Irwin Tobias, who voluntarily keeps tabs on senior-level tennis for Tennis Canada, says Covid-19 restricted access to activities such as travel for most seniors and resulted in more older people playing tennis this past summer, holding promise for a more robust competitive landscape in 2021.
“Participation in competitive seniors play across the country was up 20 per cent in 2019, but activity at the grassroots level this past summer was way up as more seniors played and played more often at the club level. This increase in participation is a positive development in its own right,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if this results in more people playing competitively when things get back to a more normal life, perhaps in mid-2021.”
The addition of more players in the various seniors age groups would be welcomed by men and women who have long played competitively on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) seniors’ circuit and at the OTA provincial and Tennis Canada national levels.
“Do I think there are club players who could compete in these tournaments? In one word, absolutely,” says Tim Griffin, 71, a member at The Cottingham Tennis Club in Toronto, the reigning U.S. and Canadian clay court champion and twentieth-ranked player on the ITF circuit worldwide.
“There are what I call ‘re-borns’ who used to play and are getting back into the sport as well as ‘wannabees’ who have never really tried to play competitively. There are some seriously good athletes playing at the club level. Many club players who think they can’t, probably can”, he added.
Janice Hebert, 60, has played on six Canadian national seniors’ tennis teams and is a multiple women’s singles and doubles champion in Ontario seniors’ competition. She agrees with Griffin.
“The draws in women’s competition can sometimes get thin at the Provincials. More players would raise the level of competition for everyone. From my experience, there are club players who don’t give themselves enough credit. They just don’t realize how well they could compete,” she said.
Many club players think of the ITF, provincial and national championships as the only competitive opportunities, but there are more and at different levels of competition across Ontario. Tennis Canada’s Tobias loosely listed them from most to least competitive:
The Copenhagen Heart Study, an investigation of 20,000 women and men launched in 1975 and continuing, concluded that tennis is foremost among many sports for offering physical and mental health benefits and tops the charts for potential life expectancy gains.
There are also benefits for men and women aside from just the physical that can be derived from competitive play, according to experts and participants.
Left to right, Hani Ayoub, Irwin Tobias and Fernand Martin (photo Irwin Tobias)
Team Canada Women’s O55 team at the 2017 Senior World Team Championships in Miami (left to right) Michelle Karis, Halifax, Erin Boynton, Toronto, Janice Hebert, Toronto and Brenda Cameron, Vancouver. (photo Janice Hebert)
But as Kirby and others mentioned, competition is not for everyone and there are drawbacks as well as benefits.
Tobias says seniors’ competitive tennis could benefit from some changes that would encourage more people to play.
“If we offer the right events, I think the players will come. We could pay more attention to doubles, promote it more with a few more events. Stand-alone doubles would likely be attractive for some people and might encourage more women to play. My sense is that some women would like more doubles opportunities in addition to singles,” he said.
Paterson of the OSGA+55 says more women are participating in that organization’s athletic and other events.
“We see more women participating in our programs, even in hockey. Families have grown and moved on so older women feel it is their time now to rekindle a love of a sport like tennis or to compete at something new. Women are trying to stay healthy, too,” she said.
Tobias sees some opportunities in scheduling as well.
“Format changes could help attract more people. Perhaps day tournaments with shorter sets, a super tiebreaker rather than a third set. These are some of the changes being considered.”
For Toronto’s Bill Dunn, 68 and a member at North York Tennis Club, a return to competitive play in Ontario after years away is worth considering.
“I think my ability is there, but my match ability is not. One could argue there is a chicken and egg thing going on where the introduction of more competition would help. Age group tournaments, ideally confined to daytime play, may be in my future,” he said.
It is a sentiment being expressed by other senior players if Tobias’ instincts and insights are correct.
Dunn quotes a soon-to-be-former U.S. president when thinking about his own return to competitive play: “We’ll see what happens.”