Tennis can be the game of a lifetime, and W.T. Mathes is making that point with a flourish.
At 92, the retired Johnson City doctor is still spending many enjoyable hours on tennis courts around the area and the country. He just returned from a trip to the West Coast, where he and his doubles partner captured a USTA national championship in the men’s 90 division.
“I think altogether I have 23 balls between silver and bronze,” Mathes said of the USTA trophies awarded to the top finishers in each division, “but this is the first gold ball. Everybody strives for that.”
Mathes and his partner, a 94-year-old Louisiana man named Howard Kuntz, struck gold at the indoor championships in Vancouver, Wash. He also won the consolation draw in singles.
Then he went down to Laguna Woods, Calif., and played in the national hardcourt championships before heading home.
Mathes has spent most of this week recharging, watching the French Open and looking forward to his next tennis outing. There are plenty on the schedule.
“I enjoy the competition, and I know it’s been good for me health-wise,” he said. “Tennis has made me work out. In my 80s, I would do at least 30 to 40 minutes a day on a Nordic track. Now I do that three times a week and stretch, which I think is really important the older you get. It makes you more agile.”
Mathes got his first taste of tennis as a boy in Greeneville. A neighbor constructed a court out of red clay and sand, and the kids would get together and spray balls around.
There was no tennis team at the high school, and not much of one when Mathes got to Milligan College.
“If you could play tennis at all, you could play on the team,” he said. “That’s sort of the way it was.”
Med school soon put him on a career path that didn’t leave much time for tennis.
Whether they remember it or not, a good many people around Johnson City had their tonsils removed by Mathes, who was an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist. The doctor began practicing here in 1950, and he didn’t officially retire until he was 86.
“I just slowed down,” he said. “I had the four partners and I quit doing surgery. I was seeing my old patients, and it got to where I didn’t have as many to see. It was just a gradual decline.
“At that age, nobody wants to be operated on by an old man.”
In Mathes’s case, age has been just a number on the tennis ledger.
He started playing the USTA events — there are four each year on different surfaces scattered about the country — when he was in his early 80s. He and his daughter, Myra O’Dell, also compete regularly in the national father-daughter tournaments. (Younger daughter Marcia Sentell will be stepping in to make the next trip.)
Those are in addition to the weekly get-togethers with friends and family, which include matches with some of the ladies from Myra’s group.
“They’re good competition,” Mathes said with a chuckle. “I play with an older group of men on Friday mornings, and I play with a group on Thursdays. But I don’t have anybody my age to play with.”
To get this far, Mathes has had to overcome some physical setbacks — rotator cuff surgery, a torn quad, a dislocated bone in his wrist. But he keeps bouncing back and remains remarkably fit.
“My recoveries have been good,” he said, though Myra quickly added, “I kid him and say that he has his physical therapist on speed dial.”
If there were any doubts about his stamina, Mathes laid them to rest during the last USTA event in California when he won a three-set match that lasted four hours and 15 minutes.
“It was a marathon,” he said. “My opponent won the first set 7-5. The second one was a tiebreaker, and either one of us could have won it several times. I finally won it 14-12. He had me down 4-1 in the final set and I came back and won 6-4. That was something.”
Now that he’s caught his breath, there’s a big tournament in Asheville coming up, and two more USTA national stops to prepare for — the grasscourt championships outside Boston in late August, and the clay-court championships at Pinehurst, N.C., the first week of October.
The father-daughter competitions are always a source of joy, a chance to travel and play together with an ever-growing group of acquaintances, even if Team Mathes is almost always at a competitive disadvantage.
The oldest division, “ultra,” is for fathers over 80.
“We have a hard time in that because I’m giving away 10 years and she’s giving away 10 years,” said Mathes.
All in good fun, says his daughter.
“After so many years, it gets to be like family,” said Myra. “We get to know a lot of people.”
Mathes says his wife of 68 years, Alyne, easily gets into the tennis spirit.
“Her head swings left and right, left and right,” he said. “She lets us do our thing and has a lot of nice conversations with the people we’ve gotten to know.”
Mathes knows the longer he plays, the fewer contemporaries he’ll have to play with.
His longtime doubles partner has already retired with eye trouble, and another partner he had lined up “expired” three weeks before their first scheduled match.
Even in the national tournaments, sometimes there are no more than eight players in the 90s divisions. The clay-court events tend to draw the most competitors.
“It’s a little bit easier on the feet and the body,” he said.
Even at 92, Mathes continues to tweak his game.
A granddaughter recently suggested that if “he’d just stick with one thing, he’d be really good,” said Myra.
“She’s right, too,” he said. “I’ll read and watch the pros, try to change things. I’m just working on my game. I think that’s normal.”