Rose Park Tennis
One quick glance as you walk by and you can see it. They are good. They are really, really good. The regulars at the Rose Park tennis courts include lawyers, former members of Congress, diplomats, doctors, liberals and conservatives. They are young, or a little creaky, from all parts of Washington—and from all over the world. But they all bow to the altar of tennis. And many of them have been playing pick-up tennis together for decades.
“I’ve only been here three years, they barely talk to me!” says Drew Hodge, a banker and tennis player.
Hodge is sitting in the shade, on a plastic chair bought by the tennis players, watching a heated doubles match. Next to him sits Clarence Lyons, a 30-year regular here and the unofficial boss of Rose’s three courts. He tamps down disputes when they arise and helps organize volunteer maintenance squads to trim back bushes and keep the courts neat. Clarence is locally famous, greeting the mothers and their kids by name— even if they never step foot on the courts.
But it’s the tennis players, racket in hand, who ask for him all the time. “Who’s Clarence?” and “Someone told me to ask for Clarence?” are constant refrains.
After all, he’s their connection to a good game.
“People—its DC, after all—leave to go to other countries. When they come back, they come back here,” Lyons says. He says the concierges at nearby hotels often send players up to Rose. One of them told the regulars that there are only three public courts in the U.S. with a level of play this high—one in Chicago, one in San Diego and Rose Park.
David Dunning lives a block from Rose and spends most of his time there, organizing events, cleaning up, playing tennis, chatting with neighbors or just hanging out. “It’s the best pick-up court for tennis in DC, there are a lot of good players here who come from all over the city,” he says.
During prime time, weekends and week nights, the Rose Park players are clearly a literally slice above the average. People show up and get folded into games, or they sign up and a game comes to them. Usually, a wanna-be comes and hits on the backboard next to the courts for a while. That’s sort of a tryout—if you look good on the backboard, you get to move up to the regulars. Of course, anyone can bring their own game and sign up for a court; this process is only for the hard-core players.
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the action is intense. Two ferocious pick-up doubles games flank a gentle grudge match between neighbors. Many of the people on the court played in college, and some are tennis coaches. Only a few, though, are women. The vast majority of the regulars are men, though the few women who do play are impressive.
One of the spectators muses that the good players come to Rose because the courts are build in a slight “V” shape, so the big hitters can slam the ball and it (mostly) stays in. “Everyone looks like a super star,” suggests Hodge.
Another says that good players attract good players. Ville Waites has been a regular for some fifteen years. He identifies himself as “the king of everything around here,” and says players have got to be able to handle the pressure of constant ribbing and a little supportive trash talk.
“They come for camaraderie and they come to hang out, to shoot the breeze,” Waites says, “that’s half of what people come here for.”
Every September, the park hosts a doubles tournament, complete with a cookout and trophies. The Rose Park courts are such a draw that the occasional celebrity sometimes stumbles upon them. Last year, the actor Owen Wilson came by a couple of days in a row. Carlos Santana, of the eponymous band hit balls there once (which is truly hard to imagine, if you remember the ‘70s). A few years ago, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf warmed up at Rose before a Legg Mason tournament. Of course, they only raised the level of play at the courts a little bit.