Popplewell a Tennis Player for All Seasons
(courtesy of the Winged M)

MAC Doubles Dynamo Still Going Strong After All These Years

By Jake Ten Pas

Age is in the eye of the “be older.” A spring chicken by almost any definition, MAC Tennis titan John Popplewell is, at the age of 78, just hitting his stride. Over the summer, he received the dual honors of making the club’s Gallery of Champions and being selected by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) to represent the U.S. at the International Tennis Federation Super-Senior World Team Championship in Mallorca, Spain.

Asked which honor means the most to him, Popplewell appears to hold a rally with himself in his own mind. “Long-range, the Gallery of Champions has been a goal of mine since I walked through the front door in 2005, and I’m pretty ecstatic. I’ve seen the people chosen for it, and thought it was a pretty tough deal to get in.”

On the other side of the court, “It’s an incredible honor to be picked as one of four people in the whole country for my age group. I figured I’d make the team when I was in my 80s, but wasn’t so sure I’d make it this year. I want the biggest and best, and I want to win at the highest level. That would probably be it!”

On whichever side of the net the ball falls, Popplewell puts both achievements into his sporting-life top three, along with being inducted into the Southern Oregon University Sports Hall of Fame in September 2017. While he’s always been goal-oriented, competitive and ambitious, even Popplewell, Pops, or just Pop — depending on who’s talking — might not have been able to predict just how far the game would take him when he first started playing on Coos Bay courts as a seventh grader. Back then, the age of 40 seemed ancient, and being the talk of the local barbershop a noble and lofty pursuit.

The Serve

It was in college that Popplewell first realized tennis could be a sport for a lifetime. He remembers buying magazines such as World Tennis and following all the scores of guys playing around age 35 or even, gasp, in their 40s.

“At the time, when I was 18, I thought 40 was really old. Now, I figure maybe it’s not so old,” he says, laughing.

In the 1950s and early ’60s, he recalls, Marshfield High School’s teams were very competitive, and often victorious, against the best sports teams in the state. Coos Bay was a small logging town, and Popplewell remembers walking to the barbershop and listening to men getting their hair cut and talking enthusiastically about sports, particularly football. That made a big impression, and living across the streets from tennis courts and a baseball field, with a swimming pool just up the street, didn’t exactly dissuade him from pursuing athletic glory. He started playing basketball and baseball in the third grade, and was eventually introduced to tennis by his best friend, Larry Eickworth.

“I was just a little guy, 5’6 at my tallest, and now I’m 5’5”, but I knew I wanted to letter in high school my freshman year,” he says. Initially earning the spot of sixth man early that season, his buddy’s bad luck would turn out to be his opportunity. Playing against Springfield High School, Eickworth won his match, and went to jump over the net to shake his opponent’s hand. He didn’t quite make it, and severely sprained his ankle.

“I got moved to the number five spot, played the necessary amount of matches and lettered. I was one of two freshman at Marshfield who did, and we had 300 kids in each grade. Here I am, small for my age, wearing my letterman jacket, and I said, ‘OK, I’m all in for tennis.’”

Each year, he steadily improved, jumping up to number one on the team his senior year. He also lettered in basketball and played American Legion baseball. By the time he made his way to Southern Oregon, his love of athletics was firmly cemented. Waiting there was a familiar face with whom he would begin to cast his gaze further into the future.

The Return

Eickworth was already ensconced at SOU when Popplewell arrived after spending his freshman year at Oregon State, and the two were soon roommates. After taking a year off due to eligibility requirements, Pop was ready to compete the following year.

“Eickworth and I decided at some point that we were going to be buddies forever, and so when we hit our 50s, we’d go out and start winning national championships together in doubles,” Popplewell recalls of their strong bond.

But first, there was the small matter of getting through college, and Pop decided to make the most of it. His first year playing tennis for SOU, the team took on OSU and pulled off a huge upset. They went on to beat other NCAA schools such as Seattle University and University of Oregon.

“It was a big deal because we were an NAIA school beating NCAA schools. Our team didn’t lose a league match in four years. We qualified for two NAIA National Championships in Kansas City, Missouri, and we finished eighth overall my last year there.”

Following graduation, Popplewell went on to a successful career at Portland’s Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. After 28 years, he was able to retire at the age of 52, allowing him to get back to his real interest, tennis. While he’d found a home for his career, it would be a few more years before he’d find an equivalent nest for his athletic ambitions.

A Rest

Popplewell and Eickworth never did achieve their goal of being doubles champions together in their 50s. In 1990, they won the Idaho Men’s 45 Open State Championship Title in Sun Valley. Three years later, the fair-skinned, red-headed Eickworth passed from melanoma.

Pop recalls meeting him on the Gallatin River, where Eickworth and his wife had a summer place. “Unfortunately, I’ve got to go to the oncology center in Woodlands in Texas to deal with cancer,” his friend confided.

“I retired at 52, but I didn’t have him as a partner, and he was phenomenal,” Popplewell says. “I’ve always had his name on my racquet, and he’s the guy I play for. He got me into tennis, and I want to win for him as much as myself. We grew up in an area where winning was a big deal, and no matter what, we were competing. I still have that in my blood. It’s just part of my DNA.”

New Match          

“You need an incredible amount of patience to win in tennis. You need to be mentally tough, obviously. Patience along with mental toughness is a big part of the formula for winning matches.”

Pop first applied for MAC membership back in 1982. He’d learned to bide his time on the court, which served him well in the years to come. He tried three more times before finally being accepted through the lottery in 2005.

In the meantime, he continued to refine his game with life and practice partner Patsy Bruggere, with whom he’s traveled the world over 34 years. “She’s an exceptional player and an even better person,” he says, giving her due credit for the role she’s played in helping him to stay sharp.

Popplewell recently returned from a rare solo trip to Antarctica, the last of the seven continents he had yet to visit. “I’ve been to 40 countries around the world,” he rattles off.

Statistics get Pop pumped. He’s caught 1,200 salmon and steelhead out of rivers in his life, and more than 20,000 fish total. He’s an avid fly fisherman, too, because of course he is.

“Being the sports junkie I am, I love everything MAC has to offer. It’s just a home away from home. It offers everything a true sportsman could love. MAC is like going into an ice cream shop with 31 flavors, except MAC has probably 100 flavors, and they’re all good!”

When Pop finally found his way into the promised land halfway through “the aughts,” he decided to make up for lost time.

Still Rallying

Over his tennis career, Popplewell has won 328 championship titles in singles, doubles or team events, and has been ranked No. 1 for his age group in doubles 25 times since 2000. But even just since the time he joined MAC, he’s won 11 gold, silver or bronze balls at Category I USTA National Championship events, and more than 30 Category II USTA National Championships. He was ranked No. 1 in USA Men’s 75 Doubles at the end of 2017.

He’s proud of these accomplishments, but never takes himself as seriously as the game. Ask Tennis Committee Chair Andrew Randles, Head Coach Paul Reber, or admirer Jim Lekas, and they’ll all tell you stories of both Pop’s bold competitive spirit and humble commitment to etiquette and sportsmanship. He’s never too busy to clean the green fuzz off the courts after a session with the ball machine, and he often takes time out to offer coaching to younger players still developing their games.

“I’ve always respected the game of tennis from A to Z,” Pop responds when presented with these details. That means a lifelong pursuit of self-improvement, and preferring defeat at the hands of a worthy competitor over lopsided triumph.

“You don’t have to look very far to find somebody that can whip you,” he points out. “I like to be tested. I’m always looking ahead to the next match. My main thing is just staying healthy and continuing to improve. I’m actually really looking forward to playing in the 85s division.”

“I still have, for my age, quickness, anticipation, and a long history of playing lots of matches and just staying in shape,” he says. “I’m thinking like a 30 year old and I should maybe think like a 78 year old. But I don’t believe I’m really that old, you know?”