May 13, 2019

It's Never Too Late to Pick up a Racquet 


Her inaugural tennis season started in 1972. At age 30, Sylvia Okala found herself in the game of tennis in Southeast Washington, D.C., learning for the very first time at the Anacostia Tennis Center.  Soon thereafter, the game of tennis would take her on a remarkable journey that, to this day, is still underway. She credits the game for keeping her more active than ever and her vibrancy and zest for life is simply infectious.


Sylvia was one of the very first participants of USTA League Tennis. Back in the late 1970’s when the USTA introduced adult tennis leagues as a grassroots program, Sylvia and close friends, under the leadership of the Washington Tennis Association, started a league in the Mid-Atlantic area - one of the first in the entire country.



“We started a league with matches at Hains Point in Washington D.C., and all players from the tri-state area competed in that one league!” Sylvia said.  “All the recruitment efforts were done by telephone; this was before email and messaging – how archaic! NTRP ratings were done on-site at various tennis facilities and public courts by local tennis professionals,” she adds.


Being a member of USTA League tennis has left an imprint on Sylvia’s life. Some of her most notable memories have come from playing tennis.


“One day hanging around the courts with my picnic basket, I met my husband Michael Okala while he was playing in a tournament. And 36 years later, after sweating at multiple Sectionals and Regionals and many Nationals at Palm Springs, Indian Wells, Mobile, Orlando and Surprise, we are happily ever after...and heading to the 2019 National Senior Games this June!”


And some of her most laughable moments with friends come from tennis matches too.


“One year while competing at Tri-level Nationals at Indian Wells, I was running for a drop shot. Immediately after the point, my friend on the sidelines kept yelling at me. I yelled back not to bother me during the match, but she persisted. She pointed to the service line on our court where lay my blonde hairpiece that had flown off my head!” Okala recalls. “I picked it up, threw it to my friend and kept playing! To this day we still laugh about this story,” Okala shares.


Today, Sylvia continues her tennis journey by playing four to five times a week. Since retiring 10 years ago, tennis has been her foundation. “I have no major injuries and can run down any drop shot you have in your arsenal,” she says.


Her goals for 2019 include remaining injury free and perfecting a drop volley at the net. You can catch her playing tennis anywhere there is a court, whether it is in Anne Arundel, Prince George, Montgomery, Virginia Counties, Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia.


She continues to encourage all people to pick up a racquet, noting, “It is never too late to start. We all start as beginners! I recommend joining a 2.5 league so you can meet other players your level. Take some clinics at your local tennis facility. I started as an adult at 30 and look at me now. I am either driving to or from tennis, or on the court playing!”


Now is a perfect time to pick up a racquet - May is National Physical Fitness and Sports month. To celebrate the month, USTA Mid-Atlantic is sharing stories of local players living healthy, vibrant lives through tennis and encouraging you to get out on the court to get active! Read Caren's story and Daniel's story for more inspiration.


USTA Mid-Atlantic adult leagues are a great way to add physical activity to your life, cultivate friendships, and stay sharp.   There are many different leagues players can choose from, and that is all because of the introduction of league tennis in the late 1970s and people such as Sylvia Okala championing the game and continuing to do so today.


Throughout May, check out our Instagram and Facebook for more inspiring stories and upcoming opportunities to win some prizes this month!  You can also show how tennis helps you get active by downloading and using this fun Physical Fitness Month Facebook filter!  



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