Richard Nixon

U.S. Presidents and Connections To Tennis

As the Presidential campaign winds down in the United States, it is interesting to speculate whether Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain will be a “friend of tennis” in the Oval Office. Tennis players with high incomes may be partial to John McCain for tax purposes, while Barack Obama seems to be more engaged in the sport. Obama played tennis while growing up in Hawaii and follows the sport, as witnessed by a friend of mine who works in political circles who, back 2007, spoke with Obama, who gushed over watching the US Open on television the previous night – in particular James Blake’s five-set win over Fabrice Santoro (Blake’s first career five-set victory). As a working member of the tennis industry, author of the new book On This Day In Tennis History ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.tennistomes.com) and as the great, great, great nephew of James K. Polk, the 11th President of the United States, I have a great interest in tennis and in U.S. Presidential history.

Who was the most tennis friendly President? Teddy Roosevelt might warrant consideration as he was the man responsible for creating the White House tennis court in 1902. Tennis was part of his exercise regimen and had a group of Washingtonians who comprised of what was called his “tennis cabinet” – a group of players with whom he would talk policy between serves and forehands. Roosevelt may have been inspired in his tennis pursuits by two of the greatest American players of the time – Bill Larned and Robert Wrenn – who were members of his famed “Rough Riders” that fought under his command in the Spanish-American War in Cuba in 1898. Roosevelt in his book, The Rough Riders, bragged of the enlistment of Wrenn and Larned along with “an eclectic group of eastern dudes and western deadshots.” Roosevelt prided in the fact that on two occasions as U.S. tennis champion, Wrenn had “saved this championship from going to an Englishman” referencing Wrenn’s final-round victories over Brits Manliffe Goodbody in 1894 and Wilberforce Eaves in 1897. Larned won a record seven U.S. singles titles – 1901, 1902, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911.

Warren Harding, the 29th President, played tennis early in his life and became re-engaged in the game when the United States recaptured the Davis Cup in 1920. He hosted the winning U.S. team and the Cup to the White House on May 6, 1921 – the first time the famous trophy visited the home of the President. U.S. team members Bill Tilden, Bill Johnston, Dick Williams and Watson Washburn competed in exhibition matches against each other on the White House court, with Harding enjoying the action with his family and staff. President Harding, in fact, appointed Davis Cup founder Dwight Davis as his Assistant Secretary of War in 1923. Davis was subsequently elevated to Secretary of War (the modern day Secretary of State) in the next administration of President Calvin Coolidge starting in 1923.

Coolidge, the 30th President, was the first U.S. President to host and preside over the making of the Davis Cup draw – no doubt at the urging of Davis himself – and hosted the festivities on March 17, 1927. The draw was held on the front lawn of the White House and Coolidge picked out of the Cup the card with Czechoslovakia on it – drawn against Greece in the first round of the European Zone. Wrote the New York Times of the event, “Surrounded by diplomats from the twenty-five nations entered into the tournament, he drew the card bearing the name of Czechoslovakia from the bowl of the trophy. Joseph C. Grew, Under Secretary of State, then picked Greece, which was paired with the nation of the President’s choice. The various diplomats then formed in line and each withdrew the name of one nation from the cup.”

Herbert Hoover, the 31st President, was also a fan of the game. When running against Democrat Al Smith in 1928, Hoover received a great tennis endorsement from all-time great Helen Wills, who made her public announcement of her support of Hoover for President the day before her win at the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills. In her press announcement in support of Hoover, Wills stated, “All youth can admire Herbert Hoover because of his sincerity, intelligence and great industry. His achievements in the past have been marked with success because of his ability for organization and his wonderful powers of perservance.” During his administration (1929 to 1933), four U.S. Davis Cup matches were played at the nearby Chevy Chase Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland – 1929 vs. Japan, 1930 vs. Mexico, 1931 vs. Argentina and 1932 vs. Canada – with Hoover dispatching his wife to represent him at the matches.

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Franklin Roosevelt’s connections to tennis came from his cousins Grace and Ellen, who were both U.S. champions – Ellen winning the singles title in 1890 and the pairing with Grace to win the doubles – becoming the first sisters to win a major title. It is interesting to note what President Roosevelt did NOT do in one famous episode in tennis history. On July 20, 1937, the United States Davis Cup team competed against Nazi Germany in the decisive day of the Davis Cup Inter-zone Final at Wimbledon in what many call the most dramatic and politically important Davis Cup match of all time. American Don Budge and Germany’s Gottfried von Cramm played the decisive fifth match where, famously, von Cramm received a pre-match phone call from German dictator Adolf Hitler, who told von Cramm that winning the match was of great political importance to the Fatherland. Budge, who won the match when he came back from two-sets-to-love to win 6-8, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 8-6, said later of Hitler’s phone call, “I thought why didn’t Franklin Roosevelt call me? Didn’t he give a damn?”

Harry Truman, the 33rd President, was the second Commander in Chief to host the Davis Cup draw as he presided over the ceremonies on February 3, 1947. Said Truman shortly before reaching into the Davis Cup trophy to pull of the names of nations in the second post-World War II staging of the competition, “I hope the time will come when we can settle our international differences in courts, just as we settle our tennis differences on a court.”

President Dwight Eisenhower was more of a fan of golf and delegated “tennis duty” to his vice president Richard Nixon, who gave out the winner’s trophy at the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills and Davis Cup Challenge Rounds. In 1957, he famously presented Althea Gibson, the first black to win the U.S. singles title, with her winner’s trophy at Forest Hills. Two years earlier, Nixon also presented the Australian Davis Cup team with the Davis Cup trophy after the Aussies completed a 5-0 shutout of the United States at Forest Hills. Nixon was told by Australian Davis Cup Harry Hopman that day that he might someday be “the youngest president in American history.” Nixon next touched the Davis Cup in 1969 when, as the 37th President, he welcomed the victorious 1968 U.S. Davis Cup team that defeats Hopman’s Australian team in the 1968 Davis Cup final in Adelaide, Australia. That ceremony, that also featured the challenging Romanian Davis Cup team, featured some awkward moments as Bud Collins documented in his book The Bud Collins History of Tennis. Wrote Collins; “President Richard M. Nixon, a bowler and golfer who secretly despised tennis, hosted both final-round teams at a White House reception. This was a nice gesture, but the Chief Executive caused a few awkward stares when, as a memento of the occasion, he presented each player with a golf ball. Perhaps these were left over, some speculated, from the golf-happy Eisenhower administration. “I’m a Republican, but I’ll never vote for him again,” grumbled Cliff Richey. “Why he do this?” said a puzzled Ion Tiriac. “No golf courses in Romania.”

Lyndon Johnson, Nixon’s precedessor, was not a tennis enthusiast but did host the winning 1963 U.S. Davis Cup team at the White House. On January 15, 1964, Johnson hosted the victorious U.S. team at the White House and spent 45 minutes with team members Dennis Ralston, Chuck McKinley and Marty Riessen as well as U.S. captain Bob Kelleher and U.S. Lawn Tennis Association President Ed Turville. As Johnson introduced the team to his press secretary Pierre Salinger he said, “There’s my tennis player. If I can teach Salinger to ride a horse, maybe he can teach me to play tennis.”

Gerald Ford, the 38th President, was known as an avid player and used the White House tennis court more than any President since Teddy Roosevelt. After watching 14-year-old Tracy Austin beat Virgina Ruzici in the fourth round of the 1977 U.S. Open on television, President Jimmy Carter placed a call to the pig-tailed wunderkind to offer his best wishes and congratulations.

Ronald Reagan, the 40th President, played tennis in his youth and was known as perhaps the biggest sports fan among U.S. chief executives. He hosted many athletes and sports teams – including tennis stars such as John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ashe, Pam Shriver and others. On September 15, 1981, Reagan and his wife Nancy hosted a U.S. Tennis Association contingent to the White House that included U.S. Open champions McEnroe and Austin and the U.S. Davis Cup and Wightman Cup teams. Said Reagan of the 1981 U.S. Open finals, “Nancy and I watched the TV Saturday and Sunday and the matches were so breathtaking I nearly turned blue.” Stan Smith and Marty Riessen hit tennis balls for the assembled group on the White House tennis court – highlighted by Smith hitting a ball that broke through the flimsy, deteriorating net. “I don’t oversee the operation as closely as my predecessor” said Reagan of the White House tennis operations. Nineteen-year-old Shriver proudly told Reagan during the 90-minute visit, “This was my first election and I voted for you, sir.” Ashe then chimed in to Reagan, “Well I didn’t vote for you. But I’m all for you, and I hope your policies work, Mr. President.”

Reagan left the tennis-playing to his Vice President and successor George Bush, who not only had a strong penchant for playing the game but came from a strong tennis bloodline. Bush’s great uncles Joseph Wear and Arthur Wear were bronze medalists in tennis at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis – Joseph pairing with Allen West and Arthur pairing with Clarence Gamble. Joseph Wear also went on to serve as U.S. Davis Cup captain in 1928 and 1935 – having the opportunity to work with both Bill Tilden and Don Budge. Bush, whose mother Dorothy was also a standout ranking junior player, also entertained many tennis players during his term and remains an active player, competing often at Chris Evert’s annual charity event and frequented the U.S. Clay Court Championships, the Tennis Masters Cup and Davis Cup as a fan when held at the Westside Tennis Club in his hometown of Houston, Texas

Bush attended the U.S. Open when he was Vice President under Reagan, but Bill Clinton was the first sitting President to attend the U.S. Open when he took in the men’s semifinals on September 9, 2000, watching Marat Safin beat Todd Martin and Pete Sampras beat Lleyton Hewitt. He also called Venus Williams after she won the U.S. Open women’s singles title that year and told her “You worked really hard” prompting the witty Williams to ask Clinton for a tax cut on her hard-earned U.S. Open prize money.

After leaving office, Clinton again created tennis headlines when he attended the French Open in 2001 and was, in fact, jokingly blamed for Andre Agassi’s quarterfinal loss to Sebastien Grosjean. Clinton sat to watch the match after Agassi won the first set 6-1, but Agassi proceeded to lose 12 of the next 14 games to go down two sets to one. The five-months-out-of-office Clinton then briefly left the court, as Agassi went up a service break in the fourth set 2-1, but when Clinton returned to watch the match, Agassi lost his service break and proceeded to win only one more game in the match, losing 1-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3. “I was bad for him,” Clinton said afterward, referring to Agassi. “I was bad luck. I left, and he won three games. I hated to come back.”

Like his father, George W. Bush, the 43rd President, was a tennis player, but later in life did not play the game as much as he resorted to jogging and cycling for exercise. As governor of Texas in 1999, Bush penned a note of congratulations and good luck to U.S. player Alex O’Brien when named to the U.S. Davis Cup team to face Britain in the Centennial year of the competition, writing “All athletes should consider it an honor to represent their country. Sadly, a number of America’s top tennis players do not share this view. I commend you and your teammates for stepping forward when asked by Captain Tom Gullikson and the USTA. Your patriotism, team spirit and work ethic are inspirations for athletes of all ages.”
His most infamous connection to tennis came just five days before the 2000 Presidential election when it was revealed publicly for the first time that he was arrested for drunken driving in Maine on Sept. 4 1976 with Aussie tennis legend John Newcombe in the car with the future president. “I was drinking beers, yeah, with John Newcombe,” Bush said in a briefing with the press. “I’m not proud of that. I made some mistakes. I occasionally drank too much, and I did that night. I learned my lesson. I told the guy (the arresting officer) I had been drinking, what do I need to do? He said, ‘here’s the fine.’ I paid the fine.” Newcombe didn’t comment on the incident for another two weeks until after the election. “When it came out I just did the first thing that came into my mind – I went underground mate. I didn’t put my head up,” Newcombe told the Australian Associated Press of when news of the arrest first surfaced. Newcombe described Bush as a “good bloke” who would make a “pretty good president” and said the drunk-driving incident was a minor one in terms of how far Bush was over the limit. “That’s something I’ve laughed about with George for the last 24 years,” Newcombe said. “That’s something that just happened that night. We were just a couple of young blokes going out and having a good time. We didn’t do anything wrong, basically. We probably shouldn’t have been driving at that stage but it wasn’t that anyone was badly inebriated.”