By Tom Flanagan
SHREWSBURY, MA – Robert Newman has traveled the world on business and for pleasure, and has been blessed with the unique ability to communicate in any language.
Newman may not be able to speak foreign languages fluently or pick up on the nuances of local dialect, but he doesn’t have to.
He speaks the language of kindness and his smile is his voice.
Newman, 95, retired from AT&T as the Director of International Services and has lived in Shrewsbury since 1989.
His Shrewsbury residence happens to be less than a mile from a set of public tennis courts at Dean Park, and hardly any player - old or young - has played at the iconic courts without having a pleasant interaction with Newman.
The park is a tennis hotbed, drawing players from near and far. Among the frequent players is a gang of older players, who have labeled their close-knit group I.T.C.H.S – or, International Tennis Court Hackers Society.
Players have nicknames ranging from, "The Mouth," to "New Knees" to "The Netman." Newman, to the surprise of nobody, has acquired the handle "Smiley."
Bob Newman (center), flanked by friends Barry Ziff (left) and Cardi Welch
"Bob is our inspiration," said Barry Ziff, a longtime friend of Newman’s and a habitual tennis player. "He walks on the court with a smile and never has a bad word for anyone."
Make no mistake, though, Newman doesn’t frequent the park to watch tennis. He’s a player and a fine one at that, ranked in the top 10 nationally in the USTA’s men’s 90 division.
Another longtime friend and Dean Park regular, Cardie Welch, is impressed by Newman’s game.
In a recent interview, while Welch was describing Newman’s ability to move the ball across the court, Newman quickly chimed in, "Those are just all lucky shots."
Newman is proud of his ranking and what he as accomplished as a late-blooming tournament player, but he’s quick to use his sharp sense of humor to deflect praise.
"Well, there aren’t that many people my age out there still playing," Newman said with a laugh. "I’m just out there playing for the love of the game and the friendships that tennis helps me form. My life, right now, is really geared toward tennis."
Newman had been a lifelong dabbler in tennis, but caught the fever in a big way when he retired.
Newman had a talent for the game and Ziff noticed, which led to Ziff’s asking about Newman’s tournament experience.
Newman had none, but Ziff figured that should change and convinced – or snookered Newman, depending upon who tells the story – into playing in his first sanctioned tournament at 90 years old.
"I told him there was a little tournament just down the road and that he should give it a try," Ziff said. "It was right around the time of my birthday and I told Bob that it would be a nice birthday present to get to watch him in a tournament."
The tournament was, in fact, "down the road," but was far from little.
Newman’s first exposure to tournament tennis was at historic Longwood in Chestnut Hill and he played in USTA’s Men’s 90 National Grass Courts Championships.
Newman caught on a few days before the start of the tournament when he saw a newspaper article that touted the appearance of tennis legend Gardner Malloy.
Newman acquitted himself well, but fell to the No. 1 seed.
He didn’t plan on playing doubles at Longwood, but his friendly ways led him to a conversation with a Canadian player who didn’t have a partner.
Bob Newman and George Barta went on to finish third in doubles, giving the then-90-year-old Newman the distinction of winning a bronze ball in his first tournament.
Newman has been a mainstay at the USTA National Championships ever since, making annual trips to Washington, North Carolina and California.
On most of his trips, he stays with friends – friends he met decades before, or new acquaintances he’s made through tennis.
"When you get the chance to travel the country and sit down and talk to these people, it really is amazing," said Newman, who does volunteer work for a hospice service and a local library for the blind. "You learn about who they are, what they’ve done in life. There are some interesting characters. One guy I met out in Palm Springs had to leave the luncheon early because he was attending Hugh Heffner’s birthday party. You just never know."
Newman, who was with his wife Andree for 65 years until her passing, has taken his wealth of life experience and simplified it into some advice Ziff has taken to heart.
"I remember one day trying to get philosophical with Bob about life," Ziff recalled. "He told me, ‘Don’t think so much. Just do. Just move ahead and don’t sweat the small stuff.’"
In late October, Newman’s tennis friends gathered at a local restaurant to celebrate his 95th birthday and his impact on their lives as tennis players and as people.
It was not a party to recognize Newman’s retirement as a tennis player.
He’s got that mapped out.
"I’ve seen some of these guys play," he said. "When I turn 100, some of these 89-year-olds will be moving up to the 90s. That’s when I’ll call it quits. I won’t be able to keep up with those younger players."