Competitive Seniors’ Tennis Poised for Growth

by Scott Langdon

December 2020

The global Covid-19 pandemic has temporarily put the brakes on many tennis activities, but it could accelerate the growth of competitive seniors’ tennis in the year ahead, says one of Canada’s top advocates for the sport.

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.

Champion Tim Griffin (left, Canada) and Finalist Larry Turnville (right, USA) following the US Clay Court Over 70 men’s singles finals in 2019 (photo: Tim Griffin)

“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.

Left to right, 2019 Ontario Senior Provincial Championships O45 Women’s Doubles Champions, Jane Bedard and Annie Kravchenko and finalists Meg Takazato and Sandra Cimetta (photo: Giovanna Andrews)

Different levels

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:

  • Steve Stevens Senior National Tennis Championships (ITF closed event). The tournament was played at five clubs in the Greater Toronto Area in 2019 and is tentatively slated for the Vancouver area in 2021 ( Four National Indoor events are staged annually (
  • International Tennis Federation tournaments in Ontario including the Wilson/Mayfair Senior ITF Tour in the winter and the London Hunt Club and Toronto ITF events in the summer. (
  • OTA provincial championships in various age groups, for men and women. (
  • League play for men and women such as: The InterCounty Tennis Association in southern Ontario (; the Toronto Men’s and Women’s Leagues; and others including in York Region and Ottawa.
  • Tennis Access is a sports events management company offering competitive weekend tennis in various seniors’ age groups and competitive levels across Ontario. (
  • Club championships in various age groups for men and women.
  • Ontario Seniors Games Association annual seniors’ tennis competition (
  • Casual games at your local tennis club which Tobias says “…can get pretty competitive at times.”

2019 Ontario Senior Provincial Championships O55 Men’s Singles finalist Graham Watt (left) and champion Kerry Mitchell (right) (photo: Giovanna Andrews)

Benefits of competition

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)

  • Friendship and supporting one another
    “Our competitions, not just in tennis, are about meeting other seniors in various age groups and supporting one another in competition. Our tennis activity is not as competitive as some others, but it provides our participants the opportunity to meet new people and offers something to strive for while having fun. Having fun is what we have to do in life,” said Ellen Paterson, President, OSGA+55.

    “Our competitions, not just in tennis, are about meeting other seniors in various age groups and supporting one another in competition. Our tennis activity is not as competitive as some others, but it provides our participants the opportunity to meet new people and offers something to strive for while having fun. Having fun is what we have to do in life,” said Ellen Paterson, President, OSGA+55.

    “Friendships that you make are near the top of my list,” said John Kirby, 73, of Mississauga and a long-time competitor in provincial, national and ITF competitions. “It helps me age gracefully, provides exercise and the competition is fun.”

    “There is a definite social component for me. My competitors have become among my best friends. I miss them when I don’t see them, like this year due to Covid-19,” said Hebert.
  • Motivation to train
    “I have jogged and worked out at a gym and walking three or four times a week is good, too. Mostly I try to play a lot at my club before a tournament. Competition encourages me to stay in shape,” said Hani Ayoub, 75, multiple national doubles champion.

    “To compete you have to get in shape and stay that way during the tennis offseason,” said Griffin, also a high-level squash player during the winter.

    “Staying in good physical condition as we age is important. Competition can help motivate that. It also helps cause a good frame of mind and a positive attitude even if you lose. Everybody loses. Just get out and play,” said Vaughan Grater, past President, Pine Point Tennis Club, Chair and Tennis Convener and competitor, Etobicoke/York District 17, OSGA+55.
  • Sense of pride
    “We find that our competitions can engender a sense of pride in people. Competition provides the opportunity to put those lessons at the club to a test and really challenge yourself. Yes, it can be difficult for some people to lose, but there is such a thing as a good loss when you play well,” said Scott Barrett, owner, Tennis Access.

    “When you look back on a match, if you have made one or two good shots you can say to yourself, ‘That was cool’. It makes you feel alive,” Griffin said.

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)

  • Staying alert
    “I enjoy the complexity of tennis. Yes, skill and strength are involved, but so is strategy. The need for improvement is a special challenge and it requires me to stay alert, to respond,” Kirby explained.

    “Tennis is a complex, technical game. The physical aspect is clear, but the strategy and complexity keeps you thinking. There is more intensity in competitive play and some like it, some do not. I would absolutely recommend trying it,” Griffin added.
  • Improving your game
    “When I started playing competitively it was pretty much all about the social stuff. I didn’t do well initially. It reminds me of someone I play often today. I used to beat her fairly easily ten years ago when she started. Not any longer. We have both improved in part thanks to the competitive aspect,” Hebert said.

    “Playing some tournaments demands ongoing improvements to your game that you might not achieve playing only at the club,” said Kirby.

    “I think many of us have that deep-down competitiveness inside of us. We could improve our game, but it’s amazing how many people are just reluctant to put their game on the line,” added Tobias.
  • Excitement
    “I find there is a special excitement playing in a tournament, a public event. Some people don’t want the intensity, but tournaments can be exciting for me, whether I have a great day or a poor one,” said Kirby.

    “The anticipation of a competition, the preparation, figuring out how to win. It helps you to become an even greater fan of the sport. You want to try to emulate the great players,” Griffin added.

Left to right, 2019 Ontario Senior Provincial Championships O70 Men’s Doubles Champions, John Payne and Raul Hernandez and finalists Edward Twardus and Ashley Stanley. (photo: Giovanna Andrews)


But as Kirby and others mentioned, competition is not for everyone and there are drawbacks as well as benefits.

  • Time commitment
    “Not everyone wants to or can devote three or four days or a full weekend to play in a tournament. When you factor in delays due to weather or scheduling it can make for some long days,” Kirby explained.

    “You do need to dedicate the time and money to some of these competitions. Even in Ontario, travel can be a deterrent for some people,” Hebert said.
  • Cost
    “An entry fee of, say sixty dollars, might not seem a lot, but when you factor in that you could lose and be out of the competition after one match then some question if it’s worth it. I have mixed feelings about that because if you do well and play through to the end it seems a pretty fair price,” Kirby said.

    “I think more people might try it if the cost were reasonable to them. To lose in the first round without a consolation doesn’t encourage people to play,” Ayoub said. “The prizes are not sufficient to get your money back if you win. They aren’t commensurate.”
  • Losing
    “Some people aren’t interested in competitions because losing is difficult. I think we all would prefer to win, but I see losing as a learning opportunity. You need to be willing to take the risk,” said Hebert.

    “Losing…I don’t like it. But there actually is much constructive you can take from it. I keep showing up, win or lose. When it’s over, it’s over,” Griffin said
  • Injury
    “I played two different age-level tournaments this summer back-to-back. It was too much and I suffered for a few weeks. It’s one of the reasons I put effort into physical conditioning such as cycling, hiking, cross-country skiing, the Nordic Track. Three set matches, especially a few of them, can be a strain on the body,” Kirby said.

2019 Ontario Senior Provincial Championships O75 Men’s Doubles champions, John Mitchell (left) and Peter Clarke (photo: Giovanna Andrews)

Changes and improvements

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.”