North Carolina is a long way from the North Pole, but for 97-year-old Nels Glesne—the junior member of one of tennis' eldest teams—the game is a gift celebrated with holiday spirit.
"Playing tennis, I've won some and I've lost some—that's just the way it goes," Glesne says. "But being on a tennis court, it's Christmas for me. I just love it."
Glesne and his longtime friend Dave Carey, a former 90s USTA national champion who is 99 years old, took on 93-year-olds W.T. Mathes and James Chavasse in the men’s 90 doubles finals of the 82nd City of Asheville Open Tennis Championships in Asheville, N.C. on Monday. The younger guys scored a 6-1, 6-1, victory in a match featuring a combined age of 382 years—and some ceaseless smiles—on court.
If the thought of blowing out 90-plus candles on a birthday cake gives you shortness of breath, consider this: Carey suffered a mild stroke last year and is four months shy of his 100th birthday, and Glesne, who had a heart valve installed last December, underwent a procedure to remove a build up of fluids earlier this month. "They've been taking out about 30 cc's of fluid every week," he says. "But I don't think they've licked the problem."
Problem-solving is a primary skill of a man who didn't start seriously playing USTA tournaments until the ripe age of 90, when he began racing up the rankings ladder. Glesne was ranked No. 2 for his age group in the USTA Southern Region and was ranked in the Top 10 nationally for several years, culminating in his career-high rank of No. 6 four years ago.
"When I got to be 90 I was getting around the court a little bit better than most 90-year-olds and the guys at the club urged me to give [tournaments] a try, so I did," says Glesne, whose mother died at 52 and whose father lived to age 86. "Maybe I didn't have the skills I should have for a really good tennis player, but I love to play, and where there's a will there's a way."
Born on April 14, 1916 as the seventh of eight children in an athletic Norwegian-American family, Glesne grew up looking up to his older brothers who were football standouts at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. While each brawny brother stood over six feet tall, he was the runt of the litter at 5'9", 160 pounds.
"The brother before me was an all-state tackle for three years, and then when I came along the football coach was out there saying hi to the freshmen and asked me my name," Glesne recalls. "When I told him, he looked at me and started laughing. I asked, 'What's wrong?' He said, 'I think you're a prevaricator.'"
Glesne majored in chemistry and forestry in college. His special interest was protection of wood from termites, fitting for a man who played with wood racquets for most of his 67-year career (before reluctantly switching to a graphite Prince Thunderstick that was a gift from his son) and insisted that his son, Tom, play college baseball with a wooden bat, "much to the chagrin of my baseball coach," Tom Glesne recalls.
After college, Glesne served in World War II in the Army Air Corps as a navigator, flying B-29 missions over Japan from Guam in a plane bearing the Chicago Cubs logo. He took up tennis during his days in the service, and when he moved to western North Carolina in 1974, he began to buy land, which he later bartered for a long-term membership in a local tennis club with several Har-Tru courts, forming some memorable partnerships along the way.
"The friendships I've made in tennis are lasting friendships," Glesne says. "As far as stinkers, why you live long enough you'll run into a few, but most tennis players I've ever met are really good people and that's what I like most about it."
Glesne's most beloved partner, his wife of 69-and-a-half years, Marjorie, passed away last Easter at the age of 91 after a long battle with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, an insidious degenerative disease that causes the gradual deterioration of the brain.
"She was a dandy. I was lucky to meet her," Glesne says. "She didn't play tennis, but she was a hiker and boy, she could out-hike me any day. PSP is sort of between Lou Gehrig's disease and Parkinson's disease; it's an awful thing. Oh my, it was a rough one."
Glesne is a soft-spoken, quick-witted, fiercely independent soul who recently renewed his driver's license, tries to play tennis as much as he can, spends his spare time hiking on a trail he built at his retirement community, and watching tennis on television. "I've really enjoyed watching Nadal and Federer; Djokovic is a little too cocky for me, but I must admit: I admire his ability," he says.
"His license is good through 2018, and he told me, 'I reckon when you get to my old age you probably only need a year at a time, but I wasn't about to argue with them,'" Tom Glesne, a former racquetball pro, recalls with a chuckle. "We played a father-son tournament four years ago and we just got spanked by a much younger team but dad was so active around the court he was the talk of the tournament. I'm like, 'Dad, how can you be twice my age and be in better shape? What's your secret?' He just looked at me and said, 'I reckon it has something to do with marrying a good woman and eating a salad every day—the former had a lot to do with the latter.'"
As Glesne is proving, tennis is truly a sport for a lifetime, and he says the game gives him an eternal endowment.
"I never had a tennis lesson until I decided to go into the 90s tournaments," Glesne says. "I had the pro at the club give me some lessons and believe it or not he ruined a couple of shots that I had. I had a cut ball that I hit on the forehand and backhand that worked well. I was able to put a lot of spin on that ball and drop it over the net. And doggone it, taking those lessons somehow I lost that skill. I told the pro and he got angry with me and refused to give me anymore lessons. So that was that.
"In tennis and in life things don't always go the way you want them to, but you learn to accept it and get on with it. You just keep going."