Kate Dandel is the director and producer of the documentary “Gold Balls,” which focuses on “ultra senior” tennis players competing in the National Championships. The film follows five competitors “who barnstorm the country in pursuit” of their championship goals, and “explores universal questions about aging, mindset, and the unexpected power of a goal.” So how did Dandel, a writer and marketing consultant, end up crisscrossing the country with the over 85 set? Read on…
The Tennis Coalition SF will be hosting a special screening of Gold Balls in the coming months. Stay tuned for details!
1. How did you get interested in the topic of “ultra senior” tennis?
I’ve been intrigued by questions at the heart of this film for quite a while. What it takes to become a champion. The psychological legacy we carry from our parents. I’m also quite obsessed with behavioral economics and I listen to way too many TED talks. When I learned of this unique tennis subculture through my father-in-law (Ron, featured in the film), I felt like it was an uncharted territory in which to explore all of these interests through film. I also knew that other people would respond to the positive energy exuded by these passionate, vital “ultra” seniors.
2. What role does tennis play in your life?
Increasing access to tennis has become a sort of mission for me, despite the fact that right now I rarely have time to play! I was always attracted to the sport but only started playing in my 20s. Tennis was not available to me growing up. There weren’t public parks programs in the small town where I grew up, and the one private club was beyond our means. Hopeful fact: I’ve since learned that several of the most accomplished senior competitors started in their 40s! I’m hoping to play even more tennis now that the film is complete.
3. Can you share a few things you learned by following these competitors for two years?
Many of these senior competitors train as rigorously as young pros. They eat right, get plenty of sleep, put in hours at the gym and prepare mentally. My gut tells me their ability to stay so active and competitive is about 50% attributable to genetics and luck, and 50% to sheer determination. Aging is no joke and these players are masters at playing through pain. They consciously decide to bring a positive attitude to their challenges and most of the time, they are able to overcome.
Ultimately, though, I feel the true mark of a champion isn’t about how many trophies or titles or “gold balls” you win. It’s really about how you connect, engage, and contribute. Many of the top competitive players in this division are champions not just in tennis but also in their communities. They find true satisfaction and purpose from connecting with others and sharing their knowledge and energy. They teach, volunteer, speak and do outreach (and not just about tennis) to ensure that younger people can enjoy some of the same the opportunities they’ve been afforded.
4. You’ve shown Gold Balls at many screenings. Who attends and what kind of feedback do you get?
Showing the film around the country has been an amazing experience. We’ve had people as young as 5 in the audience and people as old as 98. Tennis players and fans of the game are naturally attracted to the story, but the themes in the film resonate regardless of your passion. The people who seem most inspired are those in their 40s-60s, who are looking ahead for role models for how they want to be when they “grow up.” After seeing the film, audiences tell us that they are inspired to get out and move, that they recognized the characters like people in their own families, they loved the award-winning music and learned about a world they didn’t know existed. Reviewers have called the film “charming” and the characters “quirky” and we agree.
5. What are your future plans, and how does tennis fit into them?
I’m spending most of my time promoting and distributing GOLD BALLS, although I really need to work on my serve. My game has gravely suffered during this lengthy filmmaking process! I hope to get back onto the courts this summer. I also have a few writing and producing projects in development.