Donald Rumsfeld bought squash gear there. Condoleezza Rice picked up tennis rackets. Former U.S. senator John Warner of Virginia used to stop by for tennis and golf equipment but stuck around for some spirited political debate.
Since 1975, Drilling Tennis & Golf Shop downtown has been a destination for Washington’s power players and anybody else looking for new rackets, tips on improving their swing or just good conversation. But now the shop — for years the only store downtown catering to the golf and tennis crowd — is going out of business.
Warner is among the fans who are saddened to see its doors close.
“Boy, did I enjoy my time there,” Warner said. “It reminded you of your days in sports, whether it was in a high school football locker room or the fields of play.”
Warner said he sometimes lingered a little too long, checking out the newest gear or chatting with workers. “A couple of times, one of my staff people had to get me out of the store,” he said. “They’d tell me I had a [Senate] vote in 10 minutes.”
Darrell Haines, who owns the store with his wife, Amy, said the economic decline is the primary culprit for the store’s demise. Online shopping also cut into sales, and the cost of doing business is on the rise.
This month, employees put up signs declaring the going-out-of-business sale at the store, located on 17th Street NW just north of K Street. It will remain open until the lease runs out Dec. 31 or until all of the goods are sold.
In the store’s heyday, people in business suits would stroll in after stressful meetings to unwind by swinging a tennis racket or trying out a new putter in the basement demonstration area. Rice and Rumsfeld were customers, store employees said.
Marion Barry said he was a loyal customer, too, although health issues have kept him from visiting in recent years. “It catered to any number of tennis players — the good and the bad,” said Barry, a D.C. Council member (D-Ward 8).
Golf lover Marlon Griffith, a downtown lawyer who was in the store one recent day, said the loss of Drilling will leave a void in his routine, especially as cold weather sets in. “In the wintertime, this is my life,” Griffith said as he took a practice swing in the store’s demonstration area. “I get to work on my game in the winter, indoors. You can’t beat that.”
But it’s more than just the swings that have kept him coming back. He said he’ll miss the conversations he has with Mike Yuille, the general manager and store golf expert, about the game they both love. “This is the perfect place for me,” Griffith said. “It’s heaven on 17th Street.”
The store is all about sports. But in traditional Washington fashion, politics has sometimes entered the picture. Warner, a Republican, said he and store manager Tyrone Thomas, a Democrat, have sparred in lively debates.
“Customers would stand around and watch us going at it,” Warner said. “He’d be respectful, but he’d give no quarter.”
In recent years, Haines said, rent was raised, and it became more expensive to pay employees. Some customers told him that increases in metered and garage parking downtown or worries about parking tickets discouraged them from shopping in the area. Sales had gotten a bit better in the past year or so, he said, but have flattened and show no sign of improving significantly. Haines said he will move whatever tennis merchandise is unsold by the end of the year to his other store, TennisTopia, in Rockville.
Several customers said they will particularly miss the service at Drilling. Thomas, who is also a tennis-teaching pro, helps customers find the right rackets and shoes. Yuille counsels golfers on clubs and other gear. Scott Nilsen can string a tennis racket the same day, if needed.
Todd Goldwasser, another downtown worker, said he will miss being able to walk from his job to Drilling to have a tennis racket restrung or buy a new one. “I’m disappointed,” Goldwasser said. “There isn’t any place like this nearby.”