David and Frances Dickenson met at a tennis tournament in 1955.
He was 16. She was 13.
He would go on to be a top player at the University of Virginia. She would wind up winning the prestigious Orange Bowl juniors three times.
Today, their tennis — not to mention their marriage — is still going strong.
Make that very strong.
The Dickensons are No 1 in their age group in the USTA’s National Husband-Wife Mixed Doubles.
This week, the couple has been participating in the Indoor Championships, which have come to Charlottesville for the first time. The event wraps up today at the Boar’s Head Sports Club.
The tournament has three age categories: the 100s, the 120s and the 140s.
The Dickensons, who live in Cleveland, compete in the 140s, which means their combined ages must add up to at least 140.
“Tennis is a real passion for us,” said 74-year-old David, who played No. 1 singles for UVa in the late 1950s. “It’s the game of a lifetime.”
Stuart Chase and his wife, Gabriella, share that sentiment. It’s the reason they were so gung-ho on bringing the event to Charlottesville.
The couple, who, like the Dickensons, also met on the tennis court, held a pilot tournament last year before the USTA approved them to be one of the four major national events. The others are in California and Charlotte.
“It was our love of tennis, which has given us lifelong friendships and memories, along with this fierce competition and camaraderie that inspired us to bring this to Charlottesville,” Stuart Chase said.
Couples participating in this week’s tournament raved about the health benefits of tennis.
“It’s good for the heart, it’s good for the lungs,” said 65-year-old Dan Woods, who plays with his wife, Cindy, in the 120s. “If you play two to three times a week, you get a good bit out of it.”
The Woods, who are from Richmond, had played a lot of doubles together over the years but had never entered a national tournament until this week.
“We thought it would be kind of fun,” Dan Woods said. “We’ve found out the competition is pretty high level, coming in from all over the place.”
Dan, a former baseball and basketball player at Penn State, didn’t pick up tennis until his mid-30s. He’s a 4.0-level player, while Cindy is a 3.0.
“A lot of husbands and wives don't play together because they don’t want to get into an argument,” Dan said, “but Cindy and I have played together a long time and don’t have any trouble. We understand each other.”
“We still like each other,” joked 65-year-old Cindy.
Mas and Susan Kimball, who are from Martha’s Vineyard, are the No. 1-ranked team in the 120s.
Mas, born in Japan, was into martial arts before giving tennis a try at the age of 30.
“I love mixed doubles — it’s a very different game than men’s doubles or women’s doubles,” said the 64-year-old. “There’s different strategy, different setups and stuff like that. And it’s great playing with somebody you love — how much better can it get?”
Mas’ better half agreed.
“You’re a team, you have to cooperate together and there’s no kind of staking out your territory,” said 68-year-old Susan. “You have to be a real team. It’s just such a great thing for us.”
“We try and get [any arguments] settled before we get on the court,” added Mas, smiling. “It’s been better for our marriage, actually.”
Competing in the 100s a few years back, the Kimballs lost the first match they ever played. However, the next year they were eligible to move up to the 120s. Since then, they’ve been very successful, winning several gold balls.
“It gives you a whole new perspective about getting to the next age category — you have something to look forward to,” Mas said. “So you don’t have to be depressed about getting older.”
The social aspect of competing as a pair is another attraction for players, according to 67-year-old Kay Beverley of Charlotte.
“You stay in shape, you make friends — it’s fabulous,” she said. “It’s a lifetime sport and you get to see wonderful places.”
Beverley and her husband, Bob, who helped bring one of the majors to Charlotte, also compete in the 120s.
Turning to Susan Kimball, Beverley said: “We can’t wait to get to the 140s and get away from you guys!”
Then again, the 140s are where the Dickensons reside.
The couple, which takes great pride in an inner-city youth tennis program that they run in Cleveland, say that they owe their lives to the sport. They say tennis has helped them become the people that they are today.
But funny enough, when the Dickensons were asked about the secret to their on-court success, they disagreed.
“We learned how to play steady tennis a long time, had great coaching and have always tried to stay in shape because it’s a lifetime kind of thing,” David said.
“True love,” said Frances, with a chuckle.