INTERVIEW-Tennis-Elmayan still going strong at age 95

BUENOS AIRES, Sept 18 Tue Sep 18, 2012 3:00am BST

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BUENOS AIRES, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Artin Elmayan is hard to keep pace with as he heads for the locker rooms at River Plate.

"I've got to get my rackets," he says under the shadow of the Monumental, the giant stadium which is home to one of the world's great soccer clubs where members enjoy a variety of sports.

Armenian-born Elmayan's choice is tennis, a sport he took up at the age of 39. Now, aged 95, he is the world's oldest-ranked player.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) ranks Elmayan 26th among men over 85, a list headed by Italian Angelo Sala who will be 86 in December.

There are only 39 men in the ITF's over-85 ranking, three of them Argentines, and Elmayan is the only one born before 1920.

The next oldest are Eugeniusz Czerepaniak of Poland who is 91 and ranked one place above Elmayan, and 90-year-old Australian Neville Halligan, the number eight.

Elmayan does not compete internationally so he is likely to meet only fellow-Argentines Guillermo Garcia or Jose Otero, both in their 80s, in competitions.

"Eighty-five plus, because there isn't anyone who's 90, much less 95. So I have to play against 85-year-olds," Elmayan told Reuters in an interview.

"I do all right, sometimes I take second place. Last year I won second place twice. It depends on the state of my opponent, and my own. There are no enigmas here," he said after a 20-minute knockup with one of the club's coaches.

The sprightly Elmayan enjoys a routine that keeps him slim and happy, travelling by train into the capital to River Plate from the suburbs three times a week.

"If my body and feet allow it, I'm not going to sit still. As far as stretching, I take the train and walk from the station to here. When I get here I've already loosened up," he said.

Elmayan said that if he had to play three sets, he was able to cope and recalled having recently played and lost against Garcia, seven years younger than him, and then suggesting they go for a run.

"Are you crazy, now you want to run?" Elmayan, laughing, recalled Garcia as saying.

ARMENIAN IMMIGRANT

Elmayan, who emigrated to Argentina from Europe when it was on the verge of war in 1938 at the age of 21, said he took up tennis as a hobby and has never looked back.

He is part of a large Armenian community in Argentina that includes leading professional and former world number three David Nalbandian.

Elmayan said he had never had a tennis lesson, taking his cue from playing "paleta", a sport with a wooden paddle-like racket and rubber ball that he played when he was younger.

"No one told me how to hold a racket, I copied it from paleta and went on from there," he said.

Elmayan's whole family plays or played tennis, his wife now 88, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren.

He lost a grandson, who represented the club at tennis, at the age of 21 from cancer, a shock that may have added to his fierce grip on life.

"First there is eating and then comes tennis. It is part of my life to stay in shape in every way," said Elmayan from behind his goggle-like sunglasses on a bright late winter's day in Buenos Aires.

"Tennis makes you breathe oxygen, keeps your body in shape, keeps you from getting a belly, or getting fat, helps fight cholesterol problems and everything," he said.

"Now, if you stop coming, if I go two months without playing, I'll get a belly." (Editing by John Mehaffey)

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