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Rivard: Tennis for life

Aug 24, 2021
written by: Paul Rivard
written by: Paul Rivard

In parks and clubs, you’ll see 5-year-olds swinging a racquet for the first time and 80-year-olds sprinting to the net. Between the two generations, there are A LOT of players.  

They’re not all passionate about tennis (though many are). Friends and couples get together to socialize and strike a few balls, and kids hit the courts to run around and burn off some energy. People play tennis for all sorts of reasons.  

No matter how often, how well or how hard you play, tennis is a sport for a lifetime.  

Let me introduce you to Émilien Vallée.  

A senior man plays tennis on a grass court
Photo : Paul Rivard

If he isn’t Canada’s oldest tennis player, then he’s certainly among the very few who head to the courts at his venerable age.  

Émilien is 91 years old, and he gets out between the lines as much as he can.  

I came across Mr. Vallée by chance, when his son Gaëtan tweeted out birthday wishes to his dad in July.  

I got in touch with him to ask if I could chat with Émilien. Quicker than you can say let, I was invited to stop by the following weekend.  

When I arrived at the residential complex for seniors on Montréal’s South Shore, I got to meet Émilien and his son Gaëtan, as well as Émilien’s other son Denis and grandson James. And their coach? Family matriarch Gisèle Gervais-Vallée!

A family posing for a photo on a tennis court
The Vallée clan: James (15), Denis (55), Gaëtan (60), Gisèle and Émilien. 

Émilien discovered tennis in 1941, at the age of 11. As luck would have it, he found the sport at the same time as a future Canadian champion: “I picked up a racquet for the very first time at a summer camp in Sherbrooke. Robert Bédard was there also. He was my favourite player. But today, it’s Roger Federer.”  

Long-time residents of Granby, the members of the Vallée family opened their home to some of the players who competed in the National Bank Challenger in the municipality. They’ll never forget the summer in 2015 when they hosted British ace Johanna Konta. Her win in Granby sparked a run that propelled her 80 places in the WTA rankings, as she rose from No.126 to No.46.  

Émilien shares his love of tennis with his children, who each took different paths to the game. Gaëtan began hitting balls against the wall around the age of 13. His brother Denis started playing on a regular basis at 35. James was four when he picked up a racquet for the first time.  

Half a hand  

Émilien, who worked as a carpenter at the Royal Victoria Hospital, was forced to stop playing for a few years following an accident with a circular saw that cost him the fourth and fifth fingers on his right hand.  

When he came back to the sport some years later, he decided not to learn to play with his left hand. Instead, he found a way to hit with fewer fingers! “That means I play with half a hand! And until I was 75, none of my kids could beat me!”  he said proudly as he showed me his grip.  

A hand missing two fingers holds a tennis racket

Émilien Vallée’s victories extend beyond his immediate family. His sons were very pleased to tell me he had won the National Seniors Games in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “I won in the 70 and over. Gold, silver and bronze medals!” exclaimed Émilien. “When he won in the over 70, he was 80!” added his kids.   

And he isn’t hanging up his racquet any time soon. Will he still play at 100? “My uncle, Napoléon Vallée, was the oldest man in Québec for a time. He died at 106. But I don’t want to live that long,” said Émilien with a wink.   

Émilien took a break after hitting a few balls with his eldest, and I was invited to join the three younger Vallées in a doubles match that was as fun as it was competitive. When points are on the line, the motivation escalates. I was paired with young James, who was on a mission to give his father and uncle a lesson.  

Meanwhile, Émilien and Gisèle served as chair umpires and linespeople. They brimmed with joy as they watched two happy and active generations of their family on the court. 

Priceless! 

Play tennis, live longer  

The idea of tennis being the sport of a lifetime isn’t new.  

Go ahead and Google it, and you’ll find tons of articles just like this one in New York Tennis Magazine about the many benefits of tennis. 

As far as activities go, science is convinced that tennis can’t be beat:  

  • Cut your risk of death by 50%, regardless of the cause
  • Enjoy higher levels of vigor, self-esteem and optimism and be less likely to experience anger, depression, anxiety and confusion 
  • Burn more calories playing competitive tennis than any other aerobic workout including cycling 

And, of course, tennis is fun!   

I’d also add that tennis reminds us adults of the simple childhood delight of running after a ball.  

I especially liked this piece by Steven Salzberg in Forbes. You might like it too, since it affirms that tennis may extend your life by nearly a decade.  

Meeting Émilien Vallée and his family warmed by heart (and my muscles!).  

On a court, he embodies all the wonderful reasons to take up tennis and many benefits it brings.  

To others and to ourselves. 

A senior man plays tennis and smiles to the camera