by Thad Mumau | Photography by Diana Matthews
Dan Young wouldn’t go so far as to say he is teasing death, but he sure is putting it out to pasture while he embraces life. The 74-year-old, known around Raleigh as “The Tennis Doctor,” was diagnosed with cancer nearly nine years ago. Given the choice of treatments, he chose none.
“In 2007, the doctor said I had prostate cancer,” he says. “I felt fine, so I put off seeing a urologist. I didn’t want to die in a hospital bed; I would much rather do that on a tennis court. So I decided to take a wait-and-see approach. As long as I feel pretty good and can keep going, that’s what I’ll do.”
Young hasn’t done a whole lot of waiting. He defies his age and illness by staying on the move. Constantly. In addition to teaching tennis lessons, he drives for the Wolfline, transporting N.C. State students every morning. He is also a student himself, and in his spare time, he plays the guitar and writes poetry.
“I like to be active,” he says. “I want to be doing something and not just the same old things. I’m always coming up with new ideas and challenges. I have fun with life, and I try to inspire others to do that.”
Tennis, though, is pretty much Young’s lifeblood. The sport, more than anything else, makes him tick.
“I just love tennis, really love it. I think everybody ought to play it,” he says, laughing. “In fact, I try to talk folks into trying it if they never have.”
Young was born in Baltimore, where he spent the first seven years of his life. Then he and his family, including four siblings, lived with his grandmother in West Virginia. They moved because his father contracted tuberculosis and needed to be close to a sanatorium.
Baseball was his first love.
“I also played basketball and one year of football in high school, but baseball was my favorite. I was a pitcher, and I thought I was going to be in the major leagues.”
He attended a Cleveland Indians tryout camp but failed to attract the attention of scouts on hand, so he joined the Air Force. Following a three-year tour in Italy, he found a job in Washington, D.C.
A lot happened to Young in the nation’s capital. He worked with the city’s superior court system, first as a deputy clerk and then as a case assignment commissioner. He established the National Tennis Teachers College, which still exists. He was married and divorced, and in between, Daniel Jr., his only child, was born. After a six-year stay in D.C., he headed for San Diego in 1972. That’s where he became a doctor.
“I was teaching tennis,” Young recalls. “I was always teaching tennis, wherever I went, and people would ask me to fix their game. I came up with new approaches, new ways of doing the same thing, and one day, someone called me ‘The Tennis Doctor.’
“It stuck, but the whole title, if you want to call it that, is Doctor of Tennis Psychology, Geometry and Angles on Winning. You see, I read a lot of books about tennis-the mechanics and the mental aspect-and then I applied my own theories.
“Basically, it boils down to not beating yourself. So many players are interested in hitting the ball hard or hitting it with topspin. I emphasize economy of motion. More points are won on errors than on great strokes. So keep the ball in play, and let your opponent beat himself.”
Although tennis occupies a large portion of his time, there is much more to Dan Young. He taught himself to play the guitar, rode a motorcycle across the country and coached a high school girls’ tennis team.
“I stay busy; that’s for sure,” he says. “I’m never bored.”
He even ran for elected office. “Yeah, that didn’t work out too well. I ran for city council in Henderson, and I tried for a seat in the State House, but was unsuccessful both times. I guess politics aren’t for me.”
Young has driven for the Wolfline for N.C. State University for 11 years, sharing a special relationship with the students.
“I say things like ‘I can tell when you ring the bell’ and ‘Pull the chord,’ and I open the door’ … corny stuff, but it makes them laugh.
“After driving kids to class for a couple of years, I got to thinking that I might as well take some courses, too. I became a part-time student, and now I’m only 12 credit hours from earning a degree in communications.”
Riding a motorcycle from Raleigh to San Diego was kind of a bucket list thing. “Something I had always wanted to do. I hoped to raise money for veterans of the military, but I didn’t know how to go about getting sponsors. I rode out there anyway. It took a week, and I was so tired and sore that I tried to sell my bike, but no one would buy it. So I rode it back.”
Young even wrote a song about tennis excuses, with these lyrics:
My opponent’s too lucky, too young, too quick;
My racquet’s too heavy, too small, too new;
The court’s too dirty, too cracked to play;
And I’m too old, too cold, too hot, too tired to win.
Of course, such excuses would never be used by a 74-year-young eternal optimist with boundless energy and unbridled excitement about tomorrow. A man who has fought back cancer for almost nine years without so much as a whimper.
“Well, I can’t take a long stride anymore and I’m walking with a limp these days,” Young says. “The pain in my groin is a little worse, but it still isn’t something I can’t put up with.”
Which raises the same question the doctor asked back in 2007. What is Young going to do in terms of cancer treatment?
“Just wait and see,” he says. “Guess I’ll just keep on waiting and seeing.”