Still Swinging at 74: Gail Falkenberg may be the oldest tournament tennis player of all time

Gail Falkenberg practices her tennis game on the court at the Bianculli residence in the Westbury subdivision in southwest Ocala on Aug. 30. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 
Regardless of how long Gail Falkenberg’s career in tennis would later prove to be, it didn’t begin as smoothly as one might think.

A natural athlete, when Falkenberg was 10 years old living in New Jersey, she picked up a tennis racket and discovered to her delight that she could just play the game with ease.

Or so she had thought.

“My mother had some people look at me and they said I’ll never be any good at tennis,” explained Falkenberg of that nascent time in her tennis career. “Because they said I didn’t hit the ball right.”

“So that was the end of tennis,” she said of her childhood. “I got piano lessons instead.”

Falkenberg, now 74, would ultimately get the last say in whether or not she could be any good at tennis.

Today, she may very well be the oldest tournament tennis player of all time.

A few months ago, Falkenberg found out that she was listed No. 1 on the oldest.org website’s 10 Oldest Tennis Players Ever in the World list.

“I figured I was [the oldest] because I hadn’t seen anybody younger,” said Falkenberg with a laugh.

On the website’s list, Martina Navratilova comes in at No. 2, followed by Billie Jean King at No. 4. John McEnroe is No. 6. Jimmy Connors is No. 8.

“And I’m number one!” Falkenberg said with bright smile.

She first started playing competitive tennis at the University of California, Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. She took a break to become a documentary filmmaker in the 1970s, then started up again on the tennis tour circuit for the first time in the mid-1980s when she was 38.

Admittedly, her glory days are far behind her.

In 1985, Falkenberg won an amateur singles national championship. In 1987, she was ranked 360th in the world in professional singles and 430th in professional doubles.

In 1988, she won a match at that year’s Australian Open.

But Falkenberg still plays the game she loved so much as a 10-year-old. In fact, and maybe even more like that younger version of herself, Gail plays mostly for fun these days, not tour victories.

Recently, Falkenberg rejoined the ITF Women’s World Tennis Tour, a professional tennis circuit, after four years away and regularly plays against young women in their teens and early 20s.

Her most recent opponent was a young woman from France, which generated an article in the French newspaper “L’Equipe.”

In 2013, Falkenberg played against a then 16-year-old Naomi Osaka, who has since gone on to twice win both the U.S. Open (2018, 2020) and the Australian Open (2019, 2021).

“Oh God, she killed me,” laughed Falkenberg of playing Osaka. “Her serve was unbelievable.”

“I got points, but only if she screwed up,” she added.

In 2016, she played Taylor Townsend, then 20 and the No. 1-ranked junior in the world, who reached Round 16 of the U.S Open in 2019.

The match brought a certain amount of media attention to Falkenberg’s door.

She was 69 years old at the time.

“London was on the phone,” she recalled of the chaos surrounding the match. “The local television cameras were there. I had “The Wall Street Journal” interviewing me. I had everybody attacking me for interviews. I couldn’t even concentrate on playing a match. They were betting on me in Europe.”

Falkenberg was scoring at least one point a game against Townsend, with one game point against her that, according to Gail, shocked the young tennis star.

“I hit well,” said Falkenberg of her stroke, “but I do it with tremendous spin. And it’s tough to hit back. It doesn’t look tough, but it’s tough.

“I was doing interviews for weeks. I had Italy, Germany and all of Europe seemingly on the phone with me. It was incredible,” said Falkenberg.

Her truly incredible tennis story really began in 1967, where Falkenberg joined the UCLA women’s tennis team.

She was playing basketball for the Bruins then, another sport she excelled at, but she also tried out for the tennis team and made it.

Falkenberg graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in filmmaking.

After college, Falkenberg went to work editing productions for a Navy research lab out of China Lake, California, which worked on air defense weapons.

In 1972, she made a documentary film for the Navy on the first remote-piloted aircraft to successfully take off — a precursor to today’s modern drone technology.

Falkenberg worked for the Navy for five years before starting up her own audio-visual production company, Falkenberg Productions, based out of Los Angeles.

It was in 1985 when Falkenberg, then 38, decided to take a go at the professional tennis circuit.

“I was in a condominium complex that had tennis courts and I just started hitting the ball around one day,” she remembered. “There was this guy there who said he was looking for a mixed doubles partner. He thought I had potential and he started working with me.”

“And that was it,” she added. “I fell back in love with tennis.”

Falkenberg ended her production company and pivoted to focusing full-time on tennis and playing on the pro tour.

“I quit my job and went on the circuit for five years,” said Falkenberg. “And that doesn’t seem like that’s normal for a lot of people to do at 38. But I did it.”

She never had a coach because, she said, she couldn’t afford one. However, she still traveled all over the world on her own money. She competed in Asia, South America, the Caribbean, Canada, Europe, Africa and New Zealand.

She was 41 years old when she played the Australian Open in 1988.

And because she was so much older than most of her competitors, Falkenberg was able to do everything on her own without a manager or coach. She arranged all of her travel and living arrangements.

Ultimately that’s what stopped her in 1990.

“It was terrific for a while,” said Falkenberg, “but then I ran out of money.”

In 1991, Falkenberg accepted the head tennis coach position at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. She coached there until 1999.

“It was wasn’t very good when I started and I built it up into nationally ranked program,” said Falkenberg.

Then, in 2003, Gail’s mother, who lived in Jacksonville, had a major stroke, paralyzing her down one side. Falkenberg moved to Jacksonville to be closer to her mother and help take care of her.

She didn’t pick up a racket again for almost a decade. After her mom passed in 2012, Falkenberg retired to Ocala and hit the courts again. In her middle 60s at this point, Falkenberg still felt a spark in her to compete and play tennis at the highest level she could.

“Tennis is great in Florida. And it was cheap to come here and move. So, I started playing again. I didn’t rejoin the circuit until 2013,” she said.

COVID-19 has recently affected Falkenberg’s ability to play over the last year and a half, but she started hitting the courts again earlier this year.

Her knees do sometimes bother her, Falkenberg admitted, but not all the time.

Sometimes, when she’s on the court, she can almost forget that more than six decades separate her from the 10-year-old she once was, who first fell in love with the game in New Jersey.

Falkenberg doesn’t have a ranking anymore, but she’s still out there, nevertheless, playing against anyone willing to try and return her “tremendous spin” shots.

And many of her opponents still find it tricky to do so.

“I’m really quick. Not as fast on my feet, but quick with my hands,” Falkenberg said. “My hand-eye coordination is terrific. It always has been. And boy, if that keeps up, I’m going to be playing a lot more.”

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