and physical exercise. At our club, we get to play with a lot of younger people in their 30s and 40s. We love the fact that we can compete with them. A lot of it is because of how we approach the game. We look at it as a puzzle that has to be solved, rather than “Go out, see the ball, hit the ball!” We love that tactical part of it.