Among the places in Washington, D.C. where political bigwigs like to demonstrate their power are the Oval Office, the Senate cloakroom—and the St. Albans Tennis Club. It’s the scene of heavy swinging from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. Overseeing the club’s 10 courts, its distinguished players and their balky backhands and sickly second serves is tennis pro Allie Ritzenberg.
With a laudable sense of democracy, Allie insists on first names at St. Albans. (“Occasionally you’ll get some jerk who’ll introduce himself with a title,” he reports. “But they learn fast.”) Fritz (Mondale) was a Ritzenberg student for 14 years and still plays at the club. And if Jimmy Carter’s other lieutenants are not in the Cabinet Room, they may be at St. Albans, since the membership includes Joe (Califano), Brock (Adams), Mike (Blumenthal) and Cy (Vance). Ritzenberg’s non-Administration pupils include Bob (McNamara) of the World Bank and Kay (Graham) of the Washington Post.
There was a time when D.C. was a golf town. But in 1961 (the year before Ritzenberg founded St. Albans) JFK’s era of vigor arrived. Allie was asked to give Jacqueline Kennedy lessons. “What am I going to say about Jackie?” he asks diplomatically. “Of course, she was good, but the Kennedy women were always overshadowed by Ethel, who is not really a great tennis player. She kind of pushes the ball around, but she’s such a hard worker.” Joan Kennedy “is quite good; she runs well.” And JFK himself? “Well, Jack had a bad back, you know.”
Although an outspoken Democrat, the 59-year-old Ritzenberg commands a bipartisan following. His lessons ($35 an hour) are so popular they are frequently offered as raffle or door prizes at fund raisers. In two decades Allie has had a chance to assess almost every famous forehand in Washington, coached by him or not. Some mini-reviews: Hamilton Jordan—”getting better”; Standard Oil heiress Page Lee Hufty—”hits a beautiful ball”; Sen. Howard Baker—”not that good”; Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler—”pretty bad”; Sen. Jack Heinz—”one of the best,” and publisher Graham—a diplomatic “she comes out to relax.”
Ritzenberg maintains there’s more to his teaching than just bend your knees, keep your eye on the ball. “Many of my pupils have treated these lessons like therapy or analysis,” he says. “I pulled one woman through a divorce and prevented her from having a breakdown.”
A native Washingtonian, Allie won his first tournament with a broken-stringed, sawed-off racket when he was 9. “I beat a six-footer,” he remembers, “and my prize was a pint of hand-packed ice cream.” He went on to win the city high school title and become a conference champ at the University of Maryland. Later he doubled as the Woodmont Country Club pro and the Georgetown University coach. He also prides himself on the free inner-city tennis clinics he has given. “We had to fight the country clubs,” he recalls, “when we put the first black kids on our team.”
Ritzenberg became a vegetarian 40 years ago, and although his wife, Peggy, never converted, she brought up their four children on meatless meals. One of the sons needed only to write his thesis for a doctorate in philosophy when he decided he’d rather be a tennis pro too. Allie himself is hardly close to retirement. St. Albans has 325 members and an eight-to-10-year waiting list. But if he should ever tire of the game, he might run for Vice-President. How’s that? Well, Allie smiles, “Gene McCarthy told me a tennis pro should have the job because he makes you look much better than you really are.”