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It's Love All for Retiring Tennis Coach

Allie Ritzenberg coached Washington's high and mighty but treated all with cheerful irreverence.
Allie Ritzenberg coached Washington's high and mighty but treated all with cheerful irreverence. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

Ritzenberg insisted that the membership remain small, 200 people or so, which meant members could get courts with relative ease. A Jew in a traditionally WASPy sport, he turned away no one because of race or ethnicity. Players had to wear white but they didn't have to be white -- the club was integrated from day one. Within a year, tennis had become the social sport in Washington, and the club had a waiting list.

Because membership was so chic, Ritzenberg is credited for keeping more marriages together than any man in Washington. As more club members divorced and both husband and wife wanted to stay in the club, Ritzenberg faced the prospect of members swelling to unwieldy numbers. "Allie had to lay down a decree that it had to be part of the settlement as to who gets" the membership, says member Mike Sterner. "Like custody of the children."

There's lots more, of course, which Ritzenberg has collected in the just-published "Capital Tennis: A Memoir." (He donated his other collection -- an incredible group of tennis-related art and artifacts -- to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., last year.) Under his reign, the club has functioned more or less unchanged for more than four decades.

"What's nice about it here is the informality," said Walt Cutler, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "You don't reserve a court, and unlike so many private clubs, there's a congenial, friendly atmosphere. It doesn't matter you're not a pro. Thank God, because I'm not!"

Ritzenberg's departure means the club's future is uncertain. And the old-timers are getting nervous. "The club will survive," promised Headmaster Vance Wilson.

Plans for a new athletic center at St. Albans mean the old courts will be replaced with . . . well, that's The Question. Club members want Har-Tru, a soft clay surface. "Easy on the elderly hips and knees," says Cutler.

The school's students want the harder and faster composite surface, which will make them more competitive. "Whatever surface decision is made will irritate the other side," said Wilson, as if the writing wasn't already on the club wall.

Ritzenberg's retirement plans include everything but retiring: "I want to do a lot of writing. I want to do some teaching, and I want to play on the tournament circuit." He bought a house in Northwest Washington with a soft court in back to give lessons to friends. "It was probably time for a change," he said, still not quite convinced of it himself.

He's in better shape than most men half his age, but he's always wanted -- when the time comes -- for his ashes to be ground into the clay surface of Court 1. Looks like that's not going to happen, and he might have to settle for haunting that composite surface instead. No chance Ritzenberg will ever be far from his beloved courts.

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