George Abe moves gingerly toward the tennis ball during his regular morning doubles match but doesn’t hit it over the net until the second bounce.
Normally that wouldn’t be a legal stroke. But when you’re 97 years old and still playing tennis, you can pretty much write your own rules.
Abe, who plays three times a week at Kailua District Park, said he didn’t pick up the sport until the age of 70 when he retired from his job as a park keeper for the City and County of Honolulu.
"I didn’t know what I wanted to do — go swimming, bowling or golfing, but I chose tennis because it has a lot of movement," he said. "There’s nothing wrong with golf, but you just hit the ball and walk to the ball. In tennis you’ve got to run to the ball, so it’s good exercise."
Abe started off by hitting tennis balls against a wall. Then he joined a morning group of senior men and women. He now plays one or two four-game sets at the park three times a week.
The best part of his game?
"Winning," he said with a grin.
And the quality of his strokes?
"Lousy," he chuckled.
Abe still drives and maintains relatively good health.
"My eyes are good. My mind is good. The only thing is my legs are weak," he said.
He’s still married, too. His wife of 65 years, Lynn, lives at Oililua ElderCare in Kailua. Abe, who resides three blocks from the courts with his son, Clinton, visits Lynn twice every day.
The couple also has three daughters, Jean, Gloria and Carol.
Kailua resident Amy Shelby, who has been playing with Abe for about 12 years, said each year the group has a potluck at the tennis courts to celebrate his birthday.
She marvels at his ability to still play.
"George is unbelievable," she said. "What we give him is unlimited bounces so we can accommodate his movements … which is amazing for his age of 97. There are times when he hits the ball when you least expect it. He still has the basic ground strokes, which he learned a long time ago but never left him.
"He’s very good considering his age, and he’s very determined to play until the doctors say he cannot play anymore."
That happened briefly last year when he fell one day on the court after getting dizzy and needed to be taken to the emergency room. The doctor attending Abe told him he would have to put down his racket for a few days.
"He was devastated," Shelby recalled. "He was saying, ‘When can I play? When can I play?’"
Shelby said Abe is an inspiration because he still plays tennis, drives and has all his faculties intact.
"He’s just somebody who we’d all like to be at his age," she said. "He keeps us young."
Abe, one of 11 children, was born in Honolulu on May 5, 1916. He was taken at age 4 by his mother on a ship to Japan to attend school and live with his uncle because his parents thought the education would be better there.
He didn’t return to Hawaii until he was 18.
He began working for a Honolulu bakery in 1934 and remained in the bakery business for 36 years, including the last 20 as the owner of Jean’s Bakery and Fountain in Kailua.
The long hours eventually took their toll, and he shuttered the bakery in 1970.
"A baker is a hard job," he said. "You have to wake up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I (eventually) quit the business and leased the building because I didn’t think my children would take over, and it was hard work."
Abe began a new career when he was hired by the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation in 1973.
He first helped maintain Kapiolani Park before being transferred to Kailua and eventually becoming park keeper for Kailua’s Enchanted Lake Park. He retired in 1986.
Abe said he has no plans to relinquish his racket.
"I’d like to keep playing tennis, if my legs can take it, to 100 years old, 105 years old," Abe said.
He said the secret to his longevity is that he hasn’t done anything wrong.
"I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t fool around," he said. "Only work, work, work. And I have a good wife that I’ve been with for 65 years.
"My philosophy is if you’re nice to people, people are nice to you."