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National Senior Games: Younger guns shine in tennis

Deborah Burgess of Franklin, Wisc., competes in tennis at Jerry Cline Tennis Center on Monday. She won the gold medal in the women’s age 60-64 division of the National Senior Games. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Let’s hear it for the whippersnappers.

Most of the National Senior Games media coverage the past 11 days, in the host city of Albuquerque and elsewhere, has focused on athletes in their 80s, 90s and even centenarians like now-legendary, 103-year-old sprinter Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins. That’s understandable and laudable.

But the Senior Games are not just for seniors — depending on how one defines the term.

Monday at the Jerry Cline Tennis Center, the talent and competitive zeal of the under-65 set was on full display.

First, in a taut match between two ultra-fit shotmakers, Deborah Burgess of Franklin, Wis. defeated Vickki Schlappi of Rancho Mirage, Calif., 7-6 (7-4, retired), for the NSG women’s age 60-64 singles title.

Later, in a see-saw 50-54 mixed doubles final, Mark Florman and Michelle von Schwerdtner of Cleveland defeated Kevin and Barbara Friesen of Troy, Mich., 6-2, 2-6, 10-6 (tiebreak).

Burgess played college tennis at Wisconsin-Whitewater and later coached there. She also played basketball for the Warhawks and is a member of the school’s athletics hall of fame.

She roots for any Wisconsin school that happens to be playing any sport on a given day.

“I’m a big sports fan,” she said.

In the championship match, Burgess found herself down 0-3 to the athletic Schlappi before righting herself.

“I just told myself to settle down and move my feet more,” she said.

Burgess won five of the next six games as Schlappi struggled with some unforced errors. But Schlappi then put Burgess’ back to the wall by winning the next two games and going up 6-5.

Burgess, a 2017 NSG gold medalist in women’s doubles and a silver medalist in singles, had another talk with herself.

“Just get my first serve in and be consistent,” she said.

So she did, breaking Schlappi at love, and secured the gold medal with her victory in the tiebreak when Schlappi, who took a hard spill midway through the set and appeared to be limping slightly, withdrew due to injury.

While in Albuquerque, Burgess sampled New Mexican cuisine, rode the Sandia Peak Tram and hiked to the Kiwanis Cabin.

“My first semester (of college) I went to school at the University of Arizona in Tucson, so I’ve missed the good Mexican food here in the Southwest. So I had to have a little of it while I was here.”

In the 50s mixed doubles, Florman-von Schwerdtner spotted the Friesens a 2-1 lead before winning five straight games to take the first set.

In the second set, Kevin Friesen’s booming serve, Barbara Friesen’s agility at the net and some uncharactistic loose shots from Florman enabled the Michigan couple to even the match.

Then came the 10-point tiebreaker.

Florman-von Schwerdtner won the first three points, lost the next five, then closed it out behind some excellent shotmaking from Florman, who plays to a 5.0 rating.

The highly competitive match ended on an anticlimactic note when Kevin Friesen double-faulted on match point.

Florman, a Cleveland dentist, played tennis in high school but not in college, then took up the game seriously in his 30s.

And yes, he’s serious.

After losing the second set, he said, ‘I just kept telling (von Schwerdtner) we’ve been training for this for two years,” he said. “I’ve always been very serious about tennis, and Michelle’s been working on getting better for two years.

“I knew we were gonna have a tough match, because (the Friesens’) ratings combined are higher than ours. … We just took one point at a time and just tried to be intense, which pumps me up. I was the one that was making errors I don’t normally make, and Michelle was rock-hard strong.”

Von Schwerdtner took up tennis in her 30s after having played high school basketball. This was her first National Senior Games. Florman is a multiple-time singles champion.

The Ohioans had nothing but good things to say about their stay in New Mexico, which is not over; they were planning to drive to Santa Fe Monday evening.

“We’ve had some nice dinners,” von Schwerdtner said. “We went to (Vernon’s) Speakeasy, which was really neat.”

Of the tennis competition, they praised the venue and the organizers.

“The volunteers here have been amazing,” von Schwerdtner said.

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