Last April, a group of U-M men’s tennis players and coaches were greeted at the Varsity Tennis Center by an enthusiastic guest. “I was so excited to practice with them I showed up an hour early,” recalled Bill Godfrey, ’82, who last worked out with the tennis team when he was the No. 4 Big Ten singles champion. “They were all so gracious and welcoming—and then they proceeded to kick my butt,” he exclaimed, laughing.
For Godfrey—one of four players on the U.S. team that won the Senior World Tennis Championship last summer— the experience was heartening more than humbling. “They play the same game I do, but in fast motion,” he said. The 90-minute practice was in preparation for the U.S. Tennis Association National Men’s 55 Indoor Championship in Boise, Idaho, the following week.
It worked. In Idaho, Godfrey beat two higher-ranked players in closely contested singles matches and advanced to the semifinals for both singles and doubles before being eliminated. Those wins brought his national 55-and-over ranking to No. 7.
“Bill still plays so well and has such a love for the game, I think it was really inspiring for the team to get to know him,” said Adam Steinberg, U-M head tennis coach.
Godfrey’s passion for the sport and for U-M go back nearly 50 years. At age 9, the Ann Arbor native’s first tennis lesson was with Bill Murphy, then the U-M tennis coach. Five years later, Godfrey was playing on the national junior circuit and being coached by Brian Eisner, Murphy’s successor at U-M.
But it was during his last two years of high school that Godfrey distinguished himself in tennis. In 1976, he defeated John McEnroe, the future No. 1 in the world, in the U.S. national 18-and-under hardcourt tournament. The following year, Godfrey advanced all the way to the finals in the national 18-and-under Easter Bowl.
Though he did not win that match, he did win a full tennis scholarship to the University of Colorado, where he played No. 1 singles for three years before transferring to U-M in 1980. Godfrey had to sit out his first season due to NCAA redshirt rules on transfer students. But he came back his senior year, helping the team win the Big Ten Championship with both singles and doubles victories. Upon graduation, he hit the semipro circuit, but, newly married and tired of traveling, he quit 18 months later.
Cut to 2012. With the last of his three children out of the house, Godfrey—who works in real estate—decided to take tennis seriously again.
But soon after, he was struck by a severe inner ear infection that causes, among other symptoms, extreme vertigo. After more than a year of physical therapy at U-M, he was back on the court in July 2014 to compete in the Ann Arbor City Tennis Tournament, where he made it to the doubles finals just as he had 40 years earlier as a 15-year-old. A few months later, he came in second in the 2014 National Men’s Grass Court Championship in Forest Hills, New York.
That runner-up finish led to Godfrey being asked to join the U.S. 55-and-over team competing in the International Tennis Federation’s World Team Championships (the Austria Cup) in La Baule, France, last summer.
Godfrey ended up winning all three of his matches, earning two doubles victories against Belgium and Italy, and a singles win against Moldova. In the final match, the U.S. defeated Spain to bring the cup home.
Asked about the difference between the game of his youth and his game today, Godfrey said he is now more focused on strategy and less on technique. “It feels like magic,” he said. “And a great way to spend this time in my life.”
Jennifer Conlin, ’83, is the deputy editor of Michigan Alumnus.