Every Saturday and Sunday there are four courts reserved at the Longboat Key Club and Resort Tennis Gardens. Armed with rackets, a group of 16 men ranging in age from early 50s to late 80s play. Some of the guys play on Wednesdays and Thursdays together, too. The younger, athletic guys play the older, more experienced players, but everyone is skilled. It’s a group that’s been playing together for about 10 years.
There are no arguments over points and lines or frustrated cursing when a match doesn’t go as planned.
But there is some yelling.
“You gotta watch out for this guy,” one tennis player warns from the middle court.
A similar comment is made a few minutes later, when the organizer of the group is getting his photo taken.
“Uh oh, Larry! Now they’re going to recognize your post office photos,” another player yells to organizer Larry Straff. The guys all chuckle when Straff fumbles a serve.
“I hope she got that one on camera!” one of the men says.
Judging by the smiles on their faces, Straff’s group is clearly a serious bunch. Seventy-one-year-old Straff walks over to the sidelines while the group is taking a water break. His dog, and the group’s mascot, Racket, perks up and runs over to him.
“You know the nice part about the group?” he asks with a completely serious face. “We’re all not allowed near school yards.”
All the men start laughing. They were right; you do have to watch out for Straff.
Straff originally started playing with Bob Ruff’s tennis group, but they didn’t play on Sundays. Bob Burns had a group of four guys who played on Sundays, and when Burns couldn’t lead the group any longer, Straff took over. Ten years later, there are four times the number of members. A handful of original players are still around, but they are 10years older now.
“The group grows and changes; guys leave, guys come back, (new) guys come in, guys get better, guys move on, guys get hurt. It’s just like everything else, life changes,” Roberta Straff, Larry’s wife, explains of the group’s evolution over time.
Even the mascot has changed over time. The Straffs’ dog, Tennis, used to be the mascot and would sit on the sidelines every day. After Tennis died, Racket, a Cockapoo, was initiated into the group.
Sometimes, they will play with complete strangers who are visiting Longboat Key and staying at the Key Club resort and want to play tennis for a morning. Straff says one of the group members who was visiting Longboat a year ago played when they needed another player. The stranger ended up moving to Longboat Key, called Straff and joined the group.
“In the summer time, I’m the official sub,” Roberta Straff says. “They are so much fun, and they are just absolute gentleman and some absolutely great tennis players.”
When Straff started playing with the group, he was one of the younger guys, and the more experienced, older players would hit with him. At least three of those guys are still playing with the group, but now they are in their 80s. And the older players now return the favor.
“We run them around a little bit,” says Mort Mandle in regard to the young guys.
Mandle is 88 years old and is the oldest member of the tennis group.
“It’s very good quality tennis,” Mandle says. “And there’s a lot of camaraderie. No one takes it too seriously.”
Mandle says Straff keeps him playing. He has a good sense of humor, which he enjoys. Sometimes after the games, the group will go out to lunch together.
“We’ve become both tennis friends and social friends,” Straff says of the group.
By the numbers
2 — Hours the tennis group plays in a day
4 — Courts reserved on Saturday and Sunday
16 — Number of players who participate Saturday and Sunday
24 — Number of players involved in weekly tennis matches
50 — Youngest age in the group
71 — Larry Straff’s age
88 — Mort Mandle’s age, the oldest member of the group