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Ageless Wonders

ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

Gripping an imaginary cane, the tanned tennis player hunched over at courtside and tottered slowly forward -- a convincing impersonation of an old man.

Then 90-year-old Emil Johnson chuckled, straightened and resumed a relaxed athletic pose, thrusting his hands in the pockets of a black USA Team warmup suit.

“I’m not old yet,” he declared matter-of-factly.

Soon afterward he did his best to prove it, routing in straight sets a German “whippersnapper” a few years his junior in the first international tennis tournament for men 85 and over.

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Forget the World Cup. For sheer inspiration, it may have been held to a draw over the weekend by the obscure Billy Talbert Cup in this pristine Austrian lake resort.

Old enough to be Titanic survivors, possessing a combined medical history longer than the Wimbledon starters’ list, these competitors showed they also are young enough to hit overhead smashes in your face. With polite apologies, of course.

And who couldn’t like a team featuring an 87-year-old named Bubba who water-skis in his spare time and can still jump the net?

Thirteen accomplished U.S. senior men players were drawn to Austria for this unusual event for “really old people,” as one player quipped, their expenses partly defrayed by Las Vegas billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. They played alongside competitors in the first-ever international team event for women 75-and-over.

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Playing singles and doubles for two days ago last week against a team of contemporaries from Europe, the U.S. men won 17-3 and the women lost 10-5.

This was more a celebration for the ageless -- an exclamation point to the trend of people living longer, staying healthy longer, serving aces longer.

“It’s fabulous,” said Mark Winters, 49, a California-based tennis writer and former touring pro who came to Portschach to watch the elders-only competition.

“Most people at 85 are worried about walking, not hitting a backhand,” he said. “But with these guys, it’s tennis, tennis, tennis. They sit down to eat and they’re still talking about their rackets and, ‘Did you see that score?”’

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They’ve had hip, knee and artery replacements, angioplasties, coronary bypasses, broken bones and bowel problems. Their teeth are newer than their equipment in some cases, and many are hard of hearing -- “Did you say that was out?”

But a few minutes of watching them in action is enough to dispel any notion that the octogenarians’ competitive instincts might have disappeared with the wooden racket.

“It’s a drive like sex or hunger -- you don’t lose it,” said 86-year-old Bill Wendt, a retired Chicago sporting goods dealer.

Take Herman “Bubba” Ratcliffe. A former Georgia paper mill manager with 19 national age-group titles to his credit, he wears a hearing aid and weighs 135 pounds. But you don’t mess with Bubba.

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Angered by his Romanian opponent’s call in this umpire-less competition, he raced across the clay court and wagged a finger in his face: “I get another serve!” He won his way, if not the match.

“Oh yeah, I don’t just want to win, I want to tear somebody up if I can,” he deadpanned afterward. “I don’t mean I’d hurt ‘em, of course.”

Another match, involving U.S. team captain Bill Lurie and a German opponent, also erupted in finger-pointing and bilingual bickering. But no racket-throwing here -- these seniors wisely took a 15-minute break to cool off.

“I’m just happy that at 85 I’m healthy and can play competitive tennis,” said Lurie of San Pedro, Calif.

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Few young players have a passion for tennis to match that of old-timers like 86-year-old Andre Tiberius De Grad of Romania, Ilie Nastase’s former coach.

After winning his singles match, he proudly showed a visitor a picture of him with all-time tennis great Bill Tilden, and a gray, misshapen ball that Tilden autographed after playing him in 1931.

“I had to travel 24 hours to get here, but it was worth it,” said De Grad, a 12-time European champion.

Like the reinvigorated oldsters who tapped an otherworldly source in the 1985 movie “Cocoon,” these energetic seniors seem to have discovered a fountain of youth. Their more mundane energy source: age-group tennis.

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Rankings and tournaments for 55-and-overs began in the 1970s. Categories for 85-year-old men and 75-year-old women began in the 1990s, with a series of national competitions.

Now there’s a push to sanction a 90-and-over category, and who’s to say there won’t be rankings for centenarians someday?

“We are pioneers,” said 81-year-old Pat Henry Yeomans of Los Angeles, the women’s team captain. “When we first started to have tournaments, we’d have to beg tennis centers to let us play and get Gatorade and ballboys for us.”

Johnson, the U.S. team’s senior senior, was city champion of Lexington, Ky., in 1934. But he has really hit his stride in retirement, winning 200-300 age-group trophies and still racking them up at 90.

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“All that tennis keeps us alive, keeps us going,” said the retired Army major, who now lives in Orlando, Fla. “You don’t age as fast.”

He still remembers the young doctor who once told him he shouldn’t be playing tennis competitively, because, “They don’t race broken-down horses.”

That was nearly a half-century ago.

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he’s dead now,” Johnson said, unable to suppress a smile.

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