There has always been a battle for dominance between golf and tennis in the White House, and sport that dominated in a certain period depended on the Oval Office preferences. Sometimes tennis was a recreational activity and sometimes means to fundraise. Not just presidents, some First Ladies were also great tennis fans and have used the sport to promote various causes, ranging from women’s rights to physical fitness.
Athleticism and sports were an important part of American life, and it is only natural, that it was expected from the nation’s leader to be a good sportsman as well. Gerald Ford, Dwight Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Regan, John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, Teddy Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon can probably be named the 10 most athletic US Presidents of all time. But which one played tennis and had passion for the game?
George Bush Senior was the most athletic man to inhabit the Oval Office – his activities included wrestling, football, soccer, baseball, squash, golf, fishing, hunting, jogging, boating, skydiving… The urge for adrenalin never left him, so he celebrated his 80th birthday with a parachute jump, and his 85th birthday by skydiving. Also, Poopy was probably the biggest tennis players of all the presidents. In fact, his first order of business was to enlarge the White House’s tennis court. And in 1985, when President Regan had to step down and temporarily transfer power to Bush for an 8 hour-period due to a surgery, what did Bush do with all that power? He played an intensive match of tennis! (Supposedly, he fell, hit his head hard and got knocked out for a few seconds).
His mother, Dorothy, was a national ranked player, so the love for the game was in his genes. He shared a valuable lesson his mother gave him: “I once complained to [my mother] after a poor tennis match that I was off my game. And she said, ‘You don’t have a game. Get out there and practice.” Moreover, his great uncles Joseph Wear and Arthur Wear, paired up with Allen West and Clarence Gamble, respectively, won bronze medals in tennis at the 1904 Olympic games in St. Louis. Joseph also served as US Davis Cup captain in 1928 and 1935.
Bushie has been involved with many tennis associations, including USPTA, Zina Garrison's All-Court Tennis Tournament, Tennis Across America, Bluebonnet Bowl Invitational Tennis Tournament, and often invited pros, like Pete Sampras and Chris Evert, for a game of tennis. Chris Evert spoke about a match in August 1990:
"We were at Camp David when the Gulf War broke out. He was working hard on the phone but he came out and said: 'I need a break. Let's play a set.' We started playing but every 10 minutes, he got a call from some president or prime minister. He'd stop and talk and then get back and ask me, 'What was the score?' "
Bush and 61st Secretary of State, James A. Baker, were long-term doubles partners and were inducted as a team in the Texas Tennis Hall of Fame. Together they spread the love and support for the game for decades, encouraging youngsters to play, supporting charitable tournaments, events and fundraisers. Old Georgie remained an active tennis player, often competing at Chris Evert’s annual charity event, Chris Evert Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic (in 2006 he teamed up with Anna Kournikova, who hit him in the rear end during the first serve). He also visited US Clay Court Championships, Tennis Masters Cup and Davis Cup when held at the Westside Tennis Clube in his hometown Houston, TX.
“I get a physical charge out of [skydiving], and I wanted to prove that old guys can do fun things, too.”
However, looks like the tennis genes stopped there, because Bush Senior tried to teach his son how to play, although Junior didn’t have much talent for it. George W. Buch, did play tennis earlier in his life, but then turned to cycling and jogging. Probably the strongest tennis connection he had was getting arrested in 1976 for drunk driving with Australian tennis legend, John Newcombe, with him in the car.
At the age of 42, Teddy Roosevelt had become the youngest US president ever, and certainly the most energetic and spirited president the nation had ever seen before. He is certainly in the Top 10 most athletic and active US presidents, and one of his favorite pastimes and a part of his workout regimen was also tennis. He played tennis three times each week, which to him was a pretty relaxed schedule, considering that in his youth he played 91 games in a single day!
He is the man responsible for building the White House’s first ever tennis court in 1902 (the price was $2000, which amounts to a bit over $55k today), and was famous for his “Tennis Cabinet”. It was a name for a group of younger members of his staff with whom he played tennis in the afternoons and talked policies between strokes.
Teddy was especially inspired by two of the greatest American tennis players, Bill Larned and Robert Wrenn, members of “Rough Riders” who also fought under his command in the Spanish-America War in Cuba (1989). Therefore, he often spoke with pride about the fact that Wrenn saved the US Championships title from “going to an Englishman” on two occasions (in 1893 and 1897), and that Larned won a record of seven US National Championships singles titles.
“It is of far more importance that a man should play something himself, even if he plays it badly, than that he should go with hundreds of companions to see someone else play well.”
Although often portrayed as a clumsy, old president, Ford was, actually, an extraordinary athlete. He played on two national championship football teams (Michigan) and was a team MVP in 1934. Besides a football player, he was also a runner, swimmer, golfer and a tennis player, and an “aggressive” one, as described by his chief of staff. He used the White House tennis court more that any President since Teddy Roosevelt, and was the one to introduce George H.W. Buch to the court – he invited Bush to play doubles on the White House courts, whom he just nominated to become the head of CIA, as he hoped that he can help him relax before Senate confirmation hearings. He is also responsible for issuing a proclamation which declared the last week of June 1976 the National Tennis Week.
We invited notable tennis players to the White House, including Wimbledon winners that year (1975), Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe. He even invited SNL headliner, Chevy Chase, who became famous for his Gerald Ford clumsiness jokes, for a game of tennis. It was really important to him to play well in public, so in 1978 he reached out to one of the greatest tennis players in history, Pancho Gonzalez (who, by the way, still holds the men's all-time record of being ranked world No. 1 for eight years), to ask him for an advice on how to prepare for a tennis event in Houston. The President and John Newcombe defeated Dick Stockton and Jim Baker, and Ford later thanked Gonzalez for the help.
One of the funniest anecdotes about Ford comes from his friend, Ruth Gretzen, who tells about the time a tennis match that included the President was organized at Sarasota’s Field Club. Apparently, all were stunned when Ford appeared carrying his own tennis balls:
"I couldn't believe it -- the president of the United States brought his own can of tennis balls."
The humble southern governor, who stood before American people, promising that he’ll never lie to them, wasn’t a fancy sports hot shot – he never played football in high school or college, never played golf, never attended important sport events. As a boy, he did everything other southern boys did growing up in a rural setting – fishing, hunting and playing various other outdoor sports.
Although not going hand in hand with these southern outdoor activities, Carter’s passion was tennis, and not many people knew this. He was a high-school tennis star, playing for the team, and he also competed on the clay court that his father built Archery, GA. His father, Earl, was as fiercely competitive player as he was, and he played quite good. Carter remembered the time he and his father finally got to play against each other:
"Although I eventually became the top player in high school, I could never beat him – and he certainly never gave me a point”.
He played tennis both while governor and president, and his biographer quoted one of his tennis partners, who said that “Carter played to kill as he did in the campaign and as a governor.” According to his speechwriter, Carter even took it upon himself to schedule tennis matches on the White House courts or to approve match requests (just one of few things he took upon himself based on his moto – “if you want to do something right, do it yourself”).
How much love he had for the game proves the fact that President Carter felt the urge to place a phone call to Tracy Austin, a 14-year-old child superstar, who beat Virgina Ruzici in the 4th round of 1977 US Open and to personally congratulate her and offer her his best wishes.
Certainly, Regan is among the top 5 most athletic US Presidents the biggest sports fan among US chief executives – he played football, was a lifeguard for seven summers, was an avid horseback rider. He also played tennis in his youth, but he once said:
“I like to swim, hike and sleep (eight hours a night). I’m fairly good at every sport except tennis, which I just don’t like.”
However, it was his wife, Nancy, who got the both of them seriously involved in tennis. She was the First lady who really turned tennis into an annual fundraising event. The tennis tournament she organized was meant to support her vocal campaign against drugs and alcohol abuse (after the presidential term was over, the event moved to Riviera Tennis Club, Pacific Palisades, CA). The President also welcomed many athletes, including tennis superstars like John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ashe, Pam Shrive, and many others.
Although he wasn’t much of tennis player himself, together with Nancy, became quite a passionate fan of the game. One of his famous sayings about the 1981 US Open finals was:
"Nancy and I watched the TV Saturday and Sunday and the matches were so breathtaking I nearly turned blue.”
Harding played tennis early in his life and became involved again after the US recaptured the Davis Cup in 1920 by hosting the US team and the Cup to the White House in May 1921. It was a historical moment, as it was the first time the famous trophy entered the home of the President. Exhibition matches took place among the US team (Bill Tilden, Bill Johnston, Dick Williams and Watson Washburn) on the White House court and the President enjoyed the game along with his wife, family and staff. He even appointed the Davis Cup founder, Dwight Davis, as his Assistant Secretary of War in 1923.
He was also known to watch matches between nation’s top players at the White House courts and his wife, Florence, hosted the first ever all-women’s tennis exhibition match.
He was a big fan of the game, and in fact, during his administration, four US Davis Cup matches were played at the Chevy Chase Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland (1929 vs Japan, 1930 vs Mexico, 1931 vs Argentina, 1932 vs. Canada).
JFK was an extraordinary athlete in his youth, excellent swimmer, football player, golfer, sailer, and a big baseball fan. He did play tennis as well, but then his back problems started preventing him from playing.
In general, the Kennedys were truly devoted tennis players, so was the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, although she was not as athletic as Kennedy sisters. Jackie took lessons from local pro named Allie Ritzenberg, who kindly noted her lack of skill. Her well-known alleged reply was:
"Why worry if you’re not as good as Eunice or Ethel, when men are attracted by the feminine way you play?”
He was the first sitting president to attend US Open. He watched the 2000 Men’s Semifinals when he witnessed Marat Safin beat Todd Martin and Pete Sampras beat Lleyton Hewitt. A funny anecdote is when he personally phoned Venus Williams to congratulate her on her US Women’s Singles title that year to tell her that she “worked really hard”. She quickly used the opportunity to ask him for a tax cut on her hard-earned US Open prize money.
Clinton is also famous for bringing bad luck to Agassi’s 2001 French Open quarterfinal match against Sebastien Grosjean. Clinton joined the crowd when Agassi had won the first set 6-1, but from that moment on, Agassi kept on losing games – 12 out of 14 to be precise. Then Clinton stepped off the court, and Agassi proceeded to a service break in the fourth set 2-1. Unfortunately, Clinton came back and Agassi lost the service break and lost terribly 6-1, 1-6, 1-6 6-3.
Known more for his golf and basketball obsessions (and painting basketball lines on the White House tennis courts), Barack Obama did get involved and enjoyed tennis. He played tennis while growing up in Hawaii and follows the sport with much enthusiasm.
His wife, Michele, on the other hand is a true tennis fan, probably the biggest tennis enthusiasts in the White House history, although not a very good player herself. She always encouraged their daughters to play. He helped kick off Arthur Ashe Kids Day at the 2013 US Open, and is famous for her Let’s Move Campaign – tennis helping kids 10 and younger to be active and make foundations of a healthier lives and future.
As for Barack himself, in 2014 he got to play tennis with Sam Querry and a few children during the White House Easter Egg Roll, and the following year against Caroline Wozniacki (got really excited after scoring a point against her).