"I hope to die right there on the tennis court. I've seen five other men die there and that's how I want to go. Of course, I don't hope to rush it," said Travis Smith, an 83-year-old tennis player who could not be in the Super Seniors National Clay Court Championship, neither by his second pacemaker nor by a 1,500-mile-trip.
Smith is one of 13 players competing this week in the 80-and-over class, along with 21 entrants in the 75-and-over division and 51 in the younguns class of 70 and over.
Although Super Senior tennis started only six year ago, it has attracted 1,400 competiters and approval from the United States Tennis Association, according to C. Alphonso Smith, a 69-year-old resident of the Washington, D.C., area who founded the progam. He speaks with affection and delight of his the competitors.
"All these fellows are characters. It's just a question of degree," said Smith, who won two national championships 50 years apart - the 1924 national junior singles title and a 1974 crown in his age bracket.
The game rules are those of any other USTA tournament, but there are some striking variations in the setting. There are no umpires until the final match. "Because we're all honest," Smith said.
In addition, two doctors are in attendance in case any of the players should need medical attention. In the past 18 months, five senior players have died on the court, according to Smith. The two doctors remain above the pro shop, out of sight of the players.
Dr. David Rockwell, chief orthopedic resident at the University of Virginia's department of sport medicine, was on hand should any player break a bone or need taping. He also was conducting a study of bone density and said his observations suggested the players' bones were firmer, more solid than those of most other 80-year-olds.
Smith had considered having a local rescue unit at courtside, but he said he decided its presence might upset the players.
One octogenarian told his attraction to the game.
"I was told when I retired 35 years ago I'd get fat and drunk and bored. I managed to escape all three, and I think the two best years of my life were 18 and 80," said Henry W. Doyle, 82, a former owner of a company that manufactures Orange Crush. He has three children, 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Doyle, the nation's second-ranked singles player in the 80-and-up bracket, vanquished his opponent, 6-0, 6-1, in a 1 1/2-hour semifinal Wednesday, then walked briskly off the court showing no signs of fatigue.
Travis Smith, 83, a retire tire dealer from Texas, practices tennis four hours a day, seven days a week, and jokes of his two great-grandchildren getting in the way.
For the wives who sit at courtside, it is a day of camaraderie forged by long decades of rooting for ageless champions.
Rhea Eckel Clark, a former director of New York's Office of the Aging, did her needlepoint and waited her husband, Wesley, to enter the court.
"I know too many people who died in their 50s," she said. "Oh, they are still alive, but they never leave a chair."
When her husband loses a match, she said she feels sorry, but she takes an attitude that seems to dominate the competition here: "Tomorrow's another day."