JARDINE: Stouthearted play tennis in never-ending tourney

September 12, 2011 

Alex Henderson pulled back the collar of his shirt to show me where his pacemaker attaches to his shoulder.

Several mornings each week at Roosevelt Park, the 79-year-old Modesto resident and his friends meet to play tennis, still young at heart even though their hearts are, well, experienced.

"One day, there were four players, and every one of us had had a bypass (surgery)," 76-year-old Bob Gutierrez said.

Welcome to Fil Andam's never-ending tennis tournament, which began during the Johnson administration (Lyndon's, not Andrew's) and is still going, though not as strongly as it once did.

A postman who moved to Modesto in 1968, Andam began hanging out at local courts to find matches. He soon amassed a list that grew to contain the names of more than 200 players, ranging from 18 to 96 years old at its peak a few years ago.

He began scheduling matches, linking players of comparable abilities and ages. He'd make sure that if he paired a twentysomething with a seventysomething on one team, the other doubles team had a similar makeup.

They've traditionally started at 7:30 a.m. to beat the summer heat.

"I used to do wake-up calls to make sure they got there," Andam said.

The group has changed over the years, gaining new players as he connected with veteran high school tennis coaches including Bruce Edwards of Riverbank, Dick Carlson of Ceres and Jack Lackey of California State University, Stanislaus, and MJC coaches Jack and Julie Bracken. They in turn brought some of their players into the group, often pitting the power and speed of youth against the finesse games of the more veteran players.

Some left the group courtesy of Father Time, among them locally-renowned musician Deck Hogin, who died at 87 in 2009, and 96-year-old Doug Crary, who continued to play until a year before his death in 2010.

After 43 years later, Andam is still playing and so are many of his friends. But the group — with a core of 24 to 40 regulars — isn't simply about tennis. Its retiree members include a postman, a banker, a beer distributor, a human resources manager and educators.

It represents a snippet of daily life in Modesto. It's about camaraderie. It's about staying fit, and living longer, healthier lives. It's about people who enjoy other people's company and a little friendly competition to keep their bodies and minds sharp.

The matches are always friendly but spirited.

"We trash talk," said Bill Buettner, 66, "but with a small 't'."

They like to maintain a decent level of play, said Bob Stanley, who has been with the group for 34 years and, along with retired banker Lee Thompson, now handles much of the matchmaking. Stanley has battled Parkinson's disease for a decade.

"I'm better now than I was four or five years ago," he said. "Most of the players have been playing a long time. If there's a weaker player who doesn't improve, he'll quit coming. The biggest threat to the group is that we're getting older."

But no less determined. Many of them play on artificial knees. Andam had hip replacement surgery awhile back.

Henderson's pacemaker is just one of his modern medical miracles. A former high school track and tennis coach at Manteca, Henderson was a track star in his youth. He ran middle distance events for Australia in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne and set Australia's national record in the two-mile event in 1958.

Now, a man who will turn 80 in November gets around the court with amazing dexterity considering he had heart surgery, wears a back support and a knee brace, and rarely misses an opportunity to play.

And don't forget the pacemaker.

"It's why I serve underhand," Henderson said.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383.

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