This is the thing – I don’t feel like I’m growing old,” says Gail Benedetti, and it’s easy to see why. The Australian-born Frenchwoman is still dancing around the court, still unleashing forehands loaded with topspin as she did during the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s, and still getting the same thrill from the game she adores.
The 73-year-old, a four-time French Open doubles champion, is the No. 3 seed at these ITF Super Seniors World Championships and a four-time winner on the women’s Super Seniors circuit. She won the 70s singles title when the event was held in Umag in both 2015 and 2016; now, with the event back on the Adriatic coast, she is eyeing her fifth.
The competition heats up from Wednesday in Croatia, with quarter-finals and semi-finals set across the 15 draws – singles, doubles and mixed across five age group categories from 65s to 85s – and Benedetti is glad to be among them, having overcome the knee injury that hampered her 2017 season. She is one of four Frenchwomen through to the quarter-finals of the women’s 70s, facing compatriot Denise Hugard on Thursday.
“I’m so happy I’m back playing, so happy I’m competing,” Benedetti said. “It’s so great to be here. I’m friends with everybody – I love seeing all the people I’ve been keeping up with for years. I ran into Jimmy Parker the other day, who I first met in 1965 in Belfast, Northern Ireland on the amateur circuit. And I said to him, you don’t ask anybody at 20 what they’re going to be doing in 50 years’ time – they may not even be around to do it! We’re so lucky.”
Among those she gets the chance to spend time with is her sister Carol Campling, who still lives in, and represents, Australia. The duo made history in 1966 when, each competing under their maiden name Sherriff, they became just the second pair of sisters to face one another at Wimbledon some 34 years before Venus and Serena Williams became the third.
“We practice together, we watch each other play and we eat together,” says Benedetti, who resides in Corsica and is heading back Down Under in January to spend more time with her family.
Benedetti’s career flourished at the dawn of the Open era, when she left Australia to live in France. She partnered Francoise Durr to Roland-Garros doubles titles in 1967, 1970 and 1971 before collecting a fourth with Fiorella Bonicelli in 1976, and reached four Grand Slam singles quarter-finals – two in her native land, two in her adopted nation.
Back then, Benedetti’s distinctive forehand was an outlier; today it could not look more modern. Hit with a western grip and high follow-through, the ball dive-bombs into the court laden with spin. It’s a coach’s dream – and, Benedetti notes, a result of the foresight of her father, Ross Sherriff, who coached the likes of Phil Dent and Tony Roche during his career.
“I picked the racquet up when I was little and played like that – and my father didn’t change me,” she recalls. “He had the intelligence not to change me. My father never told me what to do – he showed me tactically how to play. I remember still to this day his advice for when I serve at 30-30 or 30-40. ‘You will achieve, if you do it,’ he’d say, and I’m still achieving. He was a great coach and a great mentor – and he was living in my house!”
Benedetti stayed in the family trade, launching a successful coaching career of her own that saw her work with France’s rising juniors – including a 13-year-old Amelie Mauresmo, who credits Benedetti with converting her one-handed backhand from a defensive slice into a potent weapon.
“She had this great attitude,” Benedetti said of the former world No. 1, who has forged a coaching career of her own with Andy Murray and the French Fed Cup team, and wil take over as the nation’s Davis Cup captain in 2019. “When she made a mistake, she could accept it, learn from it and not get mad about it. She’s one of the best pupils and best athletes I ever had.
“She and Nathalie [Dechy] are two of the nicest people you could ever meet, and such strong characters. They won the legends doubles at Roland-Garros this year and I watched them play. I told them I was coming, and they said, ‘No, no, don’t you dare – we can’t play like we used to play.’ And I laughed and said, I don’t care!”
Attitude and character matter to Benedetti, and she prides herself on setting an example for others. “You’re doing your practice, you’re looking after your fitness, you’re setting an example for your children and grandchildren, and it snowballs from there,” she explains.
“Tennis gives you a thrill, and everybody wants that thrill in their life. Unfortunately, some people find it in smoking, drinking and drugs. But we have a great thrill, because ours is so healthy – it’s something that you create in yourself and accomplish through hard work. I think that’s often forgotten today, and I think it’s so important.
“I try and instil that in my grandchildren. When they come to my place they play tennis, they go to the beach, all manner of things, but all around sport. My husband is a historian, and he gets them playing chess and reading, so we try to accomplish a good balance between body and mind.”
Where does that thrill come from for Benedetti? “Winning,” she says with a laugh and not a second’s hesitation. But even for a former Grand Slam champion, winning doesn’t come easy.
“You’ve got to get yourself up for the event – you can’t just turn up. Everybody here is doing the job they should be doing – they’re practising, they’re keeping themselves fit, they’re eating well. And you look around and everyone looks so fit. It’s fantastic to see them all, and how good they look for their ages! Ladies of 85 who you would say looked 65 – I can’t believe it. And it reminds you: I’ve got to keep on.
“As you grow older, people say you lose interest in things – but look at us. What are people doing at 75, normally? Nothing much for most people. But here we are. We’re mentally alert, socialising, encouraging one another, travelling – we’re doing great things together.”