It may have started when the Titanic sank

An abridged history of Super Senior Tennis

In the early morning of April 15, 1912 the luxury steamship the RMS Titanic sideswiped an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank. More than 1,500 people died in the disaster, among them, the man whose idea became what we today call Super Senior Tennis.

Early 20th Century tennis player and lawyer named Charles Duane Williams thought the growing sport of tennis needed a governing body. This idea became the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Despite Williams’ tragic death, the idea lived on.

In 1913, 12 tennis associations from around the world formed the International Lawn Tennis Federation. Not only does the ITF (they eventually dropped “lawn” from the name) rank players competing for Grand Slam titles, it runs a healthy senior program that makes room for players up to 100 years old.

The senior tennis movement began after World War II. During the war, many American soldiers played tennis on their leaves, often with their British counterparts. After the war ended, a group of veterans organized a few tournaments to keep up their skills and competitive spirits. An informal group of both British and American vets arranged to hold a tournament in Lake Placid, New York. They played for what they called the Gordon Blair Cup.

“The Gordon Cup is still played the last weekend of July,” says John Powless, who leads Super Senior Tennis, Inc. “These days we play in Canada one year and the U.S. the next. We play 45 matches over a three-day period and the winning country takes home the Gordon Cup. The Gordon Cup is the second-oldest cup in tennis after the Davis Cup.”

While the ITF took senior tennis seriously, the United States Tennis Association considered the Gordon Cup one big party.

“We then recruited some of the top players in the game: Vic Seixas, Bobby Riggs, Gardnar Mulloy, Davis Cupper Tommy Adelson and others,” says Powless. “It did get the USTA’s attention, but we still did not get any support from them.”

What began as an informal “veterans” tennis group transformed into Super Senior Tennis. “Seniors” eventually replaced “Veterans” as the ranks of World War II vets diminished with age. As this almost-informal senior tennis movement grew, so did the age categories.

Among the pioneers of Super Senior Tennis was C. Alfonso Smith or “Smitty” as most everyone called him. Smitty founded Super Senior Tennis in 1972. Others “founding fathers” included John Powless, Joe Cullman, Doug Crary, Jay Freeman, Roe Campbell, Jack Blanton, Monte Ganger, and Nick Powell among others. Membership cost $10 a year and included a “newsletter” that was little more than a one-sheet fold-over mailer. But more important, they sponsored and sanctioned senior tennis tournaments including the popular Florida senior circuit. To play in these senior events all you had to be was a member of Super Senior Tennis—no longer a requirement.

Smitty won 31 national tennis championships between 1924 and 1979 and captained the 1963 U.S. Davis Cup team. The Guinness Book of World records lists Smith for winning boys’ and seniors’ national doubles titles 55 years apart, with the same partner, Eddy Jacobs. The Jacobs Smith doubles team is believed to be the longest partnership in tennis history.

Though the efforts of Smith and others Super Senior Tennis now includes a division for players age 95 and older. Recently, more than 30 players entered what’s known as the “95s.”

“We have every kind of tennis event you can imagine,” says Powless. “Husband and wife mixed, father and son, mother and son, mother and daughter, grandfather and granddaughter—you name it and there’s an event for you, no matter how old you are.”

Eventually the USTA saw the success of senor tennis and agreed to sanction senior tennis events. Today you do not need to be a member of Super Senior Tennis but you do need to be a member of the USTA.

Understandably, membership in Super Senior Tennis declined but events sanctioned by the ITF and USTA continue today. But none of it would be possible without the efforts of a group of players who founded Super Senior Tennis, Inc a group of World War II veterans and a lawyer who went down with Titanic.

Team USA accepts the Dubler Cup in Nashville, TN. (date unknown)

“I think the future of senior tennis is bright,” say Powless.

While the international senior tennis movement allows players of any age to continue friendships, it is first and foremost competitive.

“They are out to win,” says Powless. “They want to win every point.

“I was in Montreal with Allan Stone. Three hundred players tried to qualify for 16 spots. There was $10,000 in prize money. Because of the number of players trying to qualify, the tournament ran 24 hours a day. Allan Stone and I were doubles partners playing a night match against a team from Quebec. The line judge called a ball out against the Canadians. They were so upset; they approached the line judge and started shaking his chair. The judge jumped out of the chair and left. We were left alone to call our own lines and Stone said, ‘No more questions. A call is a call. No bad calls.’

“So our opponents proceeded to make a series of bad calls, and Stone summoned them to the net. One of the guys was smirking and laughing, and Stone walked up to him and pop—punched him in the nose. The guy went down and didn’t get up and Stone said, ‘Play is continuous. The guy can’t play. Our match. We’re in the finals, John,’ and we walked off. No one said a word.”

While the senior tennis crowd remains competitive, a punch in the nose is a rare occurrence. The senior circuit is a very social movement as well.

“For a lot of people it may be the one thing they have left in life,” says Powless. “They may have lost their mate of a lifetime, and the only other people they have are their fellow tennis players. While it’s changed somewhat in the United States, outside the U.S. if a player loses his or her first match on Friday morning, they stick around the tournament until the finals on Sunday. There are social activities every night. They have formal awards ceremonies where you’re standing on a podium like it’s the Olympics.

“Senior tennis keeps you mentally and physically keen. It can extend your life. I watched a 97-year-old play a 93-year-old. When the match was over the 97-year-old said, ‘I got to stop playing with these kids.’”

“There are many sports of a lifetime, but when it comes to tennis it is the most beneficial, physically, mentally and socially,” says Powless. “I don’t hear from basketball players very often. But I hear from a tennis player somewhere around the world every day of my life.”

Excerpted from:
John Powless: A Life Well Played
by Dan Smith
Available at amazon.com

John Powless discusses his book John Powless: A Life Well Played with author Dan Smith and Doug moe.
John Powless discusses his book John Powless: A Life Well Played with author Dan Smith (center) and discussion moderator Doug Moe a Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison, WI.