Golden age of tennis: 85-year-old player keeps going against younger players

Lee Durst knows exactly what's going to happen when he plays in the United States Tennis Association's Alamo Open in San Antonio this weekend.

"I'm going to get beat," Durst said. "You can't outlast those young guys like that."

Just about everyone Durst plays tennis against is younger, including this week's first-round opponent, who Durst figures is a serious player since he's traveling from Waco to play in the tournament. It's hard to avoid when you're 85. But Durst doesn't always get beat and when he has the opportunity to play against someone his age, he usually wins.

Durst's game, like his memory, is right on target as he proved by returning from last week's 2007 National Senior Games in Louisville, Ky., with a gold medal in the men's 85 singles and a silver medal in the men's 85 doubles. Durst might have won two gold medals if doubles partner, Harry Kleinsmith, wasn't slowed by the affects of a not-too-distant stroke, which forced Durst to cover much of the court before his "ankles gave out."

Durst had driven to Dallas to pick up Kleinsmith and the doubles partners traveled to Louisville to participate in the senior games. Durst used to fly to tournaments in his own airplane until giving it up about a year ago.

Durst qualified for the senior games in the men's 80 division but got bumped up an age division after turning 85 in February. Even competing in an older age division, Durst's run to the singles title was no cakewalk. He had to win three matches in three days against opponents from Florida, California and one from right up U.S. Highway 59.

Durst disposed of his first-round opponent, 6-0, 6-0, before advancing to the final with a 6-2, 6-3 win. Durst met Charles Beckham of Houston in the championship match and rallied for a 2-6, 7-5, 10-8 victory.

Winning the senior games was especially pleasing for Durst and not only because he had undergone knee replacement surgery on his left knee in February or had rallied from deficits of 4-1 and 8-7 in the third-set tiebreaker in the final. Durst was most happy about avenging an earlier defeat to Beckham four years previous at a qualifying tournament in Lubbock.

Durst hadn't forgotten about losing to Beckham just as he remembers most of what's happened since he graduated from high school in Laredo, attended Texas A&M, served in the Armed Forces and worked in the oil business in Alice and Victoria before retiring in 1995.

Durst boxed in the Golden Gloves and taught himself how to play tennis after figuring out that at 115 pounds he was too small for high school football. Durst made the high school tennis team as the No. 1 player as a junior and didn't win a match. He beat five players as a senior who had beaten him as a junior and won the district championship in 1940 before losing in the regional round to Felix Kelly - that's right, Durst remembers his name - who would go on to the state final.

Durst made the tennis squad at Texas A&M as a walk-on and became the No. 5 player at a time, he disappointingly notes, when only the top four players earned a letter.

Durst drifted away from tennis and took up golf, becoming a 3-handicap, when he began working in the oil business and found golf a useful entertainment tool. Durst played tennis only one time - after running into a friend from Victoria while he was on vacation in Hawaii - during what he calls his "33-year gap" from 1949 to 1982.

Durst has more than made up for lost time since advancing to the semifinals of a USTA tournament in Corpus Christi in 1964 that "got me hooked again." He plays tennis four to six times a week and competes in from 10 to 15 tournaments and about a half-dozen social tournaments a year.

Durst has participated in the senior games in San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Tucson, Ariz., and Virginia Beach, Va., and won a gold medal in the men's 75 doubles in 1999. Tennis has become so much a part of Durst's life that he can't see living without it and in fact, he probably couldn't.

"I recently became diabetic so it's almost a necessity of life," Durst said. "It keeps your calories burnt up and your blood sugar down."

Durst is currently ranked No. 10 among 80-year-old players by the USTA and admits to making some allowances for his age.

"You do change your game," Durst said. "You use a lot more drop shots and it's more placement and not as much power."

Durst credits his staying power to the years he spent working in the oilfield and his goal for the coming season is to make it to the top five among 80-year-old players. Durst figures he has five more years to work on his next ranking.

Mike Forman is a sports writer for the Victoria Advocate. Contact him at 361-580-6588 or mforman@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.