Cooley’s Tennis Fitness Program

May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month. Exercise is important to every aspect of health, including the heart, and what better way to enjoy exercising than through a sport like tennis? It gets you outside with others, yet at a safe distance. For those reasons, interest in tennis has increased over the last year—so much so that racquets can be hard to find.

A lifelong athlete, Dr. Cooley is best known for basketball, but he was an avid tennis player as well. The Cooleys even had their own tennis court at Cool Acres Ranch.

One day during Cooley’s first few weeks as a student at Johns Hopkins Medical School, Dr. Alfred Blalock saw Cooley’s tennis skills on the court (ironically, as Cooley had skipped Blalock’s class to play) and invited him to a weekend getaway with some doctors and their families so that Blalock would have someone to play ping pong with. After this first personal interaction between the young student and the great professor of surgery, Blalock became Cooley’s mentor, and the two remained friendly through the years.

Cooley even competed internationally, traveling to play doubles in an Armed Forces tournament in Bremen, Germany, representing the American troops stationed in Austria (where he spent 2 years during the post-war period). In the late 1960s, after taking a long break from tennis, Cooley found himself playing doubles in a doctors’ and dentists’ tennis tournament. For lack of both practice and fitness, the only prizes he took home were a hamstring injury and elbow pain.

This incident spurred Cooley to create his own physical conditioning program, which was included in The Doctor’s Guide to Better Tennis and Health and was reprinted in the April 1976 issue of Tennis. His program included hopping on one foot and then the other for up to 50 times each (increasing reps slowly). As he got stronger, he deepened his knee bend. He would then do a wall sit for up to 2 minutes. He found that this simple, daily routine could fit into his busy schedule, helped his knees, ankles, and back, and kept him in shape for future tennis matches.

Cooley also played against Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs. When tennis star Billie Jean King came to the Astrodome in September 1973 to compete against Riggs in the infamous “Battle of the Sexes,” a lot of hype preceded the match—much of it fomented by Riggs, who set up several other matches on the side for publicity and quick cash. Cooley played Riggs at the Astrodome, losing his match and the bet—which, as reported by Time, was $100 and a free checkup at the Texas Heart Institute.

So, go grab a racquet! (If you can find one.)

Denton Cooley playing tennis on his tennis court at Cool Acres Ranch.

Following a tennis tournament at the Astrodome that benefited the Texas Heart Institute, Bobby Riggs came to the Institute for a checkup that included a walk on the treadmill.


Feature Photo: Dr. Cooley (middle left), Bobby Riggs (far right), and the Cooley pep team, “Denton’s Dolls and Reed’s Raiders” made up of perfusionists and fellows (Including: Pat Phillips, Mary Ann Portis, Diane Taylor, Diane Clark, Dr. Adams, Dr. Olietti, and Dr. Kyger),  at the match at the Astrodome. (From Essays of Denton A. Cooley, M. D., Eakin Press, 1984.)