Alan Woog remembers reading once that the first 90 years of life are the definitely the hardest.
Having navigated safely through those — he turns 90 Thursday — Woog is reveling in what he calls “the fun part.”
Woog will tell you he entered the United States Tennis Association national tournament for super seniors “on a lark.”
The longtime Mercer Island resident also will tell you that winning the 90-and-over doubles title in Vancouver, Wash., earlier this month turned out to be one of the biggest thrills of a life that has been jampacked with adventure.
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“I’ll remember those last three points when I’m on my deathbed,’’ he said.
Particularly, the final point of a back-and-forth match that sent a buzz through Club Green Meadows. The stands began to fill up as word spread through the venue of these codgers going down to the wire.
“The crucial points were coming, and the tension was high,’’ Woog said.
Woog and his partner, Yutaka Kobayashi, had never even met until a few days earlier. Woog had scanned the entry list, noticed that Kobayashi was entered only in singles, and emailed him to ask if he wanted to pair up for doubles. Kobayashi quickly accepted.
Though 89 at the time of the event, Woog was eligible to compete in the 90-year-old category because he will reach that age in the calendar year. Turns out there were only two teams entered, which put Woog and Kobayashi straight through to the finals.
“It’s tough to find 90-year-old guys to compete,’’ laughed Kobayashi, who lives in Wellesley, Mass. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t think we’d get very far. Everything worked. Alan played very well. We played well together.”
The defending champions, Wally McGovern (a retired federal judge from Seattle) and Eddie Tyler, won the first set, 7-5. Woog and Kobayashi won the second set, 6-4. The match would be determined by a 10-point tiebreaker, which stood 7-7 after Woog and Kobayashi watched a 6-1 lead disappear. They got the next two points to stand on the verge of victory.
“They served to me, and I hit a liner to (one of his opponent’s) backhand,’’ Woog said, giving blow-by-blow replay. “He tries to hit a cross-court shot to Kobi, and hits it out wide. We win the thing. I jump in the air and turned to Kobi and say, ‘You’re the greatest.’ He looks at me — what a charming guy — and says, ‘It takes two to tango.’ ”
Woog noted that he played like a teenager, and he sounds like one as he recaps the match and shows me the coveted “Gold Ball” that goes to the winners.
The setting on his pacemaker, which gives a warning beep at 120 beats a minute, sat between 120 and 130 for two hours. Though Kobayashi affectionately said that the effervescent Woog “talks your head off,” he added, “I like to play with people who enjoy playing. He obviously enjoys playing. He enjoys winning more.”
Friday, I watched Woog play at Seattle’s Amy Yee Tennis Center with the Mercer Island senior doubles group, a hardy collection of 60-and-over players (with a solid contingent of octogenarians) who have gotten together for tennis and companionship for years.
Woog is a bundle of energy, moving with alacrity around the court and peppering his crisp shots with good-natured commentary. After he had finished three sets, I thought about challenging him to a point, to see first hand what he had. I decided against it out of deference to the aching back and overall fatigue.
Mine, not his. Alan looked like he could have gone another five sets. An ice hockey star as a youth in Crestwood, N.Y., Woog had played tennis at the University of Idaho, but pretty much dropped the sport when he settled in Washington state for a career as a forester. Competitive skiing was his game.
“I raced and skied all over the Northwest,’’ he said. “Then, when I was 80, I decided, ‘Gee, maybe I better quit this while I’m ahead of the game.’ I never got hurt. So I decided to go back to tennis.”
Woog, who divorced after his two kids left for college, also remains active in the environmental movement, dabbles in yoga and pilates, does strength training at the Jewish Community Center, and receives sports massages on a regular basis. His daughter-in-law, a geriatric mental-health therapist, uses him frequently as an example of healthy aging.
Trust me, he’s 90 going on 21.
Speaking of which, Woog related a fascinating story from his 20s, back when he received a fellowship to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
“When I got there, I looked around for the most interesting woman to date,’’ he said.
He decided on an African-American woman, with whom he struck up a conversation in the cafeteria lunch line. They dated for two years, with all the expected hassles of being an interracial couple in the late 1940s. But they persevered.
“She wanted to get married,’’ Woog said. “I said, ‘No, it wouldn’t work.’ Not in America then. You want to go on to your singing career, I want to go out West and be a forester.”
The woman was Coretta Scott, who of course would go on to marry Martin Luther King a few years later.
“We stayed very close friends,’’ he said. “I followed her and stayed involved in the civil rights movement. I feel I made the right decision. We would have spent our time fighting society. We would have been destroyed.”
Woog’s son, Adam, remembers getting Christmas cards from the Kings. Woog saw her for the last time shortly before her death in 2006 when she spoke at a fundraiser in Bellevue. Coretta singled him out during her address.
“I feel like I changed American history,’’ he said.
In that context, a tennis title seems like, well, a lark. Woog hasn’t decided yet if he’s going to go back to Vancouver next year to defend the title. On the one hand, he and Kobayashi really clicked. On the other hand, he’s not keen on traveling any more. And how do you top a moment that makes an 89-year-old man leap for joy?
“Maybe I ought to play this for all it’s worth,’’ he said with the heartiest of laughs.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry