DUNEDIN — It is 8 a.m. on a Monday morning at the Dunedin Recreation Center tennis courts. Roger Gentilhomme is getting ready to serve. He has been playing doubles with friends for the past hour and is showing no signs of slowing down.
The ball jumps off his racquet, clears the net by inches and skips into the service box. After a few volleys, Gentilhomme puts an end to the point with a deftly placed lob that lands softly and kicks away from his opponent.
"That a way, Roger,'' playing partner John Bowersox said. "Great shot.''
Gentilhomme has been playing at the Dunedin courts for 35 years. Almost every day at 7 a.m. from November through early May, Gentilhomme drives his white Lincoln Presidential Town Sedan a short distance from the Honeymoon Mobile Home Park to the courts. He plays for nearly two hours.
On Thursday, Gentilhomme turns 100.
Barely above 5 feet tall, and no more than 125 pounds, Gentilhomme doesn't look a day over 90. He wears glasses but claims to have 20/20 vision. He is on no medication and said he recently received a clean bill of health during a recent check up.
"I feel great,'' Gentilhomme said. "I don't have any complaints.''
His Dunedin trailer is filled with photos of family and tennis. There are pictures from the numerous Florida Senior Games tournaments he has entered over the past 15 years. He figures he has won nearly 50 medals from the Games. In 2007, he was named the Florida Senior Athlete of the Year and was presented his medal by Gov. Charlie Crist.
In August, Gentilhomme will go to San Francisco to compete in the National Senior Games. In September he will go to the Netherlands for the first International Senior Games.
"They're all excited about having a 100-year-old there,'' Gentilhomme said.
His family is excited as well, even if they never saw him as the jock type.
"We always did music and were not that into sports,'' said Calla Jean Schaefer, Gentilhomme's only daughter. "He always encouraged us in whatever we did. But he didn't do sports. I never thought he'd do this well at tennis.''
All those years ago
Gentilhomme was born in 1909 on a kitchen table in the family's third floor tenement house in New Bedford, Mass. He weathered the Great Depression and graduated from New Bedford Textile School in 1933.
In 1937 he married Florence May Pierce, also of New Bedford, and the couple had three children, Claude, Clovis and Calla Jean. After a stint in the Army during World War II, Gentilhomme settled in Massachusetts and continued to work in the textile business. He was involved in Cub Scouts as a troop leader. But aside from gymnastics in high school and college, he did not play sports.
When the kids left the house, the Gentilhommes did what most northerners do; they headed south.
The couple bought a trailer in Dunedin in 1974. In the summer, they would return to Cape Cod. Gentilhomme is not one who enjoys idle time, and he quickly realized he needed something to fill those sunny winter days.
"I retired and didn't know what I was going to do,'' Gentilhomme said. "I saw something in the Sunday paper about the rec department running some tennis lessons. That was 1974 and I've been playing ever since.''
Gentilhomme was 65 when he first picked up a racquet and it became his passion. He's made hundreds of friends through tennis. And it's not just because of his longevity, it's also because he's got game.
"He's unbelievable,'' said Faith Mace, who lives in Crystal Beach and plays daily with Gentilhomme. "He doesn't just stand around. He runs to meet the ball. He's terrific.''
Aside from tennis, he also bowls, plays shuffleboard, goes dancing two to three times a month, plays cards on Wednesday and Friday nights and takes classes at St. Petersburg College. Last winter he took a law class.
"He's always doing something,'' Schaefer said. "When he comes up here (Cape Cod) he plays tennis in two different leagues. He also does a lot of gardening and spending time with family.''
It's not as if Gentilhomme has had an easy ride to 100.
In 1987, at age 78, he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and had part of it removed. He recovered in time to continue his tennis, although he did lose about 20 pounds.
And in the mid 1990s, Gentilhomme reached for a backhand, tripped over his feet and landed face first on the court. He suffered three clots in his head and had to take a year off.
"I can't believe I did that,'' he said. "They had to call the paramedics and everything. It was a little embarrassing.''
Then came the loss of his wife, Florence, after 68 years of marriage. She died in 2005 just four days after a memorable New Year's Eve party.
"We had a great time,'' Gentilhomme said. "We danced until midnight. But she woke up the next day and said her stomach hurt. Four days later she passed on.''
Back in Dunedin, he was 95-years-old and by himself for the first time. He never learned to cook, but he did discover TV dinners. He stays up to watch the 11 o'clock news, checks his e-mail, then has a snack and a glass of wine before going to bed around midnight. He'll be at the courts at 7 a.m. sharp.
Gentilhomme is known by just about everyone who plays at the Dunedin courts. He is the only player in the morning group in his 90s.
"You can't tell he's 90, let alone 100,'' Bowersox said. "We'll all be lucky to play as long as he has.''
The tennis group had a big party in April to celebrate his 100th birthday before some of them headed north. On Memorial Day in Cape Cod, more than 70 family members and friends are expected to gather at Schaefer's house for a big celebration in honor of "Papere,'' as he is known to his family.
Gentilhomme traveled north on Tuesday, and he played in a senior tennis tournament this weekend. This summer, he plans to play tennis, work in his garden and spend weekends with his family.
"I'm lucky, I'm lucky, I'm lucky,'' he said. "I thank the Lord many, many times a day.''