Nancy Morgan first stepped on a tennis court almost 50 years ago.
"We had no tennis courts where I grew up in southern West Virginia," Morgan says. "The first time I played we had to drive 14 miles around and down a mountain to one little court that was beside the train tracks."
She still has the wood Wilson racket she used that day. "I haven't kept a whole lot of my old rackets, but that one was special because it was the first one I ever had."
Tennis rackets have changed a lot since then — the frames are no longer wood, for one thing, now being made of synthetic materials — and it was decades from that first time on the court before Morgan took up the game in earnest.
With physical education degrees from West Virginia University and the University of Maryland, Morgan was always a good athlete, having played basketball, taught swimming and run in marathons.
She and her husband, David, occasionally used to hit tennis balls around on weekends, but it wasn't until about 1980, when their youngest daughter was 3, that Morgan got hooked.
"I'd drop her off at a preschool at 9 in the morning and then go play tennis until I picked her up at noon," says Morgan, who played at Clearwater's public McMullen Tennis Complex.
"I didn't find it hard or frustrating to learn. I think that goes back to playing basketball as a kid. My hand-eye coordination helped me transition to tennis."
Today, Morgan, 62, who lives in Dunedin, is on the tennis court three or four times a week. Her main concession to age is to play on more-forgiving clay courts rather than hard concrete.
"The body is much more responsive to playing on clay," she says.
Morgan plays both singles and doubles, which require different approaches.
"Singles is great for fitness," she says. "If you want a workout, play singles. Doubles is like playing checkers: You're trying to maneuver your opponent into a vulnerable position. So you have to think more. In doubles, I like the net play and the strategy."
Twice, Morgan has played on women's teams from McMullen that went to national championship tournaments held by the United States Tennis Association, most recently in 2006 with a senior team rated at the 4.0 (intermediate) level.
Many older players give up singles because it's too much work, but Morgan continues to enjoy the grind.
"So far I can still move pretty well," she notes. "One of the things that got me hooked on tennis is the running: I play better when people make me run rather than hitting the ball right to me."
Indeed, when Morgan started playing tennis, she was a long-distance runner. "I would run 40 miles a week," she says. "Running and tennis were neck and neck for about five years, but I gravitated toward tennis.
"I found that distance running and tennis do not complement each other, muscle-wise. Tennis is a stop-and-start activity.''
This summer, Morgan played at the 4.5 level in the Ultimate Tennis singles league and held her own against younger women.
"So far, getting older hasn't hurt me — except that younger players hit the ball harder. But the 30-somethings who hit the ball really hard, they go in and out of greatness, and I always wait for them to lose control and hit the ball out. I can't keep up with their pace, but I can still hang with most of the younger players.
"I'm more of a control player. I have a little slice on my backhand. I have a drop shot. I think my anticipation is pretty good."
At Morgan's age, she is less inclined to work on specific strokes than on strategy and the mental aspect of tennis.
"I used to have a partner, and we would always say that we needed to put a call in to the sports psychologist," she says. "The mind plays terrible tricks on you sometimes. I am my own worst enemy on the court. In a match this week, I was playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Instead of being aggressive, I was playing carefully."
Morgan is competitive but doesn't let losses bother her, thanks in part to having seven grandchildren in the area to take her mind off a tough match.
"If I lose, I may remember the loss, but it doesn't necessarily color my day. All I have to do is see a grandchild and I'm fixed."
This week, Morgan plans to be in New York for the U.S. Open and meetings of the USTA, for which she has volunteered for 25 years. She is former president of the Florida section of the association and was named to its hall of fame in 2006.
She also was the tennis correspondent for the Clearwater Sun and St. Petersburg Times and now writes an online newsletter for Advantage Yours, a Clearwater tennis shop where she works as a racket stringer one day a week.
Her involvement with the USTA has given Morgan the chance to mingle with her tennis heroes, such as Billie Jean King. "I admire her very, very much. Without Billie Jean, who knows where women's sports would be?"
Older players tend to have to deal more with injuries. Morgan has had two operations on her right shoulder and two operations on her left knee, all because of tennis.
After knee surgery last September, she started going to Shapes fitness center in Palm Harbor for rehabilitation, and the exercise program she does there helped her to lose about 15 pounds. That, in turn, improves her mobility on the court.
Tennis is billed as the sport for a lifetime, and there are plenty of players who continue into their 80s and even 90s. Morgan's goal is to play as long as she can.
"I just take it year by year," she says. "I can't imagine not being able to do the physical things I like to do. Running, swimming, biking, playing tennis, going to the gym — those are my favorite things.
"Somewhere in my 80s, there's always golf."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.