For the love of the game
86-year-old picked up tennis at 60

On a sunny breezy April day, Winnell Smith bounces back and forth on her feet readying her racket for the next volley. When the shot comes to her, Smith returns it with a controlled backhand, adding a good amount of spin to the ball. The ball bounces off the top of her opponent's racket and out of bounds.

At 86, Smith is in her element.

"I'm so happy. It's just wonderful," she said of her time playing tennis.

Between practice and games, Smith estimated she's on the tennis courts two to three times a week. She plays on several teams within the Adult Tennis Leagues ALTA including the Deer Run team, the senior team (over 55) and super-senior team (over 65).

In the last few years, she's played for the United States Tennis Association senior league over 80. In doubles games, she and her partner placed first in one USTA competition, and second and third in a few others.

Smith didn't start playing tennis until she turned 60. Before that, she spent over three decades working as an administrative assistant for Alcoa Aluminum in Atlanta and, along with husband of 66 years, William, raising her daughter and son.

When she retired from her job she decided to pursue two activities - playing tennis and playing the piano. She never did learn piano but she did take tennis classes at Pine Log Park beginning in 1980.

She said tennis interested her because it provided exercise and a strong social network. She's also had the opportunity to travel to such places as Jackson, Miss., and Kiawah Island, S.C., to play her games.

"Tennis was always in a pretty setting," said Smith.

An Atlanta native, Smith and her husband have lived in Rockdale County since 1972. Mr. Smith is a member of the Shriners and she is a member of Daughters of the Nile, a womens' group within the Shriners. The couple has attended First Baptist Church of Conyers since 1973, where Smith serves as a Sunday school teacher. They also regularly attend U.S. Navy reunions (Mr. Smith, 92, is a WWII veteran), high school reunions and family get-togethers. They have two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

"I am busy," said Smith.

Smith, who stands about 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighs 132 pounds, said she and husband eat healthy - lots of fruits and vegetables, some fish and little meat - and she takes lots of vitamins. In addition to her physical workout on the tennis courts, she also walks five days a week.

Conyers resident and Deer Run tennis team member Dot Hine said Smith is an inspiration for the team.

"We're all hoping that we'll be able to play when we're that age," said Hine. "If we're thinking it's too hard and we can't do it, we just look at her. She is 86 and is running after every ball."

For her part, Smith said she'll keep playing tennis as long as she is physically able.

"My goal is to play tennis until I'm 90 and I hope it's 90-plus," she said.