By Collin Brooks
A lot of things have changed since W.T. Mathes picked up his first tennis racket at the age of 8 years old. But one thing has stayed the same over those 88 years, the now 96-year old’s love of the game.
“It means a whole lot to me, because I am still active and still happy,” a smiling Mathes said when asked what tennis meant to him. “If I wasn’t playing tennis, I probably would have not done all this.”
Mathes played during his college days at Milligan and graduated in 1942 — and the home of his alma maters tennis program, the Mathes Tennis Center, honors his name. But he took a hiatus while he practiced as an ear, nose and throat doctor in Johnson City. One of his daughters, Myra O’Dell, developed a love for his former game and his infatuation was reignited.
But that spark also started some special times for the father and daughter pair.
“That’s the most wonderful part,” Mathes said of playing in the national tournaments with one of his two daughters in O’Dell. “It is so much fun…It’s just a family affair and it was some of the nicest things that you have.”
He and O’Dell still compete in father and daughter competitions, while his other daughter Marcia Sentell also takes time on the court to bond with her father. And O’Dell said that it is a time that both sisters cherish.
“He is the perfect partner,” O’Dell said. “Win or lose, it’s always fun. He has taught me to love the sport and how to always be a good sport on and off the court.”
Some of those life lessons Mathes has learned and passed down to his family include always keeping their composure.
“If you get too mad, you don’t play well and you can use that rule in life too,” he said.
He also noted that integrity and honesty are vital parts of the game and even more important in life. Those have been great virtues for Mathes and his wife, 92-year old Alyne Mathes.
But more than the lessons, the experiences come to O’Dell’s mind when she talks about the tandems tennis careers.
“We’ve gotten to know a lot of other father-daughter tandems across the country and it’s just a real conjugal group and we’ve made really good friends,” O’Dell said. “
O’Dell admits that she has gotten used to seeing her father surprise spectators with his skills, but she is never surprised by what he accomplishes.
“I’m not (surprised), but everyone else is,” O’Dell said. “The people watching, when they find out how old he is — because he doesn’t look that old and doesn’t move that old — they all want to live as long and be able to play tennis like dad. He is kind of a legend, even in the national father-daughter science.”
He said that it is a sport that you can play all of your life and he seems to be the perfect example of that.
“You’re responsible for your own success, really,” Mathes said. “In singles, you can’t get help from the outside when you’re playing. So it’s all up to you.”
He has his ailments from the game, wearing braces on both knees and his wrists, but none of that has dampened his love of the game.
A few years ago, Mathes — who finally retired at the age of 84— played in a match that earned national attention, when he and doubles partner James Chavasse — both age 93 – took on 99-year old Dave Carey and 97-year old Nels Glesne in the 82nd Asheville Open Tennis Championships. The younger duo won 6-1, 6-1, but the important part was seeing the four 90-plus year olds enjoy the game.
“God gave us a body and you have to use it to keep it good and a lot of people don’t,” Mathes said. “So if you’re going to compete, you’ve got to keep it up.”