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Hall High’s Jim Solomon is in his 50th season coaching boys tennis with no sign of letting up

WEST HARTFORD – In 1992, Jonathan Slifka tried out for the Hall High tennis team and changed the way coach Jim Solomon thought about sports.

Slifka, who has spina bifida, used a wheelchair. Solomon contacted the CIAC. Turns out, under the rules of wheelchair tennis, Slifka was allowed to bounce the ball two times instead of one, but he lost all three trial matches and Solomon had to cut him from the team.

It was the last time Solomon cut anyone from the Hall tennis team.

“That was my epiphany,” Solomon said Friday. “We have courts. I thought, ‘If I can get some help,’ which (the government) supported… and I hated austerity anyway…

“Of the four captains I have now, two would probably have been cut under the old policy.”

In his 50th season as coach, all at Hall, the 72-year-old Solomon has stayed the course. He is the state’s winningest boys tennis coach, with a record of 631-102. Hall has won four state titles and has had six individual state champions in singles and two state champions in doubles, including two-time State Open champion and All-American Dan Couzens, who graduated in 2007. The Titans had a 57-game win streak from 1987 to 1992. when Slifka, then a freshman, tried it.

Slifka served as a scorekeeper and warmed up players before games his freshman year, then played for Hall the following year before transferring to Watkinson and becoming the team’s captain as a senior.

“If Jim hadn’t made the decision to let me try out when I was a freshman, it might never have happened,” said Slifka, who comes to the Hall-Conard game every year to talk to the players. “It’s all connected.

“Jim and I are still in touch all these years later. It has grown into a very deep and meaningful friendship for me.”

Hall tennis head coach Jim Solomon looks on during a match in 2019, the year he became the state's winningest boys tennis coach.  Photo by Brad Horrigan |  bhorrigan@courant.com

Brad Horrigan/The Hartford Courant

Hall tennis head coach Jim Solomon looks on during a match in 2019, the year he became the state’s winningest boys tennis coach. Photo by Brad Horrigan | [email protected]

Many of Solomon’s former players are his friends, and many echo Slifka’s feelings about the man they called “Sol.”

“He is a special man in my life,” said Quat Vu of Newington, a 2001 graduate of Hall High and director of tennis at the Hartford Tennis Club. “He is a father figure to me.”

Vu, who came to West Hartford from Vietnam with his family, hadn’t played much tennis before high school, but he wanted to play. Vu, another player who benefited from Solomon’s no-cut policy, played for the team in his second year, worked on his game and improved, and played for three years.

“My family is from Vietnam,” Vu said. “We don’t think about college after high school. My parents had not financially planned for me to go to college. I was kind of on my own. I didn’t even think I would go to college. But (Solomon) talked to a coach at Salve Regina. That summer I was working and the coach called me, ‘Hey, we’re ready for you. You’re coming to Salve.’ I thought, ‘What? I don’t even know where Salve is.’ I didn’t know where Newport, RI, was.

“I spoke to Sol, he said, ‘Yes, they got you in, financial aid and everything is all set. I have confidence that the coach will take care of you.’”

Vu played for Salve Regina for four years and won the team’s sportsmanship award as a senior. He came home and gave it to Solomon.

“He has done so much for me,” said Vu, who also coaches girls tennis at Westminster School. “People say, ‘I would never be who I am today…’, but for me it’s a true statement.”

Craig Davidson, who played for Hall from 1994 to 1998, is in his second season as the first men’s tennis coach at the University of St. Joseph.

“With Sol, it goes much deeper than forehands and backhands,” said Davidson, who won the 1997 Class L singles championship. “He’s really just part of his players’ lives.”

Solomon, a retired English teacher, started as a freshman baseball coach in 1974. Hailing from Wyoming, Ohio, he attended Trinity College, where he played baseball (not tennis) and eventually taught at Hall.

“The original director, Bob Dunn, was interested in what you could coach,” Solomon said Friday before his team took on Hand and won 4-3. “The interview was: ‘Yes, I see you teach English, but what can you coach?'”

The tennis court opened in his second year at Hall, 1975, and he took it. Rich Rosenthal, who owned the Max Restaurant Group before his retirement, made his first team after playing for the former coach as a sophomore the year before.

“I was probably the first guy kicked off his team,” Rosenthal said from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where he lives in the winter. “I was a bit of a wise guy and because I got there first I thought I was in charge. I actually thought I knew more than him. He was a young fellow; he was not much older than us. We didn’t get along very well at first. He temporarily locked me out. I don’t remember the details.”

Rosenthal was eventually reinstated and played his senior year and went on to play at Bentley.

“I would say it’s extremely impressive (that Solomon is still coaching),” said Rosenthal, who recalled that his team and Solomon had a reunion about 15-20 years ago at one of his restaurants, Max’s Oyster Bar in West Hartford .

Solomon had back surgery last year. He has an artificial hip and a partial knee replacement. He still plays tennis. He has also been a member of the CIAC boys tennis committee for more than 30 years and a state tournament director for the last 15 years.

His players – he has 52 on his current team (which is 3-0) this season – were messing around before Friday’s game and Solomon was smiling.

“They keep me young,” he said.

He taught at Hall for 47 years. He has been married to his wife Marjorie for 48 years. He has lived in the same house for 46 years. Been a coach for 50 years.

“That’s my zodiac sign, Cancer,” he said. “We grab hold of things and don’t let go. If I like something, I stick with it.”