"Don't quit playing tennis or you will get old."

That's the unofficial motto for a group of dedicated players who've made the courts at Northam Park their home during summers for the past two decades.

Judging by their fitness and enthusiasm, there might be something to the adage.

Made up of about 20 players who range in age from 44 to 90, the group goes year-round, moving indoors to the Players' Club in Hilliard after Labor Day.

During the summer months, it's three days a week at Northam. They play from 7:30 to 9 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Sixteen of the regulars held court Aug. 25 – and intermittently held serve – on several of the Har-Tru clay courts they've been playing together since the 1990s.

"You don't quit playing because you grow old," said Bob Gardner, who at 90 is the elder statesman of the group. "You grow old because you quit playing. You've got to stay active.

"With this group, it's the camaraderie. These are just wonderful people. You play – and you win – and then you go over for a bit and talk and you find out about so many interesting people."

Gardner, who's been playing tennis since he was 28, had a few tales of note himself as the "faithful tennis warriors" ended their morning of play with customary doughnuts and coffee.

During his working years, he often traveled to the South and the West Coast, and on occasion, squared off on courts with playing partners Charlton "Chuck" Heston and Clint Eastwood.

"(Eastwood's) just like he is in the movies," Gardner said. "Everything is to the point, and when you're done, you're done."

While Gardner is the senior member of a group that's mostly seniors, Eva Gao is the "baby" of the bunch at 44.

She said she was recruited by Lou Amadio after a brief scouting period.

"One day about three years ago, I was hitting a ball against a wall at Tremont (Elementary School) and Lou adopted me," she said. "I've stayed with them ever since.

"They're fun people. They look friendly, but they're very competitive. Because I'm a girl, they won't let me win."

The group originally formed around 1990, said 89-year-old Robert "Smitty" Smith.

That's when Smith met Paul Thompson, and about 20 men known as "the Paul Thompson group" began meeting at Northam to play three days a week from 7 to 9 a.m.

"I've always been competitive," Smith said. "I like competitive sports and I like to stay in shape."

Smith has continued to play following two heart surgeries and three knee operations.

Numerous other members noted they've battled various life- and tennis-related ailments, including heart conditions, knee and ankle injuries.

But they continue to play, mixing friendly competition among volleys that are longer than the power-serve-and-smash play popular among younger contestants.

"I've been with them almost from the beginning," said Joe Caruso, 74. "I've never been a 'member,' but always a sub.

"(Originally), I was trying to improve my game, and somebody said, 'Play with those old folks because they force you to make 100 shots.'

"It's back-and-forth, back-and-forth and it forces you to develop a shot," Caruso continued. "Plus, they're sly and crafty. They hit the ball where you're not."

Bob Wilson, 79, has taken on the role of group manager.

Every week, he checks to see who can make it and what substitutes might be needed, among other essential, logistical duties.

"I've been operating it the last 15 years," Wilson said. "I set the lineup of matches when we start and then how it rotates.

"I also assign someone to bring snacks."

Despite group members' increasing ages – or maybe because of that – the players each said they have no intention of quitting any time soon.

To a member, they spoke to the physical-fitness virtues of tennis, how it helps get them out of their houses several hours a week and how its social aspects have developed it into a support group of sorts.

They also hailed the Northam Park facility, which they said has contributed to the enjoyment of their weekly matches.

"I don't know where we'd go as a group if Northam Park didn't provide tennis," Amadio, 68, said. "It would be hard finding a place we could all go to and have a guaranteed spot.

"This means a lot to these guys. It's just a ball. We have a good time."

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate