John Rivella is proof that tennis is the best game for longevity | Key Biscayne

John Rivella is proof that tennis is the best game for longevity | Key Biscayne

Two months before his 87th birthday, John Rivella walked off the clay courts at the Key Biscayne Tennis Association yet another doubles victory in his bag.

“I had a 17-year-old pro as my partner. I didn’t have to do anything,” he joked after the 6-0, 6-1 triumph.

If tennis leads to longevity, as experts have said, Rivella might be a perfect example, bouncing back from a complete left knee replacement in 2015.

“It worked out,” he said of his titanium knee.”I don’t know many players beyond 60 who don’t have some kind of knee or shoulder surgery. For us, it’s like a tattoo.”

John Rivella

Tennis has been called the best single sport for longevity, according to at least two global studies published by the world-renowned Mayo Clinic.

Six years ago, Danish researchers, following a British study from the previous year, observed more than 8,000 participants for about 25 years to compare a variety of sports, and tennis again proved to be the clear winner, associated with a 9.7-year longer lifespan.

One explanation, researchers said, was that the sport mimics interval training, with high- and low-intensity bursts of training. Also, players felt less stress when in close proximity to friends with the goal of improving while having fun outdoors each time out.

By comparison, badminton was shown to add an average of 6.2 years to life expectancy, researchers said, followed by soccer (4.7 years), cycling (3.7 years), swimming (3.4 years) and jogging (3.2 years).

John Rivella

Rivella, a Key Biscayne resident who enjoyed spending time on vacations here from New York City even as far back as 1969, plays tennis “about 5 or 6 times a week” and has earned a 3.5 United States Tennis Association ranking for club players.

“My theory is if I walk on that court and I’m healthy, and I walk off and I’m still healthy, then it’s a great day,” he said, tongue-in-cheek.

But he isn’t buying the direct correlation analysis of longevity to his favorite sport.

“I don’t believe that … too many factors are involved, like cancer, blood disease. It doesn’t matter how much tennis you play,” he said. “I’ve lost a lot of good friends in their ’70’s, and many have succumbed to cancer.”

He does see many benefits in playing tennis, though, especially in South Florida.

“First of all, you have the fresh air,” he said. “Here, we have 12 months, which is conducive to playing outdoors. Sometimes, it gets a little too hot. And you’re getting exercise. I can’t stand going to a gym and exercising. It’s not competitive. But, with tennis, you’re getting off the couch, going outdoors and doing something. If I were to put up golf next to tennis, I’d say tennis is far more beneficial and (less) time-consuming.”

He credits his healthiness to his family’s strong bloodline.

“My father lived to 102; my mother 98; my sister, Dolores Schifano, is 94 in New Jersey and is still kicking around. She doesn’t do exercise … we just inherited good genes.”

Jon Garito, 73, plays tennis six times a week. He is a firm believer that the sport helps one age gracefully.

“Anyone over 70 who plays tennis can attest to the longevity of tennis players and those who play other racket sports as well,” he said. “It’s not just the physical exercise but the mental stimulation and the socialization of the sport.”

When he’s on the court, he really doesn’t see age discrepancies.

“In some games, I’m the younger player. I’ve played with players who are in their upper 80’s,” Garito said, pointing specifically to Rivella.

“He has amazing energy combined with crafty play. What I and other players my age and older enjoy is socialization. Especially the trash-talking before, during and after the game,” Garito said. “We all look forward to the post-game conversation, the ceviche and the beverages.”

As the president of the Key Biscayne Tennis Association (like Garito was), Rivella works at the club more than four hours a day in addition to playing. A few weeks ago, he helped dig a 10-foot-long trench to locate a water leak.

“Good exercise,” he said.

As a child, Rivella enjoyed boxing for some 12 years before landing a job with US Steel in Pittsburgh and getting transferred to New York City. He’d often visit Key Biscayne from his winter home in Ft. Lauderdale and even owned a clothing store on the posh Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.

John Rivella

He said he never jogged, and he’s not a very good swimmer, so tennis became his passion on Key Biscayne.

“I just think, basically, just being totally active … tennis, cutting bushes and raking,” he said, noting he’s come upon foxes and even a yellow python around the tennis “jungle” at the complex.

Garito, meanwhile, also enjoys staying active and the camaraderie that comes with the sport.

“Here in Key Biscayne, we have an added feature of diverse cultures, making socialization even more interesting,” he said. “The Mayo Clinic study confirms what we experience in our golden years on the tennis courts every day!”