Gardnar Mulloy, 92, on the tennis court at Fisher Island in Florida. He'll be defending two titles for men over 90 next weekend at Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, Mass.
August 21, 2005
The Lion in Summer
By NEIL AMDUR
THE five pleasures of life, Gardnar Mulloy says, are eating, exercise, sleeping, bathing and sex.
Mr. Mulloy has had ample time and experience to compile his list. He will be 92 in November; was married to a campus beauty queen for 55 years; thrives on a diet of milk, vegetables and fruit; easily navigates the crowded causeways of Dade County; and still plays tournament tennis - doubles and singles.
If he successfully defends his national titles in the over-90 championships at the Longwood Cricket Club outside Boston starting Saturday, no one will be surprised. He has won 129 national titles, a Wimbledon doubles crown at 43, and is enshrined in nine halls of fame.
"He's 91, I'm 84," said Pancho Segura, the venerable teaching professional, whom Mr. Mulloy recruited to the University of Miami's tennis team from Ecuador more than six decades ago. "When I grow up, I want to be like him. "
At a time when 24 percent of "frequent" tennis players are over 50, Mr. Mulloy has become what Bob Sherman, 85, a sometime competitor, calls "the godfather" of senior tennis. More than 77,000 players over 60 are registered with the United States Tennis Association and, amazingly, 3,548 are in the over-80 category. Longwood is expecting about a dozen players over 90 to duel on its grass courts next weekend.
"We talk of tennis as a lifetime sport," said Tony Trabert, the president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. "And he's living proof."
Mr. Mulloy lives in a modest Southern-style three-bedroom house in the historic Spring Garden neighborhood with five dogs and four cats he rescued over the years. He keeps his shipload of sterling silver cups and trophies in his unair-conditioned living room in floor-to-ceiling wooden cabinets designed by his wife, Madeleine Cheney Mulloy, who died 12 years ago.
The shock of hair that inspired the comedian Alan King to nickname him Silver Fox is now pure white; the 6-foot-1 frame is still trim and tanned. His eyes close as he reflects on years as a lawyer, the lieutenant commander of a Navy landing ship during World War II, and his exploits as a tennis champion.
"I'm sort of a renegade," he said. "I used to fight with the U.S.T.A. because I thought their thinking was archaic. And I always do what I think is right."
Admittedly impatient and sarcastic at times, he is given to raising his voice to make a point so sharply that a Danish musician he'd befriended on a plane returning from Wimbledon fled the house in search of a taxi. Mr. Mulloy was once suspended for six weeks in a dispute over expenses at a time when amateurs tried to survive on under-the-table payments.
He still defends himself vigorously on court against questionable calls, still argues with the tennis association over its decisions on rankings and rule changes. "I don't know why I'm always in hot water with those guys," he said.
But friends, family and former shipmates describe a kind and generous man. He was a founder of a local PetRescue chapter long before animal rights became fashionable, and his ability "to live his life the way he wanted to live it," said his daughter Diane Mulloy Mazzone, "has few equals."
Mr. Mulloy's family, which includes another daughter, Janice Poindexter, has often heard his pleasures-of-life pitch. "What are you worried about?" and "We won't buy it unless we need it" and "Isn't that too bad?" are stock comments, repeated over and over again. He has also kept a book of sayings, his and those of others, since 1968. He eats only two meals a day (breakfast and dinner), dislikes yoga ("I don't understand it") but is emphatic about the benefits of massage ("next to sex, that's the best feeling").
Mr. Mulloy credits his mother, Clara, an artist, dietitian and direct descendant of Israel Putnam (one of George Washington's major generals during the Revolutionary War), for his vegetarian ways. "She attended every food lecture that came to town and dragged me to most of them," he said, recalling her homemade breads and seaweed salads. He does not smoke or drink, shuns sugar and carbonated water and occasionally takes a day off from eating to cleanse his digestive system.
While many of his contemporaries have been sidelined with hip and knee replacements, back pain and failing eyesight, his primary concessions are to avoid hard courts ("I play only when I have to"); to eat meat only at banquet dinners ("because I've got to eat something"); and to let younger partners cover lobs ("I don't have the balance I used to have").
And he doesn't sweat. Not even after a lively hourlong midday workout with me on the clay courts at Fisher Island, where he served as director of tennis for seven years and is now director emeritus. He sees younger players sweating and swigging water on changeovers and says, "They drink too much, and they're always changing shirts." He is mystified by the relentless grunting on the court and the endless talking among doubles partners between every point.
"What are they talking about all the time?" he asked. "All I know is if my partner ever talked to me as much as they do now, I'd tell him to shut up."
Among today's players, he likes Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion who is ranked No. 1 in the world. "He's not only a great player, but he doesn't overact after he wins," said Mr. Mulloy, who believes many players today are excessively demonstrative on the court.
"After winning a point, these guys will go onto a bunch of emotions, which is an insult to an opponent," he said. "I can't stand the pumping and yelling and look-who-I-am approach. Every picture of a tennis player now has them pumping their arms, with their mouths wide open."
If he had to pick one player in the sport's history to win one big match, he said it would be Bobby Riggs, a surprise given a field that includes Rod Laver, Bill Tilden and John McEnroe. Riggs, the 1939 Wimbledon champion, is best remembered for his defeat at the hands of Billie Jean King in the "battle of the sexes" match in Houston in 1973.
"Riggs was wily," he said. "He could adjust to anything. Play any style. He didn't have the power of bigger players, but he had enough to penetrate your defenses."
Mr. Sherman, who has known Mr. Mulloy for 40 years, attributes his longevity on the court to the way he plays. "He's a one-pace guy," Mr. Sherman said, "which is good enough." ( I can confirm this after our interesting rallies.) "He floats around and paces himself," Mr. Sherman continued, "and that particular pace has kept him from getting injured."
Good genes help, too. Mr. Mulloy's mother died at 96. He has two sisters, now 90 and 81.
Older players don't have to change their games for success, Mr. Mulloy said. He uses the drop shot and lob more - I paid the price for that - and compensates for power loss by hitting higher over the net for depth. If he is slower now, so are his tournament opponents.
Not that certain rituals haven't helped along the way: Mr. Mulloy never steps on a line between points, holds three balls when he serves and switches the face of his racquet after losing a point.
"People come to me and say, 'What fun do you have?' " he said. "I say, I have a lot of fun. I don't have any hangovers. My fun is clean living and enjoying the sunset and sunrise."