2022 USTA Eastern Lifetime Achievement Recipient: Steve Pekich
Few people are as qualified as Steve Pekich to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from USTA Eastern. Over nearly three decades, the Syracuse, N.Y. resident has established himself as an indispensable member of the western New York tennis community and has helped support a wealth of local USTA programming. He is the cofounder and president of the Central New York Tennis Association (CNYTA), a current district president for USPTA Eastern, a USTA Eastern umpire emeritus and a former member of the USTA Eastern Board of Directors—a position he held from 2003-2016. For 20 years he also served as a USTA adult league coordinator, all while managing the summer tennis operation for the Syracuse Parks & Recreation Department and working as a staff professional at Elevate Fitness, where in addition to teaching classes he has also run an innumerable amount of USTA tournaments. For his many efforts to support the initiatives of USTA Eastern, the organization has previously honored him with the Western Region Volunteer of the Year award (2000), the Clinician of the Year award (two times, in 2004 and 2005), the George Seewagen Award for teaching professionals (2007) and the USTA League Award (2016).
“My mission has [always] been to get as many people playing and enjoying the game as possible,” he says.
Pekich didn’t necessarily plan to dedicate his adult life to the sport. He graduated from Western Michigan University with a master’s in communications and initially embarked on a career in advertising. In his spare time—”seven days a week,” he says—he’d play tennis, a hobby he picked up after joining the club team at his college. He eventually decided to attend acclaimed coach Dennis Van Der Meer’s tennis university, an institution renowned for developing instructors in the game. He signed up not because he necessarily had designs on becoming a full-time clinician, but because he thought that if he could learn how to analyze his own stroke production like a professional, he would save a lot of money on lessons in the long run.
Ultimately, however, the experience at the academy proved to be much more meaningful than the cost-saving measure for which it was intended.
“They’d bring in locals from the area that [people in the program] would then teach,” Pekich recalls. “And I got hooked on it. I just enjoyed helping people so much.”
Within a year, Pekich left advertising behind to become a full-time teaching pro. He found work at clubs all across the country—in his native Michigan, in central Pennsylvania, in Illinois and even in California, where he happened to serve as an official at Venus Williams’s very first professional tournament. (“Umpires I was working with had seen her play before and said to me, ‘She’s playing her first professional match here and she’s going to win,’” he recalls. “And she did. Obviously she was destined for greatness.”) He eventually settled in Syracuse, N.Y., where he has played an integral role in the development and expansion of the local tennis ecosystem ever since.
In 1997, he co-founded CNYTA as a means of fostering stronger cooperation among clubs in the area, and the organization has gone on to create and promote a wide variety of local play opportunities—everything from interclub competitions to junior camps in the city to park clinics for beginners. Through CNYTA, Pekich has helped establish programming in underserved communities as well as bring the sport to all different groups of people.
“Steve applies for and receives grants for local projects like wheelchair tennis,” says Michael Starke, USTA Eastern’s Western Region Council Director from 2017 to 2021. “He oversees these programs and they would never take place [here] without him. He is a volunteer extraordinaire.”
His volunteer efforts in tennis have also extended to governance roles. Pekich has clocked over 28 years (and counting) as a district president for USPTA Eastern and 13 as a USTA Eastern board member. As part of the latter governing body, he spent a fair amount of time helping to reform the organization’s bylaws. Additionally, given his background as a longtime coordinator, he completed a great deal of work sitting on the USTA League committee. And perhaps fittingly, considering his own origins in the sport, he also helped enhance Tennis On Campus—the USTA’s college club tennis program—in the section with an innovative format change.
“There are a great number of college kids in this region who play on club teams,” he explains, noting schools like Syracuse University, Ithaca College, Cornell University and more. “There's about as many club teams that come out of the Western New York area as the rest of the section put together. So I actually started a regional tournament that mirrors how teams advance [to sectionals] in a League event.”
Through all of these many endeavors, Pekich has always leaned on his guiding principle, that if you can find a way to get people to enjoy the game, they’ll keep coming back to play. After all, it was his own enjoyable experience with club tennis in college that eventually set him off on a teaching path in the first place. And in reflecting on his lifetime of contributions to the game, it’s clear that following that principle has ultimately worked out quite well—as many tennis providers in Syracuse and the surrounding areas will no doubt attest.
“I remember [years back] I was interviewing for a job on the Eastern staff, and the interviewer asked me, ‘Well what can you say about yourself as far as [growing] tennis goes?’” Pekich recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, there are a hell of a lot more people playing the game than when I first came here.”