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Tennis battle for the ages (video)

By Victoria Advocate
April 21, 2012 at 4:21 a.m.
Updated April 22, 2012 at 4:22 a.m.

Lee Durst stands with sports reporter Will Brown.
img/videothumbs/2012/04/23/smashthumb.jpg

Smash Will Brown: Can he beat the 90-year-old tennis champion?

Sports reporter Will Brown takes on 90-year-old tennis champion Lee Durst in a test of wills and skill on the court. Who will prevail?

It sounded laughable and unwinnable. I was to challenge a 90-year old man in tennis. Then again, Lee Durst isn't the typical tennis player.

The Victoria resident, and 1940 UIL district tennis champion, recently won the Texas Senior Games championship for his age group.

He is part of what has been called The Greatest Generation.

He said his life experiences increased his determination and discipline on the tennis court.

"We all had to work like hell through the Depression. We knew the value of money and we saved it. I started working in an oil field when I was 14, driving a truck and hauling water," Durst recalled about the 1935 International truck that he had to crank to start.

Durst is a resilient tennis player. Sport is just the avenue the retired engineer channels the grit that has taken him all across Texas in the past 10 decades. Few people have the stamina to last four hours and 10 minutes to win a tennis match 5-7, 7-5, 6-4.

He sat there under the shade of a gazebo at the Victoria Country Club in all white applying sunscreen.

On a warm, sunny April afternoon that should have been my first warning that Durst was a very good tennis player. The fact Durst used a brown Head bag to carry his tennis rackets, should have been a second warning.

After Durst broke my serve to win the first game I muttered to myself "What the hell?" I kept telling myself it was a fluke and that I wasn't really trying.

Next thing I know, Durst used his arsenal of drop shots, multiple backhands and pinpoint ground strokes to break me again for a 3-1 lead.

Eventually, I won 6-3. But I felt like I cheated.

My style of hitting the ball deep and toward the feet of my opponent and forcing them to make an error exploited Durst's admitted lack of pace.

Clearly, I had the athleticism advantage. Durst had the advantage in the shot making department. Any time he got his racket on the ball, I was scrambling to find an answer.

On set point my service return was smacked up the line for a winner most people my age would have scrambled to return - let alone someone who retired years before I was born.

Lee Durst was the second youngest of eight children. Born in New Boston on the second Wednesday in February 1922, he was also the only boy in the family.

Tuberculosis claimed his mother and two of his sisters. By the time Durst was 10, he was orphaned, moved three times, and lived with his oldest sister, who was 18 years older, and her husband. He didn't start playing tennis until he was 17, after realizing he was never going to play football.

"I weighed 115 pounds when I was a junior. I drove by the park one day and saw people playing tennis," Durst said. "I wanted to play football, but I was little in a 1,100 kid high school."

"The lightest guy on the team was 135 pounds and he was six inches shorter than I was. My family didn't let me play, which is lucky because they would have killed me. They would have broken every bone in my body."

In the Summer of '39, Durst worked with Willie Vela on a clay court in downtown Laredo. By the time his senior season rolled around he featured a good all-court game, and defeated six boys who beat him during his junior year.

He left Laredo after high school, never to return. It was around that time he put his tennis racket down for nearly 35 years, migrating to golf.

The booming oil business down in Alice didn't leave much time for tennis. Durst stuck with golf because it was a way to entertain his clients.

By the time Durst was 30, he was a partner in the G. Ray Boyd Drilling Company. In 1962 the company merged with another family member in the drilling business, which is what brought him here.

He moved to Victoria in October 1962 things were a lot different than they are now.

Times have certainly changed when Durst moved into a home on the 200 block of Mc Dow Street.

Upon retiring in the early 80s, Durst returned to tennis as a way to remain active. Over the past three decades he's won tournaments across the state and won admiration from his fellow members of the Victoria Tennis Association and his opponents.

After an afternoon together on the courts, that list includes me.

Will Brown is a sports reporter with the Victoria Advocate.

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