despite injury, lloyd settle is top senior
Ron Cioffi | September 4, 2018
This article was first published in the USTA Southern insert into the September/October 2018 issue of Tennis magazine.
Lloyd Settle was on a gurney being rolled into the emergency room. Hours earlier he had barely survived a farm accident as his hand was badly mangled in a corn picker. He knew he may lose his right hand and never play his beloved tennis again.
While weaving down the hospital hallway, his wife said, “The doctor knows you. He played tennis against you.”
After hours in the ER that hand surgeon enabled Settle to keep his right hand. Oddly enough, that’s when Lloyd Settle became a left-hander.
Playing the Atlanta Senior Championships
I sat down with Settle over a cheap meal and a few beers. He was in town to play the Atlanta Senior Invitational Championships, a national-level tournament for men from 30 to 80 who continue to prove they are among the best in the country.
Settle is the type of guy who can inject a joke into just about anything he says. He told me, “My favorite beer is cold and somebody else’s.”
After a brief hello, he said, “Tennis is the best sport there is. All you have to do to have the fountain of youth is a USTA card and an entry fee. You ought to make that your slogan.”
“I like that,” I replied. “I’ll use it in the story.”
Accident could have been fatal
Odd that a 72-year-old man who nearly escaped death would be announcing that he had found the secret of a long life.
Here’s the brief history of Settle. For most of his career he was a high school chemistry teacher in southern Kentucky. In his 30s, he also coached some basketball and baseball when he was living in Virginia. He broke his wrist and was told, “No more softball.” So, he decided to take up tennis.
“At about the age of 40, I said, ‘I want to get good at this game.’ I started to concentrate on the game. I had no lessons and learned a lot of bad habits. With a lot of practice, I got pretty good, played 4.5 in tournaments. Then I went to zero.”
That’s where Settle’s story really begins: on his family farm, when he was harvesting corn. Out in the fields, all alone, he got his right hand stuck that corn picker and it nearly came off.
“I had a feeling I was dead. I thought I was a goner and took some chances that a normal mind wouldn’t do. I was alone. I ran about a mile and the pain was really quite intense and did some yoga breathing. I got home and told my wife not to look at it because she would pass out. I told her to get a blanket because I knew I would go into shock. So, she took me to the hospital in Hopkinsville and the doctor said he would lop it off. And, I said, ‘No, no.’ They said there was nothing they could do.”
Settle figured if they took his right hand, he would never play tennis again. He couldn’t face that future.
So, off they went to the best hospital around at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Under the care of Dr. Milek
That’s when Settle was wheeled into Dr. Mike Milek’s emergency room. Doctor and patient recognized each other, having bonded across the net and a table a few years belore. Settle was playing in a Nashville tournament when weather dampened the courts. Milek got permission from the referee to play a double match versus Settle at his club. After the match, they had a few cold ones and got to know each other.
With Settle in the operating room, the noted hand surgeon decided he could perform the magic that doctors in Hopkinsville said couldn’t be done.
Milek, now retired, said, “It was one of the ten worst injuries I’ve seen, one or two of the worst hand injuries. No fingers were attached. They were all going in different directions.”
Settle told Milek that he didn’t want to lose the hand. The doc understood.
That was about 25 years ago. Settle reminisced, “I didn’t go around tennis or tennis players for over a year. There was a tournament in my area. And I looked at it from the outside and realized I missed tennis and tennis people. It occurred to me that it’s a lot easier to be positive when your around positive people. Who else are more positive than tennis players. They’re always looking forward to the next age division, the next tournament, the next match.
Playing tennis at any level has benefits
“I had an epiphany. You don’t have to be good (to play tennis). You still get all the benefits.”
So, Settle became of left-hander, even though he realized he would be awlful.
“A lot of guys wouldn’t want to practice with me but I was selfish and I wanted to get better. My only goal was to see how good I could get lefthanded.
“It took four or five years to react fast enough to play doubles. I worked on it for years and at my age I was told it wouldn’t happen. Working out wouldn’t even help me. Tennis is cheaper than a shrink. … A couple of years ago I was at a Southern Closed in Kiawah Island and I finshed third. I got a national seed. I’m in the top 10, which is freaking amazing. It goes to show you: It’s not talent (that makes for tennis success).”
Currently ranked No. 7 in USTA Southern in 70 & Over singles, Settle talked about his game with precision of a former science teacher.
“When I had my accident, I knew that when I was going to play tennis is like taking a knife to a gun fight. It’s a mismatch. I have to be guy with the knife. I have to be smart, consistent and quick. I have to do what the other person doesn’t do well. I have to approach a match differently because I have to probe at their weaknesses as opposed to using my strength.”
“I’ve been No. 1 in my age division in Kentucky for several years. When I first got to No. 1 … There was a guy back home that could kick my ass righthanded and I eventually beat him lefthanded.”
That comment was accompanied by a slight smile. Hey, Settle was drinking a cold beer … paid for by someone else.
“All tennis players complain about the same thing after a match. ‘I hit a few into the net. He hit a few lines.’ But, the very best say it on Saturday and Sunday. The mere mortals say it on Tuesday and Wednesday.”