Dean Williams left Juneau for California this week with one goal in mind: To play with people his own age.
For the nationally-ranked 85-year-old tennis player, finding competition, at least in the national tournaments required to maintain a ranking, has proven to be no easy task.
"I moved into the 85-90 bracket this year, but nobody has been signing up for the tournaments," Williams said.
The first tournament in which Williams plans to compete is the Hilton Plaza Senior Tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., which starts today and runs through Jan. 15. Originally, the tournament organizers hadn't planned on having an 85-90 age bracket. Williams, who moved into the bracket this year, convinced the organizers to open the bracket, then set to writing letters to potential opponents around the country to encourage them to sign up.
So far, he has had little response. "Most guys, when they get to my age, want to focus only on doubles," Williams said. Doubles tennis is less strenuous than singles, he said.
The strain of singles tennis doesn't seem to bother Williams, however. Although he suffers from macular degeneration (an eye condition), he said that he is in very good shape.
"I play with a lot of young people in Juneau, and I do a lot of exercise even when I'm not playing tennis," he said.
Williams' strength is more than just physical, though, he said. With age, he has acquired a mental toughness that gives him an edge over younger competition.
"Older guys are mentally very strong, and 40 to 50 percent of tennis is mental," he said.
Part of his competitiveness involves taking notes after every match he plays and recording his opponent's strengths and weaknesses.
"I end up working a player's weaknesses so much that they [the weaknesses] become their strengths," he said.
Williams, who has lived in Juneau since he was 3 months old, has never had a formal tennis lesson. He began playing tennis in grade school. He played for a while after high school with some local players, but eventually put down his racquet to focus on skiing. He taught skiing in Juneau for 35 years, and took up tennis again when he retired from Pan American Airlines
He believes his lack of instruction has given his game some advantages. "I play with people and they tell me to not change a thing about my game," he said. "It's hard for them to know where I'm going to go with the ball, because there's something different about my swing."
David Ottoson, 45, who has been playing with Williams for 10 years, can attest to Williams' strengths.
"He's amazing for an 85-year-old," Ottoson said. "I used to see him playing at Cope Park and he was about 70 or so at the time but from a distance he looked like a 40 year old. He moves like someone much younger than he is."
When Ottoson took up the game, about 10 years ago, Williams provided him with guidance.
"One nice thing about Dean is that he likes to kind of take new people under his wing and play with them," Ottoson said. "He's pretty competitive, though ... not someone to be trifled with," he added.
Even if he can't find competition his own age, Williams plans to keep playing the game.
"I'm going to die someday, and I'd be happy to go on the tennis court," he said. "When it becomes time that it's no enjoyment, that's when I'll stop playing."
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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