As members of the 35-and-over club, Roger Federer and Serena Williams are often thought of as tennis’ elder statesmen. But the players at the center of Gold Balls — the directorial debut of filmmaker Kate Keckler Dandel — started swinging their racquets long before Roger and Serena were even born. These players compete on the USTA’s 80-and-over circuit, where glory comes not in the form of million-dollar paychecks or international headlines, but in small, elusive “gold ball” trophies awarded to USTA national champions. The film follows 80-year-old Ron Tonidandel as he pursues his first gold ball, and introduces us to many other senior tennis players, for whom tennis is about much more than wins and losses.
By the time they reach age 80, most tennis players are content to enjoy a relaxed hitting session at a local park or tennis club (if they haven’t retired from the game altogether). But the subjects of Gold Balls are different: they train and practice with vigor, dedication, and focus, and tournament travel takes them to distant locations like Vancouver, WA or South Orange, NJ. The film excels in exploring each player’s background and in bringing to light the forces that drive them to continue playing competitive tennis. For some, the sport is a way to stay physically and mentally vital. For others, the social aspect is more important — many senior players are longtime coaches who have made their most enduring friendships through tennis.
For 83-year-old John Powless, the top-ranked singles and doubles player among his 80-and-over peers, the fire of competition still burns inside. Despite his age, Powless exudes the the confidence, charm, and youthful energy of a standout high-school or college athlete. His physician marvels at his ability to move around the court like a much younger player, but acknowledges that even John is not immune to the inevitable injury or setback that will send him into retirement. But for now, the former University of Wisconsin tennis and basketball (!) coach — who plays with “the biggest racquet allowed by law” — dominates the court. His love of tennis persists not only because he can rack up convincing wins, but also because of the sport’s inextricable link to his father, who taught him to play and remains his ultimate sports hero.
The threats of aging and mortality occasionally make their dark presence felt in Gold Balls — stumbles, falls, and sporadic mental lapses are an unfortunate part of the game on the senior circuit. But the film ultimately tells a story of triumph, and the smiles on the faces of players make it hard for the viewer not to smile along with them. It’s not hard to guess how Ron Tonidandel’s quest for a singles gold ball will end (after an early loss at the indoor championships in Vancouver, he muses that his chances of winning a tournament have dropped from two percent to one percent). But his story ends with an unexpected and heartwarming moment of redemption, proving that senior tennis has something to offer for everyone, no matter the score.
Gold Balls is the rare tennis film that digs deep enough to satisfy die-hard fans while also remaining accessible to those who haven’t yet fallen in love with the game. Fans and players of all ages will find authentic inspiration and plenty of fun to be had on and off the court.
For more information about Gold Balls, visit the film’s website.