If you’ve traveled the senior tennis circuit for any length of time, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve crossed paths with 83-year-old New York native turned California transplant Steve Solomon somewhere along the way.
Maybe, with your spouse, you’ve been on one of the 216 teams that make their way to Rancho Mirage, CA, every year for the Husband and Wife Doubles Championships, which Solomon started in 2006.
“It’s probably the biggest doubles tournament in the world,” he says.
Or maybe you were one of the 750 players who used to head west for the Campbell’s Soup Senior Tournament (now the Asics World Tennis Classic), which Solomon founded three decades ago after he left Manhattan for Palm Springs. When the former player and new retiree arrived in town, he was surprised to find that such a tennis-rich zip code had so few big senior events.
That was about to change.
“I thought, ‘If I’m looking for tournaments to play, other people have to be, too,’” Solomon recalls. “So why not start one?”
Or maybe you knew one of the 23 tennis lifers from around the globe who entered the inaugural edition of the USTA’s 90-and-over championships, the event that Solomon seems most proud of having created.
“We had national coverage of that tournament,” Solomon says. “We were on Peter Jennings, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
“Some people had trouble hearing each other call the score,” he jokes, “but that was OK. Everyone loved sharing their stories of playing tennis over the decades.”
And that, according to Solomon, is what you need to remember if you’re going to run an adult tennis tournament: it’s the camaraderie, not the competition, that makes people come back year after year. In his mind, a tournament shouldn’t stop when you step off the court.
“The top players, they want to win, and they do their own thing,” Solomon says. “But most people don’t really care about the score. They want to go somewhere nice and hang around with a bunch of people who are in the same boat as them.”
With that in mind, Solomon has turned his tournaments into tennis festivals featuring everything from cocktail receptions and gourmet dinners, to welcoming ceremonies replete with Marine bands, clowns and stilt walkers.
“The main thing is to be flexible and friendly,” Solomon says, who still runs three events. “I know what I want as a player, so I try to bring that to the people in our tournaments.”
For his dedication and creativity, Solomon received the USTA’s annual Seniors’ Service award earlier this year.
“Steve’s love of tennis is contagious,” said Kurt Kamperman, the USTA’s chief executive of community tennis, “and we applaud his numerous volunteer efforts in the Palm Springs area.”
Solomon hasn’t helped grow the game on just one coast. During the sport’s boom years in the 1960s and ’70s, he was at the center of the burgeoning tennis scene on Long Island. A basketball player at Horace Mann High School in New York, he took up tennis at 30. From the start, the sport to him was as much about friends as it was foes.
“We’d play and then go get Chinese food,” Solomon says, laughing at the memory of his early days trying to find courts in the less-than-tennis-friendly concrete canyons of Manhattan.
Solomon had better luck when he took his game east, to the Hamptons. There, tennis became a family affair. He began to hit regularly with his wife, Abby; while both became accomplished players, their days as a husband-and-wife tennis team didn’t last long.
“We played two tournaments together,” Abby says with a laugh, “but we decided that wasn’t a good idea.” When it comes to running tournaments, though, Abby has been happy to partner with her husband.
“My main job is to keep Steve away from the front desk,” she jokes. “He’ll talk to people all day.”
In time, the Solomons introduced their son, Ken, to the game. When he found other interests as a teenager, Abby says, “I told him not to leave tennis behind, because it could come in handy someday.”
She was right: After working as a Hollywood executive and holding positions at Disney and Dreamworks, Ken became chairman and CEO of Tennis Channel in 2005.
“The court was our kitchen table,” Ken says of the Solomon household growing up. “That’s where we always were. Life revolved around tennis.”
“When I told my dad where I was going to be working, he just laughed,” Ken says of his move to Tennis Channel. “I felt like I was coming home.”
Steve Solomon’s skill and drive to play brought him in contact with the game’s elite on both coasts. He faced off in tournament finals against Renée Richards, when she was still Richard Raskind; shared shots and laughs with Bud Collins; and dared to take the court with Pancho Gonzalez.
“He could be nice,” Solomon says of the fearsome Lone Wolf, “but he always intimidated me.”
In the ’60s, Solomon helped found the Aspatuck Club in the Hamptons. Its 50 members shared ownership, and a new player could be admitted if he or she was good enough to beat the 25th-best member on the ladder.
“The goal was for everyone to get better,” Ken Solomon says of his father’s project. “He’s always had a desire to see other people excel. He takes a lot of joy in bringing that to people, and they gravitate toward him because of it.”
That joy has never ebbed, and neither has Solomon’s knack for seeing a tennis void and filling it. He recently helped start the Masters Invitational Championships, an tournament in Rancho Mirage that’s based on the ATP’s season-ending championships.
“There was no year-end tournament in senior tennis,” Solomon says. “Now people come out in November, play a match each day on grass with someone their level, and they love it.”
In recent years, Solomon’s own time on court has been curtailed because of eye problems. But nothing can take away what Steve and Abby still see as the best part of tennis.
“We can go anywhere in the world and find people we’ve met on the court,” Solomon says. “Being in senior tennis is like being part of a big club.”
Solomon has done as much as anyone over the decades to keep that club’s doors open, and its members happy with what they find there.
For generations, and for generations to come, tennis has positively impacted the young and old, on and off the court, in countless ways. In this year’s Heroes special, we’ve selected 30 such stories, including a 10-year-old amputee’s life-changing moment with Roger Federer, the rebuilding of a college program after Hurricane Katrina, a former prodigy’s important message as an adult, and a 78-year-old coach’s enduring influence on the pros. Taken together, these 30 stories illustrate how people grow up, grow as individuals and grow old with tennis—the sport of a lifetime. Click here for more Heroes stories.