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Barbara Brown: Love of tennis keeps aging players on court

Many of us are familiar with the nursery tune, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” It is a rhythmic tune that preschoolers learn with the dual purpose of exposing them to music and movement and teaching them their body parts. It has been co-opted by many groups, such as “Sesame Street,” “Barney” and even hip-hop and rap artists, with variations on the theme.

This summer, I entertained the idea that there is another group for whom this ditty has relevance. I belong to a group of tennis enthusiasts, mostly senior citizens, who enjoy the game at various levels of play. It is far from true league play and is a loosely organized format, with willing players arriving for two hours of “mixed” play on cooperating weather days.

In charge of our play is the “games chair,” a congenial octogenarian and a still skillful player. He oversees this group in a manner of a tennis camp for aging players. Depending on the number of participants, we are organized in games of singles, doubles or, if five players, a version of round robin where, after serving, the player sits out in the appointed chair until rejoining the game.

The chair keeps his eye on his watch, and after 30 minutes of play a whistle blows and teams are rearranged to enable a mix of experience and skill. This format suggests a slower-paced game and gives me time to let my mind drift.

And drift it did one day as I watched and listened to the accompanying chatter. Among calls of “ball on the court” and “net ball, take two” I heard, “What’s the score? I’ve lost track!” and “Did I just serve that?” suggesting the need for comments from all the players to set the score straight and get the game back on track; also reminding us to keep our “head” in the game.

Old shoulder injuries and the imposition of limitations due to arthritis suggest the need for underhand serving, obviously not the 90 to 100 mph bullets by the pros, but sufficient to get the ball in play.

Observing the altered gaits, slower movements and reluctance to chase down balls that are out of reach indicate knees that don’t have the mechanical flexibility of past years and the exuberance of youth. Wraps and braces are visual clues that confirm the need for extra support to these aging joints.

Even toes (feet) have had to be accounted for as the summer play progressed. A case of plantar fasciitis sidelined one of the regulars while he sought treatment and rest for this unpleasant malady.

While reflecting on the play and the players, I was struck by the willingness of the participants to accept each other and themselves “as is” and to continue to enjoy the game in this modified form. These restrictions don’t seem to have diminished the camaraderie, friendship and enjoyment that tennis provides. It also brought to mind how lucky I have been to be able to play since learning the game, along with my siblings, from my father as a 10-year-old and continuing to this day.

As I reminisce about the games played, I am sidelined by a recent injury, suffered when a well-hit, winning ball struck my thumb. Swelling, pain and discoloration dictated a medical visit. Soaking and nurturing my tender thumb as I await the X-ray report, I look forward to next year and another summer of head, shoulders, knees and toes tennis. And I might even add thumbs!