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Nonagenarian still teaching – and preserving – beloved game

by Jill Phipps, USPTA staff writer

Allie Ritzenberg has been a USPTA member for more than 50 years.
Allie Ritzenberg has been a USPTA member for more than 50 years.

September 2009 -- Albert "Allie" Ritzenberg has helped define an industry with a history as dynamic as his own 70-year career.

"I have seen the transformation of tennis from an elite sport into a big business reaching a very wide and diverse group of people," Ritzenberg wrote in his 2004 autobiography, "Capital Tennis: A Memoir."

Ritzenberg, now 90, sees "both the good and bad aspects of the changes that have occurred."

He has long spoken out against poor sportsmanship, cheating, and attempts by parents, coaches or others who would seek to profit at the expense of young players.

"In order for tennis to continue to be the great sport that it is, those of us who love the game must exercise diligence and address the excesses in the sport when they arise," he wrote in his book.

Ritzenberg, a USPTA Master Professional and member for more than 50 years, is especially concerned about the precarious state of tennis professionals' salaries, benefits and responsibilities.

Over the years, he has seen appreciative club managers handsomely reward successful tennis directors in terms of salary and resources. But he's also watched tennis programs and staff take a back seat to more profitable operations, such as golf or food and beverage. "I remember when pros ate in the back room and did not consider themselves professionals," he said.

A lot of pros today "have no perks and no future and burn themselves out in 15 or 20 years, especially if they don't have a top job at a club or school."

Ritzenberg would rather see individual teaching pros, rather than management companies, running tennis programs. In general, "New clubs and new owners are in it for the money," he maintained.

So how can pros best protect their own interests (without getting fired)? "The way I did it was try to be my own boss the best I could; you have to be creative," he said. "But most people cannot afford to be their own boss."

Ritzenberg has made the most not only of his teaching and management skills, but his entrepreneurial ability as well. He and fellow USPTA member Pauline Betz Addie started an indoor facility in Cabin John, Md., in 1961. Ritzenberg and Addie, who holds five Grand Slam singles titles, also played many tennis exhibitions together.

Allie Ritzenberg, shown on court years ago, taught tennis full time until the age of 85 and still competes in senior tournaments at 90.

He also served for 43 years as manager of St. Albans Tennis Club and as tennis coach at St. Albans School, a private school for boys located just blocks from the White House.

Ritzenberg, who played in the parks and playgrounds of Washington, D.C., from the age of 9 and had only one tennis lesson in his life, was running no-cut tennis programs at St. Albans School in the early 1960s.

"I always felt it was nice to have champions, but that to me was not the sign of a great pro," he said. His emphasis has always been on promoting long-term enjoyment and healthy exercise. "The other day I was sitting at a restaurant and a woman walked over to me and said, 'I took lessons from you and it changed my life'. . That is very satisfying."

His defining role was at the exclusive St. Albans Tennis Club, which he founded in 1962. Not everyone at St. Albans was a celebrity or Washington insider, but many were, including George H.W. Bush and various presidential cabinet members, such as Madeleine Albright. It all started with the Kennedy administration, and Ritzenberg also taught first lady Jacqueline Kennedy on the White House tennis courts for two years.

Sports Illustrated once credited his trend-setting program as a driving force in the tennis boom. Potential members of St. Albans could sometimes wait as long as 8 to 10 years for their name to come up on the list.

At a time when most clubs were totally restricted by race or religion, this tennis director had no part of it. Ritzenberg, who is Jewish and whose father was a Russian emigrant, integrated club membership and tournaments and hired an African-American teaching assistant, USPTA Professional Bob Ryland.

In 1967 the U.S. State Department - a division called the International Educational Exchange Service - asked him to serve as a goodwill ambassador to Haiti. So he spent six months there on special assignment, teaching tennis to the people of that poverty-stricken country.

Ritzenberg returned to Washington, D.C., as he had after being drafted during World War II. The former University of Maryland tennis player, who lost only four matches in four years, continued to play and teach tennis while serving as an Army Air Corps officer in the Pacific. He and his wife, Peggy, were married in 1942, while he was in the service. They have raised four children together.

Ritzenberg spent more than 40 years assembling the largest tennis art and antiquities collection in the world - about 3,000 pieces. His historical treasures include the first book to show people playing tennis - published in 1530. The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., acquired the entire collection in 2004. He currently serves on the ITHF museum committee and attended its meeting during this year's U.S. Open.

As a volunteer with various charitable organizations, Ritzenberg has helped raise funds by auctioning off fine artwork and has even donated pieces from his own tennis art and antiquities collection as prizes and awards at various events.

He also still has a heart for competition. Ritzenberg has played in almost every major national and international seniors tournament, winning many singles and doubles titles. In 2003, he was ranked No. 1 in the world in 85s by the International Tennis Federation. And he just recently - in early September - won the National Grasscourt 90 doubles at the Longwood Cricket Club (with partner Tudor Apmadoc).

As he wrote in his memoirs, tennis has been good to him.

When he retired from full-time work at St. Albans in 2005 - at the age of 85 - Ritzenberg bought a house with tennis courts and still teaches a few mornings each week ("one or two old friends").

"I enjoy teaching very much," said Ritzenberg, who also gives lectures on tennis history at assisted-living centers. "It gives me some discipline in life and gives me some exercise."

Ritzenberg may be contacted at peggyallie@aol.com.

A note from Tim Heckler, USPTA CEO: "I asked Allie to consent to this article due to the occasional conversations I enjoy having with him. It's not often I can spend an hour or more in one setting speaking on the telephone, but somehow whenever I get to talking to Allie I find myself deeply involved in a story that takes me through eras of tennis history. He is truly a remarkable member of USPTA and I am very proud he was willing to share some of his history with our staff writer, Jill Phipps. In light of his outstanding playing, teaching and social background, Allie is one of the most humble and interesting individuals to speak to. Hardly ever does the word 'I' pass his lips, but instead he most often uses my favorite word, T-E-N-N-I-S."

 
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