When do dreams ever come true? Imagine one day you wake up and say, “I want to build a Tennis Center and run it and serve the tennis playing community. I will bring them inexpensive ways to learn and play tennis, and I’ll attract touring pros to play in my professional tournaments, too.” How cool would it be to realize such a dream? Steve Starleaf had that dream and he knew he could do it. He worked relentlessly for 10 years to make it happen. Today he runs a 12-court public tennis facility in Burbank, home to NBC, Disney, and Warner Bros. Studios, growing the game of tennis and helping the underprivileged in his community.
Steve Starleaf is a long time Burbank resident. He went from Burbank High School to Pierce College and won the College Conference with his team in 1976. Subsequently he joined what is now Texas A&M and won the Nationals with his team in 1978. His coach was local legend Paul Santos, who urged him to teach tennis. Starleaf was certified as tennis professional by the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) in 1980.
From 1978 until 1982 Starleaf was Head Pro at the Racquet Center of South Pasadena, followed by teaching at Cabrini Village until 1990. During his work at Cabrini Village, Santos and Starleaf started the dream about a new Tennis Club in the hills overlooking Burbank.
The dream was to build a tennis facility into the hillside of Burbank and it officially started with a letter to the City Council on Dec 13, 1987. The initial idea didn’t quite materialize for various reasons, one of them being the lack of parking space at the proposed location. Lack of funding proved to be a big obstacle in their plans, too. However, the City Council saw tremendous value in keeping such a driving force working for the community and came up with a counter proposal: Partner with us and we provide the funding and the ideal location with plenty of parking, McCambridge Park.
To make a 10-year long story short, the Burbank Tennis Center had its Grand Opening September 27, 1997. The new facility had 2 Har-Tru clay courts and 10 hard courts, including a 290 seat sunken stadium court. At the 10-year anniversary Starleaf was able to look back at 20 years of working his dream and organized a big event to celebrate the accomplishments.
Early on he managed to get a license to run a $50,000 Challenger Tournament at his facility. The Health South Challenger was won by no other than Andre Agassi in 1997. In the past few years Starleaf discovered his passion for helping the underprivileged, especially those who are known as special population kids. He partnered with the Burbank Center for the Retarded, with the Down Syndrome Academy, and with the Tri-Valley Special Olympics and created special events at his facility. In May 2011 they organized the first ever tennis for the hard of hearing event. This one day introductory clinic was possible through Bill Green of the Greenlight Foundation. Green happens to be the co-owner of the Burbank manufacturing company for the Tutor tennis ball machines.
“What we created is the ideal partnership between a public agency and private enterprise,” says Starleaf. Our Operating Agreement with the City of Burbank includes some very important clauses, such as
- Giving back to the city, e.g. by reaching out to the special needs population
- Making the tennis courts available for free to the Burbank population between 11 am and 3 pm each day
- Keeping the facility open to the public
The Burbank Tennis Center offers programs and camps, clinics and round robins for kids and adults. It is also a great facility for public events that can be held on the sunken stadium court with its 290 seat capacity. Good example: Flag Day on June 14. This special event is sponsored by the Burbank Noon Kiwanis Club, an organization that proposed this event to be held here in 1998. The driving force behind the Flag Day celebration is Sam Engel, Past President of the Burbank Noon Kiwanis Club and Chairman of the Pledge of Allegiance. Engel created a script for a Flag Day celebration in 1970 and brought the ceremony first to the steps of the City Hall and later to the Tennis Center. Engel is also a friend of the nationwide movement to pause at exactly 7 pm EST (4 pm PST) to honor the flag.
The Flag Day ceremony on the stadium court of the Burbank Tennis Center shows the progress of flags from the original design to today’s 13 stripes and 50 stars. It also includes a display of posters created in local schools, with the presentation of cash prize awards, and ends in the Pledge of Allegiance for everyone.
Steve Starleaf has come a long way from his first $5 tennis lesson in a public park when he was 13, using his Swedish immigrant dad’s wooden tennis racquet. Married, with 2 kids (His wife, President of famous ladies fashion company Fredericks of Hollywood, is an accomplished business person herself), Starleaf shows unwavering commitment for serving the community and growing the game of tennis. His eyes sparkle when he tells about the Christmas Party for 150 special needs kids, or his work with North Hollywood’s ARC, the Activities for Retarded Children organization. He explains, “I want to give back to the community in which I live and work.”
“This is a fun place to work, with a great atmosphere and easy going management,” says Laura Flores, Front Desk Manager for the Burbank Tennis Center. “The members and non-member players are all real nice.”
Mike Bennett, front desk staff for 3 years at the Tennis Center, and driving to work from Los Angeles, adds, “The Burbank Tennis Center is a beautiful place to work. Everyone is like family to me.”
Have you had a chance to play tennis at the Burbank Tennis Center? Please share and leave a comment at the end of this article.
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