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Nearing 100, Mathes still holds court

Joe Avento • May 17, 2020 at 10:00 AM

A year ago, W.T. Mathes said he was going to keep playing tennis as long as he could. He was 99 years old at the time.

Guess what he’ll be doing during the week of his 100th birthday? That’s right. Playing the game he has loved for decades.

Mathes, a well known retired Johnson City physician, is still active on the court. He plays as often as he can, several times a week, at an indoor court he and his friends built a few years ago and call The Barn.

His turns 100 on Tuesday.

“He’s doing very well,” says Ron Worrell, one of Mathes’ weekly playing partners. “We’re so used to him always being so happy. He’s really just an inspiration to be around in whatever aspect of life. I asked him the other day how many days a week he plays tennis and he said ‘Three.’ Wow.”

Worrell was the tennis coach at Milligan College from 2006-2010. Near the end of his tenure, he started playing with Mathes, who was around 90 at the time.

“We’ve been playing once a week for 10 years,” Worrell said. “ He’s still very crafty and very sneaky. He’s got all the basics. He’s got a good forehand.”

To put it in perspective, when Mathes was born, Model Ts were driving the roads and the movies were silent. Bill Tilden was the top tennis player as the sport entered what was considered its original golden age.

Mathes’ son-in-law, John O’Dell, credits the game’s elder statesman for getting him involved with the sport.

“We played yesterday and he still hits the ball pretty well,” O’Dell said. “He taught me how to play and I think we’re at about 50 years playing with each other. He’s been a really good tennis player. At his age, he doesn’t quite move as fast as he once did, but I’ve never known anyone that enjoyed playing tennis as much as he does. He enjoys it every time he goes out. He’s loved it all these years.

“He’s been a student of the game. Even now, he’s working on getting better.”

His tennis buddies are looking forward to more serves and volleys from their soon-to-be centenarian playing partner.

“He’s very sharp,” Worrell said. “You would never know he’s almost 100 years old. He talks about different aspects of life and he’s sharp as a tack. He just loves to play.”

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