Power Tennis

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • -
  • June, 1998

by Karen Feld

The chairman of the Fed is having a stroke!
When courting the game in Washington, no love is lost.

When Alan Greenspan says “love” to Donna Shalala, that’s not the genesis of a new Washington scandal. These avid tennis players aren’t pros, but they are top seeds in the Washington information game. In D.C. , the buzz on the court slams toward the curious ear as hard and fast as any ball served on by Boris Becker or Monica Seles.

“Tennis is far more competitive in Washington than elsewhere”, observes Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala in a gem of understatement. “How People feel about the week is a reflection of the outcome of their last match.” And it has been ever thus: Since President Teddy Roosevelt bounced the first tennis ball at the White House in 1902, insiders have used the game to enhance social and political access. President Howard Taft tried to wipe the sport out when he plowed over Roosevelt’s rolled dirt court to build the Oval Office. Not please, his First Lady ordered a new court built on the South Lawn.

During the Nixon administration, PepsiCo Chairman Donald Kendall resurfaced the court in Dynaturf; in Jimmy Carter’s era, the taxpayers footed the bill for a Laykold surface. George Bush, an aggressive player despite a weak backhand, not only upgraded the court again, but also challenged pros Andre Agassi, Chris Evert, Ivan Lendl, Bjorn Borg and Pam Shriver on his home turf. When a “White House Invitational” comes up, the pros come running.

Not surprisingly, the White House’s First Court is where the action is. There are weekly competitions among the administration’s premium player – Shalala, National Economic Council Alan Greenspan, Treasury Deputy Secretary Larry Summers and Assistant A.G. Joel Klein, who as head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division goes after the ball with the same zeal that he goes after Microsoft. Although Clinton policy restrict hours of play, “Mrs. Clinton makes exceptions for me,” says Shalala, who give the court screened by magnolias high marks if you ignore the helicopters overhead.

Tennis’s power to reveal a player’s off-court personality on-court hold doubly true in D.C. George Bush used to judge people by the competitiveness on the court. Former President Jimmy Carter personally micromanaged the comings and goings of the White House Court just as he did his presidency. At the annual Nissan/Cystic Fibrosis Celebrity Tennis Gala, Washington State congressman Norm Dicks aced Roscoe Tanner on his second serve with the same zest he uses to fight for the defense budget. Former Protocol Chief Lloyd Hand regularly tosses compliments on awesome shots, and fun-loving Greek Ambassador Loucas Tsilas even gives his opponents ace warnings.” Greenspan is subdued and soft-spoken off the court but a tiger on, whereas Virginia Sen. John Warner is more laid back, giving his opponents the benefit of line calls.

Marcia Carlucci describes hubby Frank, the former Defense Secretary and CIA Director, as “a type A person who plays type A tennis.” The same is true about investigator Terry Lenzner, who since cardiac bypass surgery pops nitroglycerine pills before intense marathon singles matches with Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth or Brooke Shearer, wife of the President’s Oxford chum, Strobe Talbott.

And power tennis can make for odd court fellows: Shalala’s regular Saturday tennis partner is conservative columnist Ben Wattenberg (“to offset my liberalism,” she says), while think-tanker Norman Ornstein plays across the net. During Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Howard Merzenbaum noted that Scalia had defeated him in a match, Scalia didn’t miss a beat: “Senator, that was one time when my integrity triumphed over my judgment.”

It’s not surprising that “winner rake all” takes on new meaning in power tennis. “Even politicians who know how to schmooze often lose their diplomatic skills on the court,” observes Washington Tennis Foundation (WTF) coach Sabine Guibal. Frank Carlucci agrees: “Tennis brings out the best and the worst in people; how you handle losing is important.” He should know since his wife trounces him in singles, but together they are a formidable doubles team. The Carluccis refined their game when Frank was ambassador to Portugal in the mid-70s, and he was able to secure “antiterrorism funds” to build “a helicopter landing pad” at the embassy “It conveniently doubled as a court,” he says.

Tennis offers the opportunity to schmooze at a high level to mutual benefit, a more pleasant way than a working lunch to be ultra-informed in a city that exists in a state of perpetual information overload. Titles are left behind; first names across the net are de rigueur. “Lots of business is done on the court,” says Consumer Products Safety Commission Chair Ann Brown. But players must heed the one cardinal rule in the power game: Never lobby on the court.

The White House isn’t the only “power court” in town, of course, The Senate has its own indoor court for exclusive use of senators and their guests. Known as “Bennett’s Court” (after former Louisiana Sen. Bennett Johnson, who pushed for the funding to build it), it’s hidden behind locked doors in the attic between the Dirksen and Hart office buildings. Louisiana Sen. John Breaux is the reigning champ. You, too, have the opportunity to play there: Sen. Breaux offers to challenge the highest bidder at the WTF’s Capital Tennis Challenge in July.

Invitations to play at the Japanese, Swedish, British and especially the grass Australian embassy courts are coveted. Many of the embassies offer their courts to nonprofits, including Arts for the Aging, for tennis benefits. And political powerhouses can be seen in combat at the Navy Yard, where members of Congress play for free; the Army Navy Club; the Chevy Chase Club (favored by Greenspan and wife, Andrea Mitchell); and the popular Arlington Y the venue for Wizards owner Abe Pollin, former CIA Directors Dick Helms and Bill Webster, the peripatetic Greenspan and pressies Mort Kondracke, Brit I Lume, Hendrick Smith and Washington Post Chairman Kay Graham, who holds her court despite being sidelined by hip surgery.

But regardless of the reigning administration, D.C. tennis Power Central remains the no-frills St. Albans Tennis Club run by veteran pro Allie Ritzenberg, who taught Jackie Kennedy on the White house court and counts among his other notable students John Lindsay, Kay Graham and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who he’s been teaching for the past 37 years. The Spartan St. Albans, members say, has the most relaxed atmosphere, well-maintained hard tru courts and, most importantly, an “A” list membership roster

A forceful backhand or influential spin helps one leapfrog the decade-long wait list and the usual route of attaining membership: a powerful job or spouse. The Who’s Who of members includes: First Friend Vernon Jordan; Strobe Talbott, John Shattuck and Tim Wirth from the State Department; Donna Shalala; Watergate lawyers Jim Hamilton and Richard Ben Veniste; Kennedy Center Chairman Jim Johnson; Motion Picture Association honcho Jack Valenti; pressies Sy Hersh, Dan Schorr and David Ignatius; and nearly enough senators for a quorum. But it’s the occasional show-biz guest, one Bill Cobs, who grabs the attention when he takes the court.

At set point, the triumphant are boasting while the defeated have mastered the art of spinning their game…not, however, before they rush back to the office where their secretaries have carefully planned the next day’s match. In Washington, some things are simply Top Priority.

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