Belle of the ball: La Jolla resident wins 100th gold ball in tennis
Suella Steel, 81, reaches a goal for winning national titles that took almost 50 years in various age brackets to achieve.
To be successful in tennis, “you have to want the ball,” according to La Jolla resident Suella Steel.
But Steel didn’t want just one. She wanted 100 gold balls, which are awarded to the winner of a singles or doubles national title in various age brackets.
After a lifetime of goal-setting, Steel achieved that dream this month at age 81.
To get there, Steel has competed across the country — and represented the United States internationally — over almost 50 years of playing tennis.
All the effort culminated in winning her 100th gold ball at the U.S. Tennis Association National Mixed 50, 60, 70, 75 & 80 Hard Court Championships, which ended Feb. 6 in Palm Desert.
When asked how she feels about her achievement, Steel said, “Relief.”
“People knew I was going for it and would ask me all the time, ‘Did you get it? Did you get it? Did you get it?’ And now that it’s done, I can relax and enjoy the game.”
Though she was exposed to tennis as a child in Georgia — her father and brother played on a clay court in the family’s backyard — Steel didn’t start playing and competing until she was in her 30s. While she had experience in other sports, she had the speed and tenacity to be successful in tennis, she said.
“I learned to play on clay courts in Florida and I got every ball back,” she said. “I would drive people crazy; I would run every one of them down. When I came to California, I got more aggressive with the game. That’s really important, and it’s hard to teach that. You have to want the ball. I would hit a fence for the ball. After awhile, people stopped saying ‘She gets every ball back’ and they started saying ‘She’s a really good player.’”
Over the years, Steel taught and coached tennis at various establishments across San Diego and competed on national and international courts, including representing the U.S. at an event sponsored by the International Tennis Federation. At the height of her competitive career in 2000, the ITF ranked Steel No. 1 in the world for singles players of her age.
She also was often highly ranked by USTA, which motivated her to stay in top form.
“If you get ranked in the top three [for your age] by USTA, it sends you to play for the United States in different countries, so I keep playing to keep my ranking,” Steel said. “I’ve been in over 33 [tennis tournaments] in my life all over the world because of it. … I was in New York two years ago, even during the pandemic, and before that I was in Croatia, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Turkey.”
By playing on various courts worldwide, she learned to play on different surfaces. “At first, singles [matches] on grass were hard for me, but some of the European players would come and they were really good on grass. So I created the goal of winning [a tournament] on every single type of surface,” Steel said.
Her constant drive toward the 100 gold balls kept her returning to the court. “I’m really goal-oriented and a very competitive person,” she said. “I have to keep going. I know I have to keep in shape.”
After winning her 99th gold ball in a tournament at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club — where she has been a member since 1986 — she and doubles partner Dean Corley went to Palm Desert to seek her 100th.
“In the 80s [age group], not as many people showed up … but it was a good tournament. We had a good time at it,” Steel said. “We played hard, and I think Dean felt a lot of pressure because he knew it was my 100th gold ball.”
The two had won other doubles tournaments in other age brackets, and Steel, at 81, was the youngest player in the 80s bracket, so they were confident they would bring home the gold, she joked.
Friends and family members were on hand with flowers to celebrate.
And word quickly got out at her La Jolla home court. While she was speaking with the La Jolla Light at the Beach & Tennis Club, where she still plays every Friday, two other players congratulated Steel on her achievement and sang her praises as an inspiration.
“As you can see, tennis has been huge for me,” Steel said. “All these years I put my time into it. But I’m getting older. I’ve got arthritis in my knee and I’m not going to have a knee replacement.
“It is strange to not have any more goals, but now I can just kind of relax and enjoy it. Maybe I’ll keep playing, maybe not. Maybe not so intensely. We’ll see what’s going to happen next.” ◆