To be a Washington Institution, you must be known, loved and feared by the power players of this town. You must be on a first-name basis with luminaries who beg you for favors. You must rule with a firm but benevolent hand.
As has Allie Ritzenberg, tennis coach, teacher, character and, until he broke a couple ribs last year, No. 1 player in the world among men ages 85 and up. For 43 years he ran the St. Albans Tennis Club, an offshoot of the exclusive school, which boasted as members Cabinet secretaries, senators, members of Congress and media heavyweights. The secret of his success: Treat everyone with cheerful irreverence.
"Even though they have big egos, everything changes when they get on the tennis court," Ritzenberg said with a chuckle Monday night at his retirement party.
The party was held under a tent on Court 1 of the St. Albans tennis courts. Most of the 200 guests were longtime members of the private club, bidding farewell to the 86-year-old director, friend and inspiration. "Allie's an irreplaceable figure here," said Paul Ignatius (father of Washington Post columnist David), a member for 35 years. "This club and Allie coexist. It's hard to think of one without the other."
Ritzenberg is a one-man show, but not much of a team player. "You have to be a little bit cocky to be a good tennis player," he said. He's coaxed, prodded and taught the best and the brightest.
"He's got advice about everything," said Jerry Jasinowski, president of the Manufacturing Institute, the research and education arm of the National Association of Manufacturers. "He's a very strong-willed person who's got opinions that go far beyond tennis."
Playing with Ritzenberg is a three-stage tennis intervention. Political analyst and tennis buff Norm Ornstein, who joined the club 13 years ago, described the process:
"The first emotion is utter humiliation when you realize a man 35 years older than you can effortlessly beat you 6-0, 6-0. Then you feel admiration for his talent and skills. And last, inspiration when you realize that here is a sport that you can play into your nineties. He's absolutely the role model for this."
Ritzenberg was born in Washington on Armistice Day in 1918, the son of a hardware store owner. He started playing tennis at 9 and proved to be a natural on the public courts. Ritzenberg was a star player at Central (now Cardozo) High School, and then went on to the University of Maryland.
He was a great amateur player, but never turned professional. "Tennis was a snobby game, and the old snobs did not want people who made a living at a game to compete with," Ritzenberg said. The money, back then, was in the country clubs. After World War II (and marriage to Peg, whom he's been wed to 62 years now), he became a teaching professional at the Woodmont Country Club, then took over the tennis courts at the Sheraton Park Hotel.
In 1961 he was summoned to the White House to give Jackie Kennedy a few pointers on her game. (Lovely woman, but not much of a tennis player.) A year later, he began coaching at St. Albans and founded the club after persuading the school to let him use the courts before and after school and on weekends. The original members included Robert McNamara, Katharine Graham (the late Washington Post doyenne), Cyrus Vance, McGeorge Bundy, Letitia Baldrige, Jacob Javits, Carl Rowan and Arthur Schlesinger.
"They all came, and they wanted to play before work," remembered Ritzenberg, who usually opened the courts at 7:30 a.m. McNamara was so embarrassed about his game that he insisted on showing up at 7 a.m. -- before any other members arrived -- so they couldn't make fun of him. Fact is, Ritzenberg said, no one was that good -- not that anyone would admit it.
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.