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At 72, Joe Sweeney is leaving a mark on college tennis courts

Joe Sweeney, a sophomore on the tennis team at Salem State College in Salem, Mass., always yearned to be taller. But he is going the other way. After having reached a high of 5'8", confides Sweeney, he is "shrinking like crazy."

Is he the victim of some mysterious disease? Radiation from a microwave oven? Hitting too many overheads? Nope. It's just the aging process, the compaction of vertebrae. Sweeney, who turned 72 in May, is almost certainly the oldest active varsity athlete in the country.

"I don't know what all the fuss is about," he says. Sprightly and trim at 5'7", 140 pounds, Sweeney has a jock's rolling gait instead of a senior-citizen shuffle. He squares off against 18- and 19-year-olds at Salem State, a commuter school of 5,400 students about 18 miles north of Boston where he has been enrolled since 1985. And why did the onetime millworker and cost estimator decide, after 38 years of working and 17 years of semiretirement, to go to college? "Well," he says, "it was something I hadn't tried."

A roguish-looking man who sports a neatly trimmed white beard and wears a visored cap on court, Sweeney started playing for the tennis team last fall. Although he has yet to win a singles match—the Vikings schedule includes such teams as Babson, Lowell, Rhode Island College, Plymouth State, Brandeis and Bates—he has shared in two doubles victories. He smiles when considering the dilemma confronting an opponent.

"When a kid sees that he has to play me," Sweeney says, "he usually groans. If he beats me, no big deal. But if I beat him, well, that will be tough to explain." He was invited to go out for the varsity by the coach, Grant Longley, who knew him from the days when Sweeney coached the women's team at Salem State in 1983. "What did I have to lose?" says Sweeney. "Nothing. So I went out."

While hardly a grand master, the self-taught Sweeney has a fluid, rather graceful game. He likes to play inside the baseline—in so-called no-man's-land—to reduce the amount of court he has to cover, often volleying the shots that are rammed at his feet. On court he is relaxed and maybe a little too talkative for The All England Club, but he is unfailingly courteous and complimentary. "I enjoy myself," he says, "perhaps because I never worry about losing. I'm too busy planning my next move."

Sweeney does not hit with power, and calls himself quick rather than fast. He uses a lot of spin, and believes in such homely principles as getting the first serve in—even if it's not a bullet—and playing within oneself, that is, trying only what you have a good chance of doing successfully.

"But don't get me wrong," he says. "I also believe that you should constantly try to learn new things. And practice. I try to hit 130 serves every time I go out to practice. Why 130? Because I have 65 balls in my tennis bag, and I hit 'em all twice. You can always learn something new. I never knew what a topspin backhand was until I saw Rod Laver. After five or six years, I had a decent one myself."

Sweeney, who has lived for 38 years in nearby Andover and has a daughter, a son and four grandchildren, also pursues other sports. He competes during the winter in slalom and giant slalom events throughout the East, plays in an old-timers hockey league and swims a lot. In fact, he says that if the school had a men's swimming team he would try out for diving. "Can you imagine?" he asks. "They'd be saying, 'Who does that old geezer think he is?' " He laughs at the thought.

In the winter, Sweeney works as a ski instructor, and this summer he will be director of tennis at a camp in Hancock, N.Y. His first coaching was done in 1931 when, as the only kid who knew any plays, he directed and served as quarterback for a sandlot football team.

Sweeney's focus is on the future, on what he can accomplish, what new skills he can acquire, what person he can help be a better skier, a better tennis player. He is amused by the ripples of interest stirred by his joining a college tennis team. "Anybody could do it," he says. "Why me? Because I like it. No, because I love it."



Sweeney hits 130 serves at every Salem State practice.

A senior editor with IBM, Peter Hillyer calls himself a "moderately skilled tennis player."