W alking across the courts of Bellevue's Robinswood Tennis Center, where for 14 hours a day fluorescent green balls ping over the nets, is like taking a stroll through Steve Doerrer's...
Walking across the courts of Bellevue’s Robinswood Tennis Center, where for 14 hours a day fluorescent green balls ping over the nets, is like taking a stroll through Steve Doerrer’s life.
Doerrer was there when the first rackets were swung under the “bubbles” — giant tents that 31 years ago were considered innovative. When the bubbles eventually succumbed to storms, he saw the center through several renovations, with a new building housing four courts and a removable domed-shaped roof covering two more.
Doerrer helped Robinswood, one of the region’s few indoor public tennis facilities — and the only one on the Eastside — win handfuls of awards. He chased scholarships to make sure any kid who wanted to play could. And he crafted one-of-a-kind programs and a culture that rewards children for trying, not winning.
Doerrer, 56, will retire Friday after 26 years as Robinswood’s manager, and most recently five years as the enterprise manager for Bellevue’s parks department, overseeing not only the tennis center but many other facilities.
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“He’s that silent person in your community, the one you probably haven’t heard of but who touches an enormous number of lives,” said Terry Higashiyama, assistant director for Bellevue’s parks department. “I don’t think we could count the kids whose lives were changed by Steve.”
When he was hired after college in 1973 as the first manager and head pro for the then-new Robinswood, Doerrer was 25, but already had made a name for himself in tennis: Among other honors, he was a ranked singles player by the United States Tennis Association, and in doubles he advanced to Round 16 of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics nationals.
The approach Doerrer took to developing the center’s programs was influenced by his youth in Santa Monica, Calif. His parents were teachers with modest salaries, but the city offered a public program that allowed an 8-year-old Doerrer to explore tennis without expensive private clubs.
The coaches there built his confidence and taught him that the point was having fun, not beating his opponent.
His priority at Robinswood was to infuse programs with the same safe feelings of inclusion.
“Kids can get so hung up, devastated really, if someone beats them,” said Doerrer, who speaks quickly and gestures excitedly when talking about tennis.
“To be competitive is just fine, as long as you have balance.”
Robinswood runs on a self-supporting budget of about $550,000 a year. It offers court time and training to adults, but a major focus is on lessons and leagues for children of all ages. Still, parents can often get too swept up in the excitement and competition of youth play, Doerrer said.
“I’ve had parents call me and tell me they want their child on a certain team so that they can get a college scholarship,” he said. The pressure can be too much on fragile young psyches, he added.
So Doerrer came up with the idea of a Speakers Bureau. He invited adults — some athletes, some not — who had overcome challenges and found success: K.C. Jones, basketball Hall-of-Famer and former SuperSonics coach; poet Ardis Clinton; motivational speakers; political candidates, reformed ex-convicts and recovered addicts.
“As they came and talked to the kids, the kids started to realize that there’s more to life than just tennis,” Doerrer said. “Once you learn that, you won’t be judging yourself.”
A string of similarly inventive programs followed: classes for people who feel “unathletic,” for full-bodied adults, for people in wheelchairs, and for seniors and for those in the early stages of a neurological disease.
Players come to Robinswood from all over the Eastside, and from Seattle, to take advantage of classes and court time, priced much lower than at private facilities.
“That was always Steve’s message: a community-based program that put tennis within reach for everyone,” said John Soriano, who took Doerrer’s place as manager when Doerrer stepped up to oversee several facilities.
And what Doerrer has given to the community, the community has given back to him. Twelve years ago, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, friends and students cooked meals for his wife, Mary, and their two children. And they flooded him with wishes for a full recovery that eventually came.
Though he’s retiring, Doerrer says he isn’t done with tennis. After spending some time with his family, he may get back into playing and teaching.
The city has not yet hired someone new for Doerrer’s job as Bellevue’s parks-enterprise manager. And even when they do, said Higashiyama, it won’t be the same.
“When someone’s made an impact for 31 years, you can’t replace that,” she said.
Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or firstname.lastname@example.org