ALWAYS TIME FOR TENNIS

Women's group logs 50 years on Schenectady courts

JENNIFER GISH
Section: Sports,  Page: B1

Date: Thursday, July 1, 2010

"It's too bad you didn't bring your tennis racket," Fran Cline says, just two beats after hello.


Dark skies top the tennis courts in Schenectady's Central Park like a slate roof. Unfazed by the weather, scores of women, and some men, stand divided by the nets, the only rumbles the sound of tennis balls popping off the courts.


Cline works the courts like she always does, the heartbeat of the Schenectady Women's Tennis Association. When Cline arrives home from wintering in Florida -- where she plays more tennis -- she's the robin of the tennis season. Cline's in town. Time to unpack your racket.


She's 86 years old and skips across the court like a pebble over a pond, a lifetime of tennis teaching her there are only so many angles the ball can take. And she's there to meet it -- in her black tennis skirt paired with a cream button-up blouse and a full face of makeup -- with a mean slice.


The nearly 60 members of the Schenectady Women's Tennis Association capture the match point for inspiring sports stories in a championship-fixated world. Sure, legends like Andre Agassi earned 60 titles including eight grand slams, but he hung it up when he was 36. Don't longevity and pure love of a sport count for something?


They do in the 50-year-old tennis association, a group that was composed mostly of homemakers when it got started in much different times. Dottie Breen is 81 and joined the club when she retired in 1987, the same year Cline became a member. She's proud of her serve, says the key to playing post-knee replacement is to get a doubles partner who can do all the running, and plays five times a week. Cline, she says, used to play every day, but not very many people can match Cline's seven-days-a-week desire to smack around that fuzzy yellow ball. So she settles for six days.


Cyd Geiger has played for 14 years with the Schenectady group but has been swinging a racket since she was 11 (minus a couple of 20-year breaks from the sport). She's 72, and plays tennis only during warm weather, because, "In the winter I ski."


Walking by them between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. is a dangerous game if you're just looking to lope around Central Park. These die-hards, who have been known to towel-dry the court just so they can play after it has rained, will get you.


"If you happen to walk by and look like you want to play tennis, if they catch your eye, they'll invite you to come in and play," says Jim Neal, who maintains the courts as a volunteer and has had to hustle the ladies through the gate when they try to play past 1 on particularly hot days. "You don't tell Fran no unless you really have a reason."


When Neal instructs young players, he encourages them to mix with Cline's bunch, who enjoy the game so much they'll hit with someone who doesn't know a forehand from a fault. They just want to see kids, reluctant seniors, or even the athletically challenged, with a racket in their hands because tennis has given them so much joy.


Cline likes the competitiveness of tennis and that it takes less time than golf, which she also plays.


"It was my game," Cline says. She was 12 when a ranked tennis player taught her the game at an Army-Navy country club. And it's been her game since.


It's Monday, and Cline is playing doubles against a pair that includes a high school tennis player.


"Fran brought her serve under 100 miles an hour for me," 17-year-old Jeremy Sagaille jokes. This is before he backs up, expecting a hard return from Cline, who sends a drop shot instead. He fails to get there in time.


"You play kids my age, they just slam the ball," Sagaille, who was recruited two years ago (as was his little brother), says later. "But these guys, they're like the raccoons. They're sly and slick. You've got to watch out for their trick shots."


All those years perfecting a backhand means advantage Cline and company on the courts, not that it matters to them. It's said they'll sometimes hold back on opponents just to draw the match out, wanting to savor each swing.


They can never get enough of their game.


Too bad you didn't bring your racket.


Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or jgish@timesunion.com. Friend her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/JenniferGishwriter.





Benefit event


The Schenectady Women's Tennis Association will hold a benefit tennis tournament for the Springfield, Mass., Shriners Hospitals for Children at 9 a.m. Aug. 16 at Schenectady's Central Park. The tournament is open to any adult who wants to participate. A suggested donation of $15 will go to Shriners. Call Janice Zebrowski at 355-0975 to register or donate.