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Can the Road to Being a Tennis Champ Begin at 53?

ManwithTennisRacket_400When I decided I to take up playing tennis in my mid-50s, I contemplated what motivated me to take on this challenge. Was it just a late-mid-life crisis, or was there something more? Read more about my journey from editor to competitive tennis player in Late to the Ball: Age. Learn. Fight. Love. Play Tennis. Win.

It was a thought—being a tennis player—that first came to me when I was months from my fifty-fourth birthday and spending what time I could (a few vacation days) wandering the outer courts at the U.S. Open in Flushing, about five miles north of Forest Hills and, New York being New York, a world away. I had been a tennis fan for much of my life but never played. Could I now? And if I started in my mid-fifties, could I get good—good for my age—by the time I was sixty?

Was this a crisis of late middle age? Was it about my oldest son being ready, as I reached my mid-fifties, to look at colleges, and his brother two years behind, and the weekend afternoons already yawning? Did it have something to do with the fact that, no matter how engaged and satisfied I was with being the editor of the New York Times Magazine—with having had the good fortune to have done with my professional life what I wanted to do and more—it was almost all behind me now, decades of editing stretching back to the 1970s and my tenure as editor-in-chief three years from being done? Or—and this was very much on my mind by my late fifties, as my editorship of the Times Magazine ended and I began to train seriously with Kirill, and magazines everywhere (especially general interest magazines) seemed to be reeling from the Great Digital Disruption and a world I had inhabited since my twenties looked to be dying off: Did I need someplace or something to belong to? Or—and this was how it was more or less seen by my wife Barbara, who is nine years younger than me; who had known me for more than twenty years when I first brought up taking tennis lessons; who was training for a marathon when we began going out and now swam Olympian laps on the days she was not sweating through Bikram yoga—was it that I was simply not willing to act my age—not willing, with the onset of “young old age” at sixty, to hover in the anteroom of the aged, to reconcile myself to looming extended monotonies, unpromising everydayness?

One of the few inspiriting aspects of entering your sixties, for me anyway, now that I have arrived there, is that you find yourself growing more comfortable with an understanding that you don’t necessarily understand your motivations, and never have—that you don’t much know yourself in that way at all.


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