Pat Schramm, 75, figured she was too old to learn how to play tennis.
She figured wrong, says Dr. Joan Finn, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven."People are told, `You shouldn't do that, you're too old.' It's a myth," says Finn. Gradual progressive activity has been proven to improve physical and mental health - and tennis is an excellent way to keep active.
The U.S. Tennis Association is courting thousands of the over-50 set in its nationwide Play Tennis America program. In fact, the number of seniors playing tennis has doubled since 1988 to 1.1 million men and 713,000 women.
Seniors like Schramm who have never lifted a racket are learning the fundamentals in a hurry.
Recently, Schramm, who lives right around the corner from a tennis court in Winter Park, was persuaded by friends to take up the game. She was surprised to discover that she could learn the basics quickly under the guidance of Nancy Reed, a muscular, tanned, veteran teacher for Play Tennis America who never saw a neophyte she couldn't help.
The core of the Winter Park program is a six-hour weekend program with follow-up sessions the following week and eventual competition in a league of players with similar experience (or inexperience). Elsewhere, the course is spread out over several weeks.
Reed is full of praise for Schramm and her other students - and promises almost instant improvement.
"By the end of the day, you'll be playing a game and know how to score," says Reed.
In minutes, she is hauling a basket of tennis balls onto the all-weather playing surface and bounc-ing them at the students, who try out their newly discovered forehands, to be followed by shaky backhands and then the toughest part of all, serving.
Just as she predicted, Reed has the students playing each other by lunchtime even if their wobbly serves don't always make it over the net.
"I'm not as bad as I thought I was," says Schramm. In fact, a few weeks after her lessons she won her first trophy. Now, she trots over to the park regularly to hit balls against the wall if she cannot find a partner.
She is becoming positively ecstatic about her playing after just a few weeks of practice. The wobbly serve has changed into an accurate weapon in her arsenal even if she cannot hit it 100 mph - yet.
"I don't want to brag," she says, "but I've got a very good serve. It nearly always is in. I must admit my backhand is terrible. I need to practice with someone better than I am."
The USTA contends that senior tennis players are peppier than nonactive seniors.
Finn was given a USTA grant to survey 200 active and sedentary persons 55 and older. Tennis USTA magazine says the research found that "tennis players showed higher self-esteem and lower tension, anger, confusion, depression and fatigue."
The USTA says an important consideration before starting to play, though, is to schedule a checkup with the doctor explaining your plans to get active physically.
And don't worry if you don't swing like a world-class star such as Pete Sampras or Steffi Graf.
Bob Fisher, 63, a retired National Security Agency staffer, agreed to play tennis after his wife, Helen, insisted. She had taken the course a few months ago and needed a regular tennis partner.
An amiable man who is not a natural athlete, he started out rather anemically the first day, regularly missing balls and having a tremendous problem serving. The art of tossing up the ball and swinging his racket to hit an overhand shot over the net seemed to elude Fisher.
But by the end of the second day, after just six hours of lessons and friendly tips from Reed, Fisher had improved markedly.
For information on how to sign up for a Play Tennis America program in your area, phone 914-696-7000.