By J.D. Moor
At age 87, Ted Gregory is the godfather of a weekday morning tennis bunch at Blackburn Park in Brookhaven.
“I don’t play anymore. Equilibrium is a big thing. I could jerk around to hit a ball and land flat on my face,” the Dunwoody resident said.
Even though he’s hung up his racket, Gregory still presides over the 23-year-old round-robin at Blackburn. Nowadays, Gregory takes pride in policing the courts as he mixes and mingles with the mostly retired players.
Besides Gregory, a small handful of others have stayed and played for decades. The group’s been called “over the hill” or “seniors with a tennis problem,” but despite their advancing ages — and perhaps declining skills — they embody the fact that tennis is a lifelong sport.
One of the originals is Charlie Dixon, 78, of Brookhaven, who is the group’s correspondence secretary, website administrator and record keeper. An everyday player who retired at 54, Dixon has seen many others come and go through the years.
“We’ve been able to field about 25 players a day, but it’s getting harder to maintain the group’s numbers,” he said. “Now that people retire much later, most folks only stay with us about five to 10 years, so I started the website and made business cards to drum up new recruits.”
Bruce Kovac, 73, comes in from Decatur. The retired civil engineer prefers the Blackburn group to one that meets less often at DeKalb Tennis Center near Decatur. “I just joined three months ago, and I’ll gladly drive the hour roundtrip for better competition,” he said.
But the quality of tennis they play doesn’t define this group. Instead, they’re known for their esprit de corps.
Bob Cleary, 68, retired from apparel sales, has been with the group for four years. “I tease the guys a lot on the court, but there’s always immediate pushback. They’re really decent guys who care about each other,” he said.
It’s by no means an exclusive club. No membership dues — only $3 a day or $200 a year for unlimited Monday-Friday round-robin play. Players of all levels and both genders are welcome.
At 80, Pete Kammer is one of the oldest active players. The retired engineer said he doesn’t mind driving 34 miles to play. “I owe tennis a little bit. When I was 37, I was playing one day and I lost the ball in a blind spot. I went to the hospital … Tennis helped me find what was wrong with me. It saved my life,” he said.
Beth Williams checks players in each morning at the Blackburn clubhouse. “These guys come rain or shine, hot or cold. They’re like a fraternity,” she said.
The Blackburn round-robin group continues its camaraderie off the courts too. Whenever a regular player passes away, they often contribute to a cause that supports medical research. They also meet for lunch four times a year, to keep in touch with former players and other inactive members.
Charlie Dixon hopes he can keep going indefinitely. “Old age is the enemy. My body knows what to do out there, it just doesn’t always do it,” he said.
As for Gregory, he knows how important the tennis is. “These people would have no place else to go. Whenever they take the nets down for maintenance, the crime rate goes up,” he said, laughing.