Wearing a white sweatband and wielding a high-tech racket, Franklin P. Gould strode onto the squash court and smashed the rubber ball against the far wall.
Whenever possible, Gould executed one of his favorite shots, batting the ball into the corner where it died before his opponent, Phil Brown, could react. But Brown was quick to come back with his own repertoire of shots and ended up winning yesterday's match.
"I'm not as fast as I used to be," Gould said.
If this squash player has lost a step, he does have a reasonable excuse: Gould is 83 years old.
His opponent, Brown, is 81. The two were playing in the 42nd annual Woodruff-Nee Squash Tournament underway at the University Club in downtown Washington.
This year, for the first time, the tournament is hosting a draw for squash players who are 80 or older. Five octogenarians, including three from Washington, are competing for the national championship. The winner of the 80-plus category will be crowned at a dinner Saturday night.
Gould started playing the game in 1930, while he was a student at the University of Maryland. He used a wooden racket with catgut strings then.
"Nobody taught me," he said. "I just started playing."
As a result, he said, he picked up some bad squash playing habits that he has never been able to correct. Nevertheless, Gould has won several squash championships over the years, including the 1954 squash championship at the University Club.
"And I can tell you that he beats me," said club manager Albert Armstrong, 39. He said that Gould "knows how to hit the ball in precisely the right way," making it possible for him to control the ball while keeping his competitor off-balance and unable to respond.
Charles E. Smoot, 82, a retired lawyer who lives in Northwest Washington and who has lost many games to Gould on the squash court, offered a similar analysis. Gould "tries to get you out of position," he said.
The nature of the game makes it possible for people to continue playing squash as they age.
"I played tennis as well as squash," Smoot said. "But as I have gotten older, I found that I could play tennis and I would be tired the next day. But when I play squash, I am not tired the next day."
Brown, a retired economist who learned to play squash when he was a student at Harvard University in the 1930s, has a reputation as a squash player with excellent ball control. That skill made it possible for him to beat Gould in yesterday's opening competition.
As the two men battled it out on the squash court, they maneuvered for position, twisting and turning to swat the ball.
Neither moved as quickly as a younger player might. But both were remarkably agile and coordinated for their age; two men brandishing squash rackets while many of their peers hold onto walking canes.
Gould, a lifelong bachelor who has lived at the University Club since the early 1950s, has been playing squash about three times a week to get in shape for this tournament.
He practices on the courts in the club's basement, the same ones on which the tournament is being played.
For Gould, squash has been a way to stay in shape while pursuing more sedentary objectives. He worked as a lawyer in Baltimore before World War II and then did legal work as an enlisted man in the Navy during the war.
Gould has been recalled to active duty twice.
During the Korean War, he was sent to Mississippi to do legal work for the Navy. In 1958, during the Suez Canal crisis, he was assigned to do intelligence work aboard a Navy ship in the Middle East.
Last October, Gould notified Navy officials that he was prepared to serve again in the Persian Gulf if he is needed.
"They told me they thought I was too old," Gould said, "but they said they would put my name on the register, just in case."