Ever since he was 10 years old, Augusto Solano has loved tennis.
He grew up playing on his neighbor’s court in Colombia, eventually climbing the junior ranks to No. 2 in the country and 11 in the world – high enough to earn an invitation to the Wimbledon junior tournament.
Before his first match, 20 minutes of practice was the extent of his experience on grass.
“We started warming up,” Solano remembers. “I couldn’t even feed him an overhead because I was never used to the bounces.”
He lost his first-round match, 6-0, 6-4. “Toward the end of the second set I started coming back,” he said, “but it was too late.”
Solano dreamed of playing professionally, but when the University of New Mexico sent the Colombian tennis federation scholarships for the top two players, he set his sights on playing in college. The only problem was he didn’t speak English.
So when he was 18, his father sent him to live with his aunt in New York.
“He told me you have until August to find a university or else you have to come back and go to school in Colombia, kind of forget about tennis,” said Solano, a USPTA Elite Professional.
He sent countless letters and got a lot of interest, but without a firm grasp on English, junior college was the only route. He made his way to North Greenville College, where he played No. 2 singles and No. 3 doubles with Mario Rincón, also a USPTA Elite Professional. Solano was an NJCAA All-American in 1986, and both were named All-Americans in 1987.
And his English got a lot better.
After two years in South Carolina, Solano earned a scholarship to play Division I tennis at the University of Arkansas. His success was noticed in Colombia, and Solano was named to Colombia’s 1988 Davis Cup team. In his senior season at Arkansas, Solano and partner Mike Brown finished the season ranked in the top 10.
But it was during the summers that Solano found his calling.
Throughout college, he worked at the Nick Bollettieri Academy, today’s IMG Academy, in Bradenton, Fla., where he had the opportunity to play against Björn Borg, his childhood idol. And in the summer of 1987, Solano was the hitting partner of 17-year-old Andre Agassi and 13-year-old Monica Seles. They went on to become two of the most decorated players of all time.
“It was a lot of fun being able to play with Agassi every day,” he said. “We played some practice sets and I think I beat him a couple times.
“Also playing with Monica Seles every day and seeing how professional she was, I learned a lot. The father was the coach and I was just the hitting partner. But then to me, I learned so much. What kind of practice, the discipline, the intensity. Coaching-wise, that summer did a lot for me.”
After college, Solano coached at Bollettieri’s and Saddlebrook Tennis Resort for nearly ten years.
But after a while, Solano felt burned out from the grind. At the time, one of his student’s fathers worked for a financial firm. So Solano, who earned a degree in business from Arkansas and who was married with an infant son, took a job as a financial advisor.
He was back on the court three years later.
“I think I started appreciating tennis and teaching a lot more then than I did when I was younger,” Solano said. He started coaching again at Bardmoor Gold & Tennis Club, spending four years there.
Then, 14 years ago, he moved to the Tampa Yacht & Country Club, where he’s the head teaching pro.
“I really don’t know if it wasn’t for tennis what I would be doing right now,” Solano said. “Even though I started appreciating it later in life, I really like teaching. The time that I spent at Bollettieri’s making those friends with Sid [Newcomb], Jose [Rincón], Rene and Cachito [Gomez], these relationships last you forever. Tennis gave me a way to make a living. Today, when I look back, my high school friends or my college friends, basically most of my friends, they’re tennis coaches.”