A League of Their Own: Lydia Eitel

Scott Sode | May 20, 2021

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 Lydia Eitel (pictured)—a 65 & Over League player from Long Island—about learning to love the game from her mother, forming lifelong friendships in tennis and finding inspiration in Rafael Nadal.


When did you first pick up a racquet?

Eitel: Well, my mother was a very good tennis player and I wanted to do what my mother did. I wanted to be good at tennis because she was. As a child you want to participate in what your parent does because it’s an opportunity to be with them more. In my early teens we would play tennis every single day. I learned a lot about sportsmanship through my mother and I also learned how to lose, because I lost every single week. [Laughs]. So they were lifelong lessons. [Laughs].


And is it something that you’ve continued to play regularly throughout your life?

Eitel: I played in high school. And I went to college in California and also played there. Then when I started working [post-college], I would play sporadically. But after I got married in my mid-thirties and had children, we moved to Long Island, and I started playing on a more regular basis. It really has been a really common thread my entire life. I've absolutely loved tennis, and I actually kind of need it more as I get older. I feel very fortunate to have a skill that enables me to continue to play at a relatively good level.


You discovered USTA League tennis shortly after you moved to Long Island. What has kept you playing League tennis over the years?

Eitel: I'm a competitive person, to be very honest. I like to compete. And your game improves when you play competitive tennis. You find out how people are beating you and you want to do what they're doing to you, to other people. You just become better.


Today, you compete in and captain a USTA Eastern 65 & Over League on Long Island. How did that come about?

Eitel: When I turned 65, I said, “I have to have something here for 65-plus players where we can enjoy playing with one another.” I've known these women for over 20 years. I wanted to think of it more as a fun league, as opposed to a cutthroat competitive league. And I thought it would be good to start a 65-plus league [locally] because everybody who’s 55 is going to be 65 before you know it, and they're going to want a place. I know the women [playing 55 & Over] and I know that they're going to want to continue to compete. They've played in leagues their entire lives.


Your team ended up advancing all the way to USTA League National Championships in January 2020. What was that experience like?

Eitel: I was so proud of our team. I think we won one team match and were very close in two others. But that to me was just so great, that we were a competitive team. 

Eitel (fourth from right) poses with her 65 & Over League team at the USTA League National Championships in January 2020.

After playing for many decades, is there anything in your game that you’re still trying to improve?

Eitel: Everything. And I'm being very honest. I've worked on my serve because one thing I've really learned is I have to win my serve every time, and I want to make it stronger. At the same time, most people at 65 don’t have great serves. So I've tried to take the ball earlier on my return of serve and really make that a weapon. It’s a wonderful thing that you can continue to improve [in the sport]. There are hundreds of tennis videos online that give you a lot of great tips! I’m also very fortunate that my husband also plays tennis. During COVID, we've been able to hit once a week and work on all these areas.


Conversely, what do you do better now that you maybe didn’t do as well before?

Eitel: I'm more patient. I will construct a point. When I was younger, I would just swing for the fences. So I'm definitely more patient and I’ve learned how to keep the ball in play. Also, I would say with age, you understand that tennis is a game. You can have great strokes, but unless you understand that strategy is involved, you're going to lose. And so I would say the older I’ve become, the more strategic I’ve become. 


What’s an on-court quality of yours that you appreciate?

Eitel: I would say that I’m very happy that people have appreciated my sportsmanship. I'm always questioning whether my ball was really good. “Are you sure that ball was in?” From 80 feet, 78 feet away, it looks like it might've been out by a bit! [Laughs]. I think being honest on the court and not playing games, I think that is what I'm happy about. I mean, I've had my problems, like every one of us does. But I'd say generally people consider me a good sport, and I'm pretty happy about that.


Is there a professional tennis player that inspires you?

Eitel: Rafael Nadal. This is a guy that does not want to lose a single point. He's going to play every point of a match with intensity. And that to me is kind of how I've become as I’ve gotten older. This past summer I played a singles match at a club against  somebody in their late thirties. I lost the first set. My husband was watching. He said, “Oh, she's not going to win this match.” And the tennis pro [at the club] said, “No, she’ll win.” And you know what? I came back and I won. I wasn't going to lose. And I was going to play every point.


You mentioned that you’ve known a lot of your fellow League players over 20 years. What do the relationships that you formed through tennis mean to you? 

Eitel: They mean the world to me. Through serious illness and tragedies, we’ve been there for each other. I mean, these are my friends. We have a lot of strong, positive feelings for one another.


What would you say to a fellow tennis player to get her to join 65 & Over Leagues?

Eitel: I would say if you want to play with a really great group of supportive women that just love to have fun competing, then come and join us.

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