Washington, D.C.,'s Rock Creek Park Tennis Center—site of the week-long Citi Open tournament that wrapped up Sunday—is more formally known as the William H.G. Fitzgerald Center after its major benefactor, a living monument to success and generosity. Fitzgerald, who died nine years ago at 96, was a Bostonian who made a great deal of money in Washington and gave most of it away for education, and civic improvements, at home and in Africa. A graduate of the Naval Academy, he served in World War II and, past 80, as ambassador to Ireland.
An avid and, by all accounts, accomplished tennis player, Fitzgerald got involved with an organization, the Washington Tennis Patrons, launched in the 1950s by men of his time and generation—veterans of the World War and Korea who found themselves in the nation’s capital not to serve time in the swamps of power but to make money and enjoy the swampy climate. Eisenhower supporters for the most part, who served when asked but quickly returned to the private sector, they founded a charity out of their own pockets and their own tennis courts to give a chance to dead-end kids.
By the late 1960s the dead-end kids of Washington needed more than character-building. Donald Dell, a young lawyer who was following the legendary Mark McCormack in the invention of sports marketing, proposed to the Patrons that they develop a tournament on the site at Rock Creek Park where by now they were bringing their charges for coaching (“keep ’em on the courts and out of juvenile courts,” they said). Dell’s former Davis Cup teammate, Arthur Ashe, who had won the first U.S. Open and was in favor, said he would play and get involved if the venue was integrated. It worked, and the tournament has ever since been a steady source of revenue to the renamed Washington Tennis & Education Foundation (WTEF), which is now celebrating its 60th year of service to the community.
Open tennis turned out to be a great bet. Through the ’70s and ’80s, the sport flourished, grew rich, made at least some players wealthy. The WTEF increased its outreach as kids were attracted to their programs even as federal policies contributed to social pathologies rendering them ever more needed. With increasing numbers of kids bused from Northeast neighborhoods to the Rock Creek Park site, thoughts turned to shifting the base eastward.
Where the men of the 1950s believed sports builds character and the rest will follow, by the ’70s it was clear the schools were either overwhelmed or slouching into mediocrity, or both. The WTEF thus divides time between schoolwork and tennis practice. If kids want to go for the big time, that is their affair, but in childhood and adolescence, they need the kinds of intellectual tools Ashe himself acquired in the strict upbringing he received in Richmond at the hands of his father (his mother died when he was 6) and another legendary philanthropist, the Lynchburg physician Robert Walter Johnson, who had coached Althea Gibson.
As the Washington tournament grew into a major fixture on the tennis calendar, with victories by the likes of Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl and Ashe, and in later years Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, the need for a modern stadium became keen. In Washington and on land belonging to the National Park Service, the regulatory maze threatened to block the idea, but, perhaps too because this is Washington, somebody on the board knew somebody in the relevant congressional committee. FitzGerald came through. The stadium (which serves for other activities, including poetry readings) seats close to 8,000 people and all of them—this is an architectural achievement of some note—have a clear view of the court.
The stadium fills up as the week progresses and the high-seed players get down to the wire. With the top-seeded Andy Murray, the British champion who is world No 3, knocked out in the first round last week by Teymuraz Gabashvili, a 30-year old Russian who has never won a tournament in his life and plays with the reckless passion of an Ivan Karamazov, the trophy was up for grabs. Kei Nishikori, who is Japanese, beat the American John Isner in the final Sunday afternoon, 4-6. 6-4. 6-4. In the smaller women’s draw (only in its fifth year), Sloane Stephens crushed her Russian opponent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 6-1, 6-2.
On the side courts surrounding the stadium, the bleachers are so small you can see the players’ fingers gripping their racquets, hear their mutterings. The Foundation’s coaches, notably the most eminent among them, Willis Thomas, Jr., had the pleasure of seeing some of their girls qualify for a shot at the glory. They were eliminated early, but “it happens all the time,” as Thomas’s colleague Mike Ragland likes to say. “You teach kids to be champions in life, they’ll keep trying.”
Thomas and Ragland are proud of a new WTEF facility completed—with $10 million in private donations—a of couple years ago. It is located on East Capitol Street, deep in Ward Seven, where you are reminded that not all Washingtonians are as well-heeled as most of the visitors to the Rock Creek courts. It is a beautiful place, with indoor and outdoor courts and classrooms, and thanks to the WTEF, the children and teenagers here, about 150 of them, are headed for the kinds of lives Arthur Ashe recommended. “What you earn makes a living,” he famously said, “what you give makes a life.”