Dennis Nielson has had his share of victories on the tennis court.
The 83-year-old resident of Vancouver, Washington is ranked by the U.S. Tennis Association as the No. 1 hardcourt player in the 80- to 85-year-old age group in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
But he doesn’t measure success by wins and losses.
“I feel best not about what I’ve accomplished,” he says. “I play for the experience. My emphasis is more on going out and enjoying it and playing within myself. You get a lot more from the game that way.”
A number-one Northwest ranking is not new to Nielson, who practices regularly at the Vancouver Tennis Center. He’s won 12 trophies over the years for placing first, second or third in USTA national tournaments. More than anything, though, tennis allows Nielson to stay active, to connect with others, and to teach the game through a program he founded and runs each winter.
Tennis was not a big part of Nielson’s life when he was growing up, but it was a focal point of a lengthy career as a public school teacher, during which he also coached.
For the past 18 years, he’s also run a tennis program at an RV resort in southern California where he and his wife of 39 years, Eileen, spend some time each year.
Nielson says his goal with the program is to “make it something I would want to do. It’s fun, and the people are nice. It keeps me young.”
A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, Nielson and his family moved to San Antonio when he was 5 years old, then relocated to Los Angeles when he was 12 or 13. His father worked in the printing field and his mother was a secretary.
Nielson says his parents valued perseverance —“hanging in there, working hard at what you do and not complaining.”
Basketball and baseball were the main sports he played as a youngster, only “hacking around” on the tennis court with his dad.
Nielson taught in public schools for 35 years, but his interest in teaching evolved over time.
He attended Santa Monica City College for two years, then spent two years in the U.S. Army, choosing to enlist in 1954 rather than be drafted.
He spent most of that time in Germany. Later, he attended the University of California, Santa Barbara on the GI Bill.
He saw teaching as an avenue to coaching sports. He taught junior high English and math, while also coaching basketball and baseball.
Then he took a teaching job at Bend High School, teaching and coaching there for 25 years.
During that time, he upped his tennis game, participating in summer tournaments.
Although he retired from teaching in 1995, he returned to coach tennis for two more years. His tennis teams won 27 district championships and two state championships. In addition, he coached three girls’ doubles teams to state championships.
Even in a sport as individual as tennis, Nielson valued a team mentality.
“We had good teams and created a team atmosphere,” he says. “The kids who played tennis could walk around school with their head up, wearing their letter jackets.”
After he retired, Nielson continued to hit the court, playing with friends and family, and participating in tournaments. He played and traveled to competitions with one friend in particular, whose game was similar to his.
Tournaments, he says, “became something that was fun to do. And I’m fortunate to have a healthy body.”
Now he’s bringing other retirees into the sport by running a popular tennis program in Palm Springs.
About 18 years ago, while participating at a tennis tournament in California, he and Eileen spoke with the resort management, and proposed the idea of getting more people involved.
Since then, they’ve built up the program and acquired equipment that they hope will add to the program, including a second-hand wind screen and ball machine.
Some resort residents who join the program are long-time tennis players, while others are new to the court. Nielson involves them in drills and games, and occasionally they have social time around an evening fire.
“After I retired I said, ‘I can’t just play tournaments every weekend,’” Nielson says. “(The tennis program) keeps me young. People say to me all the time that I don’t seem to get any older. I think the reason is because I interact, I run drills and I play with them as well. You make friends and you interact more with people when you are in a situation like that because that’s what they are there for — to have fun and do things they don’t do at home.”