Think twice if a self-described “old rooster” by the name of Michael Wallis ever offers you a game of tennis — you could be in for a humbling lesson.
The retired Okete farmer, a descendant of the first white missionary to come to Raglan, may be going on 71 but he’s reputedly lightning-fast around the court, fit as they come and packs some powerful strokes even without the benefit of his prized new extra-springy Prince racket.
A gold medal that hung around his neck when the Chronicle visited at the weekend is testament to just how well Michael is playing at an age where many might opt for an armchair and watching Wimbledon on the telly. A recent convert to veterans tennis, he took home gold after cleaning up the opposition in the 70 years-plus division at the national championships in Tauranga recently.
He won all his six games, though concedes it was a “bit of a battle” in the final to wear down the hometown hero who’d had a stranglehold on the national title for the previous four or five years.
“I was the new boy and it was the first time I’d played at that level — I had no idea I’d come home with a medal,” Michael recalled late last Sunday afternoon as he and wife Julie relaxed in their rustic Okete bach after an unexpectedly social day.
Michael ended up spending much of the day just up the road at the 130-year-old Wallis family homestead, originally the home of his great great grandfather but later where Michael was born and lived until his retirement. He thought he and Julie were going there for lunch with son Shaun and his wife Jo, who’ve taken over running the 300-acre home farm, but then saw all the balloons at the gate and 70-80 “tennis friends” from Hamilton along with Raglan district friends and family.
“It was a total surprise,” said Michael, though he had wondered why Julie was preparing so much food.
The occasion was not a birthday milestone but rather a sendoff for the spritely septuagenarian, who as a national tennis champion is off early next month to compete in the International Tennis Federation Super Seniors in Croatia.
The party venue was apt because for much of his life Michael has played tennis at the homestead. The Okete Tennis Club was based there and Michael says matches were played every Saturday from lunchtime. One of his jobs as a young lad was to roller mow “this way and that” around the two courts until the grounds looked immaculate.
Club events were a big fixture on the calendar, with other clubs in the district joining the action on court and many others coming along — some by the boatload — for what Michael remembers as “real family days focusing on tennis”.
One court has survived the decades but Michael agrees it’s “pretty had it now”.
Oddly enough it wasn’t until he retired from the farm, went to live weekdays in Hamilton and joined the Hamilton Tennis and Squash Club that his game really flourished again.
With Julie off to work each day in Dinsdale he’s been able to play tennis four days or so a week, and all year round too thanks to the Dey Street courts which are under cover in winter.
Michael says with all the practice he’s “playing much better tennis now, and hitting so many more balls”. He thinks one of his three sons may have defeated him once on the court, but he recently offered the trio “$100 to beat me” and so far there’ve been no takers.
There’s plenty of time for that though as Michael — who’s about to have a retirement home built for him and Julie at the Three Streams subdivision the Wallis family have developed at Okete — hopes still to be playing when he’s 100.
“My mother (Ena Wallis) lived to 101 … so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t.” He reckons he’s still fast about the court and adds he has stamina on his side when playing others of similar age.
“The fitness got me there,” he says of the battle to win gold in Tauranga. “I just wish I was a bit taller to get those aces in.”