On March 18, Claude Reyes, who turns 91 in April, was the only person to show up at the courts at Magnolia Tree Park, where members of the Tustin Tennis Club play every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8 a.m. to noon.
The day before, the Orange County health officer issued an order stopping all non-essential gatherings through March to try and halt the spread of the coronavirus, before later clarifying that businesses and other entities could still operate as long as they followed social-distancing guidelines.
The president of the Tustin Tennis Club had already canceled all play until their next board meeting in early April, afraid of the club’s liability in the event a member got sick.
But on March 16, three people still showed up to play informally, including Reyes and vice president of the club Bernie Miller. Without enough players to play doubles, they only played for about half an hour.
One of Claude’s frequent doubles partners Bill Houck, 91, has been dutifully isolating himself with his wife, 93, in their home since Sunday, where he will remain until it’s deemed safe.
That said, Houck points out that in tennis, it’s not difficult for players to stay more than 6 feet away from each other. Each person only handles their own racket. They would just have to be vigilant about not touching their faces and washing their hands after touching the balls.
Miller, a former pharmacist, says a group of about 10 of the members were planning to go to Las Vegas this week to play on the Bally’s courts, but some of their children forbade them from going.
“A couple of the young guys chickened out — they’re 70,” he says.
Houck says he’s never seen anything like this in his 91 years of life. He doesn’t remember the 1968 flu pandemic causing the mass closing of stores and businesses.
Reyes and Houck are the two oldest members of the Tustin Tennis Club, and they both make the drive from Orange, after having previously played in other clubs closer to them, because of its consistency, competitiveness and membership.
Miller says they are an international group, with players from India, Vietnam, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, China, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Houck, originally from Altoona, Penn., was a professor of electronics at Fullerton College for 33 years, though he has been retired for almost the same amount of time. He saw the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors.
Reyes, from Lima, Peru, was an industrial engineer who founded his own resin company and ran a paint and wallpaper store in Orange for many years.
Before he and his wife moved to Orange County in the mid ‘70s, he manufactured tennis balls in Peru. That was during the presidency of general-turned-dictator Juan Velasco Alvarado, when the government prohibited tennis balls from being imported to Peru because they considered tennis to be an elite sport, he explains.
So Reyes decided to make his own.
Though he didn’t play tennis until his mid-30s, Reyes remembers, growing up, that all his father and two older brother would talk about at the dinner table was tennis. He thought it was boring until he got the bug himself.
“Tennis is a wonderful sport because you can play even if you are a very old person — that’s what my dad told me and it stayed in my memory,” says Reyes. “For one simple reason, you can make the effort as much as you can do.”
His father, who lived until he was 95, played until his late 80s.
“So I’m doing better than him,” says Reyes.
His mother lived until she was 104, so he says he has longevity in his genes.
“But you never know,“ he says. “At this stage of the game, anything can happen, and it can happen quickly.”
His wife died of a heart attack a few years ago at 82. The family had planned a big anniversary party for their 60 years of marriage, but she didn’t quite make it.
“It’s up to the Lord,” he says, of his fate. “But I’m ready.”
So as long as he still can, he wants to play tennis.
Both he and Houck, who used to win trophies doing competitive sailing, say they still “play to win.”
Miller says Houck has a “wicked spin serve,” while Reyes can still “run around like crazy.”
“When Claude and I play doubles together as partners, we’ve been able to hold our own with all those young kids that are 60 and 65 years old,” says Houck.
“I can run faster than many of those guys that are 20 years younger,” says Reyes.
But now that their tennis club is temporarily closed, what will they do?
Houck says it’s difficult, because he gets sleepy just sitting around, “but I’m not sure I have much choice at this point.”
He plans to work on the yard, when the weather is good, and walk up and down the stairs to keep his legs strong. He attributes his leg strength to years of skiing. He jokingly attributes his relative good health at 91 to a lifetime of eating food with preservatives.
Reyes thinks he might start biking around the neighborhood.
“Other exercise makes me bored,” says Reyes.
He even tried playing pickleball once with his daughter and son-in-law, but he told them it was too easy.
“Do you have any idea what I could do?” he asks.
For more information, go to tustintennisclub.org.