Maine’s USTA League brings players together for competition and fitness.
The tennis court at the Racket and Fitness Center in Portland is quiet. The players—two on each side of the net— settle their breathing, their weight shifting lightly from foot to foot, their eyes focused ahead toward the opponents. The ball is served, and the quiet is broken by the squeak of rubber-soled sneakers on the court’s surface and the rhythmic pop of the hollow, felt-covered tennis ball as it makes contact with a powerfully swung racket.
The players sprint and lunge for the ball, letting out subtle grunts or a louder “Waah!” with each swing as the rally continues, the ball sailing back and forth over the net. The players’ movements are quick and constant, swift steps that anticipate the ball’s return, back and forth, until the ball sails out of bounds. “Nice point,” a player calls to her opponent.
These players are competing as part of southern Maine’s United States Tennis Association League, which brings teams from area clubs together for local play. Participants range in age from 18 to mid-70s. For some, tennis is a decades-long love affair that began when they were teenagers—men and women who competed in high school and college, perhaps laying down their rackets when they started families and launched careers, before picking them up again years later. Others started “late,” in their 20s, 30s, or 40s. Their abilities run the gamut, too.
What brings all of these players together is an appreciation for the game—and for competition. “We can be pretty competitive,” says tennis player and team captain Gwen Lambert, who lives in Limerick. “We can be feisty with each other.” It’s the competition that has kept her coming back to tennis since she was 15 years old. Lambert, now in her 60s, was first introduced to tennis by her mother. There were no high school tennis teams for girls then, so Lambert played on her own. “I’d go out with people I knew or with my mother to hit balls. I took a lesson or two and would find a friend who wanted to play. I started to play at local clubs and tournaments. That’s how it grew,”
she says. When she returned to college in her late 20s, she competed on her school team. “It was pretty amusing. They all thought I was so old,” she says. Her response when an 18-year- old opponent made comments about her age? “I thought, to heck with you, I’m going to beat you now.” And she did.
She stopped playing when she started having kids, but when her youngest was about two years old, tennis called to her again. “I said to my husband, ‘I’d like to get back into tennis.’ He said, ‘As long as it doesn’t become an obsession again.’ I said, ‘Oh no, it won’t!’ And here I am and it’s an obsession,” she jokes.
“I really like the competition,” says Lambert. “I think that’s the biggest aspect for me. I also like moving around. Tennis is an unbelievably fun form of exercise. I forget the fact that I’m exercising. I’m focusing on hitting the ball to that corner, or hitting the ball hard, or hitting the ball soft,” she says.
There are various ways players can get started in tennis. Most clubs offer lessons and skills clinics geared toward beginners. The USTA program, which includes leagues for players 18 and over, 40 and over, and 55 and over, allows participants to compete locally against players of similar ability, ranked from 2.5 to 5.0 (based on the USTA’s national rating program). Teams can advance to district, sectional, and national championships, competing against players from around the state, New England, and the country. But it’s the local play that has most players returning to the courts each week during the season. Many have been playing with and against one another for years. Tennis becomes a social network, where players can connect both on and off the court.
Barbee Gilman of Cape Elizabeth plays on a team out of the Woodlands Club in Falmouth. She started playing in her late 30s, after her three kids were born, as a way to get some exercise and meet new people. “There’s a big community of people there, of all levels,” she says. For her, playing tennis is less about the competition and more about improving her own game. “I want to get better, but I really don’t care about winning,” she says.
Devi Maganti, the USTA League coordinator for Maine, likes the competition, too, but says she also plays for herself. “I’m out there playing. I need to prove it to myself,” she says. Maganti got started in tennis in her mid-30s while living in Gardiner. Some neighbors invited her to play, so she purchased an $8 racket from Kmart. “I met people and got really hooked on it,” she says. Maganti went on to teach tennis in local clubs and coach Saturday Mornings at 7:30am on CBS 13 at Greely High School in Cumberland. She doesn’t play much these days due to injuries from a car accident, but she still works to promote tennis to other people, including 20 years as a volunteer coordinator, hoping that they find the same joy in it she did.
“You can play your whole life. Whatever level or age group, you can find people,” says Maganti. All you need are sneakers and a racket. And maybe a smidge of competition.