Tennis gets better with age

In 1949, after only two years on the tennis team at Stanford, Bruce Taft made a judicious decision. Devotion to his studies was paramount, and the time investment involved to continue playing tennis at the collegiate level was too great.

Taft hit the books, graduated and went on to earn his Ph.D. in Oceanography from Scripps Institution at U.C.S.D.

In 1995, after retiring from work with the University of Washington Oceanography department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab on Lake Washington, Taft made another decision.

It was time to go back to the racquet.

“I think I’m a competitive person by nature,” he said. “And my wife Karen didn’t say no.”

Ultimately, it was a battle with kidney disease in high school that turned Taft to tennis. Doctors urged him to give up basketball and swimming, as stresses on circulation in the kidneys would eventually cause problems. Taft wasn’t sure what to do.

“The doctor said ‘you might be able to play tennis,’” said Taft. “If that was all that was available, I thought, I’d give it a shot. I didn’t want to stop competing.”

But after college, tennis took a backseat to work, and Taft only played intermittently while working and living in La Jolla, Calif., and later after moving to Bainbridge Island in 1992.

Retirement finally gave the self-described dilettante time to read, garden with his wife and enjoy the theater. And to play tennis again.

He took lessons with Bainbridge Island Racquet Club pros Ross Eaton and Peter Ahrnes, who helped him work out some of the technical kinks and bad habits that infrequent casual play had reinforced over the years.

“At Stanford, tennis was still a minor sport,” said Taft. “The fencing coach took over the program, so we kind of had to teach ourselves.”

Cleaning up his strokes and re-learning technique was the first priority. Consistency followed. And practicing with opponents 20-30 years his junior, Taft would find that playing “up” against other racqueteers his age was easier than he thought.

When someone asked if he was going to compete at an upcoming tournament in Bremerton, Taft said he didn’t know.

“But out of curiosity, I played it,” he said. “And I won it.”

“So I decided that while I was having fun, I could have a little glory as well.”

And the glory just keeps coming.

Tough competition

In the 70-75 age category, Taft is now ranked fourth in the Pacific Northwest and 52nd in the nation by the United States Tennis Association.

He has won the annual Seattle City Open at Lower Woodland Park two years in a row, and taken the Vancouver Senior Masters tennis tournament three times in his age group.

The tournament in Bremerton that rekindled his desire to play competitively has seen Taft on the winner’s podium three times running.

And he will make a trip south for an upcoming USTA Regional Tournament in Mississippi, with players from across the United States competing. He also hopes to make the year-end Grand Prix tournament, which is reserved for players with the best records from the past year.

In two years, Taft will move up to the 75-80 age bracket, which he figures will bode well for him.

“It’ll be nice to come in on the low end of the age curve again.”

Even at 73, Taft still chases down cross-court ground strokes with amazing alacrity and returns balls harder than most of his opponents serve them.

“You just go out there and exploit your opponent’s inability to move,” he laughs. “And I think I’m improving relative to my group of cohorts.”

Taft now plays three to four times a week on Bainbridge, and occasionally at the Nordstrom complex at UW. He supplements his game with workouts and stretching, and enjoys hiking.

And he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, either.

“If I’m really lucky and my interest and body hold up, maybe I’ll be out there 20 years from now,” Taft said.

“Though they say when you watch one of those matches (90-95 age group),” he chuckles, “every shot is a drop shot.”

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