Healthy Outlook: Senior tennis class combines fun and fitness

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Coach Dick Wedel, smiling at center, gets a group of senior participants prepped for tennis class on Feb. 2, 2018 at the Jayhawk Tennis Center, 233 Rock Chalk Lane. Wedel was a coach at Lawrence High School for more than 30 years. He is now one of several certified coaches who teach at the Jayhawk Tennis Center.

Ann Anderson describes her job as “frosting on frosting.”

A University of Kansas graduate, Anderson has held several jobs throughout her career, but she’s carried her identity as a tennis player everywhere she’s gone. Now 65, she’s working her dream job as a coach at the Jayhawk Tennis Center.

She’s played since her mother gave her a taped-up racket with half the handle chopped off — sized for a 4-year-old — and allowed her to cross the street and go play at the court she’d stared at longingly through her home’s window. Now she’s been certified as a coach for 12 years, and she’s sharing her knowledge with other folks her age — and several who are older.

Shortly after the beginning of the new year, Anderson started teaching a weekly class for seniors. From 10:30-11:30 on Friday mornings, a group of roughly 20 to 25 seniors get together and hone their skills at JTC, 233 Rock Chalk Lane.

Anderson has welcomed a lot of people who haven’t played for years. She said she likes to ask who was president at the time students bought their last rackets.

“That’s kind of a nonoffensive way to say, ‘How long has it been since you played?'” Anderson said.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Ann Anderson, coach of the senior tennis class at the Jayhawk Tennis Center, poses with her racket on Feb. 2, 2018, at JTC, 233 Rock Chalk Lane. She has been playing tennis since she was 4 years old.

For those whose last purchase was during the Jimmy Carter era, an upgrade might make playing a lot more feasible.

“Maybe they played until they were 40, and they started getting tennis elbow injuries,” Anderson said. “With the new rackets and strings, they’re so light. Some of these rackets are about 9 ounces, so a lot less injuries. We’re very careful here at KU.”

Playing tennis offers seniors a lot of benefits, Anderson said. As a cognitive sport, tennis can help improve coordination and help to negate some of the risks that come naturally with aging.

“As we age, obviously, our mobility declines a little bit. We can’t move like a 20-year-old,” she said. “But we can get smarter about where the ball is going, and sometimes with seniors, maybe we’ll just play half the court. You don’t have to play the whole court.”

So you don’t have to be a “Pistol Pete” Sampras or a Billie Jean King to partake in this class, and no one is going to bark at you to drop and give them 20. The classes are all taught by certified instructors, including the former Lawrence High tennis coach of 30-plus years, Dick Wedel.

“Usually, we play an hour, and there’s probably over half of these players that come back out for another half-hour, so it’s kind of at your own pace,” Anderson said.

For Grace Endacott Brooks, 85, of Lawrence, finding the class — and folks to play with on a consistent basis — was an answer to a dilemma.

“I never wanted to come out and do it by myself or try to find people,” she said.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Grace Endacott Brooks, 85, of Lawrence, tosses a tennis ball into the air as she works on her serve during class Feb. 2, 2018 at the Jayhawk Tennis Center, 233 Rock Chalk Lane.

Her closest friends are now dependent upon canes and walkers, she said. She noted a phrase that has become like a mantra for her: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

“I’m very lucky. So far I have my mind,” Endacott Brooks said with a laugh.

Anderson said the class is a good alternative to other forms of cardiovascular exercise.

“With the equipment now, (tennis is) so much safer and easier on the body than it used to be. But I think most people, myself included — I’m 65 — should be going to the gym more,” she said. “I like to do weights, but I’d rather play an hour of tennis than do 30 minutes on the treadmill.”

The class isn’t just about tennis and physical activity, though. There’s free coffee available after each session, and the ensuing conversation is a key part of the fun.

“One of the things I’ve always found teaching senior tennis is the social interaction as we get older — people tend to be more at home; maybe they lose touch with their family,” Anderson said. “This group has exchanged phone numbers, and that’s 20 new people (who have) met each other, become friends.”

One of the quirkier features of the final class of the first session on Feb. 2 was when Scott Weir, of Topeka, swapped the racket he used in class for his modified version: The retired environmental scientist converts cigar boxes and tennis rackets into electric guitars in his spare time, and he provided entertainment as the group enjoyed complimentary coffee and cinnamon rolls.

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

Scott Weir, of Topeka, plays his electric guitar made from a tennis racket on Feb. 2, 2018, which was the final day of the first session of senior tennis classes at the Jayhawk Tennis Center, 233 Rock Chalk Lane.

Also, KU tennis coach Todd Chapman stopped by to answer some questions. The group got to pick his brain about everything from techniques in playing doubles to international recruiting.

As Anderson has carried tennis as a part of her life for 61 years, she sees it helping to fill a void for those in the class, as well.

“I think that’s so neat,” she said. “When you get to a certain age you lose a little of that — maybe you’re retired — you lose a little of your identity. You start identifying yourself as, ‘Hey, I’m a tennis player.'”

The class will now be held year-round. Its most recent session started Friday, and Anderson said there’s been so much interest that the program is adding a fourth coach and a fourth court and would welcome new participants. Call the JTC at 785-749-3200 by Wednesday to sign up or to get more information.