Mai Clarke thinks practicing tennis is as loathsome as jogging, something he has said he would do only at gunpoint. This is not to say that Clarke, 83, who three years ago became the first player in any age division to win all four U.S. national championships in both singles and doubles in one year, doesn't believe in routine. Every morning, for instance, after tending to his beans and potatoes, he refreshes himself with a wee martini and then reads a little medieval history.
While Clarke usually likes to leave his game in the hands of his muse, Ken Beer prefers to control his own destiny. He relishes practice. Five days a week, the 82-year-old former Pan Am pilot hits a thousand balls—500 volleys and 500 ground strokes—rocketed at him by a ball machine. "I have to practice," says Beer. "I haven't been around as long as Mai Clarke."
For the past three years, Clarke, a former prep school language teacher who lives in South Harpswell, Maine, and Beer, a short, powerful Californian who seems able to gauge his opponents' weaknesses as quickly and precisely as he might read the instrument panel of a 707, have faced each other in the finals of virtually every national tournament they have entered. Lately Beer has been overwhelming his rival. "He's just a machine," says Clarke. "The rest of us try to lead a normal life. I'm not sure he does."
The Clarke-Beer showdowns are not the only highlights of the "super" senior tennis circuit. Here "boys wearing loose skin," as Clarke describes his fellow competitors, prove that tennis is indeed the sport for a lifetime. In super-senior tennis speed and strength become secondary to strategy, finesse and pure skill. On this circuit you will not see power tennis. Instead, you get masterfully disguised trick serves, drop shots that kiss the net cord and half volleys that nick the lines. It's a joy to watch.
February 10, 1986
Until the late '60s the top age division in the United States Tennis Association was 55-and-over, meaning players 60 and older—many of them former instructors or college champions—had to compete against opponents five or even 15 years their junior if they wanted to play tournament tennis. Largely through the efforts of four men—Alphonso Smith, a former Davis Cup captain from Charlottesville, Va.; L. Roe Campbell, a retired Knoxville, Term, banker; Thomas Todd, a Seattle lawyer; and the late Eldon Roark, who had been a columnist for the Memphis Press-Scimitar—Super-Senior Tennis, Inc. was formed. The organization, which initially was only for amateurs 55 and older, later opened its ranks to the pros. The USTA sanctions super-senior events and ranks its members in each division.
Today there are dozens of regional and national tournaments for each of the super-seniors' divisions (the divisions cover every five-year increment from 55 to 80-and-over). In late summer the USTA holds four tournaments—the national indoor and hard-court championships in California in August, and the grass courts and clay courts, in Rhode Island and Virginia, respectively, in September—that comprise the annual Grand Slam, or Grandfather Slam, of super-senior tennis.
Each year, the 70s-through-80s grass-court championships are held at Agawam Hunt, a club in East Providence, R.I. that was founded in 1897, the year a couple of the circuit's players were born. There you can look out from the wainscoted clubhouse to the manicured greensward and get a feeling for lawn tennis's genteel beginnings.
But in fact there's nothing leisurely about super-senior tennis. The 2½ million balls Beer has blasted back at a machine over the past 10 years are evidence of that. And if you think the inner game of tennis becomes any less turbulent with age, think again. "It's a boy's game," says Clarke, whose first and second U.S. national tournament appearances were separated by 60 years. "No matter how old you are, you're the same person you ever were. Which means if you lose, you lost just as well or as badly as you did when you were a kid."
"If I lose, don't talk to me for an hour or so," says Gardnar Mulloy, 72, who has won more U.S. national titles than any man in the history of the game, "because I turn into a monster."
Fortunately for Mulloy, a former touring pro and Davis Cup player, he rarely loses, even when he plays down a couple of divisions. Last summer he won a national tournament in the 55s, and he often plays in the 65s just to take on longtime rival Bobby Riggs. At stake are the little gold tennis balls the USTA awards to winners of national championships. Mulloy has 73, Riggs 56. But Riggs, the inveterate hustler, has bet half the people who play the game that he will overtake Mulloy.
Mulloy, a member of the Tennis Hall of Fame, can take considerable credit for investing senior and super-senior tennis with the exceptionally high caliber of play—and glamour—now found in all age divisions. "When I started, a lot of the better players thought it was demeaning to play senior tennis," he says. "Today you can find pros in every division." Mulloy, who's now tennis pro emeritus at Boca Grove in Boca Raton, Fla., has an unbounded passion for the game. "I don't believe you can ever be overtennised," he says. "If you're too tired or don't feel like playing, then you'll lose and have to take the week off, anyway."
Mulloy's feeling for the game is shared by nearly everyone on the circuit. "The fact that you've survived this long and can still run around makes the game more important than it was when you were younger," Clarke says. "And you don't have other things intruding on you. There are no money worries. There's certainly no pressure from fans, because we don't have any. Except for our wives, and in some cases they're not fans because they'd rather see us at home."
Pressure-free or not, rivalries, some extending six decades, often retain the thrill and import of the initial adolescent encounter. Last year Alphonso Smith faced Bobby Seller, who once traveled the country with Bill Tilden playing exhibitions. "I'd say my desire to beat Seller has probably doubled each time since the first match we played," Smith says. "And that was in the National Junior Grass Courts at Forest Hills in 1927." At Agawam, Paul Peavey, a former manager for Ford Motor Co., faced Chauncey Steele, a Boston stockbroker, in the 70s' quarterfinals 55 years after their first match. Jack Staton, a former Wilson Sporting Goods rep who won the 75s' singles Grand Slam in 1984, faced Bryan (Bitsy) Grant, a top clay-court player from the '30s, at least once in tournament play every year from 1955 to 1983. "When you're No. 1," says Staton, who has won a national title in every senior division for which he has been eligible, "everybody is gunning for you."
Ailments are a source of locker room banter among this crowd. Information about obscure vitamins, elixirs and massage techniques are exchanged regularly and a little good-natured proselytizing is not uncommon among players who claim to have followed some special regimen for 40 years and never stepped inside a hospital. "My goal," says Irv Kamke, a vegetarian and 70s newcomer from Milwaukee, "is to be No. 1 in the 90s by outliving all these meat-eating Davis Cup stars." Says Harry Hoffmann, a retired tennis shop manager now living in Hollywood, Fla., "Get any three of these players together and it's like an organ recital. 'How're your kidneys, your prostate, your liver? Is that your heart or a machine I hear?' "
Sometimes it's a machine. Clarke likes to point out that until last year he was ranked No. 1 in doubles every year he had competed in the super-seniors, and of his four partners, three had pacemakers. "Doubles with me was pretty harrowing for them," he says.
As in all sports, some victories are less obvious than others. At Agawam one player, William Thompson of New York City, was suffering from throat cancer (he could communicate only with pad and pencil). Still, he was able to play a first-round match with Mulloy and in perhaps the most touching moment of the tournament, Thompson, reed-thin and wearing a black beret like some bohemian professor, ran up to the net to congratulate his opponent. Unable to speak, he patted Mulloy's hand with both of his.
The rivalry between Clarke and Beer was as hot as any at Agawam—it is certainly well documented. Clarke keeps four scrapbooks to chronicle his matches, including the scores from his 10 meetings with the crafty Californian. The one printed in red followed by several exclamation points is Clarke's most cherished victory, which came in late 1984. Beer had won three legs of the Grand Slam going into the clay-court finals in Charlottesville, Va. Clarke, "playing out of my head," volleyed him into submission.
Last September in Rhode Island, Clarke and Beer resumed their rivalry. "I'm going to psych myself up," Clarke confided the day before the finals. "I'm planning to go to bed tonight saying, 'Beat Beer, beat Beer.' " He paused a moment, then wagged a finger. "Mind you, though, that doesn't always work for me." Clarke must have feared that on this occasion it wouldn't, because late that afternoon he shucked off to the far end of the courts and hit a bucket of serves.
Next morning the competitors took the court. For 1½ hours they demonstrated the fine art of shotmaking. Clarke would cut a drop shot, and Beer would somehow get it, frequently converting his return into a winner. If Clarke's return of serve kicked up sideline chalk, Beer was there to bat the ball back. Every game in the first set went to deuce at least once, but before he knew it, Clarke had lost the set 6-0. At this point, the Down-Easter began looking skyward for guidance.
For a time, it appeared as though he had indeed received some. Clarke did break Beer's serve in the first game of the second set, but Beer broke back twice to win the set 6-4. The next week, at the national clay courts, Beer lost just seven games and completed the Slam.
After the match at Agawam, Clarke shrugged and then patted his opponent on the shoulder. "You're a machine out there, Ken," he said with admiration. "A thousand balls each morning, huh? What do you think about while you're doing that? Are you composing poetry, or what?"
The normally taciturn Beer just smiled and nodded toward the court. "That's right," he said, "and I just recited it to you."
Michael Segell lives in New York City and writes periodically for SI.