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Tennis popular for fun and fitness in the Magnolia State

With increasing emphasis on staying fit for good health, tennis comes to the forefront as the sport for a lifetime. Mississippians have taken that message to heart and are taking up the sport in record numbers.

According to Ann Brady, executive director of the Mississippi Tennis Association (MTA), the state ranked number one for junior growth and number two for overall growth among the nine states of the southern section of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) last year. She says the Coast has had the largest growth. There are 12,000 state residents who are members of the MTA and the USTA.

“It was a great year and it’s still growing,” she said. “That’s partly because we have great weather and can play year round, have great facilities and pros, plus it’s a lot of fun.”

Brady believes a lot of that growth is due to league tennis that pits local players against other local players of the same ability level. The competition continues on to sectional and national challenges. “Even beginners can win a national championship because they compete only with other beginners,” she said.

The percentage of USTA membership to the population reveals that Jackson is the number three city in the whole South, behind Atlanta and Columbia, S.C. Greenville is number two behind Hilton Head, and tiny Silver Creek in Lawrence County is the number one small city in the South for density of membership to the overall population.

The fitness aspect of tennis is being touted by the MTA and others. The Tennis Welcome Center Web site says that exercise physiologists find tennis to be the best sport for a healthy life style. Playing tennis on a regular basis can help maintain or improve balance, mobility, strength and fitness as well as burning calories and lowering blood pressure.
One firm believer in that opinion is George Thatcher of Gulfport. At age 82, he plays tennis six days a week for and an hour and a half. The retired banker meets a group of 12 to 15 men at 7 a.m. every morning except Sundays for some brisk tennis.

“It’s a great game and wonderful exercise,” he says. “I credit my longevity to playing tennis. I take no medication and the Lord has blessed me.”

Thatcher, who’s the author of “Beach Walks,” says he used to play in tournaments because it was difficult to find someone to play with. He no longer enters tournaments because he has a number of regular partners. He began playing tennis in 1932 on the court at the park on 2nd Street where he still lives. The only periods in his life when he didn’t play were when he served in World War II and the Korean War.

Toby Fasth, the pro at the Gulf Coast Tennis Club where Thatcher and his friends play, admires the dedication of the group of mostly retired men who play every day no matter what the weather is like. He too believes in the benefits of tennis to good health and says the USTA is trying to get adults over age 50 more involved.

“Tennis is easy on the body and uses everything. It really is the sport of a lifetime,” he said. “Our climate is good for it, finding courts is easy and it’s not expensive compared to golf.”

A native of Sweden, Fasth, 45, has played all his life. He has been the pro at the 220-member club for 12 years and sees the sport getting a lot bigger. “Playing at different levels makes it more popular and league tennis is really catching on,” he said. “Also, the pros are bringing people into the sport and the clubs are strong.”

Bill Pressly of Ocean Springs is incoming president of the MTA. Playing tennis is definitely a health issue for the 55-year-old attorney. “I started playing in law school to reduce stress, then didn’t play for a while,” he said. “I started playing again on the advice of my doctor. It’s the best sport for life. You can’t play football, basketball and other sports all your life, but you can play tennis.”

He says the National Institute of Health tested collegiate athletes who played various sports and found that tennis players had less disease and lived longer.
Brady says tennis associations will begin to market the fitness benefits of the sport. The USTA is looking at a new project called cardio tennis that will appeal to fitness centers and YMCAs with drills targeted at getting the heart rate up followed by a cool down.

Another factor in the sport’s growth in Mississippi she says is the emphasis on inclusion and diversity. “Community tennis associations were formed all across the state and have made tennis available to everyone,” she said. “We have 28 of them. They are teaching the importance of tennis to health and helping kids develop discipline and sportsmanship.”

With its Adopt-A-Court program, the MTA also awards grants to schools and city park departments to renovate old courts that are not playable. Many were built in the tennis heyday of the ‘70s but were not maintained. Some $20,000 to $30,000 is given away each year for renovations, Brady said.

Tips on health benefits of tennis, along with criteria for deciding if tennis is right for you, are available on www.tenniswelcomecenter.com.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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