DC United coach Ben Olsen has made a career on the soccer pitch, first as a player and now as a coach. But before he started focusing exclusively on soccer, tennis was one of his greatest passions. He even played competitively as a youth—he still plays occasionally today—and calls tennis his “secret favorite sport.”
Olsen was one of several Washington figures to participate in Thursday evening’s Washington Kastles Charity Classic, an event hosted by DC’s World Team Tennis squad to benefit local philanthropic efforts, namely the DC Public Education Fund, Food & Friends, and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Participants included current and former members of Congress, media personalities, government officials, and tennis stars, all of whom endured a rain-soaked evening to face off on the court in the Kastles’ second annual charity event.
Before the match began, Olsen snacked on some fruit at a buffet in the VIP tent. “She won’t let me eat meatballs,” he said, gesturing to a smiling attendant behind the buffet table. “She says I have a match to play!” Teams were only announced a few hours prior to the match, so Olsen wasn’t sure of the identity of his doubles partner. “I don’t know who’s playing, to be honest! I just show up and whack the ball,” he said.
His partner turned out to be Indonesian ambassador Dino Patti Djalal, who was celebrating his ninth anniversary with his wife that day. Djalal played tennis in college and described his younger self as a tennis junkie, though he hasn’t played as much in recent years. Djalal said he hoped the rain would hold off for the match. “In Indonesia we have a rain doctor, someone who can stop the rain,” he explained. “There is a rain doctor at every big event in Indonesia.”
Also in the tent was David Gregory, host of NBC’s Meet the Press. Before heading out to the court to warm up, Gregory played a tennis video game on an Xbox in the VIP room, controlling a virtual Björn Borg in a match against virtual Rafael Nadal. “I’m not very good at video games,” he admitted with a laugh. Gregory closely follows tennis, and said he’s currently reading Jimmy Connors’s new memoir, The Outsider.
Besides fundraising for charity, the event aims to promote unity in a town characterized by division. “When we did this, we thought about doing Republicans versus Democrats, media against politics, the administration against members of Congress,” Kastles owner Mark Ein said before the match. “And instead, what we decided is that we’re going to put everyone on the same teams, and we’re going to prove that we can all get along and work together.” The crowd in the tent cheered loudly.
Thus the two teams—the Stars and the Stripes—were ideologically diverse, even if doubles pairings tended to be homogenous. Fox News anchor Bret Baier and White House correspondent Ed Henry, for instance, faced off against House Democrats Mel Watt and Donna Edwards. Baier and Henry joined congressmen Jim Costa, Mike McIntyre, Cheri Bustos, and Tim Bishop on the Stars team; also playing for the Stars were White House economic gurus Gene Sperling and Alan Krueger, as well as Kastles coach Murphy Jensen and star Martina Hingis, a former world number one tennis player. Besides representatives Watt and Edwards, the Stripes featured Gregory, ABC News White House correspondent Jonathan Karl, Bloomberg White House correspondent Hans Nichols and Washington correspondent Peter Cook, representatives Shelley Moore Capito and Charlie Dent, and former senator John Breaux. Representing the Kastles on the Stripes team were Bobby Reynolds and Ein.
“We’re all going to get along on the bench, and we’ll see what happens on the court,” Ein said, prompting Breaux to quip, “No filibusters!”
Yet while the spirit of the event was friendly, the tennis was competitive. Early on, Gregory showed that what he lacked in video game skill he made up for on the court. From the start of the match, when he was paired with Karl, he separated himself as one of the best non-Kastles players participating; his big serve generated whoops and gasps of admiration from the crowd.
When Gregory—this time paired with Breaux—took on Olsen and Djalal, Gregory’s big serve and prowess close to the net failed to overcome the power and speed of his opponents. Olsen and Djalal each smashed winners past Gregory and Breaux, but their dominant 7-2 win in the set failed to produce victory overall. The Stripes achieved victory 42-39, with Gregory on the court for the match-clinching point, which ended with a Gene Sperling shot into the net and a subsequent expression of disappointment from President Obama’s director of the national economic council. Gregory took home MVP honors for the Stripes, and Olsen was named MVP for the Stars.
The Kastles Classic this year raised $5,000 for each of the three beneficiaries. While the event also aimed to promote town unity, a match with so many political figures couldn’t quite manage to stay apolitical. MSNBC’s Jimmy Williams, who sat in the umpire’s chair during the match, explained to the crowd why he was the only referee at the match: “We have no linesmen due to sequester cuts!”