Monday, August 31, 2009

All Must Have Prizes

Posted By on Mon, Aug 31, 2009 at 9:30 AM

When little kids play sports they get "participation awards" to soothe their tender egos (and their parents). Not to be outdone, parents who compete get "skill level" and "age level" awards to, well, soothe their tender egos.

In racquet sports, running, swimming, and Senior Olympics, we have seniors, super seniors, masters, grand masters, golden, silver, over 40, over 50, over 60, over 75 — more divisions than Ford Motor Company has cars. Such is the nature of lifetime sports. In Atlanta this weekend, I found that I could probably play varsity college squash, albeit for the women's team. And I can still beat most men, providing they are over 60 years old. The bad news is that I am cannon fodder for younger players.

The engraved glass water pitcher I brought home says "Finalist." But it could just as well say "Loser" or "Mediocre" or simply "Old Guy." I threaded the demographic needle, slipped through the narrow window of opportunity, and avoided two Atlanta club pros who are 58 years old and former national age-group champions, and a 70-year-old Atlantan who is also a former national champ. Yet another Atlanta player is a year older than I am but no longer competes due to injuries, and the player who beat me three games to none is the same age I am so I will have to deal with him for years to come.

We geezers gobble Advil like M&Ms, walk funny, and run on knee braces and borrowed time. We're the demographic outliers. Our ranks are so thin that we have to come to big-city squash meccas like Atlanta to muster a decent draw sheet. Often as not, the upper age-division tournament becomes a round robin, where everyone plays everyone else, as we did this week. Which is not a bad thing since a weekend in Atlanta costs at least $400 including airfare, hotel, and entry fee. Nobody wants to be one and done.

But moving from Memphis to a bigger pond is a necessary prelude to competing in the nationals. You get stale and overconfident playing the same people on the same courts. Atlanta, with more tennis and squash courts than any place in the South, is a decent test. I won three matches and lost one in my age division. I was fit enough and skilled enough but not tournament tough enough to win it.

It was some consolation that I split some practice games with a young woman who played for Princeton's championship team last year and is taking a year off to work on her game. But it was depressing to lose to younger players and to see the steadiness and polished skill of older players like host pro Tom Rumpler, who is 58 and lurking on the time horizon like a giant shark.

My friend and travelling partner Albert Johnson had an excellent tournament. He won two tough matches in the highest skill-level division and took first place in the second-highest division. He beat Rumpler and a 13-year-old Atlanta prodigy who is being groomed for the professional circuit. He was probably the third or fourth best player in the tournament overall, and is by far the best player in Tennessee and Memphis unless one of those mythical Pakistani doctors and former pros supposedly working at St. Jude hospital ever shows up at Rhodes College for a game.

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