"Net" benefits

The early-morning tennis players at Orange County High School’s Hornet Sports Center speak highly of the friendships they have made over many years of regular tennis action. From left, Gail Marshall, Normie Sanford, Ginny Stanley and Catherine Gillespie.

At 6:30 a.m., on one of those shockingly cold days last week, eight people in Orange County had somehow managed to tear themselves from their warm beds, grab their tennis rackets and head to Orange County High School’s field house for an hour of friendly doubles competition. 

Awake, alert and warmed up, Ginny Stanley and Catherine Gillespie took on Gail Marshall and Normie Sanford. At the other end of the Hornet Sports Center, Joanie Palmer and Susan Boston faced down John Marshall and Bob Davies. After a while, they switched partners and played mixed doubles. On both courts, the play was spirited and the atmosphere warm and convivial.

Often called a “life sport,” because players can enjoy this game of agility and strategy for many years, tennis is a favorite pastime for these local athletes, some of whom are in their 70s and 80s. Stanley, 73, said, “I love tennis and have played ever since I could hold a racket.” Her childhood home in King George County had a tennis court, and when the family moved to Rapidan, it wasn’t long before her parents sold a horse known for throwing riders and used the money to build a court. “The tennis court seemed like a safer bet,” she said.

Stanley and Gail Marshall began playing doubles together more than 20 years ago in Rapidan, at the home of Ben and Lucy Grimm. Eventually, they switched to the high school’s outdoor courts and began rounding up more players. The whole gang, men and women, still plays outside, provided the temperature is around 55 degrees or higher.

On cold mornings, play shifts to the field house, where participants pay a dollar—that’s right, a whole dollar—to use the indoor courts. Retired Orange County High School custodian Robert Morris is responsible for collecting the exorbitant fee. He arrives in time to open up the gym to the earliest of birds who use the indoor walking track (free of charge) at 5:30 a.m. Then he sets up the nets in spaces marked off for basketball, volleyball, tennis and pickleball, a sport just becoming popular in Orange that uses paddles instead of rackets. As Marshall wryly noted, the multicolored lines look like “abstract art” and require some getting used to.

The women play three days a week, and the men play four times a week. Not everyone plays every day and subs fill in as needed, so the competition varies from morning to morning. Judy Carter of Orange plays Wednesday mornings and subs on other days. Although she started out as a racquetball player, she has been playing tennis regularly with this group for at least a decade. Her love of the game outweighs the difficulty of the sunrise court time. “The early hour I certainly don’t like,” she admitted. “At the same time, at least we have a place in Orange to go play. I’m not going to get up and go travel to Culpeper”—that is, to the indoor courts at Culpeper Sport & Fitness, formerly the Culpeper Sport and Racquet Club.

Several of the players stressed how much they appreciate the lighthearted and friendly atmosphere of the group. “I’m a competitive person and I play to win, but I’m playing for fun. I don’t get upset about mistakes,” Carter said. She added that she knew some of the regulars from church or work, but Boston and Sanford were new faces to her when they signed on. “Those two ladies I probably would not have met and gotten to know if they hadn’t started playing tennis.” Gillespie spoke for many when she said “camaraderie and the friendship and good exercise” are the reasons she loves the group.

Sanford, a relative newcomer, is in her fifth year with the rise-and-rally crowd. “This has been the best group to be with—so welcoming, just fantastic!” said the retired kindergarten teacher, who grew up playing tennis and competed in college. Since she was in the habit of getting up at 5:30 a.m. for work, the early start has not been a problem. “It’s a great way to start the day,” she said. “By the time I get up and get out there, I have energy and I’m ready to hit the grocery store early and have fun the rest of day.”

Palmer joined the tennis gang not long after moving to Orange three years ago from Washington, D.C. Although some in the group are retired, Palmer is among those still working a regular job—in her case, as a therapist and life coach for women in transition.

“I like hitting the ball hard,” she said, explaining how she ended up playing in the mixed-doubles group. Tennis is not just a matter of power, however. To Bob Davies, she said with a smile, “You guys are so canny.” To that, Davies replied, “I’m an octogenarian. You women could beat us!” Hurrying out into the frigid but sunny morning, the whole day opening before him, the retired math and physics teacher at Woodberry Forest School called over his shoulder, “Getting out is good!”

The tennis group is open to new members, and an evening pickleball group is forming. If you are interested in playing either sport regularly or subbing, contact Gail Marshall at gailstarlingmarshall@gmail.com.

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