Mai Clarke thinks practicing tennis is as loathsome as jogging, something he has said he would do only at gunpoint. This is not to say that Clarke, 83, who three years ago became the first player in any age division to win all four U.S. national championships in both singles and doubles in one year, doesn't believe in routine. Every morning, for instance, after tending to his beans and potatoes, he refreshes himself with a wee martini and then reads a little medieval history.
While Clarke usually likes to leave his game in the hands of his muse, Ken Beer prefers to control his own destiny. He relishes practice. Five days a week, the 82-year-old former Pan Am pilot hits a thousand balls—500 volleys and 500 ground strokes—rocketed at him by a ball machine. "I have to practice," says Beer. "I haven't been around as long as Mai Clarke."
For the past three years, Clarke, a former prep school language teacher who lives in South Harpswell, Maine, and Beer, a short, powerful Californian who seems able to gauge his opponents' weaknesses as quickly and precisely as he might read the instrument panel of a 707, have faced each other in the finals of virtually every national tournament they have entered. Lately Beer has been overwhelming his rival. "He's just a machine," says Clarke. "The rest of us try to lead a normal life. I'm not sure he does."
The Clarke-Beer showdowns are not the only highlights of the "super" senior tennis circuit. Here "boys wearing loose skin," as Clarke describes his fellow competitors, prove that tennis is indeed the sport for a lifetime. In super-senior tennis speed and strength become secondary to strategy, finesse and pure skill. On this circuit you will not see power tennis. Instead, you get masterfully disguised trick serves, drop shots that kiss the net cord and half volleys that nick the lines. It's a joy to watch.
Until the late '60s the top age division in the United States Tennis Association was 55-and-over, meaning players 60 and older—many of them former instructors or college champions—had to compete against opponents five or even 15 years their junior if they wanted to play tournament tennis. Largely through the efforts of four men—Alphonso Smith, a former Davis Cup captain from Charlottesville, Va.; L. Roe Campbell, a retired Knoxville, Term, banker; Thomas Todd, a Seattle lawyer; and the late Eldon Roark, who had been a columnist for the Memphis Press-Scimitar—Super-Senior Tennis, Inc. was formed. The organization, which initially was only for amateurs 55 and older, later opened its ranks to the pros. The USTA sanctions super-senior events and ranks its members in each division.
Today there are dozens of regional and national tournaments for each of the super-seniors' divisions (the divisions cover every five-year increment from 55 to 80-and-over). In late summer the USTA holds four tournaments—the national indoor and hard-court championships in California in August, and the grass courts and clay courts, in Rhode Island and Virginia, respectively, in September—that comprise the annual Grand Slam, or Grandfather Slam, of super-senior tennis.
Each year, the 70s-through-80s grass-court championships are held at Agawam Hunt, a club in East Providence, R.I. that was founded in 1897, the year a couple of the circuit's players were born. There you can look out from the wainscoted clubhouse to the manicured greensward and get a feeling for lawn tennis's genteel beginnings.
But in fact there's nothing leisurely about super-senior tennis. The 2� million balls Beer has blasted back at a machine over the past 10 years are evidence of that. And if you think the inner game of tennis becomes any less turbulent with age, think again. "It's a boy's game," says Clarke, whose first and second U.S. national tournament appearances were separated by 60 years. "No matter how old you are, you're the same person you ever were. Which means if you lose, you lost just as well or as badly as you did when you were a kid."
"If I lose, don't talk to me for an hour or so," says Gardnar Mulloy, 72, who has won more U.S. national titles than any man in the history of the game, "because I turn into a monster."
Fortunately for Mulloy, a former touring pro and Davis Cup player, he rarely loses, even when he plays down a couple of divisions. Last summer he won a national tournament in the 55s, and he often plays in the 65s just to take on longtime rival Bobby Riggs. At stake are the little gold tennis balls the USTA awards to winners of national championships. Mulloy has 73, Riggs 56. But Riggs, the inveterate hustler, has bet half the people who play the game that he will overtake Mulloy.