My tennis buddy Albert Lyle reaches tennis stardomBy WYATT EMMERICH,
My tennis buddy Albert Lyle was inducted into the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame in a nice ceremony at the Jackson Country Club last Friday. Albert and I have been playing a regular weekly match at River Hills Tennis Club for years.
I hope Albert is proud of his accomplishment because I’m sure proud to regularly compete with him. Albert is one of the top 10 players in the nation in his age group.
There are lots of Northsiders in the Mississippi Tennis Players Hall of Fame: Mac Cameron, Dave Randall, Jan Johnson, Billy Chadwick, Robert Russell, Steve Pennington, Jane Holland, Mark Thompson, Susan Toler, Tito Echiburu, Carol Ann Vest, Ken Toler, Peter Koury, Sandra Rogers, Carolyn Henry and others who have passed away.
But Albert is special. Every tennis player at River Hills wants to be Albert when they grow up. That’s because at 81 years old he’s at the peak of his playing form. He never stops practicing, never stops improving his strokes, never stops getting better.
What a blessing to be able to play tennis each week with someone who is such an inspiration, someone who seemingly defies the aging process. At 60, I am starting to acknowledge the aging process. But when I see Albert running around the court like a gazelle, I take heart. He is nothing short of incredible. When you play Albert in tennis you learn a lot about tennis, but you learn even more about how to live life to its fullest.
There are 18 million tennis players in the United States. There are 10 age groups. So truly Albert is one in a million in terms of his tennis ability.
Albert’s big tennis rival in the southern region is Lester Sack from New Orleans. Lester Sack is also in the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame. Lester Sack recently attained the rank of number one in the entire world in his age group. Legends abound.
So it was no surprise to me when a recent study was published showing that of all sports and activities, tennis increased longevity the most. Nothing else was even close.
Using a large cohort of 20,000 healthy people in the Copenhagen City Heart Study, tennis players gained an extra 9.7 years of life expectancy. In comparison, cycling, swimming, jogging and calisthenics were all under gains of four years.
This bodes well for Northsiders. A while back the Northside Sun did a story that Jackson had the highest percentage of United States Tennis Association members than any place other than Hilton Head, S.C.
Albert started out as a golfer and played at Ole Miss where he was friends with my father-in-law Bob Knight and the Creekmore brothers who both attended the Hall of Fame ceremony. At one point, Albert came within a stroke of qualifying for the Senior Open and the U.S. Amateur.
It doesn’t stop there. Albert founded soccer in Mississippi. He started and coached the first high school team at St. Andrew’s in 1973. He started and played on the state championship adult soccer team, the Jackson Soccer Club. Last year, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School inducted him into its Athletic Hall of Fame for his soccer leadership.
So how does he do it? First of all, Albert is thin. There is not an ounce of fat on his body. He eats lots of boiled vegetables. I don’t think he has ever eaten a cheeseburger and fries in his life.
Second, he practices relentlessly. It is a running joke that Albert pretty much owns the ball machine at River Hills. “Have you ever beaten that thing,” I routinely ask. “No I haven’t,” he always deadpans.
Albert and I are sympatico and I’m not really sure why. I’m super talkative. He’s kinda quiet. I’m always cracking jokes when we play. He’s serious and competitive. Yet there is something that works between us. We can talk about anything. I’ll never forget the first time I evoked an expletive from him on the tennis court. It took years.
Also inducted into the Hall of Fame that night was Henry Harris of Vicksburg. I used to play Henry in tennis tournaments a long time ago. As I recall, I beat him once.
Hall of Famer Mac Cameron sat next to me at the banquet. I asked Mac why I wasn’t in the Hall of Fame since I had beaten both inductees. “It was the other 600 matches you didn’t win,” he responded.
Henry was a policeman in Vicksburg when he was introduced to tennis. He had lettered in numerous college sports so it came easily. Over the years, he mentored hundreds of young Vicksburg boys through the sport of tennis.
Henry’s friend, who introduced him that night, looked out at the audience and said, “I never thought I would see this many black people at the Jackson Country Club.” The comment got a big laugh, but it illustrates how far Mississippi has come. It illustrates how the great sport of tennis crosses all lines of sex, race and class.
Over the years, I have had so many great opponents and dear friends from tennis. Bob Crisler and I have played every Wednesday afternoon for 30 years. Lee Paris and I have played points that lasted for 15 minutes. Jackson Prep Coach Gary Noble passed me by in record time. John England, Bert Carruth, Lee Young, Aubrey Lucas, Chris Garbecz, Dan Spivey, Jimmie Coins, Rick Dye, Luke Billman and so many others, each with their own unique personalities and playing styles. So many great moments. So many great stories.
When I called Albert to nail down a few facts about his induction, his first response was, “Are you going to write about how I called you one of the greatest athletes I had ever known?” I didn’t miss a beat. “Of course not, Albert. I’m far too modest for that.”