SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
June 02, 1975
Allie Ritzenberg is the top-ranked pro "in town"—that portion of Washington, D.C. inhabited by tennis-playing movers and shakers
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 02, 1975

Net Result: A Capital Game

Allie Ritzenberg is the top-ranked pro "in town"—that portion of Washington, D.C. inhabited by tennis-playing movers and shakers

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

In retrospect this was a useful period. "I learned how to teach anybody," Ritzenberg says. "I mean anybody, no matter what age or background. I showed them how to improve and to get more pleasure out of the game. The tradition then was for a teaching pro to concentrate on players with competitive possibilities, good young athletes, but there aren't very many of them, which is why few people were making a living teaching tennis. I work with tournament players or potential tournament players. That kind of teaching is interesting from a technical standpoint. If the good athletes come to me, fine, but I don't go looking for them. I get as much satisfaction and probably make more money from taking somebody who may not have much ability and showing him how to improve. All my pupils have a distinctive style. It is very fluid and relaxed. I've been told there is a similarity between the kind of tennis I teach and the ballet. The idea is to enjoy the feeling, the movement of the body rather than just enjoying scoring points. I teach pleasure tennis."

By 1960 Ritzenberg had worked himself into a strong position in Washington. He had taken over and refurbished four courts at the old Wardman Park Hotel. Shortly thereafter he set up the first public indoor facility in the capital, a court in a residential area near the National Institutes of Health (he currently has an interest in eight indoor courts). About this time the New Frontiersmen arrived. "They had a feeling that the good life was the strenuous life," Ritzenberg fondly recalls.

Indeed, one spring day in 1961, Ritzenberg received a call that the President's wife would like to receive tennis lessons on the White House court.

"She didn't have the athletic background of some of the Kennedys, but she was well coordinated and improved her game considerably," Ritzenberg says.

Very shortly the word was around town that Jackie was playing tennis and Jack was watching and that their pro was Allie Ritzenberg and therefore tennis was terrific and old Allie was terrific. There was a terrific run on courts, rackets and Ritzenberg.

Ritzenberg is sensitive to the suggestion that he is a Camelot creation on the order of Pierre Salinger, Sunday touch football and the Peace Corps. He points out that he had learned the hard way how to teach his classy brand of pleasure tennis long before the Kennedys cut any ice as trend setters; that he had been assiduously promoting the game when few others thought it chic.

The reasons may be debated, but indisputably Washington went—and has remained—bananas about tennis. Ritzenberg is a classic example of a man in the right place at the right time. Happiness in town became getting on one of Ritzenberg's courts; true bliss was taking lessons from Allie. The 10 half-hour teaching sessions Ritzenberg offers on each of his five weekly working days were so sought-after that they became hot raffle and door-prize items at charity and political fund raisers.

Among those whom Ritzenberg has taught and whom out-of-towners might be expected to recognize are the Ache-sons, Bakers, Bayhs, Busches, Buchwalds, Cafritzes, Califanos, Dominicks, Eagletons, Flanigans, Grahams, Heinzes, Hoffbergers, Javitses, Kennedys, Lindsays, McCarthys, McGoverns, McNamaras, Mondales, Peabodys, Pells, Percys, Restons, Rockefellers, Rowans, Scotts, Stevensons, Sorensons, Symingtons, Tunneys, Tydingses, Wickers, Zimmermans.

A peculiarity of Washington-Ritzenberg tennis is that early morning, the earlier the better, is the prized time to take a lesson or play. It is generally conceded that Robert McNamara had a good bit to do with establishing this custom. "Bob showed up right on the dot at seven on his days," says Ritzenberg. "He would be reading a paper when he got there. He'd put it down, get out of his car and walk onto the court. We'd go exactly half an hour and he'd get back in the car and go off to the Pentagon."

The early slot was presumably both a matter of convenience and necessity for a Secretary of Defense, World Banker or the equivalent. But it is also designed to put pressure on nonequivalents. After all, if Bob is playing at dawn, who wants to look so idle, so little in demand as to be seen taking lessons in the warm afternoon sun?

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8