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Fifty-nine years later, the phone rang at François Godbout's. It was Robert Bédard, legend of the Quebec sport, former Canadian tennis champion.

Yves Boisvert
Yves Boisvert
The Press

" Are you well ? asked the octogenarian.

– Not so bad, replied the other octogenarian.

Bédard was looking for a partner for the doubles at the Canadian Tennis Championships. Godbout, himself one of Canada's top players at the turn of the 1960s, had already been Bédard's partner at the Pan American Games in 1959.

"I did not take a drop of alcohol for six weeks," says François Godbout. He has always played even after retiring as a player on the international stage. But between friends, in local leagues. This time it was serious! Bédard, who will turn 89 next week, plays to win as at 20.

"I started training: stretching, bodybuilding … legs! It's amazing what we lose as muscles if we do nothing. "

Already a Canadian singles champion in the 80s and over, Bédard was in the doubles title. Especially since the championship was held in Montreal. And they got him off.

PHOTOGRAPHED BY FRANÇOIS GODBOUT

François Godbout and Robert Bédard in January 2018

That was last year. The two champions put it back this year in Toronto last week at the venerable Toronto Lawn Tennis Club, home of several Davis Cups.

Entering the locker room, amazement: four huge framed vintage photos. We saw Rod Laver, two other Australian glories of the 60s … And François Godbout, wooden racket, in pursuit of a bullet that had no chance.

Why him ? Certainly, he reached the second rank of Canadian tennis, but … next to Rod Laver?

A stranger enters the locker room. Still in shock, Godbout calls him.

" Hey ! This is my picture on the wall! "

The man studies the photos scrupulously one by one, carrying his eyes from Godbout's face to those of the old black and white players.

"Uh … which one? "

"So, to those who tell me that I have not changed or that I am not my age, I answer: my eye! "

Later, he sees an old lady whom he thinks he recognizes.

"Excuse me, are you calling Inge?

– François! What a pleasure ! "

It was 83-year-old Inge Weber, one of the best in Canada in the past, that François had not seen since … ouf, 60 years old? She is now a Canadian Champion of 80 years and over. And she at least thought he had not changed so much …

"Do you want to exchange some balls? "Asks the champion.

And why not ? It will be a good warm up.

"After 30 minutes, I was completely asphyxiated! She sent all her bullets two or three inches from the bottom line, it was beautiful, she completely exhausted me. "

Alas, the duet Bédard-Godbout could not keep his title. Sunday morning, Bédard lost in singles in a match of 2 hours 45 minutes. And not because he plays in slow motion. "He is extraordinary, he must be seen running, he does not miss a ball! "

Two hours later, they played double against 80-year-olds. "It's not good, being the favorite … We could have won if I had played better. When you play in a garage league, you forget all the psychological side of the competition. It is a mental test. It can not be improvised. You have to attack the first ball! "

If the blows happen less quickly, the rage to conquer is intact.

"It's a little better," he said without conviction. I begin to relativize … It is an injury to pride, especially. "

***

Veteran sports competitions are a rapidly growing trend. Athletics, tennis, cycling … "Seniors" of 80, 85, 90, 95 years compete in national championships, international very serious, run after the records and the medals.

These are not usually former high-level athletes, but good amateurs coming to the competition late … or who have waited for the retirement of others. Robert Bédard, François Godbout or Inge Weber are the exception. When we have reached the heights, when the intensive practice of a discipline has worn out the body, the champions rarely remain on the track.

"A manufacturer of orthoses would make a fortune in these tournaments. Nobody has a knee, an ankle, a bad elbow, he said laughing. The joints take for their cold! Me, I have an artificial hip. (Inge Weber, two …)

The octogenarian tennis knows the same rules, but the tactics are slightly different.

"Professionals, the lob is a very risky shot, we can be answered by a smash. But among 80 years and over, on the contrary, since we jump lower, the lob is a deadly blow! The cushioning too! "

***

There was in front of the Godbout, Waterloo in the 40s, two municipal tennis courts clay.

"I fell in love with tennis at 5 or 6 years old, just watching others play. I was too young, I did not have the right to play. From home, I did not see the court. But I heard the shots on the bullets. And just the sound, the pace, the power, I knew there were good players and I went to admire them. I did not watch the game, I watched the shots. How they were hit. The forehand of Mme Norris. The reverse of this other. "

"I had found an old racket in the garage, and I was going to try to make the forehand of Mme Norris on the wall of the house. The asphalt garage entrance was the hard surface of the US Open. The grassy side of the house was Wimbledon … I played hours every summer. Until I'm allowed to play. My dream, then, was to make the inter-city team of Waterloo, to play against Magog, Drummondville, Saint-Hyacinthe, cities ten times bigger than Waterloo, but to which one held head. "

He slightly exceeded the limits of the region, to get to the real US Open, where he beat a certain Arthur Ashe beginner. Three times he played at Wimbledon.

"The first time, I went to the locker room. The clerk told me, "You're not on the list." I was shocked, but at the same time, I felt like I was having a dream, it was normal to be told : "You have nothing to do here …" »

"Have you tried Cloakroom Number Two? Asked the attendant.

Far from the action, as in a field, the cloakroom number 2 was the appointment of the sans-grade. Shelves and hooks were used to fend off her clothes.

The second time, François Godbout knew his rank. He went directly to locker room number two.

The third time, the cloakroom number two told him: "Your name is not on the list … Have you tried Cloakroom Number 1? "

Oh…

There baths, a television (rarity at the time), huge lockers, wooden doors of beautiful species, thick towels and silky.

"I entered the Holy of Holies. All my idols were there. I watched them, listened to conversations. "

***

The association of Bédard and Godbout began in the controversy in 1959. Bédard had been playing doubles for years with Don Fontana, a well-established player. But the young Godbout's recent performances had decided the captain of the team to change the duets and place Godbout with Bédard. Fontana was furious. And even Bédard's wife had reproached her husband for letting this affront to his old partner.

PHOTOGRAPHED BY FRANÇOIS GODBOUT

Newspaper article about François Godboutet Robert Bédard in August 1965

"Of course Bédard was consulted," Godbout told me 60 years later.

– How? You have not asked him yet? !

– I do not know why. Modesty, respect … I told myself that I was going to ask him after our victory Sunday … But we lost. "

Godbout wrote to his partner this week. Even if you do not have the national title, you can register for the world championship, which takes place at the end of September in Croatia.

The old fallen champion answered his old friend, between a medical examination and care for his wife. The enthusiasm is not there, after these "not wonderful" results, which "discouraged" him.

"How is it that I lost everything in such a short time? "

But … finally, Bédard concludes his letter by saying: We'll put it back next year in Vancouver. We will win him back, this title.

***

He returns to his years of tennis, with his youth, his childhood. "But it's not nostalgia," says Godbout, who has made a career as a lawyer and then as a youth judge. "My life has changed with that. I am lucky to be healthy first. It's a gift of life. But if I want to enjoy life, I am responsible for my body. Everything disappears so quickly. Activity is the answer to aging. It's a daily struggle! You can not let yourself go long. And then, tennis, it was for me, who is an only child, a real family. I was the child, now I am the grandfather.

– Can we improve at 81? What are we working on? "

He looks at me gravely, without saying a word. He touches his skull with his finger. The mental…

"But a little service. Yes, I will work my service. Returns too. And the jumps! "

***

The interview lasted nearly two hours, and Francois Godbout had not yet mentioned Chateaubriand or any great personage. It was not normal, but I dared not mention it to him. In some, the quotes are a mania, if not a tick. They have a small reserve quickly exhausted. At Godbout, it's an art. They do not come out of a collection of good words, but from the depths of his readings. He offers them to you with a kind of delectation, malice, in truth. His art is to make an old phrase appear in the conversation and to make it seem indispensable, as if without it all that had just been said or was going to be said would not only be bland, but lose its meaning.

Rousseau came to the rescue in extremis.

"You will allow me to quote this dear Jean-Jacques:" The weaker the body, the more it commands; the stronger he is, the more he obeys. "

And on that, the Canadian runner-up got up, but not too fast. He hosts his grandson who starts his CEGEP, and apart from his service, he apparently has better control of chicken vol-au-vent. That too, it makes live François Godbout.



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