July 15, 2023 4 min read
Photo: Jesse Robinson has learned to hit left-handed if he can't react quick enough to hit a backhand. It's one of the adjustments older players make to continue having fun at the game they love.
By Ray Glier
PITTSBURGH____These pickleball players wear athletic shorts without back pockets, but the wise players, the player still competing as age as undermined some of their speed and agility, have metaphorical back pockets.
You know the old cliché from talking hairdos on sports TV, “He’s got something saved in his back pocket for this situation.”
*Jesse Robinson, 79, once one of the top players in Masters pickleball, has become a more spendthrift player, more economical. He has tamed his younger, 6-foot-2 prodigal self that tried to hit winners from impossible angles. A more modest approach—as well as developing a left-handed game—has kept him competitive.
*Georgia Billger, 84, finally started to act her age, sort of. Here for The National Senior Games pickleball tournament, she finally played in the 80s age group and won the singles gold medal. The youth of the 65-year olds, where she was hanging out regularly in tournaments, became too much on the national level, she said.
*Jerry Richards, 75, who won a gold medal here in the M75-79, said he does far more analyzing on the court now than 10 years ago. Where he would just hit when he was younger and worked on “powering the ball”, Richards dissects his opponent now and uses superior conditioning to win.
This is the self-organizing you have to do as you age up in pickleball. You never, ever admit to “winter years” but you use the wise head as leverage.
These three players are simply working the other muscles to their games.
For instance, Georgia is not as unforgiving as she once was. Where, once upon a time, she refused to give up on a well-placed dink by her opponent and might lunge to get to a return, now she concedes the point. She doesn’t move a step.
“It’s saving energy for the next point because I’m going to win that one,” she said. “I’m older I know that, so I conserve energy. Don’t waste it.”
Billger, who lives in Rehoboth Beach, Del., still plays against people 65 years old at home, but she cannot compete with them at the national level.
The big adjustment to her game is “ball control”, Georgia said.
Robinson has learned to use his left hand when he plays now. When his right shoulder was strapped to his waist for healing after surgery, he would find a wall to hit off with his left hand.
“If I can't get around to get the backhand, for quick reaction, I'll go left handed,” Jesse said. “So I'll hit forehands left-handed and overheads left-handed.”
Understand, Robinson was a college athlete. He has some dexterity to work with, but he has to be more savvy because his knees are balky.
“I used to get medals all the time, now not so much, but I’m still in the ball game, I can be competitive,” he said. “My partner and I in the Empire State Senior Games beat the eventual silver medalist and bronze medalist and then we got pickled and didn’t win any points. They killed us and with the aggregate (scoring) so we finished fourth. We should have been in the medals.”
Robinson, who lives in Scotia, N.Y., is fine with having hit reset. Look at him and you can see where he was once a gifted athlete that competed at Virginia Union. He is still far ahead of other 79-year olds as far as athleticism, but four knee operations have taken away some movement. Then there is the hip replacement and ball and socket replacement in his right shoulder.
“I try not to be as reckless in my approach because, back then, I could make up for a mistake that I made by running the ball down,” Jesse said. “I do a lot of lobbing because I can't I just can't reach the ball.
“If I’m playing somebody with better movement than me and he has rushed the net, I’ll throw a lob up and try and get back in position.”
This is the internal combustion older players need, which is now the mainspring to their games: adjustments.
But you have to give yourself a chance.
“When seniors are retired, there's really no excuse for not getting in shape number one,” said Richards who was in government administration in East Lansing, MI. “And number two, if you love pickleball, learn everything you can because I'm 75 and I'm still learning every day. If you want to get better, you have to work. At any age.”
Richards said you can still be an accomplished pickleball player at a late age because the game is less about the power serve that is the centerpiece of tennis.
Jerry had his opponent scrambling in his gold medal match, which he won 12-10, 12-10. He showed, in his 70s, there is a coalition between mind and body, not just the body winning points.
There is another key to winning at pickleball when you are older and, perhaps, less skilled. You have had years to develop friendships and know who you sync with.
“It’s about partnering,” Jerry said. “I’ve made a lot of friends through pickleball. It’s a reason to get up in the morning.”
The key to Jerry Richards winning gold was his internal combustion, which is just a term for plain being fit.
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