Ben Press, San Diego’s “Mr. Tennis”, a sobriquet that was more than deserved, passed away at his Coronado home, September 9th at the age of 92, after a lengthy illness. Having grown up in the North Park section of the city, Press was an institution locally and throughout the section. He was passionate about his two loves, besides his family – Tennis and San Diego (and UCLA would have been 2B on his list).
Though he was short in stature, he made up for it by being quick to smile – and regularly followed it with his consuming laugh. He was bright, extremely energetic and an excellent conversationalist. For more than 60 years, he was a widely appreciated Director of Tennis/Head Teaching Pro at the Kona Kai Club, the Hotel Del Coronado and San Diego Hilton Resort & Spa. Over time, he worked with an all-star array of performers such as Maureen Connolly (who grew up in the same San Diego area that he did). They were life-long friends until she passed away in 1966. He also influenced Karen Hantze Susman and Brian Teacher, along with Steve Avoyer, Angélica Gavaldón, Kristien Kemmer, Walter and Marita Redondo, Alexandra Stevenson and Randy Thomas. Looking at his client roster, which also included actors and actresses when he turned Hotel Del into “the place to play…”, it is easy to see why he was a USPTA Master Professional.
Teacher spoke of Press with glowing words that covered the personal as well as the professional side of Press, “He was a great guy, very gregarious, fun loving, and universally loved. He had smooth strokes and was a very good coach who taught the serve and volley game. Ben was a great family man and a friend to my parents.”
Press, a left-hander, was captivated by the game as a youngster. Wilbur Folsom, a local tennis teaching legend, helped him develop his talent. He became a junior standout, with a reputation for being a very fair competitor. His winning the prestigious Bob Carrothers Sportsmanship Award, presented at the Harper Ink Junior Tournament, in 1942, before he attended and played for UCLA, verifies the fact.
During the 1940s and ‘50s, tennis was very different from what it is today, particularly in Southern California. There were a variety of exhibitions events to play and Press did it whenever he had a chance. As he noted, (grinning mischievously), he had “good loses” against some of the best in the game, including Don Budge, Pancho Gonzalez, Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura and Bill Tilden
Over the years, he was as active on the court and he was forever involved off it. Press was a long-time member of the Southern California Tennis Association Board of Directors. He served as President of both the San Diego District Tennis Association, and the San Diego division of the USPTA. As the co-founder (with David Gill) of the Greater San Diego City Tennis Council, he focused the group’s effort on securing funds to refurbish public tennis courts around San Diego.
In 2006, he was a member of the first San Diego District Tennis Hall of Fame induction class. Four years later, he became a member of the SCTA Senior Hall of Fame. The SCTA recognized him again with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.
Press was an avid tennis journalist and regularly contributed columns to San Diego Tribune and the Coronado Journal. His “100 Years of Tennis at the Hotel del Coronado” was a seminal publication. In her book review that appeared in the June 2010 SCTA Senior News, Cheryl Jones said, “Press writes this memoir as if he is still not sure whether it’s been a dream. ‘100 Years of Tennis at the Hotel del Coronado’ is a wonderful collection of memories and history with lots of pictures. Southern Californians who have followed the long careers of players such as Dodo Chaney, Allen Fox, or Stan Smith will enjoy these local tennis greats’ recollections of their visits to the famed landmark.
“Just before the Table of Contents, a page is bare, save for an adage that states, ‘Tennis begins with love – Anonymous’. Press has incorporated that sentiment into every page of this narrative. It is apparent that he loves tennis, and he believes that tennis has reciprocated, tenfold.”
Press was a “Tennis Renaissance Man.” Teacher pointed out, “Many people are unaware that he was an inventor, making fiberglass then graphite tennis (it was called the Scepter) and paddle racquets in the 1960s.”
Angel Lopez, the Director of Tennis/Head Professional at the San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club, has a stellar reputation for “giving back” something he learned from the best in the game. His relationship with Press was special as he explained. “Ben Press gave me free tennis lessons when I was young because he knew that my family could not afford to pay. When I took lessons at the Hotel Del Coronado, I said to myself, ‘ One day, I’d like to be like the people playing tennis there.’
“He had a big heart and gave so much back to the community, He was my role model. I wanted to be like him. What he did on the court and he what he did off the court made a difference for the community. I was a best friend of his son Paul and we became doubles partners when I was a teenager (even until now). I loved Ben Press I will miss him.”
And there are countless others who feel the same way about Ben Press. San Diego’s “Mr. Tennis” is irreplaceable…
Note – The Press family has asked that anyone wishing to honor his memory to make a donation be to the Greater San Diego City Tennis Council.
Look for a fresh examination of tennis topics at “Mark’s Thoughts”