Steve Bickham initially thought he would be a lawyer, or doctor perhaps--following in the footsteps of his dad, who was the executive director of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. But then he picked up a tennis racket, not unlike a lot of men, women and kids in the 1970s, when the sport enjoyed its most recent American heyday.
"If you remember, everybody was playing back then, even in Oklahoma," he said.
Bickham was good--good enough to play for the University of New Mexico, become a pro, a coach and, ultimately, executive director of the Idaho Tennis Association (IdTA). And on the eve of Boise's biggest day in the tennis spotlight--hosting the Davis Cup Quarterfinals--Boise Weekly got Bickham to talk about his net gains.
How good were you in college?
Good, not great. We were ranked about 20th in the country. Back then, there were no rules limiting how many tennis matches you could play. We had a coach--he was nuts--who had us play 70 matches. The limit today is 25.
Were those years instrumental in your choice of tennis as a profession?
Something kicked in my senior year. I started playing the best tennis of my life. I thought I was going to go to law school, but I thought I would try being a tennis professional for a few months. That led to four years on the tour.
Did you just go out and join the tour?
Tennis is unique. The pro tour has smaller circuits all around the world. When I joined the Association of Tennis Professionals, I was ranked 980 in the world. Today, your first ATP points put you at something like No. 2,000 in the world, and you're usually tied with another 1,000 people.
What was your highest ranking?
I was about 480 in 1990.
What was the best part of it?
The travel. I would literally pick the countries where I wanted to go. It was an unbelievable life.
But you recognized that you couldn't play forever.
About 10 years later, I became a coach for Sargis Sargsian. He was ranked as high as No. 35 in the world.
Don't most players fall in and out of love with tennis?
A love/hate relationship. The money pulls you in. But when you're in it for a while, you realize that there's not a lot of growth.
Did you meet your wife through tennis?
I did. I was at Northern Arizona University as a coach and I needed to hire an assistant. I hired her, fell in love and got married.
Have your two young boys [ages 4 and 6] picked up a racket yet?
They picked them up as soon as they were walking. We started with little rackets and balloons.
How big is the IdTA?
We have 4,500 members in Idaho. Of all of the leagues I've seen around the country, this is the highest participation I've ever seen.
With all of the conversation in this country right now regarding contact sports and the risk of concussion, is there opportunity for you to grow tennis participation among young athletes?
Absolutely. A big opportunity. We're putting a lot of focus on a program we call Tennis is Elementary. We set up tennis courts in gymnasiums and cafeterias of elementary schools.
Do you arrange that through school districts?
We talk directly with principals and they love it. It's an afterschool program, about an hour twice a week for four weeks. It's very low cost: $35, and if anybody can't afford it, our foundation picks up the tab.
I know that IdTA has a big kid-centric event scheduled in the middle of the Davis competition.
At 10 a.m. Saturday, April 6, the second day of competition, we're going to hold a free family tennis carnival at Julia Davis Park. We'll put the adults on a couple of courts, middle-schoolers on a couple more courts, and little kids will be on some of our specially designed small courts. That will go until noon so folks can walk across the bridge to Boise State and go to the matches.
And I know that you're hoping to make a big announcement during the Davis Cup regarding kids tennis opportunities here in Boise.
We've come up with a plan to build some permanent mini courts for the little ones. I can't tell you which park just yet, but they would be built alongside some existing courts in a Boise park near the Greenbelt.
How much would that cost?
Well over $50,000. The United States Tennis Association, IdTA and the City of Boise would probably each kick in some money.
How far back did you start talking about bringing Davis Cup to Boise?
Greg Patton [BW, Citizen, "Greg Patton," Feb. 6, 2013] started talking about it last Thanksgiving. I said, "Are you crazy?" I started talking to our national office and it turned out that there was pretty good national momentum to make this happen. But then, I thought we lost that momentum at Christmastime.
What happened to bring it back to life?
I give big credit to the City of Boise and, in particular, Theresa McLeod [assistant to Mayor Dave Bieter]. Greg and I talked to her first and she took the ball so fast. The next meeting she had everyone in the room: parks and rec, the police and fire departments, the downtown association. I never saw so much support.
I've heard that 30 percent of the Davis Cup attendees will be from out of town.
Probably more. More like 40 percent. It's fantastic for the hotels and restaurants.
How instrumental was Greg Patton in making all of this happen?
He's an amazing force. A lady called me from The New York Times yesterday and she asked me, "Why do you think they chose Boise for the Davis Cup?" I said, "Greg Patton." He's pretty special. If I had gone to the city alone, they would have said, "Who are you?"
I think more than a few people are about to know who you are.
Well, we'll see.