As has often been
remarked, despite the national and international character of its business,
Washington is a surprisingly insular community. For example, most residents of
the forest are firmly convinced that Allie Ritzenberg invented the tennis boom.
There is a kind of serene confidence that anything civilized, significant or
excellent must have been discovered along the Potomac or early on been approved
of by the residents of these bottomlands.
"It makes me
look like kind of an ass to say so, but there is some truth in that tennis boom
business," says Ritzenberg. "We helped enthuse a group of bright,
attractive, popular people. Their interest helped to publicize tennis. You
might say I was one of the dynamite charges that set off the
spent the better part of 45 years trying to make something out of tennis. He
started his career on the playgrounds of the old, village Washington in the
late 1920s when Congressmen still rode the Cabin John trolley to work. At that
time a racket was about as improbable a tool for achieving fame and fortune as
a buggy whip or parasol. The early going was slow and erratic. Along with
several local championships, young Ritzenberg won a year at a now defunct prep
school that wanted to make a splash in tennis. Having splashed, and collected
additional hardware for his trophy case, Ritzenberg left, and graduated in 1936
from Central High.
to the University of Maryland as a student-athlete. "I guess if I wanted to
stretch the point I could say I was recruited," he says, "but it didn't
take much to recruit a tennis player then. What it amounted to was that if you
really needed to you could sleep in the coach's attic or borrow a couple of
dollars from him." So far as the student part went, Ritzenberg received a
degree in sociology and later earned a master's in the same subject at George
Washington will fawn on athletes as they do elsewhere," says one of those
reliable sources of which the city has so many. "I suspect that they may
fawn just as genuinely as anybody else, but in town the practice is to act as
if it were amusing. Somebody will show up with a quarterback or a first baseman
as they might borrow a tame cheetah from the National Zoo and bring it to a
party on a leash. With Allie it has always been different. His constituency is
the best-and-brightest crowd. They are articulate. They pride themselves on
being strenuous, knowledgeable and socially aware if not liberal. Allie is just
as bright as the best of them. He can go one-on-one with any of them about
Cesar Chavez. [Perhaps even one-on-two, since Ritzenberg has been a vegetarian
since his student days.] He is a fine tennis pro but he could also run an
embassy or a campaign. This gives him an entree, a kind of class that most
jocks in town do not have."
In his senior
year at Maryland Ritzenberg was the Middle Atlantic Intercollegiate and
Southern Conference champion. On the strength of these titles he approached the
athletic director and asked if the school would send him to Philadelphia, where
the National Intercollegiate championship was being held.
"He asked me
how much it was going to cost," Ritzenberg remembers. "I said I thought
about $50 for train fare up and meals and a room while I was there. Then he
asked me if I would win. I told him that I couldn't guarantee that but I
thought I'd probably get to the semis. He said in that case—if I wasn't going
to win—it wasn't worth $50."
home, thinking about life in general and tennis economics in particular. "I
thought about going to law school, even teaching," he says, "but I was
a restless-youth type, 20 years before that style became popular. I wore my
hair long, ate vegetables, batted around in scruffy clothes. I knew what I
really wanted to do was stay with tennis. The normal way then to make money was
to play the amateur circuit. I thought maybe I was good enough to play but I
couldn't afford to stay on the tour until I had reputation enough to get paid.
So the year I got out of school I turned pro, giving lessons at Woodmont
Country Club. This was not the route most people went in those days, especially
in Washington, which was a golf town."
During World War
II Ritzenberg spent 27 months in the South Pacific, which altered but did not
halt his tennis activities. Negotiating and where necessary liberating
equipment, he made tennis courts out of Australian ant hills ("Not a bad
surface—fast drying") and New Guinea cinders and played a few sets, often
with top Australian players, from Darwin to Manila.
He returned home
to coach at Georgetown University and country clubs, to put on tennis clinics
and exhibitions from the suburbs to the inner city. "The community center
adult education circuit was the toughest. I'd charge 50p a head for group
lessons and you didn't pick up a racket until you had collected all those half
dollars. If you were a couple of minutes late somebody was likely to want a
refund. They wanted a full 50� worth of tennis. Very tough."