It is often said that tennis is a life-changing sport.
One person who can attest to the validity of that statement is 48-year-old Mario Tabares, playing on the second-seeded USA’s Men’s 45 team competing for the 2014 ITF’s World Seniors Team Championships' Dubler Cup.
Tabares was born in Havana, Cuba in July 1965 under the Fidel Castro regime. He grew up playing tennis, eventually becoming good enough to be Cuba’s No. 1 player and join the pro tour - his career-high ranking was No. 131 in singles and No. 106 in doubles. He also represented Cuba in 16 Davis Cup ties between 1987 through 1994 with a record of 15-17 in singles and 7-9 in doubles.
It was during his last Davis Cup outing to Mexico City, Mexico (Mexico won 5-0) and then to play two smaller events in Mexico, of which the last was in Tijuana, that Tabares was finally able to take a step he’d been contemplating for a long time: He defected to the United States.
“I came from Cuba in 1994,” Tabares said. “I was in Mexico with the Cuban Davis Cup team and then I escaped, I left the group and I go to Tijuana and I paid a guy $500 to help me cross the border. Then I go to San Diego the next day, I get caught (by border patrol) and was in jail for five days before I got political asylum.
“I was thinking about it for many years but if I was going to escape I was going to wait until I got to the U.S.”
Although many members of his family remain in Cuba — his parents and an older brother included — Tabares has made a happy life for himself in Miami, Fla., where there is a large exiled Cuban community.
In 1995, he moved to Miami, met his wife and now has 15-year-old twin daughters. He continued to play on the tour for one year when arriving in America, but then retired and started to coach players, including former tour player Angelica Galvadon. Nowadays, he’s been the teaching pro at the lush Fisher Island, a residential island community located in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, for the past 14 years.
Tabares has played in ITF senior events since he was 35, saying, “I never stop playing.” Last year, Tabares was on the USA team that lost the final to France, the top seeds this year.
“Our expectation is to get to the final again against the French team,” Tabares said. “They have a very strong team. They’re seeded No. 1 and we’re No. 2. My expectation is to be in the final again."
And this year, Tabares has a famous teammate — Jeff Tarango — poised to assist in the mission of winning.
The 45-year-old Tarango was once ranked No. 42 in the world with career titles at Wellington, New Zealand and Tel Aviv in 1992. Tarango started playing in the ITF senior events when he turned 40, playing in the Seniors World Individual event, winning it, and played three more Men’s 40 events to finish No. 1 that year.
He laughingly said his wife, Jessica, said his winning “was sexy.” So she encouraged him to take these next two weeks away from the family — he has five kids — “to try and be No. 1 in the 45s.”
Tarango, who coaches a number of students on the tennis court in his parents’ backyard back in California, and also does TV commentating work for ESPN’s live stream and BBC, believes continuing to compete helps keep him totally immersed in the game. That said, he knows that playing in both this week’s team event and the individual tournament next week can take its toll on a 45-year-old body.
“I’ve been training because I knew I’d be on the team for a while now,” Tarango said. “I knew it was going to be on clay and be physically hard to play for two weeks. For us old guys it’s not that first match that gets you - you play great the first match, the second match. But around the seventh or eighth match your body starts saying, ‘Why are you doing this to me’ and starts rebelling.”
Team USA had its first day of action against Russia at The Polo Club in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday and walked away with a perfect 3-0 record. In the first match, American Oren Motevassel defeated Oleg Ermakov 60 61, followed by Tarango defeating Oleg Vasilyev 62 60. In the doubles Tabares and Art Hernandez beat Ermakov and Vasilyev 61 60.
The defending champion French team are the guys all the other teams, including USA, have their sights set on beating. And to do so, players will have to be able to handle playing against 46-year-old Lionel Barthez, a former tour player who had a career high ranking of No. 154.
“I started playing with the 35s, so ten years now and my first meeting was in Miami,” said Barthez, who is a teaching pro back home in Toulouse these days. “We lost then to the United States. But we won against them last year in Turkey. I play for the fun, for the atmosphere, you have to play for the team. It’s special and I like that.”
Like the USA, the French also came through Tuesday with a 3-0 win over New Zealand. In the singles matches, Barthez defeated Warren Lovegrove 61 60 and Christophe Delafond took care of Philip Hempstead 60 60, while Jacques-Olivier Moers and Franck Fevrier scored the doubles point for France.
Despite last year’s success, Barthez is a cautious man. Therefore, he’s not predicting the French will retain their trophy this far in advance.
“We try (to keep the title), but there are a lot of good teams this year,” Barthez said. “We hope so but we have to fight every day.”