For 83-year-old Maccabiah athlete, tennis is labor of love

Some say age is only a number. Bob Sockolov of San Francisco is living proof of that.

Sockolov, 83, returned from his fourth Maccabiah Games this summer with a silver medal in the 80-years-and-up division of men’s tennis doubles.

The 19th Maccabiah Games, which took place in July, featured a record number of athletes, nearly 9,000 from around the world, who competed in Israel’s quadrennial sporting event that brings together top Jewish athletes.

Bob Sockolov practices at the Bay Club in San Francisco. photo/steve jamison

Sockolov is one such athlete. With two gold medals to his name from previous Maccabiah Games, he said he wanted one more go at competing on the international circuit.

“It was grueling,” he said of the tennis matches in Tel Aviv. “We had to play in 90-degree weather with high humidity, and I don’t remember it ever being that tough.”

Nearly a fifth of the tennis players over 65 dropped out during the two weeks of matches because of heat exhaustion and other ailments, he said.

The U.S. sent three tennis athletes older than 80, including Sockolov’s doubles partner Sam Sporn. “I said to the team that they’re probably trying to kill us,” Sockolov joked.

Jokes aside, he was worried he might not be able to play when he contracted a staph infection in April.

“My primary care doctor said I shouldn’t go, so I decided to talk to my other doctors, and the two of them said I could go. It was a democratic decision,” Sockolov said.

His interest in tennis began at a young age. Sockolov grew up in San Francisco playing the game, and his passion developed as he got older. He played tennis and basketball at Lowell High School, though “I was never dedicated enough to be a top tennis player,” he said. “But I’ve always loved to play.”

He continued playing in college on U.C. Berkeley’s tennis team. After graduating in 1951, he joined the Navy, and while stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii won a number of tournaments, including the 1952 U.S. Navy Singles championship.

Today the retired businessman still plays three times a week. Sockolov was the president and CEO of Rochester Big & Tall, which sells designer-name men’s clothing, and left the company in 2007 after 55 years of service.

Sockolov is also a principal partner of the San Francisco Giants, and he was one of the investors who kept the team in the Bay Area after it was nearly sold in 1993 to an ownership group that planned to move the operation to St. Petersburg, Fla.

“Being a San Francisco businessman,” Sockolov said, “I knew we couldn’t lose our team.”

He and his wife, Audrey, are longtime members of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. They previously belonged to Congregation Rodef Sholom when they lived in Marin County. Even in college Sockolov joined a Jewish fraternity to stay close to his roots.

“I’ve always felt connected to my Judaism,” he said — despite missing out on having a bar mitzvah in his youth.

That oversight was corrected at his first Maccabiah Games in 1985. His son Steven helped organize a surprise bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. (In recent years, group b’nai mitzvah ceremonies at the site have become a Maccabiah tradition.)

“All of a sudden there’s a crowd around me and a rabbi and all these people, and I asked ‘what’s going on?’ and they said, ‘you’re going to have a bar mitzvah.’ ”

Sockolov said some of his greatest moments have taken place in the Jewish state. At the games this summer, he said he saw a stronger connection to Judaism across the board.

“All of the athletes from across the world milled around for a couple of hours in a big park area to queue up before the opening ceremony,” Sockolov said, “and it was amazing to see all of these young people mixing with one another. The main purpose is to connect with other Jews.”

Sockolov said that experience and the feelings it produces transcend the sporting event. “The games and Israel both give you a big sense of pride as a Jew,” he said.