What’s the secret to aging gracefully in tennis? “Never play anyone younger than you,” an elder statesman at my club once told me with a smile. “You’ll never feel like you’re slowing down.”

It’s advice I’ve mostly taken to heart. Truth be told, it hasn’t been difficult to follow. As I’ve moved through my 20s, 30s and now 40s, my opponents and doubles partners haven’t had much choice but to age alongside me.

As youngsters, we bought wooden racquets, learned old-school Eastern and Continental grips and kept our forehand stances carefully closed. If we wanted to be taken seriously, we were told, we had to come to the net.

Like others from that pre-Millennial era, my game evolved. My grip traveled west, my racquets expanded in size and I retreated to the baseline like everyone else. I even started smacking that once-exotic shot, the inside-out forehand, for a few winners. I felt like I was learning new tricks and keeping up with the times.

At a certain point, though, you have to branch out. In recent years, I’ve found myself facing a younger set of opponents. They’re not in their primes, exactly; most are 30 and up. But the 10-year difference can make it feel as if we’re playing entirely different sports.

If you’re around 30, you grew up watching Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams. You might have started with a wide-body racquet and strung it with a spin-boosting polyester. You probably whip the frame across your body like a windshield-wiper and think that a closed stance is about as useful as a wooden-racquet press.


Tennis can evolve in the mind as much as it does in equipment

Tennis can evolve in the mind as much as it does in equipment

I knew the game and its gear had evolved, of course; they always do. But it’s one thing to watch Nadal rip his topspin shots on TV, and another to see shots that resemble them coming straight at you. Even worse is watching as they dive under your racquet at the net, force you to reach three feet above your head at the baseline and send you careening into the curtain at the side of the court. This is what modern-day, polyester-powered tennis feels like in person.

To my surprise, it’s not the serve that has changed the most—it’s the passing shot. No one, it seems, misses them anymore. At first, when I faced younger opponents, I approached the net the way I always had: with a nice, safe, slice backhand down the line. It was depth, not pace, that mattered, right?

Not anymore. Before I could lift my racquet into the volley position, my opponents’ running forehands were buzzing past my ear and nosediving into the corner. It didn’t take long for me to scrap my slice and, like everyone else, start pummeling my approach shots as hard as I could. I was evolving.

There are aspects of the old game I miss. And unlike my older friend from the club, my experience playing younger opponents has made it obvious that I've slowed down. But learning to play today’s game has made tennis feel like an adventure again. I’ve discovered that I can give as good as I get from the baseline, and that it isn’t too late for me to ramp up the pace and spin in my shots. With the right attitude, tennis can evolve in the mind as much as it does in equipment.