Only one thing truly motivates Suella Steel to continue playing tennis.
It’s not the seduction of international travel—the once top-ranked player in the 75 age bracket has competed in Turkey eight times. The promise of expanding her social circle and making new contacts holds little appeal as she and her fellow competitors have played against each other for 30 years.
Rather, Steel said, it’s the challenge of competing that excites her each year and drives her at every meet.
Forty-nine women are competing in the USTA National Women’s Indoor Championships this week at the Genesis Athletic Club in Overland Park. Athletes in the 65, 75 and 85 age brackets competed for a chance to win the USTA Gold Ball in both singles and doubles competition. The women hail from 18 different states, the farthest being Hawaii, each bringing with her decades worth of experience and skills.
“They’ve all had careers in something else and they play tennis so well,” Steel said. “I find out something new about them each time. We all have a story.”
Steel started at an older age compared to her fellow competitors. She first picked up the game when she was 33 and found extra time on her hands once her children left for school. Steel, 79, took to the new sport in record time and quickly advanced in the rankings. She was ranked first in singles in 2000 and is set to represent the United States with three other players in Turkey this summer.
“It’s easy playing for yourself, but if you’re playing for the U.S. you better not lose,” Steel said. “It’s a different kind of pressure.”
For some women, the chance to compete in the USTA National Championships not only means a chance to play against athletes at the same caliber but also to play in an environment that doesn’t underestimate skill level based purely on age.
“I’ve been in five different [tennis] clubs in four months,” said Dolores Beck, 79. Beck said she’s experienced instances where fellow players, tennis coaches or guests downplay her playing because of her age. In one particular case, Beck said a tennis pro called her and attempted to dissuade her from participating in a clinic that he didn’t think she could manage.
“They wouldn’t be happy because I have wrinkles on my face? I’m a ranked player,” Beck said. “Here I’m hitting against tennis pros, women who have played at Wimbledon.”
The training regiment for the women is what you would expect from top level athletes. Jane Lutz is the top ranked women’s player in the 85 age bracket. Lutz plays tennis every morning from 9:30 a.m. until noon followed by an hour of serves. Lutz then hits balls with three men and women regularly. To top it off, she walks two miles before dinner.
“I enjoy it, I love it,” Lutz said. “I have as much fun just hitting balls as I do going out and playing.”
Every year the USTA holds four national competitions that take place on grass, clay, indoor and outdoor hard court. The women finished the Clay Court tournament in March, will finish the Indoor competition in Overland Park on June 25 and are set to conquer the Grass Court tournament in Pennsylvania in July.