On an otherwise quiet fall day, four women prepared to play a round of tennis at a court in West Tisbury. All of the women were older than 55; one had turned 70 this year and another was 69 years old. Again, nothing out of the ordinary as people of any age enjoying tennis on the Island is about as common as noticing that people go to the beach.
But then the women started playing, really playing, and as the balls flew through the air at top speed and with perfect placement it was clear something was different about this group of women. Nina Bramhall, Mary Breslauer, Susan Kimball and Sara Rosenthal were not just getting together for a friendly match. They were practicing for nationals, in particular the USTA league nationals to be held in Surprise, Ariz. from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1.
The foursome is part of a 10-person team that qualified for the national tournament this year (the first for a full Vineyard team), by winning the New England division of the 55 and older, 9.0, league. All the women are ranked individually between a 4.0 and 5.0 (doubles partners’ combined ranking cannot exceed 9.0). In tennis, a person ranked 6.5 or 7.0 is considered a world class player.
The other members of the team are Debbie Cooper, Norma Taylor, Judy Bramhall, Linda Leahy, Penny Franklin and Connie McHugh. Ms. Franklin and Ms. McHugh will not be making the trip to Arizona.
Although the women have played together for years, they formed this particular team in June. To win the New England sectional, they faced a Vermont team in the finals which has often made it to nationals.
“I was feeling a bit nervous,” Ms. Bramhall admitted. “This was a tall order to beat Vermont.”
The Vineyard team beat Vermont handily in a two out of three match series.
“We won the first match and they were completely devastated,” Ms. Bramhall said.
Consisting of seasonal and year-round residents, the entire team is not always on the Island, making regularly scheduled full team practices difficult. But in the last few weeks before the competition, the team has been getting together consistently in smaller groups to be at the top of their game.
Debbie Cooper lives in New Jersey in the off-season and has played on USTA teams on Island and off for several years. She has been playing with the other women for at least 10 years and has competed at nationals six or seven times as part of off-Island teams.
“It’s really nice that I’m 63 years old and I can compete at a very high level,” she said. “And it’s a 55 and over level league and we’re still out there, still enjoying it and still able to compete.”
Sue Kimball, 70, also has a lot of tournament experience. Playing with her husband, Mas Kimball, she is ranked number one in New England for mixed doubles in their combined age group of 120 years and above.
Ms. Kimball said as long as you take care of your body, you can keep playing tennis. Ms. Rosenthal, 69, agreed, adding that it is about finding people on the same level as you.
For these women that mostly means playing with and against each other when on the Island. Some team members have been playing together on various teams since the beginning of the Island’s involvement with the USTA, 15 years ago. A relative newcomer to the group, Ms. Rosenthal has only been playing with the other women for around five years.
“I happened to be there at the right time,” she said of being asked by Ms. Bramhall to join the team. She has been coming to the Vineyard since 1947, and playing tennis for 39 years.
Ms. Taylor is also a seasoned competitor, a member of the NE Tennis Hall of Fame, and former coach of the girls’ tennis team at Brown for 20 years.
As the foursome continued to hone their game and work on strategy for the national tournament their friendships were also on display. Along with encouragement and suggestions, there was also a lot of forgiveness.
“You say sorry a lot in tennis,” said Ms. Bramhall with a laugh. “I wonder if there’s any other sport where you apologize as much.”
“No,” replied Ms. Breslauer. “You don’t apologize in soccer, I don’t think you say sorry in golf.”
Apologies aside, Ms. Bramhall said they are going to play in the nationals to have a good time, and if they win it’s an added bonus. This is the second team Ms. Bramhall has taken to a big tournament this year. She was named Massachusetts high school coach of the year after leading the Vineyard high school girls’ tennis team to the state championship.
The team will leave for Arizona on Tuesday, Oct. 27, to acclimate to the weather and reduce jet lag before they play their first match on Friday, Oct. 30. There are 14 teams competing in their league. First up is the Mid Atlantic team, then the team from Hawaii, followed by Missouri Valley and then the Middle States team. The final rounds take place on Sunday, Nov. 1.
As for the team members, tennis goes beyond the competitions.
“I think you can play as long as you can walk, and then you can probably get a wheel chair,” said Ms. Rosenthal. “It’s almost life long.”