We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
There are many different ways to beat Betty Eisenstein in a tennis match. For starters, you can overpower her. Serve big to the wings or kick it over her head—she’s only 5-foot-2. Hit heavy groundstrokes deep into the corners. Take advantage of her powder-puff serve. When she gets into trouble, she likes to throw up defensive lobs, so move in and put away the easy ones. Whatever you do, do not let her back into a point. Every extra shot she makes you hit tilts the odds toward her favor. Keep the pressure on, and expect to run.
Not many women over 80, however, can pull off any of these strategies consistently, which is why the 82-year-old Eisenstein has been the nation’s top-ranked female tennis player in her age group for three straight years. In 2003, she won a grand slam, taking the national grass-, hard-, clay-, and indoor-court singles championships, a feat she repeated in 2004. So far this year, she has won her first three nationals.
Now it’s August, and she has traveled to Portland, Ore., for the United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) National Indoor Women’s Tennis Championships for the 70-, 80-, and 90-and-over age divisions, where she arrived as the top seed and overwhelming favorite to win a third consecutive slam.
The tournament is already under way when Eisenstein makes her entrance at Portland’s West Hills Racquet and Fitness Club. As the top seed, she has a first-round bye, so she spends the morning in casual clothes, catching up with “the gals.” (And they’re always called gals.) She pauses to watch fourth seed Pat Niehaus, in the middle of dismantling her outmatched first-round opponent. A well-meaning middle-aged club member gushes at the effort of Niehaus’ hapless opponent, Milly Miller, carrying on about how wonderful it is that octogenarians can still enjoy the game. But Eisenstein is unimpressed. “This is boring,” she says with wave of her hand. “Milly’s not a challenge.”
She watches another point and proclaims, “But you need people like her who will just keep showing up. After all, you do need to fill out the draw.”
Cutthroat talk isn’t what you’d expect to hear from a grandmother of three, but Eisenstein hasn’t flown all the way across the country for pleasantries. She’s come to put a chokehold on the tournament. “I often think of a tennis game as something where the two of you are trying to see who is going to control the other one’s movements,” says Eisenstein, who lives in Kalorama Heights with her husband, Julian Eisenstein. “Controlling a point is very important in my thinking. I get mad at myself when I lose control, so to speak.”
To stay sharp for her Portland matches, Eisenstein hits the court for a practice session with Amy Juppenlatz, a 24-year-old club pro who played Division I college tennis. After working up a good sweat, they decide to play a set. Eisenstein moves with impressive fluidity and speed, dancing to the ball and recovering quickly back to the center of the court. The drop-shot-and-lob combination—drawing her opponent into the net with a short ball and then lofting the next shot high over her head—is her bread and butter, and Eisenstein uses it to keep Juppenlatz off balance and on the run. While the pro may not be swinging at full speed, she’s running close to it.
In the third game, Juppenlatz plays a ball that’s clearly long, and Eisenstein wins the point. “Was that ball out?” she asks.
Juppenlatz looks sheepish. “It might have been.”
“Well, call it out then,” barks Eisenstein. “There’s no need to do that.”
Afterward, Juppenlatz assesses her opponent. “I’ve never seen anyone her age play the way she did,” she says. “I was totally not ready for that. I’m sure her opponents don’t like to play her.”
Eisenstein has been giving her opponents fits for decades. She played her first tournament as an adult in 1973, the year she turned 50, when Allie Ritzenberg, the recently retired head pro of the St. Albans Tennis Club, suggested she give senior tournaments a try. Eisenstein had never even heard of “senior” tennis, but the prospect of playing against good competition appealed to her. “At that point, St. Albans did not have many good women players,” Eisenstein recalls. “They were interesting women but not much for good tennis.”
So she signed up for the 50-and-over national grass-court championships in Forest Hills, N.Y. Eisenstein played the No. 1 seed, a woman named Dorothy Cheney, in the first round and lost 6-0, 6-0, in about 30 minutes. Eisenstein didn’t know that Dorothy “Dodo” Cheney, seven years her senior, was already a legend. The owner of more than 300 national titles and elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., in 2004, Cheney has been instrumental in attracting interest in competitive senior womens’ tennis. She is truly a trailblazer: Every time Cheney is due to age out of a division, a new one seems to get created.
After losing that first match at Forest Hills, Eisenstein played the national clay-court championships in Houston. She lost in the first round again, this time in a third-set tiebreaker against the No. 2 seed. Discouraged and frustrated, she was headed out of the club with her head down when she ran into another player, who asked where she was going.
“Home,” Eisenstein said. “I just lost.”
“Well,” the woman said, “you ought to play in the consolation.”
“Oh, I don’t want a booby prize,” Eisenstein answered.
The woman persisted, and Eisenstein decided to give it a go. She ended up winning the consolation bracket, placing fifth in the tournament. The next tournament she entered, she was seeded. In 1989, she earned her first No. 1 national ranking, in the 65-and-over division.
Eisenstein’s success in senior tennis contrasts with her junior career. When she was 13 years old, she played her one and only junior tournament. The intensity of the competition and the cheating overwhelmed her, and she became unraveled and lost before her opponent could even appreciate how beatable she was. “I was bewildered,” she says of the world of junior tennis. “I had no grasp of what to do.”
After her first foray into tournament tennis ended unceremoniously, Eisenstein went on to achieve success as an academic. She graduated from Vassar College in 1944 and received her master’s degree and Ph.D. in European history from Harvard in 1946 and 1953, respectively. A celebrated and widely published scholar (one book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, has been abridged and translated into several languages), she taught part-time at American University. From 1975 to 1988, she was the Alice Freeman Palmer professor of history at the University of Michigan. Throughout her academic life, she continued to play tennis as much as she could, always packing a racquet when she traveled as a visiting scholar.
Eisenstein moved to Washington in 1957 and has been a fixture at the St. Albans Tennis Club ever since. She has no patience for drilling or practice, preferring to play matches during her daily sessions because, frankly, she likes to win. “She’s a very nice person, but she’s also very competitive,” says Margaret Anderson, 77, the tournament director of the national indoor championships and a nationally ranked player herself. “And it shows in her game.”
When Eisenstein checked the draw before she left for Portland, she didn’t like what she saw. Particularly troubling was a potential first match against Piyachart Hussey. Though Hussey suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, her muscle memory remains quite sharp. On the court, her condition means that she can hit great shots but can’t keep track of the score. In turn, that means she can’t choke. No one wants to play Hussey, currently No. 11 in the 80-and-over national standings. “She scares me because she’s so good,” says Eisenstein.
Such talk might sound disingenuous from Eisenstein, who since joining the 80-and-overs has yet to lose a match, compiling a record of 36-0. She won the 2003 national hard-courts at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club without dropping a single game. So far this year, she has lost just one set. Perhaps most impressive is her performance at the 75-and-over national clay-court championships in March, where she reached the final. “Five years is a huge age difference when you get into the seniors,” says Ritzenberg. “Very few people can spot five years in the later ages.”
Luckily for Eisenstein, Hussey sprained her ankle a few days before the tournament and couldn’t make the trip, so Eisenstein’s first match in Portland is against Cathy Hall, a Portland native who now lives in Newport Beach, Calif. Though Hall doesn’t play with much power, she’s no pushover. She moves well and hits with accuracy—sort of an Eisenstein lite—and she has the potential to give Eisenstein trouble.
Against Hall, Eisenstein plays tentatively at first. Her drop shots sit up or find the net. Hall holds easily and then races out to a 40-love lead on Eisenstein’s serve. But Eisenstein doesn’t panic and soon finds her groove. She reels off five straight points to hold and gives herself a nod, as if to say, “That’s more like it.” The rest of the match isn’t close—she prevails, 6-2, 6-2—and Eisenstein is quickly through to the semifinals.
Afterward, Eisenstein isn’t happy about the way she played. She double-faulted too many times, had trouble with the lighting, and started thinking about her mechanics. “I went for a walkabout, as [Australian star] Evonne Goolagong Cawley used to say,” she says. “I lost focus. But you play as hard as you need to win, so it’s OK.”
Even though Eisenstein registered a handful of aces, pace is a relative thing with these women. After a three-set match, the used balls often look fresh out of the can: The fuzz lies flat, and the tiny nubs of rubber on the seams, like the stubble of a new tire, are usually still attached. Also telling is the fact that the players don’t receive any free string, a staple of most tournaments’ gift bags, since they so rarely break theirs.
In the afternoon, Eisenstein skips a trip to the Nike employee store, a reward for playing in the tournament and a highly anticipated outing among the other players. “I don’t need any more stuff,” she says. “I’m at the age where I need to deaccession stuff, not get more of it.”
Eisenstein wears the same logoless, all-white ensemble every time she plays. She hasn’t changed racquets in years, because the one she has, an extra-long Wilson Hammer 4.0, works just fine. She uses a dull, worn-out tennis bag precisely because it looks so different from the ubiquitous red Wilson racquet bags that litter a tournament site and thus won’t ever be mistaken for another’s. She drinks only Evian during matches. Whereas many of the women in Portland have doubled or tripled up in hotel rooms to save on costs, Eisenstein has booked a single. She isn’t asocial by any means, but when it comes to tennis, the lone-wolf attitude helps her win. “I’m practical,” she says. “That’s what I’m about.”
Sometimes Eisenstein can be too practical. Last year, the USTA selected Eisenstein for the 2004 Queens Cup, an international team competition for 75-and-over women akin to the Davis or Fed Cups. The competition took place in Philadelphia about a month after Eisenstein hurt her calf at the national indoors, and in the first match, she tweaked her leg again. It wasn’t crippling, but it was severe enough to force Eisenstein to sit out the rest of the matches. Other players, mindful of the honor of being named to a four-member national team, might have stayed to support her teammates, but Eisenstein hopped on a train and went home to see her doctor in Washington. In the photograph of the victorious U.S. team, only three team members are holding the winner’s plate. “That’s just Betty,” says her friend Carol Wood, a top-ranked player in the 65-and-over division and a member of the USTA’s Senior International Committee, which selects the national cup teams. “She didn’t see any sense in staying. She wasn’t going to add anything to the team, so she figured she might as well leave, and she did.”
Eisenstein doesn’t sleep well the night before the semifinals. Even with all her tournament experience, she isn’t immune to pre-match jitters. “I get insomnia at every tournament, and it’s silly,” she says. “It isn’t that important. But you wouldn’t be in this if you didn’t get worked up about it.”
When Eisenstein starts feeling the nerves, it affects her service toss the most. It looks as if she forgets to release the ball from her fingers, and the choked toss travels only a few inches in the air. Eisenstein will then catch it and try again until she can achieve a proper toss.
She used to just catch errant tosses on the strings of her racquet, but that practice ended a few years ago, after a tournament in Virginia. Eisenstein’s opponent in one round told her that catching a toss with the racquet counted as a fault. She was wrong—it would be a fault only if the server were actually making a motion to hit the ball, which Eisenstein was not—but since neither Eisenstein nor the umpire was sure, and the other player made her claim so authoritatively, they deferred to her. Eisenstein was ahead by one set and 5-3, but the next time she threw a bad toss and caught it on her strings, the umpire awarded the point to her opponent. Eisenstein ended up losing the set and then the match. She immediately ran home to look up the rule. Then she called her opponent to give her a piece of her mind. “She wasn’t in, darn it, but I left a message,” she laughs.
Eisenstein’s history of serving trouble follows her into the semifinal match against the fourth-seeded Niehaus, the only woman to have won a set against Eisenstein this year. As the match begins, Eisenstein muffs a number of tosses before sinking one into the net. She floats in her second serve, and after a short rally in which Eisenstein gets pushed back by Niehaus’ groundstrokes, Niehaus advances to the net and knocks off a backhand volley for a winner. Niehaus takes control of the match early by overpowering Eisenstein, keeping her on the run with deep groundstrokes to the corners. The drop-shot artist can’t set up her weapon, and she goes into a 0-3 hole.
Niehaus gets to game point on her serve, but then Eisenstein pulls off a gutsy play. She looks as if she’s going to hit a safe, deep backhand return, but the ball spins softly off her strings for a drop-shot winner. They play another couple of deuces, and then, on break point, Eisenstein sneaks in another drop shot. Niehaus gets to it, but Eisenstein lobs her next shot over her opponent’s head.
Points won against Eisenstein are often Pyrrhic victories. She makes her opponent work so hard and hit so many extra shots that all the body blows eventually catch up to her. And when they do, the court seems to grow larger and Eisenstein’s drop shots seem to die a little faster. It’s almost diabolical, the way she uses them to break the will of an opponent. More than an ace or a high-octane winner, which can end the point before you know what hit you, a drop shot mocks. It follows a tantalizing arc over the net but settles just out of reach, and you have to watch every agonizing second of its death. If you reach it, you give away the entire court. Against Eisenstein, sometimes you even know it’s coming, but there’s nothing you can do about it except stand there and seethe. A drop shot is an assertion of control.
At 5-3, 30-all, the point goes back and forth, and after a long rally, Eisenstein draws Niehaus in to the net and tries to lob. Niehaus makes a leaping backhand overhead for an apparent winner, but Eisenstein, in a dead sprint, tracks down the ball and, just before it bounces twice, whips a cross-court forehand winner past an exhausted Niehaus. Niehaus nets the next shot, and Eisenstein takes the set, 6-3.
Eisenstein is now locked in, pacing the baseline between points with her head down and hands on her hips. She absorbs Niehaus’ power and places the ball with precision. Niehaus begins to wear down. She starts to go for shots outside of her ability, trying to keep the points short, and the errors pile up. Niehaus gives Eisenstein a scare in the second set, taking a 5-4 lead, but it’s her last gasp. Eisenstein wins the next three games to lock down the match, 6-3, 7-5.
At this level of tennis, two things determine success. The first is experience. The second, and perhaps more important, is health, and that’s what separates Eisenstein from the rest of the field. Short of outliving your competition—which happens—it’s simply a matter of aging better. Indeed, if you ask anyone about Eisenstein’s secret to success, the answer is the same: her legs. “Even in her 80s, she moves like a kid,” says former St. Albans pro Ritzenberg.
But Eisenstein spends little time marveling at how well she’s aged. A small, trim woman with strong hands, toned calves, and a mane of white hair, she’s simply too busy laying waste to the field. At home in D.C., she plays for at least an hour almost every morning, usually against women up to 30 years her junior, the only ones in town who can keep up with her. All the hours spent on court give her the signature of serious tennis players everywhere: a stark line just above her ankles, above which the skin is many shades darker than that below.
Yet Eisenstein has never jogged and detests the gym. “I never do anything except play tennis,” says Eisenstein. “For a while I stretched, and after my knee surgery I did physical therapy, but other than that I never go near a gym. It’s not fun.”
Eisenstein used to wear glasses for tennis, but at age 64, she stopped needing them. She says a trip to the ophthalmologist confirmed that her eyesight had actually improved. Even two minor injuries to her knees give her no trouble. Eisenstein acknowledges her good genes but attributes her success to more than just aging better. “I think what I’ve improved at more than anything else is mentally,” she explains. “I’ve become more experienced. I don’t panic when I lose games that I didn’t expect to lose or hit in a way I didn’t want to hit.”
As Eisenstein refined her mental game, her strokes also evolved, but she’ll never be known as a pure ball-striker. Though she uses the classic continental grip (holding the racquet as if she were going to use its edge to chop or hammer something), her left arm often stays down against her side vestigially when she swings, instead of acting as a counterbalance. Her timing sometimes slips, and she hits her backhand late, forcing her to muscle it over the net, and the racquet doesn’t follow through so much as flop over.
As much as she would like her strokes to look better, Eisenstein also understands that her game has brought her pretty far. “I do much more slicing, chopping, and dicing [now] than I ever did,” she says with a bit of resignation. “It’s certainly not what the pros approve of or teach, but it simply developed as a way of keeping the ball going when I’m in trouble or against a big power game. I don’t feel happy about it, because I admire good-looking strokes, but I try not to think about it. While I’m a great admirer of art and beautiful things, I don’t have to watch my game. I may not want to watch my game. This is my game, and I’m much too old to start trying to redo my game.”
During the warm-ups for the singles final, a statuesque blonde in tight white pants and 3-inch heels waltzes onto the court with a camera crew. A local morning news program, AM Northwest, has decided to do a live broadcast from the tournament. The blonde sets up right behind the baseline and must scamper out of the way when a ball comes toward her. Eisenstein puts on a good face, but she is clearly annoyed by the intrusion. The production doubles the length of the warm-up, but what drives Eisenstein wild is the fact that she and her opponent are merely background for interviews with the 90-year-olds who—because of their age, not ability—are the focus of attention. “You can’t compete with 90-year-olds,” she says.
Eisenstein has a formidable opponent in the final, second-seeded Elaine Mason. Back in the 75-and-over division, the tall, well-built Mason won grand slams in both singles and doubles with regularity, usually beating Eisenstein along the way. Between March 2000 and September 2001, they played four times, with Mason winning every match in straight sets. However, she fell ill a couple of years ago and disappeared from the national scene until this year. Weakened by illness and medication, Mason presented little opposition when the two played this past spring in Mississippi at the national clay-courts championship. But Eisenstein, mindful of the way Mason played before she got sick, isn’t resting easy. “She was my chief rival and real nemesis,” says Eisenstein. “She had classic strokes and no weaknesses that I could find, and we would have terrific matches. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
At stake is a USTA gold ball. Just about everyone who plays competitive tournament tennis in the United States is familiar with the gold ball, awarded to the winner of each national championship. Eisenstein has won more than 30 gold balls and more than 25 silver ones, awarded to runners-up. The balls are slightly larger than marbles, displayed in decorative wooden boxes, and winning a gold ball is as good as it gets in American tennis. Women winners sometimes even wear them on a chain around their neck.
Eisenstein wins the toss, elects to serve, and plays a cautious first game, feeling her way into the match. Helped by an uncharacteristic Eisenstein double fault, Mason grabs the break with a piercing cross-court forehand. But Eisenstein settles in quickly, and the match becomes a matter of who can control the other, the junk-baller or the power hitter on the comeback trail. At 3-2, Eisenstein eases a forehand drop shot over the net on game point and Mason, knowing she must conserve energy, doesn’t even move for it.
The senior game is all about positioning. Because of their lack of mobility, senior players can’t stand 3 feet behind the baseline and trade groundstrokes. Instead, many shorten the court by setting up between the baseline and service line—no man’s land—and try to dictate points from there. Against Eisenstein, Mason must creep in even farther than usual to guard against the drop shot. When Eisenstein sees this, she starts hitting deep, forcing Mason to pick shots off her shoelaces or hit low, defensive volleys.
As well as Eisenstein has her game working, she can’t shake her opponent. Mason doesn’t panic or get frustrated; she patiently works the points until she has an opening, usually ending the point with a winner. To win a point against Eisenstein, she sometimes hits two, sometimes three great shots in succession. Eisenstein spends much of the first set on the defensive, waiting for Mason to punch herself out.
At 5-5, Eisenstein goes down 30-40 on her serve, and Mason has her opening. Eisenstein muffs her toss three times before she can get one up high enough to hit, but Mason slaps her forehand into the net—a gift. Eisenstein eventually holds, and at 6-5, jogs in a small circle while she waits for Mason to gather the balls. The game goes through four deuces, each player with chances to win. Finally, Mason barely misses a backhand volley and Eisenstein has the set, 7-5. Mason shakes her head as she walks to the bench.
Mason makes a good show in the second set but runs out of gas at 3-3. Eisenstein cruises through the next three games, and when Mason misses a forehand wide, Eisenstein has her third straight gold slam. She jogs to the net with a big smile. After accepting her gold ball and posing for photographs, Eisenstein heads back to her hotel for a hot bath. “I’m very pleased,” she grins, noting that it’s the first time she’s won three straight gold slams.
Now that it’s all over, Eisenstein grows reflective. She admits that during the match, she asked herself if she really wanted to keep subjecting herself to the stress of playing. It’s not as if she doesn’t have anything else to do. Continuing to make her professional career her priority, she is working on another book and spends most of her days doing research and writing. When she does have free time, she likes to watch tennis on television but feels guilty every minute she does. “I do like to travel, but my husband says he’s like a modest French wine—he doesn’t travel well,” she says. “But I don’t garden. I don’t sew, play cards, or cook. I suppose tennis is my hobby, but I take it more seriously than a hobby. I consider tennis my second life.”
Eisenstein will next compete in November, as a member of the Mid-Atlantic Section’s team at the USTA National Senior Women’s Intersectionals in Florida. She says she will “probably” go for a fourth consecutive gold slam. But her reign as queen of the 80-and-over division may expire soon. Mason is only getting stronger, and every year or two, a handful of very good players age up into the next division, tilting the competitive balance. Rarely can a player stay No. 1 in her division for her entire tenure. A top player, like Eisenstein, can usually dominate the first couple of years she plays, owing to her relative youth. But by the third year, when the new gals start coming in, her grip starts to slip. And by her last year, she’s ready to flee to the next age division. Only in senior tennis will you meet women who actually look forward to getting older.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” says Eisenstein. “My husband has been healthy, knock on wood, but I get in these moods where I think maybe I’ll retire, or this tournament will be my last. At some point I may feel I’ve been there, done that and forget about these tournaments and just go to Italy and France with a grandchild and have fun.”
Eisenstein pauses, momentarily imagining a life devoid of tennis tournaments. “But like an old war horse, you hear the trumpet and you go,” she says with a smile, as if she can see it already. “As soon as I get an entry form in the mail, I forget the agony, and all I remember is the fun.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.