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Joel Drucker: Presidents and Tennis

2/13/2013 4:00:00 PM

By Joel Drucker

It is a lonely spot. No one really understands. In the midnight of the soul, amid the challenges of one relentless opponent after another, there come moments when the burdens overwhelm.  Solitude liberates. Solitude suffocates.

Such are the common threads between a tennis player and the American president. From the moment when Teddy Roosevelt installed a court at the White House in 1902, to First Lady Michelle Obama’s immersion in the game, many occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania have enjoyed an affinity with tennis.

Certainly a connection can be made between the demands of the office and those of a tennis match. As Secretary of State and recreational player Dean Rusk said in the autumn of 1962, “There we stood eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow blinked.”  Granted, Rusk was referring to the defining moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis – the possibility of nuclear war hanging in the balance – but the imagery is similar to that of gunslingers Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi staring each other down on a big point.

While President Barack Obama’s first sport is basketball -- lines for hoops adorn the White House tennis court– word has it that in recent years he’s also begun to play more tennis. One of the highlights of the 2012 White House Easter Egg Roll was the President showing off some reasonably slick lefthanded strokes. Daughter Malia plays on her high school team. Sports sociologist Harry Edwards compared Obama’s conciliatory but forceful manner to that of Arthur Ashe.   

Even more, the current administration has followed the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy in identifying a strong connection between physical prowess and the pursuit of happiness. As World Team Tennis attendee Michelle Obama told the Chicago Sun Times in 2011, “I grew up in the city, on the South Side. And there were not a lot of tennis courts around. So I really didn’t get exposure to the sport until after law school, when I just sort of picked it up and started playing with some friends. . . . And I want all kids around the country to have access to opportunities and to get some exposure to sports like tennis so that you guys figure out what your loves are.”

Back in the ‘70s, as the game boomed, tennis figured into all three of that decade’s presidencies. Richard Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew,once hit someone in the head with a tennis ball, prompting Nixon to joke that he should use a tennis racquet to conduct negotiations with Cambodia. Gerald Ford enjoyed time on the court, perhaps even more so when his son Jack dated Chris Evert.  

Yet while tennis was passing fancy in the Nixon and Ford administrations, for Jimmy Carter the sport proved toxic.“The Passionless Presidency,” a 1979 article Atlantic Monthly written by former White House speech writer James Fellow, revealed that Carter was such a micro-manager that those wishing to book the White House tennis court made their arrangements not via a secondary White House official but through the President. Two decades later, Bill Clinton became the only sitting President to attend the US Open, taking a seat in the USTA President’s box with then-president Judy Levering.

But no White House occupants have been more engaged with tennis than the Bush family. As a Texas congressman in the ‘60s, George Bush befriended rising young Australian John Newcombe.  “41” has also participated at Pro-Ams with the likes of Newcombe, Evert and Pete Sampras and attended many pro events.  Born a natural lefty, Bush was forced to play righty by his conformist mother.  

That same approach would later flavor his politics. Bush’s father, Prescott, had been a senator from Connecticut, a Republican in the moderate-liberal mode akin to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Illinois Senator Charles Percy.  In the same manner with which young Bush acquiesced to external pressures to play tennis with his right hand, as a Texas politician he expediently jettisoned his left tilt to move right, becoming an ardent conservative and backer of Barry Goldwater. 

Tennis also made a cameo George W.Bush would prefer to forget. In the 2000 presidential campaign, it was revealed that in 1976 young Bush had been arrested for drunk driving.  His passengers that night were Newcombe and the Aussie’s wife, Angie. All was kept silent for 24 years. Once the story broke, reporters sought out Newcombe – who had vanished.  “Nobody found me,” said Newcombe months after the election. “I guess I could have become the next Monica [Lewinsky], but I kept my mouth shut.”

But enough of these literal connections between the White House and tennis. Ponder instead more metaphorical notions, of Lincoln freeing the ballboys, of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four electoral victories the equivalent of a Grand Slam, of Nixon letting his underlings inflict dirty tricks. Even more, my favorite, the American president I would want to play for my life. This man was a grinder, a humble,self-taught fireball who enjoyed like his fellow Midwesterner Jimmy Connors,enjoyed a good scrap.  Like many a tennis player, he relished being underestimated, never more so than when a Chicago newspaper printed the headline that his opponent had won.  Yes, let’s give Harry Truman a racquet and he will surely give ‘em hell.
Joel Drucker ran unsuccessfully for president of his high school but admits he was more concerned about retaining his singles spot on his team than winning the election. 

Joel Drucker has been involved with Tennis Channel since it hit the airwaves in 2003, initially as co-producer of the interview show “Center Court.”  Subsequently he has been involved in dozens of the network’s activities, including work as story editor at all the Grand Slams and the production of numerous TC events