By Arash Markazi
February 28, 2008

Sheila Johnson just wanted tennis lessons. That's it. It was a simple request for the 60-year-old former high school teacher who retired after 30 years of instructing students on the finer points of algebra.

Unfortunately for her, this was the time Greg Prudhomme, her tennis instructor, went back to school and dedicated himself to being college head coach.

Their brief story was supposed to end here, with Johnson presumably finding another instructor at the Paseo Racquet Center in Glendale, Ariz. and Prudomme beginning to assemble his first team at Grand Canyon University, yet somehow Johnson's insistence on having Prudhomme as her instructor and his need to recruit the best tennis players in the area led them back to each other.

It was a math problem that even Johnson wasn't sure that she could solve.

"There was obviously a huge age difference, I hadn't played competitively in 30 years and was out of college for just as long," says Johnson, who graduated from Arizona State with a master's degree in secondary education. "I wasn't sure if I could go back but I thought it would be fun find out."

If Prudhomme had been hired at any other time by any other school, Johnson would likely be serving volleys with her fellow retirees at the tennis club, but he was hired by Grand Canyon, an NCAA Division II program that had gone winless the previous season, a month before the school year started. If that wasn't bad enough, every player on Grand Canyon left the team at season's end, leaving Prudhomme with no players and the fall semester fast approaching.

"It was like a scene out of The Replacements or something, I was putting together a team of misfits," said Prudomme, who had been the head pro at Paseo Racquet Center for 15 years before joining Grand Canyon. "I spent more time on the phone and e-mailing than anytime in my life put together. I called up every teaching pro that I knew, every academy owner I knew, every college coach I knew. I called player after player but they were all already enrolled in school."

In the end, the best player Prudhomme found had been in front of him the whole time. Johnson would jokingly pester Prudhomme's parents, who worked at the local tennis pro shop, that if her son wasn't going to give her tennis lessons, she would use her last year of college eligibility and play for him at Grand Canyon and get daily tennis lessons from him.

The joke didn't elicit laughter so much as pique the interest of Prudhomme, who was having a difficult time assembling a tennis team on such short notice.

"It was a joke but when my parents passed that message along to me, I was all ears," said Prudhomme. "I called her back and said, "Hey Sheila, this Greg Prudhomme the new coach at Grand Canyon and I'd like to offer you a scholarship."

Johnson, who is third ranked women's player in the USTA 60s division, may have been more than 40 years older than the players Prudhomme was recruiting, but she was also better than most of them. She had won three straight Iowa Prep School singles championships in the early 1960s and played on the women's tennis team at Arizona State from 1963-65 before leaving the team after a disagreement with the coach. She rarely touched a racket over the next 30 years as she got married, had a child and became a high school math teacher, but she always had that one year of eligibility left.

"I always knew that I had a year of eligibility left, but I never thought I would use it," said Johnson, whose vacated scholarship when she left Arizona State went to future Hall of Famer Pam Richard Champagne. "When I told Greg's parents I was going to join the team it was intended as a joke but maybe there was a little bit of seriousness. I know that my time is running out and the more I thought about it the more I wanted to do it."

It took Prudhomme four weeks to pull together a ragtag roster of eight players with four freshmen, a Junior College transfer and a 60-year-old mother rounding out the starting lineup.

"When Sheila finally committed I told the girls we were getting an ASU transfer," said Prudhomme. "Not only that, but she is currently ranked No. 2 in the U.S. in doubles and No. 3 in singles in her age group and so I had them and they were so excited and then I said, 'Oh, and there's one other thing. She's 60.'"

Despite the support of her husband, Michael, who attends all her matches, and her 29-year-old son Jeremy, who recently got married, Johnson was still concerned before her first day back at school; her fears in many ways paralleling the same ones she felt as a freshman over four decades ago.

"She was worried about what the other kids would think about her and I said don't worry about them; you're going to be beating most of them so that's what they'll think," said Prudhomme. "I knew she would be better than any player that was on the team last year and I was trying to make an instant impact as the new coach. I knew she would be player, 60 or not, that would help us."

Johnson has proven Prudhomme right so far this season. She leads the team with a 3-2 record in singles and doubles and has helped the Antelopes to a 2-3 record so far this season, already surpassing last season's total and the expectations of everyone outside the program.

"She's winning," said Prudhomme. "It's not a novelty. It's not a sideshow. She's not here to get publicity, she's winning matches for the team and she's helping turn the program around."

While Johnson initially joined the tennis team as a way to continue getting tennis lessons, she found the fountain of youth in the process. During a time when most her age are sitting at home watching soap operas, Johnson is learning how to text message, running around the mall with her teenage teammates and talking about classes at dinner.

"I feel young again. It's like this has erased almost 40 years," said Johnson, who is taking 12 units this semester, including a night class that forces her to make dinner for the family before she leaves for school on Wednesdays. "It is funny though. When I went out to a restaurant with the girls the other night, a woman came up to me and said, 'What a lovely family you have, are these all your grand children?' I didn't quite know what to say. Even the umpire asked me what it was like playing with my granddaughter in doubles. I am taking the brunt of some teasing but the older people are rooting for me."

Johnson isn't the only one that feels younger when she's around her teammates. Her presence has also brought the team closer together as they find new things to show her off the court while she, in turn, teaches them a few things on it.

"In the beginning it was awkward for me to go out there and just play but now we play really well together. She's helped me so much with strategy and understanding the game," said Stephanie Haldeman, who is an 18-year-old freshman and Johnson's double partner. "I couldn't imagine the team without her. We had this team dinner at my dad's house and we went off-roading and she was on the back of a four-wheeler and it was so much fun to see her do that. It's not something you see a 60-year-old do."

What began as an innocent joke has now changed the face of a budding tennis program and the lives of everyone on the team, including Prudhomme, who will have unenviable task of finding a player to replace Johnson at season's end when her eligibility will officially run out four decades after it began.

"I don't know that I could do this without Sheila," said Prudhomme. "I'm afraid to find out what it's going to be like without her."

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