5/30/2023 | By David Hudnall

Ray Lake, a 79-year-old tennis player, beats guys half his age on Kansas City tennis courts. “He just won’t quit,” said a 37-year-old opponent.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ray Lake drinks water out of a tennis ball can. He’s been doing this for years. He pops the top, empties out the three yellow balls, and fills the can at an Igloo cooler that’s stationed between the indoor courts at Woodside Health & Tennis Club, where five days a week the 79-year-old semi-retired psychiatrist can be found vigorously volleying with players half his age.

On a recent Monday afternoon, after losing a 6-4 first set to Romain Monnoyeur, the 31-year-old executive chef of Westport Café, Lake toweled off his forehead on a courtside bench and took a swig from his Pro Penn can. He swirled the tall can in his hand like a fine wine. He was frowning, annoyed at his own play.

“Ray’s going to make me run now,” Monnoyeur said, eyeing Lake as he crossed to the other side of the court.

He did. Monnoyeur spent the next several games scrambling back and forth from the net, chasing down Lake’s delicate drop shots and graceful lobs and cursing in French. The old man took the second set.

Lake is hard to miss at Woodside. His build is slight and he speaks softly, but he’s a flashy dresser. He has swag. He warms up in bright, multicolored Fila jackets that he’s owned since that sportswear company sponsored him in the 1980s. He wears jewelry on the court — two silver bracelets, a silver necklace, a gold watch and a big gold ring — and often a black Bluetooth earpiece in one ear and an iPhone hanging sideways at his waist. He swings an unusually large racket made by a company called Gamma.

And he knows how to use it. Lake has been competing in United States Tennis Association league matches since the 1970s. He was highly ranked nationally in his age group in his 40s and 50s and continues to travel for occasional tournaments — he recently got back from one in Palm Springs.

“But I’ve never won a Gold Ball,” Lake said ruefully, referring to the annual awards given to winners of first-tier championships in each USTA age division. “I’ve come in second a few times, but never first.”

These days, Lake most often competes against the two dozen or so other members of his Woodside ladder league. It is not an uncompetitive group of men: lawyers, wealth advisers, commercial real estate agents and other high achievers, most of them in their 30s and 40s. Lake enjoys a kind of emeritus status in this group — the wise and eccentric tennis professor who carries great reverence for the game — but he also regularly smokes many of them.

“If you have a little lead on Ray, you can’t let up — you have to attack, attack, attack,” said frequent opponent Blair Hinkle, a 37-year-old professional poker player and winner of the 2008 World Series of Poker $2,000 No-Limit Hold ’em event. “Otherwise he just comes roaring back. It’s happened so many times to me. He just won’t quit.”

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Lake reckons he started hitting tennis balls when he was about 10 years old, at a place called Princess Park in his boyhood home of Shreveport, Louisiana. He played tennis at Tulane University in New Orleans in the early ’60s. “I was probably number five on the team,” Lake said.

He went for a master’s studying insect physiology at Tulane, examining the neurochemistry of cockroaches. It was a fluke that led him to psychiatry.

“We were trying to elucidate this pathway that happens when cockroaches shed their exoskeleton,” Lake said, “and a couple of the compounds in that pathway were dopamine and norepinephrine and epinephrine. Which were some of the same compounds being talked about in psychotic patients.”

He pursued his research in psychiatry and pharmacology at successively prestigious institutions: Louisiana State University School of Medicine, Duke University, Oxford University and the National Institutes of Health.

Lake arrived in KC in 1993 to become the chair of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department at the University of Kansas School of Medicine and has been here ever since. He has written one book, called “Schizophrenia Is a Misdiagnosis,” and is at work on another about bipolar disorder. He still harbors a desire to get back to Louisiana someday; for the last 30 years, he has kept his membership at the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Club, one of the oldest tennis clubs in the country. But Lake doesn’t know if he’s ready to retire yet.

“I’ve got a pretty satisfactory setup here,” he said.

Lake, who is “divorced times two,” as he put it, lives with his girlfriend Elizabeth, who is 63, in a big yellow Brookside house. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, he sees patients there, in a sunny side room filled with African art. The rest of the week is for tennis.

Ray Lake, 79-year-old tennis player, at Woodside Health and Tennis Club. (Emily Curiel/Kansas City Star/TNS)
A semi-retired psychiatrist, Ray Lake sees patients two days a week and plays tennis the other five. (Emily Curiel/Kansas City Star/TNS)

He said his half-century of studying the human brain doesn’t give him a competitive edge on the court — or, at least, none that he is conscious of. Nor does he believe he’s the best old-man tennis player in Kansas City. “There’s a guy in Shawnee named Wilbur Jones who’s 85 and one of the top players in his age group in the world,” Lake said. “I’ve played him many times over the years. He’s a terrific player.”

Although Lake laments the deterioration of certain aspects of his game — “I just can’t run down lobs like I used to” — his Woodside opponents are full of praise for his play.

“Almost everybody today hits a big topspin ball,” said Hinkle, whom Lake has been encouraging lately to enter into some USTA tournaments. “Ray hits these slices that really take a long time to get used to. But having to play against that has helped my game a ton.”

“He can basically put the ball wherever he wants,” Monnoyeur said. “When you’re Ray’s age, you have to be a really smart player because you can’t run everywhere. When we play outside, he has an advantage because he knows how to play around the wind. He’s very focused that way. He finds different ways like that to get an edge.”

Alas, not on that Monday. The third-set tiebreaker went to Monnoyeur, 7-5. Match over. Lake returned to the bench, grabbed his water can and turned to Monnoyeur, who was standing by the net.

“Have you ever beat me before, Romain?”

“Once or twice, maybe.”

“He’s really gotten a lot better,” Lake said of Monnoyeur. “Or maybe I’m getting worse.” He thought it over for a moment. “No — I think it’s that these guys are getting better.”

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David Hudnall