The only thing John Powless spins better than a second serve is a story, and the other day he was recalling how he bumped into Allan Stone in Australia last month, and right away Powless said, “Do you remember that doubles match that we played in Quebec?”
Stone grinned. “I’ll never forget it.”
It had something to do with their French-speaking opponents — Powless and Stone were partners — and their harassment of the match umpire to the point where the umpire, fearing for his safety, fled his chair. The players then made their own line calls. At least they did until there was a dispute at the net and Stone put one of their opponents to the ground with one punch. Powless and Stone advanced to the finals.
Powless, 77, the former UW men’s basketball coach who operates a tennis center on the West Side, is a senior tennis legend. He’s the top-ranked over-75 player in the world. And he was in Hilton Head, S.C., over the weekend to receive yet another honor — the Professional Tennis Registry’s Senior Player of the Decade award.
But for all the awards and titles — he got two more, singles and doubles, at the Australian Open last month — it might be the stories that really keep Powless going. His blue eyes light up when he bumps into someone like Stone, an Australian pro and Wimbledon doubles finalist who, like Powless, was there when the fledgling pro circuit was considerably less gentrified than it is now.
That Quebec match was four decades ago. Powless recalls it as the first professional tournament in Canada. Powless was still the Badgers’ basketball coach and was driving home from a golf outing with Elroy Hirsch when they stopped — golf outings can induce a powerful thirst — and Powless called home and learned he was the No. 1 seed in a tournament in Canada he knew nothing about. The tennis impresario Donald Dell had entered him. Powless had 48 hours to get to Quebec.
It was a little reminiscent of the very first tennis tournament Powless ever played in. His dad entered him. This was somewhere around their little town of Flora in southern Illinois, and John was maybe 11. He found the court. The tournament director looked at him and said, “Would you like to put shoes on?”
“I don’t wear shoes when I play tennis.”
By the time he was 15, he had shoes, and his game had legs. When he was a senior in high school, Powless won the state high school championship, beating the No. 2 ranked junior player in the country. At 18, he played his first U.S. Open in New York.
He played basketball and tennis in college at Murray State, and he kept playing tennis in the summers as he pursued a career coaching basketball. He was head coach of the Badgers from 1968 to 1976.
Last week Powless recalled being at an early tennis tournament and glancing over at some competitors in the senior division. He remembered thinking, “I’ll probably never live that long.”
He not only lived to play senior tennis, he’s compiled perhaps the most distinguished record of any senior ever. In November, Powless was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in a class that included Barry Alvarez and Packers executive Bob Harlan.
Powless wasn’t sure who was going to present him his Senior Player of the Decade award. At an event a few years ago, David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York, gave Powless an award. The two have dinner once a year, having bonded over their mutual friendship with the late Arthur Ashe. Powless taught Ashe in the Junior Davis Cup. His tennis life is filled with those kinds of connections.
There are no signs of slowing down, in large part due to the artificial knee replacements Powless received in the last few years. After surgery, Powless’ commitment to rehab and recovery amazed even his own surgeon. No one should have been surprised. Among other things, he knew it would make a good story.