Whether as a recreational activity or means to fundraise, playing tennis has been enjoyed and encouraged by many U.S. presidents throughout history. First ladies, too, have used the sport to promote causes ranging from women’s rights to physical fitness. Since tennis courts were installed on the White House lawns at the turn of the century, those who led our nation have played and loved the game in between their presidential duties. In honor of President’s Day, MyTennisLessons looks back at the leaders who saw tennis as a true American activity.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
In 1902, Teddy installed the White House’s first tennis court. The avid outdoorsman was known for his “Tennis Cabinet,” a group of staff members who played with the president in the afternoons.
(First Lady 1921-1923)
President Warren G. Harding was known to watch tennis matches between the nation’s top players at the White House courts alongside his wife Florence. But it was she who hosted the first all-women’s tennis exhibition at the White House. A self-declared feminist, Florence also endorsed the Campfire Girls and the Girl Scouts.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
(First Lady 1961-1963)
The Kennedys, known as America’s royal family, greatly enjoyed the sport of tennis. Former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who married into the clan, was a devoted player as well. Although she may not have been as athletic as the Kennedy sisters, she reportedly said: “Why worry if you’re not as good at tennis as Eunice or Ethel when men are attracted by the feminine way you play tennis?”
(First Lady 1981-1989)
Tennis turned into an annual fundraiser under the Reagan administration with the help of the first lady. Nancy Reagan’s tennis tournament at the White House was meant to support “Just Say No,” her campaign to end drug and alcohol abuse. When Ronald Reagan’s term as president was up, the event moved to the Riviera Tennis Club in Pacific Palisades, California.
George H.W. Bush
Bush Senior was probably the biggest tennis player of all the presidents, and when he took office in 1989, his first order of business was enlarging the White House tennis court. It’s no surprise that George loved the game so much; his mother, Dorothy, was a nationally ranked player. He said: “I once complained to [my mother] after a poor tennis match that I was off my game. And she said, ‘You don’t have a game. Get out there and practice.’”
The older Bush also taught his son to play the sport, although George W. remarked that he didn’t have much talent for it. At the 2011 dedication of the Bush Family Tennis Center in Midland, Texas, the 43rd president commended his father, saying: “It really ought to be named the George H.W. Bush Tennis Center.”
(In office 2009-present)
In 2009, President Barack Obama had basketball lines painted on the White House tennis courts along with installing removable goals. But that doesn’t mean the president doesn’t enjoy the sport. In fact, the current first family might be the biggest tennis enthusiasts in White House history.
First Lady Michelle Obama helped kick off Arthur Ashe Kids Day at the 2013 U.S. Open. She remarked to the crowd that she wasn’t a very good tennis player herself, but that she always encouraged her daughters to play the game. Michelle, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, told those in attendance: “When I was your age, I didn’t have tennis role models, I didn’t live in a community where there were any tennis courts, and quite frankly I don’t think I knew a single person when I was young who even knew how to play tennis.” Now the first lady is an ardent supporter of 10 and Under tennis in conjunction with her “Let’s Move” campaign.
Malia Obama is a competitive tennis player and had the best record on her high school’s varsity team in 2012. Head coach Randy de Guzman said of Malia that year: “I’d say she has a chance [to play] in college. A lot of things can happen within four years, but if she pursues the path that I think she’s looking at, she has a chance.”
Last year, President Obama played tennis with Sam Querrey and a few children during the White House Easter Egg Roll. Not bad for a basketball player, Mr. President!